Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

Of the Nature of Crimes; and Their Punishment

WE are now arrived at the fourth and last branch of these commentaries; which treats of public wrongs, or crimes and misdemeanors. For we may remember that, in the beginning of the preceding volume,1 wrongs were divided into sorts or species; the one private, and the other public. Private wrongs, which are frequently termed civil injuries, were the subject of that entire book: we are now therefore, lastly, to proceed to the consideration of public wrongs, or crimes and misdemeanors; with the means of their prevention and punishment. In the pursuit of which subject I shall consider, in the first place, the general nature of crimes and punishments; secondly, the persons capable of committing crime; thirdly, their several degrees of guilt, as principals or accessories; fourthly, the several species of crimes, with the punishment annexed to each by the laws of England; fifthly, the means of preventing their perpetration; and, sixthly, the method of inflicting those punishments, which the law has annexed to each several crime and misdemeanor.

FIRST, as to the general nature of crimes and their punishment: the discussion and admeasurement of which forms in every country the code of criminal law; or, as it is more usually denominated with us in England, the doctrine of the pleas of the crown: so called, because the king, in whom centers the majesty of the whole community, is supposed by the law to be the person injured by every infraction of the public right belonging to that community, and is therefore in all cases the proper prosecutor for every public offense.2

THE knowledge of this branch of jurisprudence, which teaches the nature, extent, and degrees of every crime, and adjusts to it its adequate and necessary penalty, is of the utmost importance to every individual in the state, For (as a very great master of the crown law3 has observed upon a similar occasion) no rank or elevation in life, no uprightness of heart, no prudence or circumspection of conduct, should tempt a man to conclude, that he many not at some time or other be deeply interested in these researches. The infirmities of the best among us, the vice and ungovernable passions of others, the instability of all human affairs, and the numberless unforeseen events, which the compass of a day may bring forth, will teach us (upon a moment’s reflection) that to know with precision what the laws of our country have forbidden, and the deplorable consequences to which a willful disobedience may expose us, is a matter of universal concern.

IN proportion to the importance of the criminal law, ought also to be the care and attention of the legislature in properly forming and enforcing it. It should be founded upon principles that are permanent, uniform, and universal; and always conformable to the dictates of truth and justice, the feelings of humanity, and the indelible rights of mankind: though it sometimes (provided there be no transgression of these eternal boundaries) may be modified, narrowed, or enlarged, according to the local or occasional necessities of the state which it is meant to govern. And yet, either from a want of attention to these principles in the first concoction of the laws, and adopting in their stead the impetuous dictates of avarice, ambition, and revenge; from retaining the discordant political regulations, which successive conquerors or factions have established, in the various revolutions of government; from giving a lasting efficacy to sanctions that were intended to be temporary, and made (as lord Bacon expresses it) merely upon the spur of the occasion; or from, lastly, too hastily employing such means as are greatly disproportionate to their end, in order to check the progress of some very prevalent offense; from, or from all, of these causes it has happened, that the criminal law is in every country of Europe more rude and imperfect than the civil. I shall not here enter into any minute inquiry concerning the local constitutions of other nations; the inhumanity and mistaken policy of which have been sufficiently pointed out by ingenious writers of their own.4 But even with us in England, where our crown-law is with justice supposed to be more nearly advanced to perfection; where crimes are more accurately defined, and penalties less uncertain and arbitrary; where all our accusations are public, and our trials in the face of the world; where torture is unknown, and every delinquent is judged by such of his equals, against whom he can form no exception nor even a personal dislike; – even here we shall occasionally find room to remark some particulars, that seem to want revision and amendment. These have chiefly arisen from too scrupulous an adherence to some rules of the ancient common law, when the reasons have ceased upon which those rules were founded; from not repealing such of the old penal laws as are either obsolete or absurd; and from too little care and attention in framing and passing new ones. The enacting of penalties, to which a whole nation shall be subject, ought not to be left as a matter of indifference to the passions or interests of a few, who upon temporary motives may prefer or support such a bill; but be calmly and maturely considered by persons, who know what provisions the law has already made to remedy the mischief complained of, who can from experience foresee the probable consequences of those which are now proposed, and who will judge without passion or prejudice how adequate they are to the evil. It never usual in the house of peers even to read a private bill, which may affect the property of an individual, without first referring it to some of the learned judges, and hearing their report thereon.5 And surely equal precaution is necessary, when laws are to be established, which may affect the property, liberty, and perhaps even lives, of thousands. Had such a reference taken place, it is impossible that in the eighteenth century it could ever have been made a capital crime, to break down (however maliciously) the mound of a fishpond, whereby any fish shall escape; or to cut down a cherry tree in an orchard.6 Were even a committee appointed but once in an hundred years to revise the criminal law, it could not have continued to this hour a felony without benefit of clergy, to be seen for one month in the company of persons who call themselves, or are called, Egyptians.7

