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:

[113] The credibility, therefore, of a witness must diminish in proportion to the hatred, friendship, or close connection between himself and the accused. More than one witness is necessary, because, so long as one affirms and another denies, nothing is proved, and the right which everyone has of being held innocent prevails.[140] The credibility of a witness becomes appreciably less, the greater the atrocity of the crime imputed,[66] or the improbability of the circumstances, as in charges of magic and gratuitously cruel actions. It is more likely, as regards the former accusation, that many men should lie than that such an accusation should be true, because it is easier for many men to be united in an ignorant mistake or in persecuting hatred than for one man to exercise a power which God either has not conferred or has taken away from every created being. The same reasoning holds good also of the second accusation, for man is only cruel in proportion to his interest to be so, to his hatred or[141] to his fear. Properly speaking, there is no superfluous feeling in human nature, every feeling being always in strict accordance with the impressions made upon the senses. In the same way the credibility of a witness may sometimes be lessened by the fact of his being a member of some secret society, whose purposes and principles are either not well understood or differ from those of general acceptance; for such a man has not only his own passions but those of others besides.

Such was the reasoning which for nearly half a century governed the course of English history, and which for all that time it was a heresy to dispute.


If, moreover, the prevention of crime is the chief object of punishment, why wait till the crime is committed? Why not punish before, as a certain Turk in Barbary is said to have done, who, whenever he bought a fresh Christian slave, had him forthwith suspended by his heels and bastinadoed, that the severe sense of his punishment might prevent him from committing in future the faults that should[82] merit it?[43] Why should we ever let a man out of prison who has once entered one? Is he not then a hundred times more likely to violate the law than he was before; and is he ever more dangerous to society than when he has once suffered for the public example, and been released from the discipline that was intended to reform him? It is still true, as Goldsmith said long ago, that we send a man to prison for one crime and let him loose again ready to commit a thousand. And so it is, that of the 74,000 souls who make up our criminal classes, whilst about 34,000 of them fill our prisons and reformatories, there is still an army of 40,000 at large in our midst, whom we class as known thieves, receivers of stolen goods, and suspected persons.[44]

These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminals relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his[73] profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pigs.

But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with[104] crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.

When Beccaria wrote against capital punishment, one great argument against its abolition was its practical universality. It had been abolished in ancient Egypt by king Sabaco,[28] in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes.[29] But these cases were too remote from modern times to lend much weight to the general argument. At that time Russia alone of all the countries in the world[44] had, from the accession of the Empress Elizabeth, afforded a practical example of the fact, that the general security of life is not diminished by the withdrawal of the protection of capital punishment. But since that time this truth has become less and less a theory or speculation, and it now rests on the positive experience of no inconsiderable portion of the world. In Tuscany, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Roumania, Saxony, Prussia, Belgium, and in ten of the United States of America, the death penalty has either been abolished or discontinued; and can it be thought that the people of those countries are so indifferent to the safety of their lives as to be content with a less efficient legal protection than is vouchsafed in countries where the protection is death?

So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaires commentary; but just as Morellets translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the Delitti, inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices.

Another way of preventing crimes is to interest the magistrates who carry out the laws in seeking rather to preserve than to corrupt them. The greater the number of men who compose the magistracy, the less danger will there be of their exercising any undue power over the laws; for venality is more difficult among men who are under the close observation of one another, and their inducement to increase their individual authority diminishes in proportion to the smallness of the share of it that can fall to each of them, especially when they compare it with the risk of the attempt. If the sovereign accustoms his subjects, by formalities and pomp, by severe edicts, and by refusal to hear the grievances, whether just or unjust, of the man who thinks himself oppressed, to fear rather the magistrates than the[250] laws, it will be more to the profit of the magistrates than to the gain of private and public security.

It is incomparably better to prevent crimes than to punish them.