Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution

Article excerpt

The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution. By John D. Bessler. (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2014. Pp. xvi, 677. $75.00, ISBN 978-1-61163-604-8.)

Law professor and death penalty expert John D. Bessler's goal for The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution is to reintroduce historians and legal scholars to the work of Cesare Beccaria, a widely read Milanese nobleman-philosopher. Beccaria's 1764 treatise Dei delitti e delle pene (translated as On Crimes and Punishments three years later) became a seminal text for the Revolutionary generation and influenced both American and global legal history. Bessler argues that Beccaria's work needs to be restored to its rightful place in the history of American legal thought, alongside that of William Blackstone, Jeremy Bentham, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Bessler explains that Beccaria was a "rationalistic yet passionate advocate for penal reform" who had a "complex [but] nonetheless clear" role in the development of American jurisprudence (pp. 6, 370).

The Birth of American Law succeeds in its purpose. Bessler demonstrates persuasively that Beccaria's influence was substantial. Beccaria's "accessible style," which Bessler likens to that of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, ensured broad readership and influence for Beccaria's reformist ideas that rejected arbitrary, tyrannical rule. On Crimes and Punishments appeared in many contemporary libraries, and copious references to it demonstrate that Beccaria inspired numerous writers and thinkers of the Revolutionary generation. Bessler notes that Beccaria's impact can be found on both the state and national levels in debates about "sanguinary" and "cruel" punishments, ambivalence about the justness and efficacy of capital punishment, the rise of the penitentiary system, and the rise of legal codes (p. 317).

For those seeking to understand the origins of reformist impulses in American law, Bessler's book offers much. …

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