IT is true, that these outrageous penalties, being seldom or never inflicted, are hardly known to be law by the public: but that rather aggravates the mischief, by laying a snare for the unwary. Yet they cannot but occur to the observation of any one, who has undertaken the task of examining the great outlines of the English law, and tracing them up to their principles: and it is the duty of such a one to hint them with decency to those, whose abilities and stations enable them to apply the remedy. Having therefore premised this apology for some of the ensuing remarks, which might otherwise seem to favor of arrogance, I proceed now to consider (in the first place) the general nature of crimes.

1. A CRIME, or misdemeanor, is an act committed, or omitted, in violation of a public law, either forbidding or commanding it. This general definition comprehends both crimes and misdemeanors; which, properly speaking, are mere synonymous terms: though, in common usage, the word, “crimes,” is made to denote such offenses as are of a deeper and more atrocious dye; while smaller faults, and omissions of less consequence, are comprised under the gentler name of “misdemeanors” only.

THE distinction of public wrongs from private, of crimes and misdemeanors from civil injuries, seems principally to consist in this: that private wrongs, or civil injuries, are an infringement or privation of the civil rights which belong to individuals, considered merely as individuals; public wrongs, or crimes and misdemeanors, are a breach and violation of the public rights and duties, due to the whole community, considered as community, in its social aggregate capacity. As if I detain a field from another man, to which the law has given him a right, this is a civil injury, and not a crime; for here only the right of an individual is concerned, and it is immaterial to the public, which of us is in possession of the land: but treason, murder, and robbery are properly ranked among crimes; since, besides the injury done to individuals, they strike at the very being of society; which cannot possibly subsist, where actions of this sort are suffered to escape with impunity.

IN all cases the crime includes an injury: every public offense is also a private wrong, and somewhat more; it affects the individual, and it likewise affects the community. Thus treason in imagining the king’s death involves in it conspiracy against an individual, which is also a civil injury: but as this species of treason in its consequences principally tends to the dissolution of government, and the destruction thereby of the order and peace of society, this denominates it a crime of the highest magnitude. Murder is an injury to the life of an individual; but the law of society considers principally the loss which the state sustains by being deprived of a member, and the pernicious example thereby set, for others to do the like. Robbery may be considered in the same view: it is an injury to private property; but, were that all, a civil satisfaction in damages might atone for it: the public mischief is the thing, for the prevention of which our laws have made it a capital offense. In these gross and atrocious injuries the private wrong is swallowed up in the public: we seldom hear any mention made of satisfaction to the individual; the satisfaction to the community being so very great. And indeed, as the public crime is not otherwise avenged than by forfeiture of life and property, it is impossible afterwards to make any reparation for the private wrong; which can only be had from the body or goods of the aggressor. But there are crimes of an inferior nature, in which the public punishment is not so severe, but it affords room for a private compensation also: and herein the distinction of crimes from civil injuries is very apparent. For instance; in the case of battery, or beating another, the aggressor may be indicted for this at the suit of the king, for disturbing the public peace, and be punished criminally by fine and imprisonment: and the party beaten may also have his private remedy by action of trespass for the injury, which he in particular sustains, and recover a civil satisfaction in damages. So also, in case of a public nuisance, as digging a ditch across a highway, this is punishable by indictment, as a common offense to the whole kingdom and all his majesty’s subjects: but if any individual sustains any special damage thereby, as laming his horse, breaking his carriage, or the like, the offender may be compelled to make ample satisfaction, as well for the private injury, as for the public wrong.

