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XXVI. Of Plea, and Issue.................................................................................................... .... 302
The Laws of England.
OF PUBLIC WRONGS.
OF THE NATURE OF CRIMES; AND THEIR PUNISHMENT.
WE are now arrived at the fourth and last branch of these commentaries: which treats of public wrongs, or crimes and misdemesnors. For we may remember that, in the beginning of the preceding volume,a wrongs were divided into two species: the one private, and the other public. Private wrongs, which are frequently termed civil injuries, were the subject of that entire book : we are now therefore, lastly, to proceed to the consideration of public wrongs, or crimes and misdemesnors; with the means of their prevention and punishment. In the pursuit of which subject I shall consider, in the first place, the general nature of crimes and punishments; secondly, the persons capable of committing crimes; thirdly, their several degrees of guilt, as principals or accessaries; fourthly, the several species of crimes, with the punishment annexed to each by the laws of England; fifthly, the means of preventing their perpetration; and sixthly, the method of inflicting those punishments, which the law has annexed to each several crime and misdemesnor.
First, as to the general nature of crimes and their pu
nishment; the discussion and admeasurement of which forms in every country the code of criminal law; or, as it is more usually denominated with us in England, the doctrine of the pleas of the crown; so called, because the king, in whom centers the majesty of the whole community, is supposed by the law to be the person injured by every infraction of the public rights belonging to that community, and is therefore in all cases the proper prosecutor for every public offence."
The knowledge of this branch of jurisprudence, which teaches the nature, extent, and degrees of every crime, and adjusts to it its adequate and necessary penalty, is of the utmost importance to every individual in the state. For, as a very great master of the crown law has observed upon a similar occasion, no rank or elevation in life, no uprightness of heart, no prudence or circumspection of conduct, should tempt a man to conclude, that he may not at some time or other be deeply interested in these researches. The infirmities of the best among us, the vices, and ungovernable passions of others, the instability of all human affairs, and the numberless unforeseen events, which the compass of a day may bring forth, will teach us, upon a moment's reflection, that to know with precision what the laws of our country have forbidden, and the deplorable consequences to which a wilful disobedience may expose us, is a matter of universal con
In proportion to the importance of the criminal law, ought also to be the care and attention of the legislature in properly forming and enforcing it. It should be founded upon principles that are permanent, uniform, and universal; and always conformable to the dictates of truth and justice, the feelings of humanity, and the indelible rights of mankind: though it sometimes, provided there be no transgression of these external boundaries, may be modified, narrowed, or enlarged, according to the local or occasional necessities of the state which it is meant to govern. And yet, either from a want of attention to these principles in the first concoction of the laws, and adopting in their stead the impetuous dictates of avarice, ambition, and revenge; from retaining the discordant political re
See Vol. I. p. 276.
e Sir Michael Foster, pref. to rep.