Page:The Green Bag (1889–1914), Volume 25.pdf/124

This page needs to be proofread.


Sydney Smith and the Law . . . The Christian patience you may witness, the impartiality of the judg ment-seat, the disrespect of persons, the disregard of consequences. These at tributes of justice do not end with ar ranging your conflicting rights and mine; they give strength to the English people, duration to the English name; they turn the animal courage of this people into moral and religious courage." And yet Smith was not ready to accept English institutions as complete and perfect; his works bristle with keen, wise and witty suggestions for their improvement. Find in the Edinburgh Review, year 1826, a scathing arraignment of the then existing system of requiring prisoners to speak for themselves. The argument had been advanced that employing counsel was an expense to the prisoner; and Smith burst out: "— just as if anything was so ex pensive as being hanged! . . . 'You are going ... to be hanged tomorrow, it is true, but consider what a sum you have saved!'" Jeremy Bentham had complained that the English Government was not careful enough to publish her laws, so that all might know when they were in danger of committing an offense,—. which re minds the compiler of a story of a German peasant, unknown to Sydney Smith it is true, who was brought before a local magistrate for stealing wood, and who urged in his defense that he had just moved in from another province, and had not learned that stealing wood was a crime in that section of the country. Smith remarks very aptly in answer to Bentham that "we do not happen to remember any man punished for an of fense which he did not know to be an offense"; and adds, a little later in the same article, " The people, it is true, are ignorant of the laws; but they are igno rant only of the laws which do not concern them."

111

He is much concerned at the dis crimination between poor and rich which the practice of releasing on bail induces, but has no remedy to offer. " The im prisonment of a poor man, because he cannot find bail, is not a gratuitous vexa tion, but a necessary severity; justified only, because no other nor milder form of security can in that particular in stance be produced." He is never at a loss for an appropriate illustration. One of his favorite themes is the danger of making crime attractive by showing the criminal too great con sideration. He tells how, a century be fore in Denmark, condemned prisoners were handled so gently, conducted to execution in so noble a procession and preached to so eloquently before the trap fell, that " This spectacle, and all the pious cares bestowed upon the crimi nals, so far seduced the imaginations of the common people, that many of them committed murder purposely to enjoy such estimable advantages, and the government was positively obliged to make hanging dull as well as deadly, before it ceased to be an object of popu lar ambition." He is a determined advocate of cap ital punishment, chiefly for the reason that " Death is the most irrevocable punishment, which is in some sense a good; for however necessary it might be to inflict labor and imprisonment for life, it would never be done. Kings and Leg islatures would take pity after a great lapse of years, the punishment would be remitted, and its preventive efficacy therefore destroyed." He had no sympathy with a prison humanitarianism which made the cul prit's lot so easy that he would rather be in prison than out. Perhaps his most picturesque statement of his convictions in this direction is the refined bit of sarcasm from the Edinburgh Review for