Whosoever disturbs the public peace, or obeys not the laws, that is, the conditions under which men bear with and defend one another, ought to be excluded from society, that is, to be banished from it. When the community is one of individuals, the subordination that prevails in the family prevails by agreement, not by compulsion; and the sons, as soon as their age withdraws them from their state of natural dependence, arising from their feebleness and their need of education and protection, become free members of the domestic commonwealth, subjecting themselves to its head, in order to share in its advantages, as free men do by society at large. In the other condition the sonsthat is, the largest and most useful part of a nationare placed altogether at the mercy of their fathers; but in this one there is no enjoined connection between them, beyond that sacred and inviolable one of the natural ministration of necessary aid, and that of gratitude for benefits received, which is less often destroyed by the native wickedness of the human heart than by a law-ordained and ill-conceived state of subjection.

It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.

Barbarous spectacles were, Paley thought, justly found fault with, as tending to demoralise public feeling. But, he continued, if a mode of execution could be devised which would augment the horror of the punishment, without offending or impairing the public sensibility by cruel or unseemly exhibitions of death, it might add something to the efficacy of[57] example; and by being reserved for a few atrocious crimes might also enlarge the scale of punishment, an addition to which seems wanting, for as the matter remains at present you hang a malefactor for a simple robbery, and can do no more to the villain who has poisoned his father. Something of the sort we have been describing was the proposal, not long since suggested, of casting murderers into a den of wild beasts, where they would perish in a manner dreadful to the imagination, yet concealed from the view. It is interesting after this to learn, that Paley thought torture properly exploded from the mild and cautious system of penal jurisprudence established in this country, and that (to do him justice) he urged private persons to be tender in prosecuting, out of regard for the difficulty of prisoners to obtain an honest means of livelihood after their discharge.

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.

I conclude with this reflection, that the scale of punishments should be relative to the condition of a nation. On the hardened minds of a people scarcely emerged from the savage state the impressions made should be stronger and more sensible. One needs a[169] thunderbolt for the destruction of a fierce lion that faces round at the shot of a gun. But in proportion as mens minds become softened in the social state, their sensibility increases, and commensurate with that increase should be the diminution of the force of punishment, if it be desired to maintain any proportion between the object and the sensation that attends it.

Such contradictions between the laws of a family and the fundamental laws of a State are a fertile[238] source of other contradictions between public and private morality, giving rise consequently to a perpetual conflict in every individual mind. For whilst private morality inspires fear and subjection, public morality teaches courage and freedom; whilst the former inculcates the restriction of well-doing to a small number of persons indiscriminately, the latter inculcates its extension to all classes of men; and whilst the one enjoins the constant sacrifice of self to a vain idol, called the good of the family (which is frequently not the good of any single member that composes it), the other teaches men to benefit themselves, provided they break not the laws, and incites them, by the reward of enthusiasm, which is the precursor of their action, to sacrifice themselves to the good of their country. Such contradictions make men scorn to follow virtue, which they find so complicated and confused, and at that distance from them, which objects, both moral and physical, derive from their obscurity. How often it happens that a man, in reflecting on his past actions, is astonished at finding himself dishonest. The larger society grows, the smaller fraction of the whole does each member of it become, and the more is the feeling of the commonwealth diminished, unless care be taken by the laws to reinforce it. Societies, like human bodies, have their circumscribed limits, extension beyond which involves inevitably a disturbance of their[239] economy. The size of a State ought apparently to vary inversely with the sensibility of its component parts; otherwise, if both increase together, good laws will find, in the very benefit they have effected, an obstacle to the prevention of crimes. Too large a republic can only save itself from despotism by a process of subdivision, and a union of the parts into so many federative republics. But how effect this, save by a despotic dictator with the courage of Sylla and as much genius for construction as he had for destruction? If such a man be ambitious, the glory of all the ages awaits him; and if he be a philosopher, the blessings of his fellow-citizens will console him for the loss of his authority, even should he not become indifferent to their ingratitude. In proportion as the feelings which unite us to our own nation are weakened, do those for the objects immediately around us gain in strength; and it is for this reason that under the severest despotism the strongest friendships are to be found, and that the family virtues, ever of an exalted character, are either the most common or the only ones. It is evident, therefore, how limited have been the views of the great majority of legislators.