Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.


My occupation is to cultivate philosophy in peace, and so to satisfy my three strongest passions, the love, that is, of literary fame, the love of liberty, and pity for the ills of mankind, slaves of so many errors. My conversion to philosophy only dates back five years, and I owe it to my perusal of the Lettres Persanes. The second work that completed my mental revolution was that of Helvetius. The latter forced me irresistibly into the way of truth, and aroused my attention for the first time to the blindness and miseries of humanity.

A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust? No law ought to be promulgated that has not force to back it, or that the nature of things deprives of validity; and as minds are ruled by opinion, which[224] itself follows the slow and indirect impressions of legislation, whilst it resists those that are direct and violent, the most salutary laws become infected with the contempt felt for useless laws, and are regarded rather as obstacles to be surmounted than as the deposit of the public welfare. Some persons have maintained that a crime, that is, an action contrary to the laws, is punishable wherever committed, as if the character of subject[193] were indelible, or, in other words, synonymous with, nay, worse than, the character of slave; as if a man could be the subject of one kingdom and the resident of another, or as if his actions could without contradiction be subordinate to two sovereign powers and to two legal systems often contradictory. So some think that a cruel action done, say, at Constantinople is punishable at Paris, for the abstract reason that he who offends humanity deserves to have collective humanity for his enemy, and merits universal execration; as if judges were the avengers of human sensibility in general, and not rather of the covenants that bind men together. The place of punishment is the place of the crime, because there, and there only, is it a compulsory duty to injure an individual, to prevent an injury to the public. A villain, but one who has not broken the covenants of the society of which he was not a member, may be an object of fear, and for that reason be expelled and exiled by the superior power of that society; but he cannot be legally and formally punished, since it is for the laws to avenge, not the intrinsic malice of particular actions, but the violation of compacts.

A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly.

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.

Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.

There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.

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[74] 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.