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The very success of Beccarias work has so accustomed us to its result that we are apt to regard it, as men regard a splendid cathedral in their native town, with very little recognition of its claims to admiration. The work is there, they see it, they live under its shadow; they are even ready to boast of it; but[30] what to them is the toil and risk of its builders, or the care and thought of its architects? It may be said that this indifference is the very consummation Beccaria would most have desired, as it is the most signal proof of the success of his labour. So signal, indeed, has been that success, that already the atrocities which men in those days accepted as among the unalterable conditions of their existence, or resigned themselves to as the necessary safeguards of society, have become so repulsive to the worlds memory, that men have agreed to hide them from their historical consciousness by seldom reading, writing, or speaking of their existence. And this is surely a fact to be remembered with hopefulness, when we hear an evil like war with all its attendant atrocities, defended nowadays by precisely the same arguments which little more than a hundred years ago were urged on behalf of torture, but which have proved nevertheless insufficient to keep it in existence. Howards book on the Lazarettos of Europe appeared four years after Paleys work. Although it did not deal directly with crimes, it indirectly treated of their connection with punishment. Howard was able to show that whilst in Middlesex alone 467 persons had been executed in nine years, only six had been executed in Amsterdam; that for a hundred years the average number of executions had been one a year at Utrecht and that for twenty-four years there had not even been one there. The inference therefore was that the diminution of punishment had a direct[58] effect in diminishing crime. Howard also advocated the restriction of capital punishment to cases of murder, arson, and burglary; highwaymen, footpads, and habitual thieves should, he thought, end their days in a penitentiary rather than on the gallows. Even this was a bold proposal, in a state of society yet in bondage to Paley.

Yet Lord Ellenborough was one of the best judges known to English history; he was, according to his biographer, a man of gigantic intellect, and one of the best classical scholars of his day; and if he erred, it was with all honesty and goodness of purpose. The same must be said of Lord Chief Justice Tenterdens opposition to any change in the law of forgery. His great merits too as a judge are matter of history, yet when the Commons had passed the bill for the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, Lord Tenterden[65] assured the House of Lords that they could not without great danger take away the punishment of death. When it was recollected how many thousand pounds, and even tens of thousands, might be abstracted from a man by a deep-laid scheme of forgery, he thought that this crime ought to be visited with the utmost extent of punishment which the law then wisely allowed. The House of Lords again paused in submission to judicial authority.

The immortal President, Montesquieu, has treated cursorily of this matter; and truth, which is indivisible, has forced me to follow the luminous footsteps of this great man; but thinking men, for whom I write, will be able to distinguish my steps from his. Happy shall I esteem myself if, like him, I shall succeed in obtaining the secret gratitude of the unknown and peaceable followers of reason, and if I shall inspire them with that pleasing thrill of emotion with which sensitive minds respond to the advocate of the interests of humanity.

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But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with[104] crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.

Need it be said that the House of Lords paused, as they were entreated to do, and that they paused and paused again, in a manner more suggestive of the full stop than the comma, generally out of deference to the same authority? Romilly was indignant that so many prelates voted against his bills; but could they have done otherwise, when the best legal authorities in England urged that it would be fatal to vote for them?when they were gravely told that if a certain bill passed, they would not know whether they stood on their heads or on their feet?