It is, however, probable that the frequency of any crime bears little or no relation to the punishment affixed to it. Every criminal begins a new career, in which he thinks less of the nature of his punishment than of his chances of eluding it. Neither tradition nor example count with him for much in his balance of the chances in his own favour. The law can never be so certain in its execution as it is uncertain in its application, and it is the examples of impunity, not of punishment, to which men turn when they violate the law. So that whether the punishment for murder be an excruciating death, as in ancient Rome, or a mere fine, as in ancient England, the motives for escape are always the same, the means to effect it are always the same, and the belief in his power to effect it is correspondingly powerful in every criminal guilty of homicide.


Torture, again, is inflicted upon an accused man in order to discover his accomplices in crime. But if it is proved that it is not a fitting method for the discovery of truth, how will it serve to disclose accomplices, which is part of the truth to be discovered? As if a man who accuses himself would not more readily accuse others. And is it just to torment men for the crimes of others? Will not the accomplices be disclosed from the examination of the witnesses and of the accused, from the proofs and whole circumstances of the crime; in sum, from all those very means which should serve to convict the accused himself of guilt? Accomplices generally fly immediately after the capture of a companion; the uncertainty[155] of their lot of itself condemns them to exile, and frees the country from the danger of fresh offences from them; whilst the punishment of the criminal who is caught attains its precise object, namely, the averting of other men by terror from a similar crime. CHAPTER VII. PROOFS AND FORMS OF JUDGMENT.

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. It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.

Such fatal and legalised iniquities as have been referred to have been approved of by even the wisest men and practised by even the freest republics, owing to their having regarded society rather as an aggregate[236] of families than as one of individuals. Suppose there to be 100,000 individuals, or 20,000 families, of five persons each, including its representative head: if the association is constituted by families, it will consist of 20,000 men and 80,000 slaves; if it be an association of individuals, it will consist of 100,000 citizens, and not a single slave. In the first case there will be a republic, formed of 20,000 little sovereignties; in the second the republican spirit will breathe, not only in the market-places and meetings of the people, but also within the domestic walls, wherein lies so great a part of human happiness or misery. In the first case, also, as laws and customs are the result of the habitual sentiments of the members of the republicthat is, of the heads of familiesthe monarchical spirit will gradually introduce itself, and its effects will only be checked by the conflicting interests of individuals, not by a feeling that breathes liberty and equality. Family spirit is a spirit of detail and confined to facts of trifling importance. But the spirit which regulates communities is master of general principles, overlooks the totality of facts, and combines them into kinds and classes, of importance to the welfare of the greater number. In the community of families sons remain in the power of the head of the family so long as he lives, and are obliged to look forward to his death for an existence dependent on the laws alone. Accustomed to submission and fear in the[237] freshest and most vigorous time of life, when their feelings are less modified by that timidity, arising from experience, which men call moderation, how shall they withstand those obstacles in the way of virtue which vice ever opposes, in that feeble and failing period of life when despair of living to see the fruit of their labours hinders them from making vigorous changes?

Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.[32]

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]

The second question is, whether it is expedient to place a reward on the head of a known criminal, and to make of every citizen an executioner by arming him against the offender. Either the criminal has fled from his country or he is still within it. In the first case the sovereign encourages the commission of a crime and exposes its author to a punishment, being thereby guilty of an injury and of an usurpation of authority in the dominions of another, and authorising other nations to do the same by himself. In the second case the sovereign displays his own weakness, for he who has the power wherewith to defend himself seeks not to purchase it. Moreover, such an edict upsets all ideas of morality and virtue,[195] which are ever ready to vanish from the human mind at the very slightest breath. Now the laws invite to treachery, and anon they punish it; with one hand the legislator tightens the bonds of the family, of kindred, and of friendship, whilst with the other he rewards whosoever violates and despises them; always in self-contradiction, he at one moment invites to confidence the suspicious natures of men, and at another scatters mistrust broadcast among them. Instead of preventing one crime, he causes a hundred. These are the resources of weak nations, whose laws are but the temporary repairs of a ruined building that totters throughout. In proportion as a nation becomes enlightened, good faith and mutual confidence become necessary, and tend ever more to identify themselves with true policy. Tricks, intrigues, dark and indirect paths, are for the most part foreseen, and the general quickness of all men collectively over-reaches and blunts that of single individuals. The very ages of ignorance, in which public morality inclines men to obey the dictates of private morality, serve as instruction and experience for the ages of enlightenment. But laws which reward treachery and stir up clandestine hostility by spreading mutual suspicion among citizens, are opposed to this union of private and public morality, a union which is so necessary, and to the observance of which individuals might owe their happiness, nations their peace, and[196] the universe a somewhat longer period of quiet and repose from the evils which at present pervade it.