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Cesare Beccarias 1767 Essay On Crimes And Punishment

by Cesare Beccaria

An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

Title page from An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

AuthorCesare Beccaria
TranslatorWith a commentary, attributed to Mons. de Voltaire
PublishedLondon: Printed for J. Almon
Volumes{{{set}}} volume set
Pagesxii, 179, [1], lxxix, [1]
Desc.8vo (21 cm.)
LocationShelf C-4
  [[Shelf {{{shelf2}}}]]

A shy and retiring man prone to unpredictable moods and educated in the law as well as economics,[1]Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) was perhaps an unlikely figure to trigger a veritable revolution in criminology. As a young man, he fell in with brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri and their “academy of fists,”[2] a Milanese organization referred to variously as an “intellectual circle”[3] and a “literary society,”[4] through which Beccaria was initiated into Enlightenment thought.[5] The Verri brothers supplied the assignment and the insider knowledge of the criminal justice system of the day, and at the behest of this group, Becarria completed his famous essay On Crimes and Punishments in 1764.[6]

In the time of its writing, Beccaria’s propositions that onerous punishments like torture and execution were unnecessarily cruel, disproportionate, and unlikely to serve as effective deterrents were novel. Although they owed a debt to his intellectual forebears,[7] these ideas were both radical and attractive to the European political and intellectual elite.[8]On Crimes and Punishments was rapidly translated into a host of other languages.[9] As well as informing a number of state statutes in the United States,[10] in insisting upon a balance between fidelity to the social contract and the need to ensure that criminal punishment is useful and beneficial to society, the work can be said to prefigure one of today’s two dominant schools of penological thought—utilitarianism—as well as the death penalty abolition movement.[11]

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Dean's Memo[12] includes the 1767 English edition of An Essay on Crimes and Punishments based on a reference in William Clarkin's biography of Wythe. In discussing Thomas Jefferson's education under Wythe, Clarkin states "[w]e do know that Jefferson studied ... Beccaria's Crime and Punishment" but Clarkin provides no source of corroborating evidence.[13] Brown's Bibliography[14] lists Beccaria's work in a choice of three languages (Italian, French, and English) and multiple editions. The Wolf Law Library purchased the first English edition as listed in Dean's memo.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Marbled boards with leather corners rebacked in period-style calf with blind tooling and red label to spine. Purchased from Meyer Boswell Books, Inc.

Images of the library's copy of this book are available on Flickr. View the record for this book in William & Mary's online catalog.

Full text

See also


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria," accessed October 10, 2013.
  2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)," accessed October 10, 2013.
  3. ↑Ibid.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  5. ↑Ibid.
  6. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)."
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  8. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)."
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  10. ↑Ibid.
  11. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)".
  12. ↑Memorandum from Barbara C. Dean, Colonial Williamsburg Found., to Mrs. Stiverson, Colonial Williamsburg Found. (June 16, 1975), 9 (on file at Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary).
  13. ↑William Clarkin, Serene Patriot: A Life of George Wythe (Albany, New York: Alan Publications, 1970), 42.
  14. ↑Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433.

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Headpiece, first page of text.
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Laws are the conditions under which men, naturally independent, united themselves in society. Weary of living in a continual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which became of little value, from the uncertainty of its duration, they sacrificed one part of it to enjoy the rest in peace and security. The sum of all these portions of the liberty of each individual constituted the sovereignty Edition: current; Page: [16] of a nation; and was deposited in the hands of the sovereign, as the lawful administrator. But it was not sufficient only to establish this deposit; it was also necessary to defend it from the usurpation of each individual, who will always endeavour to take away from the mass, not only his own portion, but to encroach on that of others. Some motives, therefore, that strike the senses, were necessary to prevent the despotism of each individual from plunging society into its former chaos. Such motives are the punishment established against the infractors of the laws. I say that motives of this kind are necessary; because experience shews that, the multitude adopt no established rules of conduct; and because, society is prevented from approaching to that dissolution (to which, as well as all other parts of the physical and moral world, it naturally tends) only by motives that are the immediate objects of sense, and which, being continually presented to the mind, are sufficient to counterbalance the effects of the passions of the individual which oppose the general good. Neither the power of eloquence, nor the sublimest truths, are sufficient to restrain, for any length of time, those passions which are excited by the lively impression of present objects.

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Every punishment which does not arise from absolute necessity, says the great Montesquieu, is tyrannical. A proposition which may be made more general, thus. Every act of authority of one man over another, for which there is not an absolute necessity, is tyrannical. It is upon this, then, that the sovereign’s right to punish crimes is founded; that is, upon the necessity of defending the public liberty, intrusted to his care, from the usurpation of individuals; and punishments are just in proportion as the liberty, preserved by the sovereign, is sacred and valuable.

Let us consult the human heart, and there we shall find the foundation of the sovereign’s right to punish; for no advantage in moral policy can be lasting, which is not founded on the indeliable sentiments of the heart of man. Whatever law deviates from this principle will always meet with a resistance, which will destroy it in the end; for the smallest force, continually applied, Edition: current; Page: [18] will overcome the most violent motion communicated to bodies.

No man ever gave up his liberty merely for the good of the public. Such a chimera exists only in romances. Every individual wishes, if possible, to be exempt from the compacts that bind the rest of mankind.

The multiplication of mankind, though slow, being too great for the means which the earth, in its natural state, offered to satisfy necessities, which every day became more numerous, obliged men to separate again, and form new societies. These naturally opposed the first, and a state of war was transferred from individuals to nations.

Thus it was necessity that forced men to give up a part of their liberty; it is certain, then, that every individual would chuse to put into the public stock the smallest portion possible; as much only as was sufficient to engage others to defend it. The aggregate of these, the smallest portions possible, forms the right of punishing: all that extends beyond this is abuse, not justice.

Observe, that by justice I understand nothing more than that bond, which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united; without which, men would return to the original state of barbarity. All punishments, which exceed the necessity of Edition: current; Page: [19] preserving this bond, are in their nature unjust. We should be cautious how we associate with the word justice, an idea of anything real, such as a physical power, or a being that actually exists. I do not, by any means, speak of the justice of God, which is of another kind, and refers immediately to rewards and punishments in a life to come.


