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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.

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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. It is not useless to repeat what others have written, namely, that the best method of preventing this crime is to punish the aggressorin other words, the man who gives rise to the dueldeclaring him to be innocent who without his own fault has been constrained to defend that which existing laws do not assure to him, that is, opinion.

CHAPTER XVII. BANISHMENT AND CONFISCATIONS.

So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws.

Even if we assume that death is absolutely the severest penalty devisable by the law, and that as a punishment for murder it is not too severe, it remains certain, that, relatively to the circumstances of a trial[40] for murder, to the reluctance of judges or juries to pass an irretrievable sentence, to their fear of error, to their conscientious regard for human life, it is really a much less terrible danger for a malefactor to face than a penalty which would justify fewer hopes of impunity.

It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But[67] even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one)[39] of being defended by counsel.

Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.