CHAPTER XXI. ASYLUMS OF REFUGE. It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this[60] passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.

Accordingly he made a rapid journey back, leaving his companion to visit England alone; this expedition to Paris being the only event that ever broke the even tenor of his life. His French friends rather deserted him, Morellet in his memoirs going even so far as to speak of him as half-mad. But it was to his[25] friendship with the Verris that this journey to Paris was most disastrous, and nothing is more mournful than the petty jealousies which henceforth completely estranged from him his early friends. The fault seems to have rested mainly with the two brothers, whose letters (only recently published) reveal an amount of bitterness against Beccaria for which it is difficult to find any justification, and which disposes for ever of all claims of their writers to any real nobleness of character.[9] They complain to one another of Beccarias Parisian airs, of his literary pride, of his want of gratitude; they rejoice to think that his reputation is on the wane; that his illustrious friends at Paris send him no copies of their books; that he gets no letters from Paris; nay, they even go so far as to welcome the adverse criticisms of his Dei Delitti, and to hope that his golden book is shut up for ever.[10] Alessandro writes to his brother that all his thoughts are turned to the means of mortifying Beccaria; and the revenge the brothers think most likely to humiliate him is for Alessandro to extend the limits of his travels, so as to compare favourably with Beccaria in the eyes of the Milanese. They delight in calling him a madman, an imbecile, a harlequin; they lend a ready ear to all that gossip says in his[26] discredit.[11] In the most trifling action Pietro sees an intended slight, and is especially sore where his literary ambition is touched.[12] It angers him that Beccaria should receive praise for the Apology written against Facchinei, the work having been entirely written by himself, with some help from his brother, but with not so much as a comma from the hand of Beccaria.[13] Some books which Beccaria had brought to him from Paris he imagined were really gifts to him from the authors; he believed that DAlembert had sent him his Mlanges of his own accord, not at the request of Beccaria, as the latter had represented; but even Alessandro admits that it was concerning the books, as Beccaria had said.[14] In short, the whole correspondence shows that Pietro Verri was extremely jealous of the success which he himself had helped his friend to attain, and that disappointed literary vanity was the real explanation of his suddenly transmuted affection.

If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual. Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a mans cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.

Neither the noble nor the rich man ought to be able to pay a price for injuries committed against the feeble and the poor; else riches, which, under the[206] protection of the laws, are the prize of industry, become the nourishment of tyranny. Whenever the laws suffer a man in certain cases to cease to be a person and to become a thing, there is no liberty; for then you will see the man of power devoting all his industry to gather from the numberless combinations of civil life those which the law grants in his favour. This discovery is the magic secret that changes citizens into beasts of burden, and in the hand of the strong man forms the chain wherewith to fetter the actions of the imprudent and the weak. This is the reason why in some governments, that have all the semblance of liberty, tyranny lies hidden or insinuates itself unforeseen, in some corner neglected by the legislator, where insensibly it gains force and grows. The cries of sages and philosophers are as the cries of the innocent man on the wheel, where they have never prevented, nor will ever prevent him from expiring, with his eyes upturned to heaven, which will perhaps some day stir up enthusiasm, or religious madness, or some other avenging folly, to accomplish all that their wisdom has failed to do. It is never the oration of the philosopher which disarms the powerful ruler; it is something else, which the combination of chance events brings about. Meanwhile we must not seek to force it from him, but must entreat humbly for such good as he can grant us, that is which he can grant us without injury to himself.

From political morality, unless founded on the immutable sentiments of mankind, no lasting advantage can be hoped. Whatever law deviates from these sentiments will encounter a resistance which will ultimately prevail over it, just in the same way as a force, however slight, if constantly applied, will prevail over a violent motion applied to any physical body.