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Would you prevent crimes, then cause the laws to be clear and simple, bring the whole force of a nation to bear on their defence, and suffer no part of it to be busied in overthrowing them. Make the laws to favour not so much classes of men as men themselves. Cause men to fear the laws and the laws alone. Salutary is the fear of the law, but fatal and fertile in crime is the fear of one man of another. Men as slaves are more sensual, more immoral, more cruel than free men; and, whilst the latter give their minds to the sciences or to the interests of their country, setting great objects before them as their model, the former, contented with the passing day, seek in the excitement of libertinage a distraction from the nothingness of their existence, and, accustomed to an uncertainty of result in everything, they look upon the result of their crimes as uncertain too, and so decide in favour of the passion that tempts them. If uncertainty of the laws affects a nation, rendered indolent by its climate, its indolence and stupidity is thereby maintained and increased; if it affects a nation, which though fond of pleasure is also full of energy, it wastes that energy in a number of petty cabals and intrigues, which spread distrust in every heart, and make treachery and dissimulation the foundation of prudence; if, again, it affects a[245] courageous and brave nation, the uncertainty is ultimately destroyed, after many oscillations from liberty to servitude, and from servitude back again to liberty.

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 object of the preliminary chapters is to place the historical importance of the original in its just light, and to increase the interest of the subjects it discusses.

Among other abuses of grammar, which have no slight influence on human affairs, that one is notable which makes the evidence of a condemned criminal null and void. He is dead civilly say gravely the peripatetic lawyers, and a dead man is incapable of any action. In support of this silly metaphor many[139] victims have been sacrificed, and it has very often been disputed with all seriousness whether the truth should not yield to judicial formulas. Provided that the testimony of a condemned criminal does not go to the extent of stopping the course of justice, why should not a fitting period be allowed, even after condemnation, both to the extreme wretchedness of the criminal and to the interests of truth, so that, by his adducing fresh matter to alter the complexion of the fact, he may justify himself or others in a new trial? Forms and ceremonies are necessary in the administration of justice, because they leave nothing to the free will of the administrator; because they give the people an idea of a justice which is not tumultuary and self-interested, but steadfast and regular; and because men, the slaves of habit and imitation, are more influenced by their feelings than by arguments. But such forms can never without fatal danger be so firmly fixed by the laws as to be injurious to truth, which from being either too simple or two complex needs some external pomp to conciliate the ignorant populace.