The laws only can determine the punishment of crimes; and the authority of making penal laws can only reside with the legislator, who represents the whole society united by the social compact. No magistrate then, (as he is one of the society,) can, with justice, inflict on any other member of the same society, punishment that is not ordained by the laws. But as a punishment, increased beyond the degree fixed by the law, is the just punishment, with the addition of another; it follows, that no magistrate, even under a pretence Edition: current; Page: [20] of zeal, or the public good, should increase the punishment already determined by the laws.

If every individual be bound to society, society is equally bound to him by a contract, which, from its nature, equally binds both parties. This obligation, which descends from the throne to the cottage, and equally binds the highest and lowest of mankind, signifies nothing more, than that it is the interest of all, that conventions, which are useful to the greatest number, should be punctually observed. The violation of this compact by any individual, is an introduction to anarchy.

The sovereign, who represents the society itself, can only make general laws to bind the members; but it belongs not to him to judge whether any individual has violated the social compact, or incurred the punishment in consequence. For in this case there are two parties, one represented by the sovereign, who insists upon the violation of the contract, and the other is the person accused, who denies it. It is necessary then that there should be a third person to decide this contest; that is to say, a judge, or magistrate, from whose determination there should be no appeal; and this determination should consist of a simple affirmation, or negation of fact.

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If it can only be proved, that the severity of punishments, though not immediately contrary to the public good, or to the end for which they were intended, viz., to prevent crimes, be useless; then such severity would be contrary to those beneficent virtues, which are the consequence of enlightened reason, which instructs the sovereign to wish rather to govern men in a state of freedom and happiness, than of slavery. It would also be contrary to justice, and the social compact.


Judges, in criminal cases, have no right to interpret the penal laws, because they are not legislators. They have not received the laws from our ancestors as a domestic tradition, or as the will of a testator, which his heirs and executors are to obey; but they receive them from a society actually existing, or from the sovereign, its representative. Even the authority of the laws is not Edition: current; Page: [22] founded on any pretended obligation, or ancient convention; which must be null, as it cannot bind those who did not exist at the time of its institution; and unjust, as it would reduce men, in the ages following, to a herd of brutes, without any power of judging or acting. The laws receive their force and authority from an oath of fidelity, either tacit or expressed, which living subjects have sworn to their sovereign, in order to restrain the intestine fermentation of the private interests of individuals. From hence springs their true and natural authority. Who then is their lawful interpreter? The sovereign, that is, the representative of society, and not the judge, whose office is only to examine, if a man have or have not, committed an action contrary to the laws.

In every criminal cause the judge should reason syllogistically. The major should be the general law; the minor the conformity of the action, or its opposition to the laws; the conclusion, liberty or punishment. If the judge be obliged by the imperfection of the laws, or chuses to make any other, or more syllogisms than this, it will be an introduction to uncertainty.

There is nothing more dangerous than the common axiom: the spirit of the laws is to be considered. To adopt it is to give way to the torrent of opinions. Edition: current; Page: [23] This may seem a paradox to vulgar minds, which are more strongly affected by the smallest disorder before their eyes, than by the most pernicious, though remote, consequences produced by one false principle adopted by a nation.

Our knowledge is in proportion to the number of our ideas. The more complex these are, the greater is the variety of positions in which they may be considered. Every man hath his own particular point of view, and at different times sees the same objects in very different lights. The spirit of the laws will then be the result of the good or bad logic of the judge; and this will depend on his good or bad digestion; on the violence of his passions; on the rank and condition of the abused, or on his connections with the judge; and on all those circumstances which change the appearance of objects in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence we see the fate of a delinquent changed many times in passing through the different courts of judicature, and his life and liberty victims to the false ideas or ill humour of the judge; who mistakes the vague result of his own confused reasoning, for the just interpretation of the laws. We see the same crimes punished in a different manner at different times in the same tribunals; the consequence of not Edition: current; Page: [24] having consulted the constant and invariable voice of the laws, but the erring instability of arbitrary interpretation.

The disorders that may arise from a rigorous observance of the letter of penal laws, are not to be compared with those produced by the interpretation of them. The first are temporary inconveniencies, which will oblige the legislator to correct the letter of the law, the want of preciseness and uncertainty of which has occasioned these disorders; and this will put a stop to the fatal liberty of explaining; the source of arbitrary and venal declamations. When the code of laws is once fixed, it should be observed in the literal sense, and nothing more is left to the judge than to determine, whether an action be, or be not, conformable to the written law. When the rule of right, which ought to direct the actions of the philosopher as well as the ignorant, is a matter of controversy, not of fact, the people are slaves to the magistrates. The despotism of this multitude of tyrants is more insupportable, the less the distance is between the oppressor and the oppressed; more fatal than that of one, for the tyranny of many is not to be shaken off, but by having recourse to that of one alone. It is more cruel, as it meets with more opposition, and the Edition: current; Page: [25] cruelty of a tyrant is not in proportion to his strength, but to the obstacles that oppose him.

These are the means by which security of person and property is best obtained; which is just, as it is the purpose of uniting in society; and it is useful, as each person may calculate exactly the inconveniencies attending every crime. By these means subjects will acquire a spirit of independence and liberty; however it may appear to those who dare to call the weakness of submitting blindly to their capricious and interested opinions by the sacred name of virtue.

These principles will displease those who have made it a rule with themselves, to transmit to their inferiors the tyranny they suffer from their superiors. I should have every thing to fear, if tyrants were to read my book; but tyrants never read.

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If the power of interpreting laws be an evil, obscurity in them must be another, as the former is the consequence of the latter. This evil will be still greater, if the laws be written in a language unknown to the people; who, being ignorant of the consequences of their own actions, become necessarily dependent on a few, who are interpreters of the laws, which, instead of being public and general, are thus rendered private and particular. What must we think of mankind when we reflect, that such is the established custom of the greatest part of our polished and enlightened Europe? Crimes will be less frequent, in proportion as the code of laws is more universally read, and understood; for there is no doubt, but that the eloquence of the passions is greatly assisted by the ignorance and uncertainty of punishments.