UPON the whole we may observe, that in taking cognizance of all wrongs, or unlawful acts, the law has a double view: viz. not only to redress the party injured, by either restoring to him his right, if possible; or by giving him an equivalent; the manner of doing which was the object of our inquiries in the preceding book of these commentaries: but also to secure to the public the benefit of society, by preventing or punishing every breach and violation of those laws, which the sovereign power has thought proper to establish, for the government and tranquility of the whole. What those breaches are, and how prevented or punished, are to be considered in the present book.

II. THE nature of crimes and misdemeanors in general being thus ascertained and distinguished, I proceed in the next place to consider the general nature of punishments: which are evils or inconveniences consequent upon crimes and misdemeanors; being devised, denounced, and inflicted by human laws, in consequence of disobedience or misbehavior in those, to regulate whose conduct such laws were respectively made. And herein we will briefly consider the power, the end, and the measure of human punishment.

1. AS to the power of human punishment, or the right of the temporal legislator to inflict discretionary penalties for crimes and misdemeanors.8 It is clear, that the right of punishing crimes against the law of nature, as murder and the like, is in a state of mere nature vested in every individual. For it must be vested in somebody; otherwise the laws of nature would be vain and fruitless, if none were empowered to put them in execution: and if that power is vested in any one, it must also be vested in all mankind; since all are by nature equal. Whereof the first murderer Cain was so sensible, that we find him9 expressing his apprehensions, that whoever should find him would slay him. In a state of society this right is transferred from individuals to the sovereign power; whereby men are prevented from being judges in their own causes, which is one of the evils that civil government was intended to remedy. Whatever power therefore individuals had of punishing offenses against the law of nature, that is now vested in the magistrate alone; who bears the sword of justice by the consent of the whole community. And to this precedent natural power of individuals must be referred that right, which some have argued to belong to every state, (though, in fact, never exercised by any) of punishing not only their own subjects, but also foreign ambassadors, even with death itself; in case they have offended, not indeed against the municipal laws of the country, but against the divine laws of nature, and become liable thereby to forfeit their lives for their guilt.10

AS to offenses merely against the laws of society, which are only mala prohibita [wrong because prohibited], and not mala in se [wrong in itself]; the temporal magistrate is also empowered to inflict coercive penalties for such transgressions: and this by the consent of individuals; who, in forming societies, did either tacitly or expressly invest the sovereign power with a right making laws, and of enforcing obedience to them when made, by exercising, upon their nonobservance, severities adequate to the evil. The lawfulness therefore of punishing such criminals is founded upon this principle, that the law by which they suffer was by their own consent; it is part to the original contract into which they entered, when first they engaged in society; it was calculated for, and has long contributed to, their own security.

THIS right therefore, being thus conferred by universal consent, gives to the state exactly the same power, and no more, over all its members, as each individual member had naturally over himself or others. Which has occasioned some to doubt, how far a human legislature ought to inflict capital punishments for positive offenses; offenses against municipal law only, and not against the law of nature; since no individual has, naturally, a power of inflicting death upon himself or others for actions in themselves indifferent. With regard to offenses mala in se, capital punishments are in some instances inflicted by the immediate command of God himself to all mankind; as, in the case murder, by the precept delivered to Noah, their common ancestor and representative,11 “whoso sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” In other instances they are inflicted after the example of the creator, in his positive code of laws for the regulation of the Jewish republic; as in the case of the crime against nature. But they are sometimes inflicted without such express warrant or example, at the will and discretion of the human legislature; as for forgery, for robbery, and sometimes for offenses of a lighter kind. Of these we are principally to speak: as these crimes are, none of them, offenses against natural, but only against social, rights; not even robbery itself, unless it be a robbery from one’s person: all others being an infringement of that right of property, which, as we have formerly seen,12 owes its origin not to the law of nature, but merely to civil society.

