Any action that is not included between the two above-indicated extremes can only be called a crime or punished as such by those who find their interest in so calling it. The uncertainty of these limits has produced in different nations a system of ethics contrary to the system of laws, has produced many actual systems of laws at total variance with one another, and a quantity of laws which expose even the wisest man to the severest penalties. Consequently the words virtue and vice have become of vague and variable meaning, and from the uncertainty thus surrounding individual existence, listlessness and a fatal apathy have spread over political communities.

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.

A few years earlier Beccaria could have imagined no greater honour. To associate with the philosophers he so highly reverenced, as a philosopher himself, what greater happiness or reward could he have asked? Yet when it came there was no charm in it; and it was with difficulty he could be persuaded to go. For with his love for distinction there came into competition the love of his wife, and if he preferred her company to that of the wisest and wittiest celebrities of Paris, who shall say that he was the worse philosopher for that? 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.

If it be said that a second conviction makes it necessary for society to protect itself by stronger measures against a member who thus defies its power, it may be asked whether this is not an application of exactly the same reasoning to the crimes of individuals, which as applied to the crimes of all men generally led our ancestors so far astray in the distribution of their punishments. Nothing could have been more plausible than their reasoning: The punishment in vogue does not diminish the crime, therefore increase the punishment. But nothing could have[92] been less satisfactory than the result, for with the increase of punishment that of crime went hand in hand. The same reasoning is equally plausible in the case of individuals, with the same perplexing question resulting in the end: How comes it that, in spite of the threatened greater punishment, the majority of criminals are yet old offenders?

In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder. The following letter by Beccaria to the Abb Morellet in acknowledgment of the latters translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the Spectator it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:


In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?

The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may[45] depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.


The death of a citizen can only be deemed necessary for two reasons. The first is when, though deprived of his personal freedom, he has still such connections and power as threaten the national security; when his existence is capable of producing a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen becomes then necessary when the nation is recovering or losing its liberty, or in a time of anarchy, when confusion takes the place of laws; but in times when the laws hold undisturbed sway, when the form of government corresponds with the wishes of a united nation, and is defended internally and externally by force, and by opinion which is perhaps even stronger than force, where the supreme power rests only with the real sovereign, and riches serve to purchase pleasures but not places, I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except when his death might be the real and only restraint for diverting others from committing crimes; this latter[171] case constituting the second reason for which one may believe capital punishment to be both just and necessary.