Hence it follows, that without written laws, no society will ever acquire a fixed form of government, Edition: current; Page: [27] in which the power is vested in the whole, and not in any part of the society; and in which the laws are not to be altered but by the will of the whole, nor corrupted by the force of private interest. Experience and reason shew us, that the probability of human traditions diminishes in proportion as they are distant from their sources. How then can laws resist the inevitable force of time, if there be not a lasting monument of the social compact?

Hence we see the use of printing, which alone makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians and defenders of the laws. It is this art which, by diffusing literature, has gradually dissipated the gloomy spirit of cabal and intrigue. To this art it is owing, that the atrocious crimes of our ancestors, who were alternately slaves and tyrants, are become less frequent. Those who are acquainted with the history of the two or three last centuries, may observe, how from the lap of luxury and effeminacy have sprung the most tender virtues, humanity, benevolence, and toleration of human errors. They may contemplate the effects of, what was so improperly called, ancient simplicity and good faith; humanity groaning under implacable superstition; the avarice and ambition of a few, staining with Edition: current; Page: [28] human blood the thrones and palaces of kings; secret treasons and public massacres; every noble a tyrant over the people; and the ministers of the gospel of Christ bathing their hands in blood, in the name of the God of all mercy. We may talk as we please of the corruption and degeneracy of the present age, but happily we see no such horrid examples of cruelty and oppression.


It is not only the common interest of mankind that crimes should not be committed, but that crimes of every kind should be less frequent, in proportion to the evil they produce to society Therefore, the means made use of by the legislature to prevent crimes, should be more powerful, in proportion as they are destructive of the public safety and happiness, and as the inducements to commit them are stronger. Therefore there Edition: current; Page: [29] ought to be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.

It is impossible to prevent entirely all the disorders which the passions of mankind cause in society. These disorders increase in proportion to the number of people, and the opposition of private interests. If we consult history, we shall find them increasing, in every state, with the extent of dominion. In political arithmetic, it is necessary to substitute a calculation of probabilities to mathematical exactness. That force which continually impels us to our own private interest, like gravity, acts incessantly, unless it meets with an obstacle to oppose it. The effects of this force are the confused series of human actions. Punishments, which I would call political obstacles, prevent the fatal effects of private interest, without destroying the impelling cause, which is that sensibility inseparable from man. The legislator acts, in this case, like a skilful architect, who endeavours to counteract the force of gravity by combining the circumstances which may contribute to the strength of his edifice.

The necessity of uniting in society being granted, together with the conventions, which the opposite interests of individuals must necessarily require, a scale of crimes may be formed, Edition: current; Page: [30] of which the first degree should consist of those which immediately tend to the dissolution of society, and the last, of the smallest possible injustice done to a private member of that society. Between these extremes will be comprehended, all actions contrary to the public good, which are called criminal, and which descend by insensible degrees, decreasing from the highest to the lowest. If mathematical calculation could be applied to the obscure and infinite combinations of human actions, there might be a corresponding scale of punishments, descending from the greatest to the least; but it will be sufficient that the wise legislator mark the principal divisions, without disturbing the order, lest to crimes of the first degree, be assigned punishments of the last. If there were an exact and universal scale of crimes and punishments, we should then have a common measure of the degree of liberty and slavery, humanity and cruelty, of different nations.

Any action, which is not comprehended in the above mentioned scale, will not be called a crime, or punished as such, except by those who have an interest in the denomination. The uncertainty of the extreme points of this scale, hath produced a system of morality which contradicts the laws; Edition: current; Page: [31] a multitude of laws that contradict each other; and many which expose the best men to the severest punishments, rendering the ideas of vice and virtue vague and fluctuating, and even their existence doubtful. Hence that fatal lethargy of political bodies, which terminates in their destruction.

Whoever reads, with a philosophic eye, the history of nations, and their laws, will generally find, that the ideas of virtue and vice, of a good or a bad citizen, change with the revolution of ages; not in proportion to the alteration of circumstances, and consequently conformable to the common good; but in proportion to the passions and errors by which the different lawgivers were successively influenced. He will frequently observe, that the passions and vices of one age, are the foundation of the morality of the following; that violent passion, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, being weakened by time, which reduces all the phenomena of the natural and moral world to an equality, become, by degrees, the prudence of the age, and an useful instrument in the hands of the powerful or artful politician. Hence the uncertainty of our notions of honour and virtue; an uncertainty which will ever remain, because they change with the revolutions of time, Edition: current; Page: [32] and names survive the things they originally signified; they change with the boundaries of states, which are often the same both in physical and moral geography.

Pleasure and pain are the only springs of action in beings endowed with sensibility. Even among the motives which incite men to acts of religion, the invisible Legislator has ordained rewards and punishments. From a partial distribution of these will arise that contradiction, so little observed, because so common; I mean, that of punishing by the laws the crimes which the laws have occasioned. If an equal punishment be ordained for two crimes that injure society in different degrees, there is nothing to deter men from committing the greater, as often as it is attended with greater advantage.

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The foregoing reflections authorise me to assert, that crimes are only to be measured by the injury done to society.

They err, therefore, who imagine that a crime is greater, or less, according to the intention of the person by whom it is committed; for this will depend on the actual impression of objects on the senses, and on the previous disposition of the mind; both which will vary in different persons, and even in the same person at different times, according to the succession of ideas, passions, and circumstances. Upon that system, it would be necessary to form, not only a particular code for every individual, but a new penal law for every crime. Men, often with the best intention, do the greatest injury to society, and with the worst, do it the most essential services.

Others have estimated crimes rather by the dignity of the person offended, than by their consequences to society. If this were the true standard, Edition: current; Page: [34] the smallest irreverence to the divine Being ought to be punished with infinitely more severity, than the assassination of a monarch.

