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A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccarias work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the worlds history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife[14] and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.

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So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaires commentary; but just as Morellets translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the Delitti, inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices. Capital punishment is injurious by the example of barbarity it presents. If human passions, or the necessities of war, have taught men to shed one anothers blood, the laws, which are intended to moderate human conduct, ought not to extend the savage example, which in the case of a legal execution is all the more baneful in that it is carried out with studied formalities. To me it seems an absurdity, that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which abhor and which punish murder, should themselves[177] commit one; and that, to deter citizens from private assassination, they should themselves order a public murder. What are the true and the most useful laws? Are they not those covenants and conditions which all would wish observed and proposed, when the incessant voice of private interest is hushed or is united with the interest of the public? What are every mans feelings about capital punishment? Let us read them in the gestures of indignation and scorn with which everyone looks upon the executioner, who is, after all, an innocent administrator of the public will, a good citizen contributory to the public welfare, an instrument as necessary for the internal security of a State as brave soldiers are for its external. What, then, is the source of this contradiction; and why is this feeling, in spite of reason, ineradicable in mankind? Because men in their most secret hearts, that part of them which more than any other still preserves the original form of their first nature, have ever believed that their lives lie at no ones disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe.

Six days after his arrival Beccaria writes in a similar strain: that he is in the midst of adorations and the most flattering praises, considered as the companion and colleague of the greatest men in Europe, regarded with admiration and curiosity, his company competed for; in the capital of pleasures, close to three theatres, one of them the Comdie Fran?aise, the most interesting spectacle in the world; and that yet he is unhappy and discontented, and unable to find distraction in anything. He tells his wife that he is in excellent health, but that she must say just the contrary, in order that there may be a good pretext for his return; and the better to ensure this, he sends his wife another letter which she may show to his parents, and in which, at the end of much general news about Paris, he alludes incidentally to the bad effect on his health of drinking the waters of the Seine. He regrets having to resort to this fiction; but considers that he is justified by the circumstances.

In view of these principles it will appear strange (to anyone who does not reflect, that reason has, so to speak, never yet legislated for a nation), that it is just the most atrocious crimes or the most secret and chimerical onesthat is, those of the least probabilitywhich are proved by conjectures or by the weakest and most equivocal proofs: as if it were the interest of the laws and of the judge, not to search for the truth, but to find out the crime; as if the danger of condemning an innocent man were not so much the greater, the greater the probability of his innocence over that of his guilt.

So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaires commentary; but just as Morellets translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the Delitti, inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices.

[22]

Torture, again, is employed to discover if a criminal is guilty of other crimes besides those with which he is charged. It is as if this argument were employed: Because you are guilty of one crime you may be guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs upon me: I wish to ascertain about it by my test of truth: the laws torture you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I mean you to be guilty.

Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen The Lyons Mail will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.

CHAPTER VI. IMPRISONMENT.