But if penal laws thus express the wide variability of human morality, they also contribute to make actions moral or immoral according to the penalties by which they enforce or prevent them. For not only does whatever is immoral tend to become penal, but anything can be made immoral by being first made penal; and hence indifferent actions often remain immoral long after they have ceased to be actually punishable. Thus the Jews made Sabbath-breaking equally immoral with homicide or adultery, by affixing to each of them the same capital penalty; and the former offence, though it no longer forms part of any criminal code, has still as much moral force against it as many an offence directly punishable by the law.
The first class of crimes—that is, the worst, because they are the most injurious to society—are those known as crimes of high treason. Only tyranny and ignorance, which confound words and ideas of the clearest meaning, can apply this name, and consequently the heaviest punishment, to different kinds of crimes, thus rendering men, as in a thousand other cases, the victims of a word. Every crime, be it ever so private, injures society; but every crime does not aim at its immediate destruction. Moral, like physical actions, have their limited sphere of activity, and are differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; and therefore only a sophistical interpretation, which is generally the philosophy of slavery, can confound what eternal truth has distinguished by immutable differences.
CHAPTER IV. INTERPRETATION OF THE LAWS.
To return to the innocent bankrupt. Granting that his obligation should not be extinguishable by anything short of total payment; granting that he should not be suffered to withdraw from it without the consent of the parties interested, nor to transfer under the dominion of other laws his industry, which should perforce be employed, under penalties, to enable him to satisfy his creditors in proportion to his profits; what fair pretext, I ask, can there be, such as the security of commerce or the sacred right of property, to justify the deprivation of his liberty? Such a deprivation is only of use, when it is sought to discover the secrets of a supposed innocent bankrupt by the evils of servitude, a most unusual circumstance where a rigorous inquiry is instituted. I believe it to be a maxim in legislation, that the amount of political inconveniences varies directly in proportion to the injury they do the public, and inversely in proportion to the difficulty of their proof.
This essay on the ‘Imagination’ was published soon after the ‘Crimes and Punishments’ in the periodical to which Beccaria alludes in his letter to Morellet. ‘The Caffé’ was the name of the periodical which, from June 1764, he and his friends published every tenth day for a period of two years. The model of the paper was the English ‘Spectator,’ and its object to propagate useful knowledge pleasantly among the Milanese, whilst its name rested on the supposition that the friends who composed it executed their labours during meetings in a coffee-house. The most interesting contributions to it by Beccaria are his ‘Fragment on Style,’ his article on ‘Periodical Newspapers,’ and his essay on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination.’
A man accused of a crime, imprisoned and acquitted, ought to bear no mark of disgrace. How many Romans, accused of the gravest crimes and then found innocent, were reverenced by the people and honoured with magisterial positions! For what reason, then, is the lot of a man innocently accused so different in our own times? Because, in the criminal system now in vogue, the idea of force and might is stronger in men’s minds than the idea of justice; because accused and convicted are thrown in confusion into the same dungeon; because imprisonment is rather a man’s punishment than his mere custody; and because the two forces which should be united are separated from one another, namely, the internal force, which protects the laws, and the external force, which defends the throne and the nation. Were they united, the former, through the common sanction of the laws, would possess in addition a judicial capacity, although independent of that possessed by the supreme judicial power; and the glory that accompanies the pomp and ceremony of a military body would remove the infamy, which, like all popular sentiments, is more attached to the manner than the thing, as is proved by the fact that military prisons are not regarded in public estimation as so disgraceful as civil ones. There still remain among our people, in their customs and in their laws (always a hundred years, in point of merit, in arrear of the actual enlightenment of a nation), there still remain, I say, the savage impressions and fierce ideas of our ancestors of the North.… I lead a tranquil and solitary life, if a select company of friends in which the heart and mind are in continual movement can be called solitude. This is my consolation, and prevents me feeling in my own country as if I were in exile.
Nor was it only in Europe that Beccaria’s influence thus prevailed, for as soon as the American Colonies had shaken off their English connection they began to reform their penal laws. When the Revolution began there were in Pennsylvania nearly twenty crimes punishable by death, and within eighteen years of its close the penal code was thoroughly transformed, it being ordained in 1794 that no crime should any longer be capital but murder in the first degree. It is true that this was but a return to the principles adopted by Penn on the settlement of the colony, but Penn’s penal code was annulled by Queen Anne, and the English Government insisted on a strict adherence to the charter from Charles II., which enjoined the retention of the Statute and the Common Law of England. When, therefore, the new Constitution was formed in 1776, the arguments of Beccaria gave fresh life to the memories of Penn.
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