In short, others have imagined, that the greatness of the sin should aggravate the crime. But the fallacy of this opinion will appear on the slightest consideration of the relations between man and man, and between God and man. The relations between man and man are relations of equality. Necessity alone hath produced, from the opposition of private passions and interests, the idea of public utility, which is the foundation of human justice. The other are relations of dependence, between an imperfect creature and his Creator, the most perfect of beings, who has reserved to himself the sole right of being both lawgiver and judge; for he alone can, without injustice, be, at the same time, both one and the other. If he hath decreed eternal punishments for those who disobey his will, shall an insect dare to put himself in the place of divine justice, to pretend to punish for the Almighty, who is himself all-sufficient; who cannot receive impressions of pleasure or pain, and who alone, of all other beings, acts without being acted upon? The degree of sin depends on the malignity of the heart, which is impenetrable to finite being. How Edition: current; Page: [35] then can the degree of sin serve as a standard to determine the degree of crimes? If that were admitted, men may punish when God pardons, and pardon when God condemns; and thus act in opposition to the Supreme Being.


We have proved, then, that crimes are to be estimated by the injury done to society. This is one of those palpable truths, which, though evident to the meanest capacity, yet, by a combination of circumstances, are only known to a few thinking men in every nation, and in every age. But opinions, worthy only of the despotism of Asia, and passions armed with power and authority, have, generally by insensible and sometimes by violent impressions on the timid credulity of men, effaced those simple ideas which perhaps constituted the first philosophy of infant society. Happily the philosophy of the present enlightened Edition: current; Page: [36] age seems again to conduct us to the same principles, and with that degree of certainty which is obtained by a rational examination, and repeated experience.

A scrupulous adherence to order would require, that we should now examine and distinguish the different species of crimes, and the modes of punishment; but they are so variable in their nature, from the different circumstances of ages and countries, that the detail would be tiresome and endless. It will be sufficient for my purpose, to point out the most general principles, and the most common and dangerous errors, in order to undeceive, as well those who, from a mistaken zeal for liberty, would introduce anarchy and confusion, as those who pretend to reduce society in general to the regularity of a convent.

Some crimes are immediately destructive of society, or its representative; others attack the private security of the life, property or honour of individuals; and a third class consists of such actions as are contrary to the laws which relate to the general good of the community.

The first, which are of the highest degree, as they are most destructive to society, are called crimes of Leze-majesty.* Tyranny and ignorance, Edition: current; Page: [37] which have confounded the clearest terms and ideas, have given this appellation to crimes of a different nature, and consequently have established the same punishment for each; and on this occasion, as on a thousand others, men have been sacrificed victims to a word. Every crime, even of the most private nature, injures society; but every crime does not threaten its immediate destruction. Moral, as well as physical actions, have their sphere of activity differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; it is therefore a sophistical interpretation, the common philosophy of slaves, that would confound the limits of things established by eternal truth.

To these succeed crimes which are destructive of the security of individuals. This security being the principal end of all society, and to which every citizen hath an undoubted right, it becomes indispensably necessary, that to these crimes the greatest of punishments should be assigned.

The opinion, that every member of society has a right to do anything that is not contrary to the laws, without fearing any other inconveniencies than those which are the natural consequences of the action itself, is a political dogma, which Edition: current; Page: [38] should be defended by the laws, inculcated by the magistrates, and believed by the people; a sacred dogma, without which there can be no lawful society; a just recompence for our sacrifice of that universal liberty of action, common to all sensible beings, and only limited by our natural powers. By this principle, our minds become free, active and vigorous; by this alone we are inspired with that virtue which knows no fear, so different from that pliant prudence worthy of those only who can bear a precarious existence.

Attempts, therefore, against the life and liberty of a citizen, are crimes of the highest nature. Under this head we comprehend not only assassinations and robberies committed by the populace, but by grandees and magistrates; whose example acts with more force, and at a greater distance, destroying the ideas of justice and duty among the subjects, and substituting that of the right of the strongest, equally dangerous to those who exercise it, and to those who suffer.

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There is a remarkable difference between the civil laws, those jealous guardians of life and property, and the laws of, what is called, honour, which particularly respects the opinion of others.

Honour is a term which has been the foundation of many long and brilliant reasonings, without annexing to it any precise or fixed idea. How miserable is the condition of the human mind, to which the most distant and least essential matters, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, are more distinctly known, than the most interesting truths of morality, which are always confused and fluctuating, as they happen to be driven by the gales of passion, or received and transmitted by ignorance! But this will cease to appear strange, if it be considered, that as objects, when too near the eye, appear confused, so the too great vicinity of the ideas of morality, is the reason why the simple ideas, of which they are composed, are easily confounded; but which must be separated, before Edition: current; Page: [40] we can investigate the phenomena of human sensibility; and the intelligent observer of human nature will cease to be surprised, that so many ties, and such an apparatus of morality are necessary to the security and happiness of mankind.

Honour, then, is one of those complex ideas, which are an aggregate not only of simple ones, but of others so complicated, that, in their various modes of affecsing the human mind, they sometimes exclude part of the elements of which they are composed; retaining only some few of the most common, as many algebraic quantities admit one common divisor. To find this common divisor of the different ideas attached to the word honour, it will be necessary to go back to the original formation of society.

The first laws, and the first magistrates, owed their existence to the necessity of preventing the disorders, which the natural despotism of individuals would unavoidably produce. This was the object of the establishment of society, and was either in reality or in appearance, the principal design of all codes of laws, even the most pernicious. But the more intimate connections of men, and the progress of their knowledge, gave rise to an infinite number of necessities, and mutual acts of friendship, between the members Edition: current; Page: [41] of society. These necessities were not foreseen by the laws, and could not be satisfied by the actual power of each individual. At this epocha began to be established the despotism of opinion, as being the only means of obtaining those benefits which the law could not procure, and of removing those evils against which the laws were no security. It is opinion, that tormentor of the wise and the ignorant, that has exalted the appearance of virtue above virtue itself. Hence the esteem of men becomes not only useful, but necessary, to every one, to prevent his sinking below the common level. The ambitious man grasps at it, as being necessary to his designs; the vain man sues for it, as a testimony of his merit; the honest man demands it as his due; and the most men consider it as necessary to their existence.

Honour, being produced after the formation of society, could not be a part of the common deposite, and therefore, whilst we act under its influence, we return, for that instant, to a state of nature, and withdraw ourselves from the laws, which in this case are insufficient for our protection.