THE practice of inflicting capital punishments, for offenses of human institution, is thus justified by that great and good man, Sir Matthew Hale:13 “when offenses grow enormous, frequent, and dangerous to a kingdom or state, destructive or highly pernicious to civil societies, and to the great insecurity and danger of the kingdom or its inhabitants, severe punishment and even death itself is necessary to be annexed to laws in many cases by the prudence of lawgivers.” It is therefore the enormity, or dangerous tendency, of the crime that alone can warrant any earthly legislature in putting him to death that commits it. It is not its frequency only, or the difficulty of otherwise preventing it, that will excuse our attempting to prevent it by a wanton effusion of human blood. For, though the end of punishment is to deter men from offending, it never can follow from thence, that it is lawful to deter them at any rate and by any means; since there may be unlawful methods of enforcing obedience even to the justest laws. Every humane legislator will be therefore extremely cautious of establishing laws that inflict the penalty of death, especially for slight offenses, or such as are merely positive. He will expect a better reason for his so doing, than that loose one which generally is given; that it is found by former experience that no lighter penalty will be effectual. For is it found upon farther experience, that capital punishments are more effectual? Was the vast territory of all the Russias worse regulated under the late empress Elizabeth, than under her sanguinary predecessors? Is it now, under Catherine II, less civilized, less social, less secure? And yet we are assured, that neither of these illustrious princesses have throughout their whole administration, inflicted the penalty of death: and the latter has, upon, full experience of its being useless, nay even pernicious, given orders for abolishing it entirely throughout her extensive dominions.14 But indeed, were capital punishments proved by experience to be a sure and effectual remedy, that would not prove the necessity (upon which the justice and propriety depend) of inflicting them upon all occasions when other expedients fail. I fear this reasoning would extend a great deal too far. For instance, the damage done to our public roads by loaded wagons is universally allowed, and many laws have been made to prevent it; none which have hitherto proved effectual. But it does not therefore follow, that it would be just for the legislature to inflict death upon every obstinate carrier, who defeats or eludes the provisions of former statutes. Where the evil to be prevented is not adequate to the violence of the preventive, a sovereign that thinks seriously can never justify such a law to the dictates of conscience and humanity. To shed the blood of our fellow creature is a matter that requires the greatest deliberation, and the fullest conviction of our own authority: for life is the immediate gift of God to man; which neither he can resign, nor can it be taken from him, unless by the command or permission of him who gave it; either expressly revealed, or collected from the laws of nature or society by clear and indisputable demonstration.

I WOULD not be understood to deny the right of the legislature in any country to enforce its own laws by the death of the transgressor, though persons of some abilities have doubted it; but only to suggest a few hints for the consideration of such as are, or may hereafter become, legislators. When a question arises, whether death may be lawfully inflicted for this or that transgression, the wisdom of the laws must decide it: and to this public judgment or decision all private judgments must submit; else there is an end of the principle of all society and government. The guilt of blood if any, must lie at their doors, who misinterpret the extent of their warrant; and not at the doors of the subject, who is bound to receive the interpretations, that are given by the sovereign power.

2. As to the end, or final cause of human punishments. This is not by way of atonement or expiation for the crime committed; for that must be left to the just determination of the supreme being: but as a precaution against future offenses of the same kind. This is effected three ways: either by the amendment of the offender himself; for which purpose all corporal punishments, fines, and temporary exile or imprisonment are inflicted: or, by deterring others by the dread of his example from offending in the like way, “ut poena (as Tully15 expresses it) ad paucos, metus ad omnes perveniat” [“that few may suffer, but all may dread punishment”]; which gives rise to all ignominious punishments, and to such executions of justice as are open and public: or, lastly, by depriving the party injuring of the power to do future mischief; which is effected by either putting him to death, or condemning him to perpetual confinement, slavery, or exile. The same one end, of preventing future crimes, is endeavored to be answered by each of these three species of punishment. The public gains equal security, whether the offender himself be amended by wholesome correction; or he be disabled from doing any farther harm: and if the penalty fails of both these effects, as it may do, still the terror of his example remains as a warning to other citizens. The method however of inflicting punishment ought always to be proportioned to the particular purpose it is meant to serve, and by no means to exceed it: therefore the pains of death, and perpetual disability by exile, slavery, or imprisonment, ought never to be inflicted, but when the offender appears incorrigible: which may be collected either from a repetition of minuter offenses; or from the perpetration of some one crime of deep malignity, which itself demonstrates a disposition without hope or probability of amendment and in such cases it would be cruelty to the public, to defer the punishment of such criminal, till he had an opportunity of repeating perhaps the worst of villainies.

