Frederick the Great had already abolished it in Prussia;[1] it had been discontinued in Sweden; it was not recognised in the military codes of Europe, and Beccaria said it was not in use in England. This was true generally, although the peine forte et dure, by which a prisoner who would not plead was subjected to be squeezed nearly to death by an iron weight, was not abolished till the year 1771.[2] The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.[34][53] It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.[35]

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]

In these Notes and Observations Beccaria and his work were assailed with that vigour and lucidity for which the Dominican school of writing has always been so conspicuous. The author was described as a man of narrow mind, a madman, a stupid impostor, full of poisonous bitterness and calumnious mordacity. He was accused of writing with sacrilegious imposture against the Inquisition, of believing that religion was incompatible with the good government of a state; nay, he was condemned by all the reasonable world as the enemy of Christianity, a bad philosopher, and a bad man. His book was stigmatised as sprung from the deepest abyss of darkness, horrible, monstrous, full of poison, containing miserable arguments, insolent blasphemies, and so forth. CHAPTER XII. TORTURE.

As to the obscurity you find in the work, I heard, as I wrote, the clash of chains that superstition still shakes, and the cries of fanaticism that drown the voice of truth; and the perception of this frightful spectacle induced me sometimes to veil the truth in clouds. I wished to defend truth, without making myself her martyr. This idea of the necessity of obscurity has made me obscure sometimes without necessity. Add to this my inexperience and my want of practice in writing, pardonable in an author of twenty-eight,[3] who only five years ago first set foot in the career of letters.

As it, then, was necessity which constrained men to yield a part of their individual liberty, it is certain that each would only place in the general deposit the least possible portiononly so much, that is, as would suffice to induce others to defend it. The aggregate of these least possible portions constitutes the right of punishment; all that is beyond this is an abuse and not justice, a fact but not a right.[64] Punishments[124] which exceed what is necessary to preserve the deposit of the public safety are in their nature unjust; and the more just punishments are, the more sacred and inviolable is personal security, and the greater the liberty that the sovereign preserves for his subjects.

The cries of sages and philosophers are as the cries of the innocent man on the wheel, where they have never prevented, nor will ever prevent him from expiring, with his eyes upturned to heaven, which will perhaps some day stir up enthusiasm, or religious madness, or some other avenging folly, to accomplish all that their wisdom has failed to do. It is never the oration of the philosopher which disarms the powerful ruler; it is something else, which the combination of chance events brings about. Meanwhile we must not seek to force it from him, but must entreat humbly for such good as he can grant us, that is which he can grant us without injury to himself.

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.

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.