Hence it follows, that in extreme political liberty, and in absolute despotism, all ideas of honour disappear, or are confounded with others. In the first case, reputation becomes useless from Edition: current; Page: [42] the despotism of the laws; and in the second the despotism of one man, annulling civil existence, reduces the rest to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, then, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies, which are a limited despotism, and in these, like revolutions in despotic states, it is a momentary return to a state of nature, and original equality.


From the necessity of the esteem of others, have arisen single combats, and they have been established by the anarchy of the laws. They are thought to have been unknown to the ancients; perhaps because they did not assemble in their temples, in their theatres, or with their friends, suspiciously armed with swords; and, perhaps, because single combats were a common spectacle, exhibited to the people by gladiators, who were slaves, and whom freemen disdained to imitate.

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In vain have the laws endeavoured to abolish this custom, by punishing the offenders with death. A man of honour, deprived of the esteem of others, foresees that he must be reduced, either to a solitary existence, insupportable to a social creature, or become the object of perpetual insult; considerations sufficient to overcome the fear of death.

What is the reason that duels are not so frequent among the common people, as amongst the great? Not only because they do not wear swords, but because to men of that class reputation is of less importance than it is to those of a higher rank, who commonly regard each other with distrust and jealousy.

It may not be without its use to repeat here, what has been mentioned by other writers, viz., that the best method of preventing this crime is to punish the aggressor, that is, the person who gave occasion to the duel, and to acquit him, who, without any fault on his side, is obliged to defend that, which is not sufficiently secured to him by the laws.

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Another class of crimes are those which disturb the public tranquillity and the quiet of the citizens; such as tumults and riots in the public streets, which are intended for commerce and the passage of the inhabitants; the discourses of fanatics, which rouse the passions of the curious multitude, and gain strength from the number of their hearers, who, though deaf to calm and solid reasoning, are always affected by obscure and mysterious enthusiasm.

The illumination of the streets, during the night, at the public expense; guards stationed in different quarters of the city; the plain and moral discourses of religion, reserved for the silence and tranquillity of churches, and protected by authority; and harangues in support of the interest of the public, delivered only at the general meetings of the nation, in parliament, or where the sovereign resides; are all means to prevent the dangerous effects of the misguided passions of the people Edition: current; Page: [45] These should be the principal objects of the vigilance of a magistrate, and which the French call Police; but if this magistrate should act in an arbitrary manner, and not in conformity to the code of laws, which ought to be in the hand of every member of the community, he opens a door to tyranny, which always surrounds the confines of political liberty.

I do not know of any exception to this general axiom, that Every member of the society should know when he is criminal, and when innocent. If censors, and, in general, arbitrary magistrates, be necessary in any government, it proceeds from some fault in the constitution. The uncertainty of crimes hath sacrificed more victims to secret tyranny, than have ever suffered by public and solemn cruelty.

What are, in general, the proper punishments for crimes? Is the punishment of death, really useful, or necessary for the safety or good order of society? Are tortures and torments consistent with justice, or do they answer the end proposed by the laws? Which is the best method of preventing crimes? Are the same punishments equally useful at all times? What influence have they on manners? These problems should be solved with that geometrical precision which the mist of Edition: current; Page: [46] sophistry, the seduction of eloquence, and the timidity of doubt are unable to resist.

If I have no other merit than that of having first presented to my country, with a greater degree of evidence, what other nations have written, and are beginning to practise, I shall account myself fortunate; but if, by supporting the rights of mankind and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal; his blessings, and tears of transport, will be a sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.


From the foregoing considerations it is evident, that the intent of punishments is not to torment a sensible being, nor to undo a crime already committed. Is it possible that torments, and useless cruelty, the instruments of furious fanaticism, or Edition: current; Page: [47] of impotency of tyrants, can be authorized by a political body? which, so far from being influenced by passion, should be the cool moderator of the passions of individuals. Can the groans of a tortured wretch recal the time past, or reverse the crime he has committed?

The end of punishment, therefore, is no other, than to prevent others from committing the like offence. Such punishments, therefore, and such a mode of inflicting them, ought to be chosen, as will make strongest and most lasting impressions on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal.


To determine exactly the credibility of a witness, and the force of evidence, is an important point in every good legislation. Every man of common sense, that is, every one whose ideas have some connexion with each other, and whose sensations Edition: current; Page: [48] are conformable to those of other men, may be a witness; but the credibility of his evidence will be in proportion as he is interested in declaring or concealing the truth. Hence it appears, how frivolous is the reasoning of those, who reject the testimony of women on account of their weakness; how puerile it is, not to admit the evidence of those who are under sentence of death, because they are dead in law; and how irrational, to exclude persons branded with infamy: for in all these cases they ought to be credited, when they have no interest in giving false testimony.

The credibility of a witness, then, should only diminish in proportion to the hatred, friendship, or connexions subsisting between him and the delinquent. One witness is not sufficient; for whilst the accused denies what the other affirms, truth remains suspended, and the right that every one has to be believed innocent, turns the balance in his favour.

The credibility of a witness is the less, as the atrociousness of the crime is greater, from the improbability of its having been committed; as in cases of witchcraft, and acts of wanton cruelty. The writers on penal laws have adopted a contrary principle, viz., that the credibility of a witness is greater, as the crime is more atrocious. Behold Edition: current; Page: [49] their inhuman maxim, dictated by the most cruel imbecility. In atrocissimis, leviores conjecturæ sufficiunt, & licet judici jura transgredi. Let us translate this sentence, that mankind may see one of the many unreasonable principles to which they are ignorantly subject. In the most atrocious crimes the slightest conjectures are sufficient, and the judge is allowed to exceed the limits of the law. The absurd practices of legislators are often the effect of timidity, which is a principal source of the contradictions of mankind. The legislators, (or rather lawyers, whose opinions, when alive, were interested and venal, but which after their death become of decisive authority, and are sovereign arbiters of the lives and fortunes of men), terrified by the condemnation of some innocent person, have burdened the law with pompous and useless formalities, the scrupulous observance of which will place anarchical impunity on the throne of justice; at other times, perplexed by atrocious crimes of difficult proof, they imagined themselves under a necessity of superseding the very formalities established by themselves; and thus, at one time, with despotic impatience, and at another with feminine timidity, they transform their solemn judgments into a game of hazard.