3. AS to the measure of human punishments. From what has been observed in the former articles we may collect, that the quantity of punishment can never be absolutely determined by any standing invariable rule; but it must be left to the arbitration of the legislature to inflict such penalties as are warranted by the laws of nature and society, and such as appear to be the best calculated to answer the end of precaution against future offenses.

HENCE it will be evident, that what some have so highly extolled for its equity, the lex talionis or law of retaliation, can never be in all cases an adequate or permanent rule of punishment. In some cases indeed it seems to be dictated by natural reason; as in case of conspiracies to do an injury, or false accusations of the innocent: to which we may add that law of the Jews and Egyptians, mentioned by Josephus and Diodorus Siculus, that whoever without sufficient cause was found with any mortal poison in his custody, should himself be obliged to take it. But, in general, the difference of persons, place, time provocation, or other circumstances, may enhance or mitigate the offense; and in such cases retaliation can never be proper measure of justice. If a nobleman strikes a peasant, all mankind will see, that if a court of justice awards a return of the blow, it is more than a just compensation. On the other hand, retaliation may sometimes be too easy a sentence; as, if a man maliciously should put out the remaining eye him who had lost one before, it is too slight a punishment for the maimer to lose only one of his: and therefore the law of the Locrians, which demanded an eye for an eye, was in this instance judiciously altered; by decreeing, in imitation of Solon’s law,16 that he who struck out the eye a one-eyed man, should lose both his own in return. Besides, there are many crimes, that will in no shape admit of these penalties, without manifest absurdity and wickedness. Theft cannot be punished by theft, defamation by defamation, forgery by forgery, adultery by adultery, and the like. And we may add, that those instances, wherein retaliation appears to be used, even by the divine authority, do not really proceed upon the rule of exact retribution, by doing to the criminal the same hurt he has done to his neighbor, and no more; but this correspondence between the crime and punishment is barely a consequence from some other principle. Death is ordered to be punished with death; not because one is equivalent to the other, for that would be expiation, and not punishment. Nor is death always an equivalent for death: the execution of a needy decrepit assassin is poor satisfaction or the murder of a nobleman in the bloom of his youth, and full enjoyment of his friends, his honors, and his fortune. But the reason upon which this sentence is grounded seems to be, that this is the highest penalty that man can inflict, and tends most to the security of the world; by removing one murderer from the earth, and setting a dreadful example to deter others: so that even this grand instance proceeds upon other principles than those of retaliation. And truly, if any measure of punishment is to be taken from the damage sustained by the sufferer, the punishment ought rather to exceed than equal the injury: since it seems contrary to reason and equity, that the guilty (if convicted) should suffer no more than the innocent has done before him; especially as the suffering of the innocent is past and irrevocable, that of the guilty is future, contingent, and liable to be escaped or evaded. With regard indeed to crimes that are incomplete, which consist merely in the intention, and are not yet carried into act, as conspiracies and the like; the innocent has a chance to frustrate or avoid the villainy, as the conspirator has also a chance to escape his punishment: and this may be one reason why the lex talionis is more proper to be inflicted, if at all, for crimes that consist in intention, than for such as are carried into act. It seems indeed consonant to natural reason, and has therefore been adopted as a maxim by several theoretical writers,17 that the punishment, due to the crime of which one falsely accuses another, should be inflicted on the perjured informer. Accordingly, when it was once attempted to introduce into England the law of retaliation, it was intended as a punishment of such only as preferred malicious accusations against others; it being enacted by statute 37 Edw. III. c. 18. that such as preferred any suggestions to the king’s great council should put in sureties of taliation; that is, to incur the same pain that the other should have had, in case the suggestion were found untrue. But, after one year’s experience, this punishment of taliation was reject, and imprisonment adopted in its stead.18

But though from what has been said it appears, that there cannot be any regular or determinate method of rating the quantity of punishments for crimes, by any one uniform rule; but they must be referred to the will and discretion of the legislative power: yet there are some general principles, drawn from the nature and circumstances of the crime, that may be of some assistance in allotting it an adequate punishment.

