But there was one great fallacy, pervading our whole criminal law, which Blackstone left undetected and untouched. This was, that the severity of punishment must be augmented in proportion to the increase of temptation, and that the measure of the guilt of a crime lay in the facility with which it might be committed. Among crimes of an equal malignity, says Blackstone, those [deserve most punishment, as most injurious] which a man has the most frequent and easy opportunities of committing, which cannot so easily be guarded against as others, and which, therefore, the offender has the strongest inducement to commit. And on this principle he finds it reasonable, that, while the theft of a pocket-handkerchief should be a capital crime, the theft of a load of hay should only involve transportation. Smuggling is a real crime against the sovereign and the nation; but its punishment should not be one of disgrace, because its commission incurs no disgrace in public opinion.


Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that philosophical indolence which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6] Had I to address nations still destitute of the light of religion, I would say that there is yet another considerable difference between adultery and other crimes. For it springs from the abuse of a constant and universal human impulse, an impulse anterior to, nay, the cause of the institution of society; whereas other crimes, destructive of society, derive their origin rather from momentary passions than from a natural impulse. To anyone cognisant of history and his kind, such an impulse will seem to be equivalent in the same climate to a constant quantity; and if this be so, those laws and customs which seek to diminish the sum-total will be useless or dangerous, because their effect will be to burthen one half of humanity with its own needs and those of others; but those laws, on the contrary, will be the wisest, which following, so to speak, the gentle inclination of the plain, divide the total amount, causing it to ramify into so many equal and small portions, that aridity or overflowing are equally prevented everywhere. Conjugal fidelity is always proportioned to the number and to the freedom of marriages. Where marriages are governed by hereditary prejudices, or[229] bound or loosened by parental power, there the chains are broken by secret intrigue, in despite of ordinary morality, which, whilst conniving at the causes of the offence, makes it its duty to declaim against the results. But there is no need of such reflections for the man who, living in the light of true religion, has higher motives to correct the force of natural effects. Such a crime is of so instantaneous and secret commission, so concealed by the very veil the laws have drawn round it (a veil necessary, indeed, but fragile, and one that enhances, instead of diminishing, the value of the desired object), the occasions for it are so easy, and the consequences so doubtful, that the legislator has it more in his power to prevent than to punish it. As a general rule, in every crime which by its nature must most frequently go unpunished, the penalty attached to it becomes an incentive. It is a quality of our imagination, that difficulties, if they are not insurmountable nor too difficult, relatively to the mental energy of the particular person, excite the imagination more vividly, and place the object desired in larger perspective; for they serve as it were as so many barriers to prevent an erratic and flighty fancy from quitting hold of its object; and, while they compel the imagination to consider the latter in all its bearings, it attaches itself more closely to the pleasant[230] side, to which our mind most naturally inclines, than to the painful side, which it places at a distance.

Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.

The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast[186] more cruel than that between a judges ease and a defendants anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible. A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust? That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

The country in which the first attempt was made to apply his principles to practice was Russia, where Catharine II. was anxious to establish a uniform[33] penal code, based on the liberal ideas of the time, which then found more favour in St. Petersburg than they did at Paris. For this purpose in 1767 she summoned to Moscow from all the provinces of Russia those 652 deputies who formed the nearest approach in the history of that country to a Russian Parliament. In the instructions that were read to this assembly, as the basis for the proposed codification of the laws, the principles propounded were couched not only in the spirit but often in the very words of the author of the Crimes and Punishments. The following are examples: