The second pretext for torture is its application to supposed criminals who contradict themselves under examination, as if the fear of the punishment, the uncertainty of the sentence, the legal pageantry, the majesty of the judge, the state of ignorance that is common alike to innocent and guilty, were not enough to plunge into self-contradiction both the innocent man[154] who is afraid, and the guilty man who seeks to shield himself; as if contradictions, common enough when men are at their ease, were not likely to be multiplied, when the mind is perturbed and wholly absorbed in the thought of seeking safety from imminent peril.

The question, therefore, arises, Does crime depend to any appreciable extent on imprisonment at all, or on the length or shortness of sentences?

CHAPTER IV. INTERPRETATION OF THE LAWS. Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.

In the ordinary state of society the death of a citizen is neither useful nor necessary. Moreover, if, as was said, our feelings are limited in quantity, the greater respect men may have for things outside the laws, the less will remain to them for the laws themselves. From this principle the wise administrator of the public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the exposition of which would lead me too far from my subject, which is to demonstrate the uselessness of making a prison of the State. A law with such an object is useless, because, unless inaccessible rocks or an unnavigable sea separate a country from all others, how will it be possible to close all the points of its circumference and keep guard over the guardians themselves? A man who transports everything he has with him, when he has done so cannot be punished. Such a crime once committed can no longer be punished, and to punish it beforehand would be to punish mens wills, not their actions, to exercise command over their intention, the freest part of human nature, and altogether independent of the control of human laws. The punishment of an absent man in the property he leaves behind him would ruin all international commerce,[225] to say nothing of the facility of collusion, which would be unavoidable, except by a tyrannical control of contracts. And his punishment on his return, as a criminal, would prevent the reparation of the evil done to society, by making all removals perpetual. The very prohibition to leave a country augments peoples desire to do so, and is a warning to foreigners not to enter it.

Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.

It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

If we would bring to the study of Beccarias treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.

Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?

How easily might the farseeing legislator hinder a large part of culpable bankruptcy, and relieve the misfortunes of the industrious and innocent! The public and open registration of all contracts; freedom to every citizen to consult them in well-kept documents; a public bank formed by wisely-apportioned taxes upon prosperous commerce, and intended for the timely relief of any unfortunate and innocent member of the company;such measures would have no real drawback and might produce numberless advantages. But easy, simple, and great laws, which await but the signal of the legislator, in order to scatter riches and strength through a nationlaws which would be celebrated from generation to generation in hymns of gratitudeare either the least thought of or the least desired of all. An uneasy and petty spirit, the timid prudence of the present moment, and a circumspect stiffness against innovations, master the feelings of those who govern the complex actions of mankind.

Almost any number of the Times will illustrate the same thing. Take the account of the Middlesex Sessions of February 24, 1880. There we find the case of a man and woman sentenced to seven and five years penal servitude respectively. What enormities had they committed? The man had stolen three-halfpence from somebody; and the woman, who was a laundress, had stolen two skirts, of the value of six shillings, from a vendor of sheeps trotters. The man had incurred previously seven years penal servitude for a robbery with violence, and the woman had three times in her life been sentenced to imprisonment. But is it just that, because a man has been severely punished once, no rule nor measure shall be observed with him if he incur punishment again? And might not a vendor of sheeps trotters have been satisfied, without a laundress becoming a burden to the State?

Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, We must consult the spirit of the laws. It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of viewa different one at different times; so that the spirit of the laws would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the[128] feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizens fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.