Two hundred and fifty years ago, a 26-year-old Italian thinker, Cesare Beccaria, published Dei delitti e delle pene, a book written in his native language. Translated into English three years later as On Crimes and Punishments, Beccaria’s slender, 1764 treatise called for proportion between crimes and punishments, quickly becoming an eighteenth-century bestseller. Also translated into French by André Morellet, the same man who later translated Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Beccaria’s treatise—advocating clear and precise laws and opposing torture—became the first Enlightenment text to advocate the death penalty’s abolition.
Beccaria’s influence on American law has long been neglected—as has the contribution of the Italian Enlightenment, or Illuminismo, to early American thought. In fact, many of America’s founders studied Italian, were greatly inspired by Beccaria’s book, and read other Italian writers such as Gaetano Filangieri and Giacinto Dragonetti. They invoked Beccaria’s ideas in their speeches and writings and they relied on them in debates and in crafting early American constitutions and laws. For example, Pennsylvania’s 1776 constitution declared that penal laws “shall be reformed by the legislature of this state, as soon as may be, and punishments made in some cases less sanguinary, and in general more proportionate to the crimes.”
Beccaria’s book shaped American history. George Washington bought a copy in 1769 and, during the Revolutionary War, wrote Congress that death sentences were too frequent, lamenting “the want of a proper gradation of punishments.” At the Boston Massacre trial in 1770, John Adams forcefully quoted Beccaria’s words in defending British soldiers accused of murder, with his son John Quincy Adams later noting the “electrical effect” of those words. And in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to curtail capital offenses by pushing for the adoption of “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital.”