But to return. In the case of witchcraft, it Edition: current; Page: [50] is much more probable, that a number of men should be deceived, than that any person should exercise a power which God hath refused to every created being. In like manner, in cases of wanton cruelty, the presumption is always against the accuser, without some motive of fear or hate. There are no spontaneous or superfluous sentiments in the heart of man; they are all the result of impressions on the senses.

The credibility of a witness may also be diminished, by his being a member of a private society, whose customs and principles of conduct are either not known, or are different from those of the public. Such a man has not only his own passions, but those of the society of which he is a member.

Finally, the credibility of a witness is null, when the question relates to the words of a criminal; for the tone of voice, the gesture, all that precedes, accompanies and follows the different ideas which men annex to the same words, may so alter and modify a man’s discourse, that it is almost impossible to repeat them precisely in the manner in which they were spoken. Besides, violent and uncommon actions, such as real crimes, leave a trace in the multitude of circumstances that attend them, and in their effects; but words Edition: current; Page: [51] remain only in the memory of the hearers, who are commonly negligent or prejudiced. It is infinitely easier then to found an accusation on the words, than on the actions of a man; for in these, the number of circumstances, urged against the accused, afford him variety of means of justification.


The following general theorem is of great use in determining the certainty of fact. When the proofs of a crime are dependent on each other, that is, when the evidence of each witness, taken separately, proves nothing; or when all the proofs are dependent upon one, the number of proofs neither increase nor diminish the probability of the fact; for the force of the whole is no greater than the force of that on which they depend; and if this fails, they all fall to the ground. When the proofs are independent on each other, Edition: current; Page: [52] the probability of the fact increases in proportion to the number of proofs; for the falsehood of one does not diminish the veracity of another.

It may seem extraordinary that I speak of probability with regard to crimes, which, to deserve a punishment, must be certain. But this paradox will vanish, when it is considered, that, strictly speaking, moral certainty is only probability; but which is called a certainty, because every man in his senses assents to it from an habit produced by the necessity of acting, and which is anterior to all speculation. That certainty which is necessary to decide that the accused is guilty, is the very same which determines every man in the most important transactions of his life.

The proofs of a crime may be divided into two classes, perfect and imperfect. I call those perfect which exclude the possibility of innocence; imperfect, those which do not exclude this possibility. Of the first, one only is sufficient for condemnation; of the second, as many are required as form a perfect proof: that is to say, that though each of these, separately taken, does not exclude the possibility of innocence, it is nevertheless excluded by their union. It should be also observed, that the imperfect proofs of Edition: current; Page: [53] which the accused, if innocent, might clear himself, and does not, become perfect.

But it is much easier to feel this moral certainty of proofs, than to define it exactly. For this reason, I think it an excellent law which establishes assistants to the principal judge, and those chosen by lot; for that ignorance, which judges by its feelings, is less subject to error, than the knowledge of the laws which judges by opinion. Where the laws are clear and precise, the office of the judge is merely to ascertain the fact. If, in examining the proofs of a crime, acuteness and dexterity be required; if clearness and precision be necessary in summing up the result; to judge of the result itself, nothing is wanting but plain and ordinary good sense, a less fallacious guide than the knowledge of a judge accustomed to find guilty, and to reduce all things to an artificial system, borrowed from his studies. Happy the nation, where the knowledge of the law is not a science!

It is an admirable law which ordains, that every man shall be tried by his peers; for when life, liberty and fortune are in question, the sentiments, which a difference of rank and fortune inspire, should be silent; that superiority with which the fortunate look upon the unfortunate, and that Edition: current; Page: [54] envy with which the inferior regard their superiors, should have no influence. But when the crime is an offence against a fellow-subject, one half of the judges should be peers to the accused, and the other peers to the person offended. So that all private interest, which, in spite of ourselves, modifies the appearance of objects, even in the eyes of the most equitable, is counteracted, and nothing remains to turn aside the direction of truth and the laws. It is also just, that the accused should have the liberty of excluding a certain number of his judges. Where this liberty is enjoyed for a long time, without any instance to the contrary, the criminal seems to condemn himself.

All trials should be public, that opinion, which is the best, or, perhaps, the only cement of society, may curb the authority of the powerful, and the passions of the judge; and that the people may say, “We are protected by the laws; we are not slaves;” a sentiment which inspires courage, and which is the best tribute to a sovereign who knows his real interest. I shall not enter into particulars. There may be some persons who expect that I should say all that can be said upon this subject; to such, what I have already written must be unintelligible.

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Secret accusations are a manifest abuse, but consecrated by custom in many nations, where, from the weakness of the government, they are necessary. This custom makes men false and treacherous. Whoever suspects another to be an informer, beholds in him an enemy; and, from thence, mankind are accustomed to disguise their real sentiments; and from the habit of concealing them from others, they at last even hide them from themselves. Unhappy are those, who have arrived at this point! Without any certain and fixed principles to guide them, they fluctuate in the vast sea of opinion, and are busied only in escaping the monsters which surround them; to those, the present is always embittered by the uncertainty of the future; deprived of the pleasures of tranquillity and security, some fleeting moments of happiness, scattered thinly through their wretched lives, console them for the misery of existing. Shall we, amongst such men, find Edition: current; Page: [56] intrepid soldiers to defend their king and country? Amongst such men shall we find incorruptible magistrates, who, with the spirit of freedom and patriotic eloquence, will support and explain the true interest of their sovereign; who, with the tributes, offer up at the throne the love and blessing of the people, and thus bestow on the palaces of the great, and the humble cottage, peace and security; and to the industrious a prospect of bettering their lot, that useful ferment and vital principle of states?

Who can defend himself from calumny, armed with that impenetrable shield of tyranny, secrecy? What a miserable government must that be, where the sovereign suspects an enemy in every subject, and, to secure the tranquillity of the public, is obliged to sacrifice the repose of every individual?

