An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

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by Cesare Beccaria

A shy and retiring man, prone to unpredictable moods, and educated in the law as well as economics,[1] Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) was perhaps an unlikely figure to trigger a veritable revolution in criminology. As a young man, he fell in with brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri and their “academy of fists,”[2] a Milanese organization referred to variously as an “intellectual circle”[3] and a “literary society,”[4] through which Beccaria was initiated into Enlightenment thought.[5] The Verri brothers supplied the assignment and the insider knowledge of the criminal justice system of the day, and at the behest of this group, Becarria completed his famous essay On Crimes and Punishments in 1764.[6]

In the time of its writing, Beccaria’s propositions that onerous punishments like torture and execution were unnecessarily cruel, disproportionate, and unlikely to serve as effective deterrents, though they owed a debt to his intellectual forebears,[7] were both radical and attractive to the European political and intellectual elite.[8] On Crimes and Punishments was rapidly translated into a host of other languages.[9] As well as informing a number of state statutes in the United States,[10] in insisting upon a balance between fidelity to the social contract and the need to ensure that criminal punishment is useful and beneficial to society, the work can be said to prefigure one of today’s two dominant schools of penological thought—utilitarianism—as well as the death penalty abolition movement.[11]

Bibliographic Information

Author: Cesare Beccaria; translated from the Italian, with a commentary, attributed to Mons. de Voltaire, translated from the French.

Title: An Essay on Crimes and Punishments.

Published: London: Printed for J. Almon, 1767.

Edition: ; xii, 179, [1], lxxix, [1] pages.

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Dean's Memo[12] includes An Essay on Crimes and Punishments based on a reference in William Clarkin's biography of Wythe. In discussing Thomas Jefferson's education under Wythe, Clarkin states "[w]e do know that Jefferson studied ... Beccaria's Crime and Punishment" but Clarkin provides no source of corroborating evidence.[13] Brown's Bibliography[14] lists Beccaria's work in a choice of three languages (Italian, French, and English). The Wolf Law Library purchased the 1767 English edition printed in London following Dean's memo, the original source for the George Wythe Collection.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

View this book in William & Mary's online catalog.

External Links

Google Books


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Cesare Beccaria," accessed October 10, 2013,
  2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)," accessed October 10, 2013,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  5. Ibid.
  6. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)."
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  8. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)."
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  10. Ibid.
  11. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794).
  12. Memorandum from Barbara C. Dean, Colonial Williamsburg Found., to Mrs. Stiverson, Colonial Williamsburg Found. (June 16, 1975), 11 (on file at Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary).
  13. William Clarkin, Serene Patriot: A Life of George Wythe (Albany, New York: Alan Publications, 1970), 42.
  14. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: