Capital punishment is injurious by the example of barbarity it presents. If human passions, or the necessities of war, have taught men to shed one anothers blood, the laws, which are intended to moderate human conduct, ought not to extend the savage example, which in the case of a legal execution is all the more baneful in that it is carried out with studied formalities. To me it seems an absurdity, that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which abhor and which punish murder, should themselves[177] commit one; and that, to deter citizens from private assassination, they should themselves order a public murder. What are the true and the most useful laws? Are they not those covenants and conditions which all would wish observed and proposed, when the incessant voice of private interest is hushed or is united with the interest of the public? What are every mans feelings about capital punishment? Let us read them in the gestures of indignation and scorn with which everyone looks upon the executioner, who is, after all, an innocent administrator of the public will, a good citizen contributory to the public welfare, an instrument as necessary for the internal security of a State as brave soldiers are for its external. What, then, is the source of this contradiction; and why is this feeling, in spite of reason, ineradicable in mankind? Because men in their most secret hearts, that part of them which more than any other still preserves the original form of their first nature, have ever believed that their lives lie at no ones disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe.

There are a few obvious remedies by which the inducements to crime might be easily diminished. In 1808 Sir Samuel Romilly brought in a bill, to provide persons tried and acquitted of felony with compensation, at the discretion of the judge, for the loss they incurred by their detention and trial. This was objected to, on the ground that the payment of such compensation out of the county rates would discourage prosecutions; and the only justice done to men falsely accused from that day to this is the authorisation given to goal-governors in 1878 to provide prisoners, who have been brought from another county for trial at the assizes and have been acquitted, with means of returning to their own homes. Something more than this is required to save a man so situated from falling into real crime.

We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which[118] are or ought to be covenants between free men, have generally been nothing but the instrument of the passions of some few men, or the result of some accidental and temporary necessity. They have never been dictated by an unimpassioned student of human nature, able to concentrate the actions of a multitude of men to a single point of view, and to consider them from that point alonethe greatest happiness divided among the greatest number. Happy are those few nations which have not waited for the slow movement of human combinations and changes to cause an approach to better things, after intolerable evils, but have hastened the intermediate steps by good laws; and deserving is that philosopher of the gratitude of mankind, who had the courage, from the obscurity of his despised study, to scatter abroad among the people the first seeds, so long fruitless, of useful truths.

The third consequence is this: if it were proved that the severity of punishments were simply useless (to say nothing of being directly opposed to the public good and to the very object of preventing crimes), even in that case it would be contrary not only to those beneficent virtues that flow from an enlightened reason, which prefers to rule over happy human beings than over a flock of slaves, the constant victims of timid cruelty, but it would be also contrary to justice and to the nature of the social contract itself.

CHAPTER XVI. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Lastly, the surest but most difficult means of preventing crimes is to improve educationa subject too vast for present discussion, and lying beyond the limits of my treatise; a subject, I will also say, too intimately connected with the nature of government for it ever to be aught but a barren field, only cultivated here and there by a few philosophers, down to the remotest ages of public prosperity. A great man, who enlightens the humanity that persecutes him, has shown in detail the chief educational maxims of real utility to mankind; namely, that it consists less in a barren multiplicity of subjects than in their choice selection; in substituting originals for copies in the moral as in the physical phenomena presented by chance or intention to the fresh minds of youth; in inclining them to virtue by the easy path of feeling;[251] and in deterring them from evil by the sure path of necessity and disadvantage, not by the uncertain method of command, which never obtains more than a simulated and transitory obedience.

For instance, the injury to the public is no greater the hundredth time a man steals a rabbit than it is the first. The public may be interested in the prevention of poaching, but it is not interested in the person of the poacher, nor in the number of times he may have broken the law. The law claims to be impersonalto treat offences as they affect the State, not as they affect individuals; to act mechanically, coldly, and dispassionately. It has, therefore, simply to deal with the amount of injury done by each specific offence, and to affix to it its specific penalty, regardless of all matters of moral antecedents. The repetition of an offence may make its immorality the greater, but its[88] criminality remains the same, and this only is within the province of the law.