By what arguments is it pretended, that secret accusations may be justified? The public safety, say they, and the security and maintenance of the established form of government. But what a strange constitution is that, where the government, which hath in its favour not only power but opinion, still more efficacious, yet fears its own subjects? The indemnity of the informer. Do not the laws defend him sufficiently; and are there subjects more powerful than the laws? TheEdition: current; Page: [57]necessity of protecting the informer from infamy. When secret calumny is authorised, and punished only when public. The nature of the crime. If actions, indifferent in themselves, or even useful to the public, were called crimes, both the accusation and the trial could never be too secret. But can there be any crime, committed against the public, which ought not to be publicly punished? I respect all governments; and I speak not of any one in particular. Such may sometimes be the nature of circumstances, that when abuses are inherent in the constitution, it may be imagined, that to rectify them, would be to destroy the constitution itself. But were I to dictate new laws in a remote corner of the universe, the good of posterity, ever present to my mind, would hold back my trembling hand, and prevent me from authorising secret accusations.

Public accusations, says Montesquieu, are more conformable to the nature of a republic, where zeal for the public good is the principal passion of a citizen, than of a monarchy, in which, as this sentiment is very feeble, from the nature of the government, the best establishment is that of commissioners, who, in the name of the public, accuse the infractors of the laws. But in all governments as well in a republic as in a monarchy, Edition: current; Page: [58] the punishment, due to the crime of which one accuses another, ought to be inflicted on the informer.


The torture of a criminal, during the course of his trial, is a cruelty, consecrated by custom in most nations. It is used with an intent either to make him confess his crime, or explain some contradictions, into which he had been led during his examination; or discover his accomplices; or for some kind of metaphysical and incomprehensible purgation of infamy; or, finally, in order to discover other crimes, of which he is not accused, but of which he may be guilty.

No man can be judged a criminal until he be found guilty; nor can society take from him the public protection, until it have been proved that he has violated the conditions on which it was granted. What right, then, but that of power, can authorise the punishment of a citizen, so long Edition: current; Page: [59] as there remains any doubt of his guilt? The dilemma is frequent. Either he is guilty, or not guilty. If guilty, he should only suffer the punishment ordained by the laws, and torture becomes useless, as his confession is unnecessary. If he be not guilty, you torture the innocent; for, in the eye of the law, every man is innocent, whose crime has not been proved. Besides, it is confounding all relations, to expect that a man should be both the accuser and accused; and that pain should be the test of truth, as if truth resided in the muscles and fibres of a wretch in torture. By this method, the robust will escape, and the feeble be condemned. These are the inconveniencies of this pretended test of truth, worthy only of a cannibal; and which the Romans, in many respects barbarous, and whose savage virtue has been too much admired, reserved for the slaves alone.

What is the political intention of punishments? To terrify, and to be an example to others. Is this intention answered, by thus privately torturing the guilty and the innocent? It is doubtless of importance, that no crime should remain unpunished; but it is useless to make a public example of the author of a crime hid in darkness. A crime already committed, and for which there can be no remedy, can only be punished by a Edition: current; Page: [60] political society, with an intention that no hopes of impunity should induce others to commit the same. If it be true, that the number of those, who, from fear or virtue, respect the laws, is greater than of those by whom they are violated, the risk of torturing an innocent person is greater, as there is a greater probability that, cæteris paribus, an individual hath observed, than that he hath infringed the laws.

There is another ridiculous motive for torture, namely, to purge a man from infamy. Ought such an abuse to be tolerated in the eighteenth century? Can pain, which is a sensation, have any connection with a moral sentiment, a matter of opinion? Perhaps the rack may be considered as a refiner’s furnace.

It is not difficult to trace this senseless law to its origin; for an absurdity, adopted by a whole nation, must have some affinity with other ideas, established and respected by the same nation. This custom seems to be the offspring of religion, by which mankind, in all nations and in all ages, are so generally influenced. We are taught by our infallible church, that those stains of sin, contracted through human frailty, and which have not deserved the eternal anger of the Almighty, are to be purged away, in another life, by an Edition: current; Page: [61] incomprehensible fire. Now infamy is a stain, and if the punishments and fire of purgatory can take away all spiritual stains, why should not the pain of torture take away those of a civil nature? I imagine that the confession of a criminal, which in some tribunals is required, as being essential to his condemnation, has a similar origin, and has been taken from the mysterious tribunal of penitence, where the confession of sins is a necessary part of the sacrament. Thus have men abused the unerring light of revelation; and in the times of tractable ignorance, having no other, they naturally had recourse to it on every occasion, making the most remote and absurd applications. Moreover, infamy is a sentiment regulated neither by the laws nor by reason, but entirely by opinion. But torture renders the victim infamous, and therefore cannot take infamy away.

Another intention of torture is, to oblige the supposed criminal to reconcile the contradictions into which he may have fallen during his examination; as if the dread of punishment, the uncertainty of his fate, the solemnity of the court, the majesty of the judge, and the ignorance of the accused, were not abundantly sufficient to account for contradictions, which are so common to men even in a state of tranquillity; and which must Edition: current; Page: [62] necessarily be multiplied by the perturbation of the mind of a man, entirely engaged in the thought of saving himself from imminent danger.

This infamous test of truth is a remaining monument of that ancient and savage legislation, in which trials by fire, by boiling water, or the uncertainty of combats, were called judgments of God; as if the links of that eternal chain, whose beginning is in the breast of the first cause of all things, could never be disunited by the institutions of men. The only difference between torture, and trials by fire and boiling water, is, that the event of the first depends on the will of the accused; and of the second, on a fact entirely physical and external: but this difference is apparent only, not real. A man on the rack, in the convulsions of torture, has it as little in his power to declare the truth, as, in former times, to prevent, without fraud, the effect of fire or of boiling water.

Every act of the will is invariably in proportion to the force of the impression on our senses. The impression of pain, then, may increase to such a degree, that, occupying the mind entirely, it will compel the sufferer to use the shortest method of freeing himself from torment. His answer, therefore, will be an effect as necessary as that of fire or boiling water; and he will Edition: current; Page: [63] accuse himself of crimes of which he is innocent. So that the very means employed to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, will most effectually destroy all difference between them.

