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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Celebrated Marquis: Cesare Beccaria at the Riesenfeld Center

Professor John Bessler, a visiting researcher at the Human Rights Center, recently gave a great book talk at the Law School on his new monograph, The Celebrated Marquis: An Italian Noble and the Making of the Modern World (2018). During the talk, Bessler discussed the subject of his new intellectual biography, Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), and his Essay on Crimes and Punishments, a pioneering Enlightenment text that rejected judicial torture, the death penalty, and religious intolerance. First published in 1764, Beccaria's book sent shockwaves through Europe, pushing governments towards penal law reform and paving the way to modern criminology. An important point of the talk, and Bessler's book, was to highlight the myriad connections between Beccaria and the French philosophes who first championed his work, and jurists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the book was received enthusiastically in the American colonies, where it was read by the likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and absorbed by other leading colonial figures.

Some wonderful evidence of this influence can be found in the Riesenfeld Center's collections, which include early copies of Beccaria's key work. In all, the collections hold seven interesting editions published before 1800. One of these, our earliest edition, was published in French in 1766, just two years after the original publication in Italian. The title page of the work omits the name of the author and publisher, but gives the place of publication as 'a Philadelphie.' In fact, the work is a false imprint, in this case a work that disguised its real place of publication due to a climate of censorship. The early editions of Beccaria's work in Italy and France all conceal its author and other publication information, in an effort to avoid penalties under conservative monarchs and the Catholic Church, which made legal reform dangerous and (somewhat ironically) often criminal. Our French copy was presumably published in Paris, and it features a beautiful, mottled calf binding with decorated gilt compartments to the spine. In addition, attractive, marbled Turkish endpapers help to locate the publication in France, far from the more humble beginnings of printing in the American colonies.         

On the other hand, our first true American printing of Beccaria's Essay on Crimes and Punishments is one of a kind, produced in Philadelphia by the notable (and rather notorious) Scottish-born printer Robert Bell. This edition was produced in 1778 in Bell's shop in Third Street near St. Paul's Church, a short walk from Independence Hall, where the Continental Congress sat in session in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Bell had already printed works related to law, including the first American edition of Blackstone's Commentary on the Laws of England (1771-1772), and had printed the first edition of Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), which provided a spark for the rebellious patriots and is still the best-selling pamphlet in American history. In 1778, Beccaria's ideas on penal law reform were available in English from earlier European editions, but Bell must have believed that the time was ripe for an edition printed steps away from the colonies' most influential lawyers and lawmakers.

Among these were two brothers, Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) and Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734-1797), both signers of the Declaration of Independence and members of a prominent Virginia family. They were active in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and Richard Henry Lee became a particular firebrand of revolution: at the Second Continental Congress, he introduced the motion for a declaration of independence. It is known that both brothers read widely, and our copy of Bell's 1778 edition of Beccaria's Essay appears to come from this notable family. The title page of our copy shows the name 'Frans. L Lee,' which likely refers either to Francis Lightfoot Lee, the signer of the Declaration, or a son of Richard Henry Lee, also named Francis Lightfoot Lee. That the work may have been owned by the latter is suggested by another name on the title page: 'James Kingsley,' who appears to have been a tutor employed by the family. Both Richard Henry Lee and another brother, Arthur Lee, quoted from Beccaria's work and were associated with figures like Jefferson, who introduced legislation in Virginia, based on Beccaria's views, to restrict the death penalty and reduce the severity of criminal punishments. Although his influence in the new republic eventually waned, Beccaria and his book had important purchase in its early days, where his ideas were taken up by reformers from Louisiana to Pennsylvania.

 - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections