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Social Progress (continued) page 4


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In a list of books returned by clergymen to the Commissioners of Education in 1825, as being actually used in schools in their parishes, we find numerous obscene and otherwise objectionable publications. Each scholar brought whatever book he could pick up from pedlars and hawkers, and as they all rehearsed at the top of their voices, at the same time, the hedge-school chorus must have been often not a little after the Babel fashion. One of the commissioners, in 1824, saw in a school in the county of Sligo a child holding a New Testament, sitting between two others, one of whom was supplied with " The Forty Thieves," and the other with " The Pleasant Art of Money Catching; " while another, at a little distance, was perusing the Mutiny Act, and all reading aloud their respective volumes at the same moment! It may be said, perhaps, that this state of things belonged only to some very wild districts of the South and West; but it was far otherwise. In Ulster, where there was a respectable middle class, where the linen trade caused a brisk circulation of money, and where the demands of business made the need of learning greater, we find that the then existing system - or rather no system - did nothing effectual for education; and, judging from the state of the districts still left to the same means, we have not the least reason to expect any material improvement.

This state of things led to the establishment of the national system, described in a former chapter. The Rev. Mr. Goold, in his "History of the Baptist Irish Society," whose schools had been greatly reduced by those of the National Board, bears the following testimony to the efficiency of these institutions: - "From all that the deputation saw of several of the national schools, they could not but regard them as a means of diffusing light more powerful than any other in existence. We are not of the number who would dissociate religion from national instruction; and this is not done in these institutions. Hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic children, who would have grown up in entire ignorance of the word of God, are brought to know much important truth by the extracts they use; and the operations of mind in Ireland must be different from those in all other countries if, by knowing a portion of what is found salutary, inquiry is not excited after wThat remains to be known. A part of the Bible read and understood, will lead to inquiry after other parts of it; so that a vast change in the moral circumstances of the country is, we think, at no great distance. They add that the national schools are noble institutions, which afford as much facility for evangelical instruction as, under the circumstances of the case, could possibly be looked for."

The social effects of popular education, contrasted with the evils of popular ignorance, prove that there is nothing in which our rulers should take a deeper interest, or be more anxious to encourage and support, because nothing tends more to the security of life and property, and to the peace and prosperity of the community. Ignorance is a prolific curse, which exerts a malign influence in every direction. When a nation is ignorant, its rulers will be ignorant, or will be forced to act as if they were, pursuing a policy fraught with misery to the people. It is impossible to read the history of our criminal code without being continually shocked with the ignorance, barbarity, and cruelty of both houses of parliament. When any particular species of crime prevailed, or forced itself upon public attention, they could do nothing better than increase the terrors of the law, by enacting sanguinary punishments, out of all proportion to the guilt of the offenders. This vindictive severity caused humanity to revolt against the law, and to make it odious. This feeling gained ground rapidly, as the benign spirit of Christianity began to pervade the masses through the medium of education, making the great principles of justice and mercy familiar to them, and establishing in the public mind a standard of right, by which the spirit of our laws was judged and condemned. The labours of Romilly and Mackintosh had contributed largely to bring about an altered state of feeling in parliament; while philanthropic individuals in private life, like Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, who devoted themselves to the work of prison reform, materially aided in bringing about the mitigation of our criminal code, which has had such beneficial results. Mrs. Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate two days after the execution of a woman named Fricker, and instead of finding, as she expected, the whole of the criminals awfully affected by what had passed, she found a spirit of pity and lamentation over the sufferer, with such an impression that the punishment exceeded the crime, that it excited a feeling of great displeasure, and even bitterness, not only towards the laws, but towards those that put them into execution; and so far from softening the heart, or leading it from evil, it appeared to harden them, and make them endeavour to justify their own criminal conduct, as well as that of those who suffered, and even to fortify themselves through unbelief of the truths of religion, or to justify themselves and those who suffered by feeling that they were not what they considered justly done by.