AS, first, with regard to the object of it: for the greater and more exalted the object of an injury is, the more care should be taken to prevent that injury, and of course under this aggravation the punishment should be more severe. Therefore treason in conspiring the king’s death is by the English law punished with greater rigor than even actually killing any private subject. And yet, generally, a design to transgress is not so flagrant an enormity, as the actual completion of that design. For evil, the nearer we approach it, is the more disagreeable and shocking; so that it requires more obstinacy in wickedness to perpetrate an unlawful action, than barely to entertain the thought of it: and it is an encouragement to repentance and remorse, even till the last stage of any crime, that it never is too late to retract; and that if a man stops even here, it is better for him than if he proceeds: for which reasons an attempt to rob, to ravish, or to kill, is far less penal than the actual robbery, rape, or murder. But in the case of a conspiracy, the object whereof is the king’s majesty, the intention will deserve the highest degree of severity: not because the intention is equivalent to the act itself; but because the greatest rigor is no more than adequate to a treasonable purpose of the heart, and there is no greater to inflict upon the actual execution itself.

AGAIN: the violence of passion, or temptation, may sometimes alleviate a crime; as theft, in case of hunger, is far more worthy of compassion, than when committed through avarice, or to supply one in luxurious excesses. To kill a man upon sudden and violent resentment is less penal, than upon cool deliberate malice. The age, education, and character of the offender; the repetition (or otherwise) of the offense; the time, the place, the company wherein it was committed; all these, and a thousand other incidents, may aggravate or extenuate the crime.19

FARTHER: as punishments are chiefly intended for the prevention of future crimes, it is but reasonable that among crimes of different natures those be most severely punished, which are the most destructive of the public safety and happiness:20 and, among crimes of an equal malignity, those which a man has the most frequent and easy opportunities of committing, which cannot be so easily guarded against as others, and which therefore the offender has the strongest inducement to commit: according to what Cicero observes,21ea sunt animadvertenda peccata maxime, quae difficillime praecaventur.” [“Offences should be most severely punished which are most difficult to guard against.”] Hence it is, that for a servant to rob his master is in more cases capital, than for a stranger: if a servant kills his master, it is a species of treason; in another it is only murder: to steal a handkerchief, or other trifle, privately from one’s person, is made capital; but to carry off a load of corn from an open field, though of fifty times greater value, is punished with transportation only. And in the island of Man, this rule was formerly carried so far, that to take away a horse or an ox was there no felony, but a trespass; because of the difficulty in that little territory to conceal them or carry them off: but to steal a pig or a fowl, which is easily done, was a capital misdemeanor, and the offender was punished with death.22

LASTLY, as a conclusion to the whole, we may observe that punishments of unreasonable severity, especially when indiscriminately inflicted, have less effect in preventing crimes, and amending the manners of a people, than such as are more merciful in general, yet properly intermixed with due distinctions of severity. It is the sentiment of an ingenious writer, who seems to have well studied the springs of human action,23 that crimes are more effectually prevented by the certainty, than by the severity, of punishment. For the excessive severity of laws (says Montesquieu24) hinders their execution: when the punishment surpasses all measure, the public will frequently out of humanity prefer impunity to it. Thus the statute 1 Mar. St.1.c.1.recites in its preamble, “that the state of every king consists more assuredly in the love of the subject towards their prince, than in the dread of laws made with rigorous pains; and that laws made for the preservation of the commonwealth without great penalties are more often obeyed and kept, than laws made with extreme punishments.” Happy had it been for the nation, if the subsequent practice of that deluded princess in matters of religion, had been correspondent to these sentiments of herself and parliament, in matters of state and government! We may farther observe that sanguinary laws are a bad symptom of the distemper of any state, or at least of its weak constitution. The laws of the Roman kings, and the twelve tables of the decemviri, were full of cruel punishments: the Porcian law, which exempted all citizens from sentence of death, silently abrogated them all. In this period the republic flourished: under the emperors severe punishments were revived; and then the empire fell.