It would be superfluous to confirm these reflections by examples of innocent persons, who from the agony of torture have confessed themselves guilty: innumerable instances may be found in all nations, and in every age. How amazing, that mankind have always neglected to draw the natural conclusion! Lives there a man who, if he have carried his thoughts ever so little beyond the necessities of life, when he reflects on such cruelty, is not tempted to fly from society, and return to his natural state of independence?

The result of torture, then, is a matter of calcution, and depends on the constitution, which differs in every individual, and is in proportion to his strength and sensibility; so that to discover truth by this method, is a problem which may be better resolved by a mathematician than a judge, and may be thus stated: The force of the muscles, and the sensibility of the nerves of an innocent person being given, it is required to find the degree of pain necessary to make him confess himself guilty of a given crime.

The examination of the accused is intended to Edition: current; Page: [64] find out the truth; but if this be discovered with so much difficulty, in the air, gesture, and countenance of a man at ease, how can it appear in a countenance distorted by the convulsions of torture. Every violent action destroys those small alterations in the features, which sometimes disclose the sentiments of the heart.

These truths were known to the Roman legislators, amongst whom, as I have already observed, slaves, only, who were not considered as citizens, were tortured. They are known to the English, a nation in which the progress of science, superiority in commerce, riches and power, its natural consequences, together with the numerous examples of virtue and courage, leave no doubt of the excellence of its laws. They have been acknowledged in Sweden, where torture has been abolished. They are known to one of the wisest monarchs in Europe, who, having seated philosophy on the throne, by his beneficent legislation, has made his subjects free, though dependent on the laws; the only freedom that reasonable men can desire in the present state of things. In short, torture has not been thought necessary in the laws of armies, composed chiefly of the dregs of mankind, where its use should seem most necessary. Strange phenomenon! that a set of men, hardened by Edition: current; Page: [65] slaughter, and familiar with blood, should teach humanity to the sons of peace.

It appears also, that these truths were known, though imperfectly, even to those by whom torture has been most frequently practised; for a confession made during torture is null, if it be not afterwards confirmed by an oath; which, if the criminal refuses, he is tortured again. Some civilians, and some nations, permit this infamous petitio principii to be only three times repeated, and others leave it to the discretion of the judge; and therefore of two men equally innocent or equally guilty, the most robust and resolute will be acquitted, and the weakest and most pusillanimous will be condemned, in consequence of the following excellent method of reasoning. I, the judge, must find some one guilty. Thou, who art a strong fellow, hast been able to resist the force of torment; therefore I acquit thee. Thou, being weaker, hath yielded to it; I therefore condemn thee. I am sensible, that the confession which was extorted from thee, has no weight: but if thou dost not confirm by oath what thou hast already confessed, I will have thee tormented again.

A very strange but necessary consequence of the use of torture, is that the case of the innocent is worse than that of the guilty. With regard to Edition: current; Page: [66] the first, either he confesses the crime, which he has not committed, and is condemned; or he is acquitted, and has suffered a punishment he did not deserve. On the contrary, the person who is really guilty has the most favourable side of the question; for if he supports the torture with firmness and resolution, he is acquitted, and has gained, having exchanged a greater punishment for a less.

The law by which torture is authorised, says, Men, be insensible to pain. Nature has indeed given you an irresistible self-love, and an unalienable right of self-preservation, but I create in you a contrary sentiment, an heroical hatred of yourselves. I command you to accuse yourselves, and to declare the truth, midst the tearing of your flesh and the dislocation of your bones.

Torture is used to discover, whether the criminal be guilty of other crimes besides those of which he is accused: which is equivalent to the following reasoning: Thou art guilty of one crime, therefore it is possible that thou mayst have committed a thousand others: but the affair being doubtful, I must try it by my criterion of truth. The laws order thee to be tormented, because thou art guilty, because thou mayst be guilty, and because I chuse thou shouldst be guilty.

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Torture is used to make the criminal discover his accomplices; but if it has been demonstrated that it is not a proper means of discovering truth, how can it serve to discover the accomplices, which is one of the truths required. Will not the man who accuses himself, yet more readily accuse others? Besides, is it just to torment one man for the crime of another? May not the accomplices be found out by the examination of the witnesses, or of the criminal; from the evidence, or from the nature of the crime itself; in short, by all the means that have been used to prove the guilt of the prisoner? The accomplices commonly fly when their comrade is taken. The uncertainty of their fate condemns them to perpetual exile, and frees society from the danger of further injury; whilst the punishment of the criminal, by deterring others, answers the purpose for which it was ordained.

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There was a time when all punishments were pecuniary. The crimes of the subjects were the inheritance of the prince. An injury done to society was a favour to the crown; and the sovereign and magistrates, those guardians of the public security, were interested in the violation of the laws. Crimes were tried, at that time, in a court of Exchequer, and the cause became a civil suit between the person accused and the crown. The magistrate then had other powers than were necessary for the public welfare, and the criminal suffered other punishments than the necessity of example required. The judge was rather a collector for the crown, an agent for the treasury, than a protector and minister of the laws. But, according to this system, for a man to confess himself guilty, was to acknowledge himself a debtor to the crown; which was, and is at present (the effects continuing after the causes have ceased) the intent of all criminal causes. Thus, the criminal Edition: current; Page: [69] who refuses to confess his crime, though convicted by the most undoubted proofs, will suffer a less punishment than if he had confessed; and he will not be put to the torture to oblige him to confess other crimes which he might have committed, as he has not confessed the principal. But the confession being once obtained, the judge becomes master of his body, and torments him with a studied formality, in order to squeeze out of him all the profit possible. Confession, then, is allowed to be a convincing proof, especially when obtained by the force of torture; at the same time that an extra-judicial confession, when a man is at case and under no apprehension, is not sufficient for his condemnation.

All inquiries, which may serve to clear up the fact, but which may weaken the pretensions of the crown, are excluded. It was not from compassion to the criminal, or from considerations of humanity, that torments were sometimes spared, but out of fear of losing those rights which at present appear chimerical and inconceivable. The judge becomes an enemy to the accused, to a wretch, a prey to the horrors of a dungeon, to torture, to death, and an uncertain futurity, more terrible than all; he inquires not into the truth of the fact, but the nature of the crime; he lays Edition: current; Page: [70]

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