There was a time when nearly all penalties were pecuniary. Mens crimes were the princes patrimony; attempts against the public safety were an object of gain, and he whose function it was to defend it found his interest in seeing it assailed. The object of punishment was then a suit between the treasury, which exacted the penalty, and the criminal: it was a civil business, a private rather than a public dispute, which conferred upon the treasury other rights than those conferred upon it by the calls of the public defence, whilst it inflicted upon the offender other grievances than those he had incurred by the necessity of example. The judge was, therefore, an advocate for the treasury rather than an impartial investigator of the truth, an agent for the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the protector and minister of the laws. But as in this system to confess a fault was the same thing as to confess oneself a debtor to the treasury, that being the object of the criminal procedure in those days, so the confession of a crime, and a confession so managed as to favour and not to hurt fiscal interests, became and still remains (effects always outlasting their causes so long) the centre[241] point of all criminal procedure. Without such confession a criminal convicted by indubitable proofs will incur a penalty less than the one legally attached to his crime; and without it he will escape torture for other crimes of the same sort which he may have committed. With it, on the other hand, the judge becomes master of a criminals person, to lacerate him by method and formality, in order to get from him as from so much stock all the profit he can. Given the fact of the crime as proved, confession affords a convincing proof; and, to make this proof still less open to doubt, it is forcibly exacted by the agonies and despair of physical pain; whilst at the same time a confession that is extra-judicial, that is tendered calmly and indifferently, and without the overpowering fears of a trial by torture, is held insufficient for a verdict of guilt. Inquiries and proofs, which throw light upon the fact, but which weaken the claims of the treasury, are excluded; nor is it out of consideration for his wretchedness and weakness that a criminal is sometimes spared from torture, but out of regard for the claims which this entity, now mythical and inconceivable, might lose. The judge becomes the enemy of the accused, who stands in chains before him, the prey of misery, of torments, and the most terrible future; he does not seek to find the truth of a fact, but to find the crime in the prisoner, trying to entrap him, and thinking it to the loss of his own[242] credit if he fail to do so, and to the detriment of that infallibility which men pretend to possess about everything. The evidence that justifies a mans imprisonment rests with the judge; in order that a man may prove himself innocent, he must first be declared guilty: that is called an offensive prosecution; and such are criminal proceedings in nearly every part of enlightened Europe, in the eighteenth century. The real prosecution, the informative onethat is, the indifferent inquiry into a fact, such as reason enjoins, such as military codes employ, and such as is used even by Asiatic despotism in trivial and unimportant casesis of very scant use in the tribunals of Europe. What a complex maze of strange absurdities, doubtless incredible to a more fortunate posterity! Only the philosophers of that time will read in the nature of man the possible actuality of such a system as now exists.

An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of societythat is, to the consciousness of personal securityis leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common[133] report, in a mans flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a mans threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.

The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can[232] yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy.

From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.

Some crimes are injuries to a mans person, others to his property, and the former should certainly be punished by corporal punishments.


What is the political object of punishments? The intimidation of other men. But what shall we say of the secret and private tortures which the tyranny of custom exercises alike upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important, indeed, that no open crime shall pass unpunished; but the public exposure of a criminal whose crime was hidden in darkness is utterly useless. An evil that has been done and cannot be undone can only be punished by civil society in so far as it may affect others with the hope of impunity. If it be true that there are a greater number of men who either from fear or virtue respect the laws than of those who transgress them, the risk of torturing an innocent man should be estimated according to the probability that any man will have been more likely, other things being equal, to have respected than to have despised the laws.

No inconvenience that may arise from a strict observance of the letter of penal laws is to be compared with the inconveniences of subjecting them to interpretation. The momentary inconvenience in the former case involves, indeed, correcting the words of the law which are the cause of the uncertainty, a task both easy and necessary; but the fatal licence of arguing, the source of so many arbitrary and venal disputes, is thereby prevented. When a fixed code of laws, which must be observed to the letter, leaves to the judge no further trouble than to inquire into the actions of citizens and to decide on their conformity to the written law; when the standard of just and[129] unjust, which should equally direct the actions of the ignorant citizen as of the philosophical one, is not a matter of controversy but of fact; then are people no longer subject to the petty tyrannies of many men, which are all the more cruel by reason of the smaller distance that separates the sufferer from the inflictor of suffering, and which are more pernicious than the tyrannies of a single man, inasmuch as the despotism of many is only curable by that of one, and a despots cruelty is proportioned, not to the power he possesses, but to the obstacles he encounters. Under a fixed code of laws citizens acquire that consciousness of personal security, which is just, because it is the object of social existence, and which is useful, because it enables them to calculate exactly the evil consequences of a misdeed. It is true they will also acquire a spirit of independence, but not such a spirit as will seek to shake the laws and prove rebellious against the chief magistrates, except against such of them as have dared to apply the sacred name of virtue to a spiritless submission to their own self-interested and capricious opinions. These principles will displease those who have assumed the right to transfer to their subordinates the strokes of tyranny they themselves have suffered from their superiors. I personally should have everything to fear, if the spirit of tyranny and the spirit of reading ever went together.

As soon as the proofs of a crime and its reality are fully certified, the criminal must be allowed time and opportunity for his defence; but the time allowed must be so short as not to interfere with the speediness of his punishment, which, as we have seen, is one of the principal restraints from crime. A false philanthropy seems opposed to this shortness of time; but all doubt will vanish, on reflection that the more defective any system of law is, the greater are the dangers to which innocence is exposed.