IT is moreover absurd and impolitic to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. A multitude of sanguinary laws (besides the doubt that may be entertained concerning the right of making them) do likewise prove a manifest defect either in the wisdom of the legislative, or the strength of the executive power. It is a kind of quackery in government, and argues a want of solid skill, to apply the same universal remedy, the ultimum supplicium, to every case of difficulty. It is, it must be owned, much easier to extirpate than to amend mankind: yet that magistrate must be esteemed both a weak and a cruel surgeon, who cuts off limb, which through ignorance or indolence he will not attempt to cure. It has been therefore ingeniously proposed,25 that in every state a scale of crimes should be formed, with a corresponding scale of punishments, descending from the greatest to the least: but, if that be too romantic an idea, yet at last a wise legislator will mark the principal divisions, and not assign penalties of the first degree to offenses of an inferior rank. Where men see no distinction made in the nature and gradations of punishment, the generality will be led to conclude there is no distinction in the guilt. Thus in France the punishment of robbery, either with or without murder, is the same:26 hence it is, that thought perhaps they are therefore subject to fewer robberies, yet they never rob but they also murder. In China murderers are cut to pieces, and robbers not: hence in that country they never murder on the highway, though they often rob. And in England, besides the additional terrors of speedy execution, and a subsequent exposure or dissection, robbers have a hope of transportation, which seldom is extended to murderers. This has the same effect here as in China: in preventing frequent assassination and slaughter.

YET, though in this instance we may glory in the wisdom of the English law, we shall find it more difficult to justify the frequency of capital punishment to be found therein; inflicted (perhaps inattentively) by a multitude of successive independent statutes, upon crimes very different in their natures. It is a melancholy truth, that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than an hundred and sixty have been declared by act of parliament27 to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death. So dreadful a list, instead of diminishing, increases the number of offenders. The injured, through compassion, will often forbear to prosecute: juries, through compassion, will sometimes forget their oaths, and either acquit the guilty or mitigate the nature of the offense: and judges, through compassion, will respite one half of the convicts, and recommend them to the royal mercy. Among so many chances of escaping, the needy or hardened offender overlooks the multitude that suffer; he boldly engages in some desperate attempt, to relieve his wants or supply his vices; and, if unexpectedly the hand of justice overtakes him, he deems himself peculiarly unfortunate, in falling at last a sacrifice to those laws, which long impunity has taught him to contemn.


     1.    Book III. ch. 1.
     2.    See Vol.1. p. 268
     3.    Sir Michael Foster. pref. to rep.
     4.    Baron Montesquieu, marquis Beccaria, etc.
     5.    See Vol. II. p. 345.
     6.    Stat. 9 Geo. 1. c. 22. 31Geo. II. c. 42.
     7.    Stat. 5 Eliz. c. 20.
     8.    See Grotius, de j. b. & p. l.2, c. 20. Pufendorf, L. of Nat. and N. b. 8, c. 3.
     9.    Gen. 4:14.
   10.    See Vol. 1. pag.254.
   11.    Gen. 9:6.
   12.    Book IF. ch. 1.
   13.    1 Hal. P.C.13.
   14.    Grand instructions for framing a new code of laws for the Russian empire. § 210.
   15.    pro client. 46.
   16.    Pott.Ant. b.1. c.26.
   17.    Beccar. c. 15.
   18.    Stat. 38 Edw .III. c. 9.
   19.    Thus Demosthenes (in his oration against Midias) finely works up the aggravations of the insult he had received. “I was abused, says he, by my enemy, in cold blood, out of malice, not by heat of wine, in the morning, publicly, before strangers as well as citizens; and that in the temple, whither the duty of my office called me.”
   20.    Beccar. c. 6.
   21.    pro Sexto Roscio, 40.
   22.    4 Inst. 285.
   23.    Beccar. c. 7.
   24.    Sp. L. b. 6. c. 13.
   25.    Beccar. c. 6.
   26.    Sp. L. b. 6. c. 16.
   27.    See Ruffhead’s index to the statutes, (tit. felony) and the acts which have since been made.