How many people in England today have heard of Cesare Beccaria?
Very few, I imagine. And the same could have been said of him in Europe in 1764 when, at the age of 26 he wrote his short book entitled On Crimes and Punishments (Dei Delitti e delle Pene in its original Italian). Yet, a year later his fame reached world-wide because of the sheer genius of that book.
Why then is he so little known today? The answer lies in the phenomenal success his book had when first published, which resulted in his achievements becoming part of the fabric of our lives. As a consequence, we take freedom from torture and cruel criminal laws for granted and give little thought to how such freedom came about. Yet, those achievements, encapsulated in the concepts of human rights and the rule of law, are now endangered.
Beccaria battled - against venomous opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and many lawyers - for a humane legal system. In eighteenth century continental Europe penal law was barbaric. Gallows were a regular feature of the landscape, and branding and mutilation were common as punishments. Men were tortuously broken on the wheel. Torture and death were the cornerstones of criminal justice systems and, although the position was better in Britain, England still had what Sir Robert Peel called England's 'Bloody Code' with hanging by the neck the penalty for over 200 crimes, many of them of a trivial nature.
It was against this background that the young Italian Count produced his bombshell of a book which influenced Bentham and Romilly in England and had a profound effect on Maria Theresa in Austria and Catherine the Great in Russia. Its influence even spread to the Bill of Rights of the newly independent American Republic through the insistence of future Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In Europe it was immediately hailed by the leaders of the Enlightenment including Voltaire. It spread like wildfire with Maria Theresa and the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany publicly changing their laws in conformity with the principles of the book, whilst Catherine the Great asked Beccaria to go to Russia to oversee the implementation of his proposals that she was adopting. Sweden and Portugal also enacted new codes of criminal law based upon Beccaria's principles.