The feeling of humanity that gained ground among the masses powerfully affected the middle classes, by whom mainly all ameliorating agencies were brought to bear upon society; and juries taken from that class very often refused to convict when the punishment of death would have followed their verdict. The consequence was that the state of public feeling produced by the practical inculcation of Christianity, and the diffusion of knowledge through Sunday-schools, day-schools, mechanics' institutions, circulating libraries, and cheap periodicals, compelled our legislature to change its system, despite the obstinate resistance of Lords Eldon and Ellenborough, hardened by a long official familiarity with the destructive operation of legal cruelty. How fearful the amount of that destruction was we may infer from the calculation of Mr. Redgrave, of the Home Office, who stated that had the offences tried in 1841 been tried under the laws of 1831, the eighty capital sentences would have been increased to 2,172; that is, in the course of ten years 2,100 lives would have been sacrificed on the gallows with no other effect than to increase the number of criminals, and to brutalise the populace. But it should be recollected that previous to this period some of the most sanguinary enactments had been repealed; and that even where juries convicted, and judges recorded sentence of death, the sentences were but rarely executed. For example, in three years after 1820 the capital convictions in England and Wales were 3,070, the executions 152, or about 1 in 20. In the three following years the capital convictions- were 4,076, the executions 223. In ten years from 1820 the executions were 729. In ten years - from 1831 to 1841 - they were only 216. In three years preceding 1830, 22 persons were hanged for horse stealing, 9 for sheep stealing, and 6 for larceny in dwelling-houses. In the following two years which intervened before the abolition of capital punishment, two persons only were executed for these offences. Mr. Redgrave gives the following succinct history of the mitigation of the criminal code during the reigns of George IV. and William IV., in a series of enactments which were extorted from a reluctant legislature by society, humanised through the education of the masses: - In 1826, 1827, and 1828, Sir Robert Peel carried several very important bills for the consolidation and amendment of the criminal laws, but these bills did not abolish capital punishments. That statesman, indeed, made it a matter of boast that he did not constitute any new capital felonies, and pointed out an instance in which he had abated the capital punishment by increasing the sum constituting it a capital offence to steal in a dwelling- house from 40s. to 5, and by widening the technical description of a dwelling. In 1830 Sir Robert Peel brought in his Forgery Bill, and petitions were poured into the house from all quarters against the re-enactment of the severe penalties for this offence. Sir James Mackintosh again took up the subject, and moved that the capital punishment be struck out from the bill. He was unsuccessful; but in the last stage of the measure Mr. Spring Rice was enabled to defeat the ministry by a majority of 151 to 138, and to remove the sentence of death from the bill. It was, however, restored by the Lords, and the bill, as altered, was suffered to pass the House of Commons at the end of the session. In 1832 two most important bills for abolishing capital punishments were passed. Mr. Ewart, assisted by the government, was able to carry a bill abolishing the punishment of death in cases of horse, sheep, and cattle stealing, and larceny in a dwelling-house. He was opposed by Sir R. Peel, and an amendment was made in the Lords, subjecting these offences to the fixed penalty of transportation for life. At the same time, ministers brought in a bill for abolishing capital punishment in cases of forgery. The bill was introduced into the Commons by the Attorney-General, and into the House of Lords by the Lord Chancellor. It passed into a law, but an amendment was made in the House of Lords, under the protest of the Lord Chancellor, excepting the forgery of wills and powers of attorney to transfer stock, which offences were left capital. In 1833 Mr. Leonard carried his bill for abolishing capital punishment for housebreaking, executions for which offence were continued down to 1830. In 1834 Mr. Ewart carried a bill for abolishing capital punishment for returning from transportation, and in the following year for sacrilege and letter-stealing. This was the state of the criminal law when Lord John Russell brought in bills for its mitigation, founded on the report of a committee which the government had appointed. The little progress which Sir S. Romilly and Sir J. Mackintosh had made in opposition to the governments of their day will be seen by the foregoing sketch, as well as the extensive and salutary changes which followed. Lord John Russell's bills effected an extensive abolition of the sentence of death, and a mitigation of the secondary punishments. He was enabled to abolish capital punishments in all cases but murder, and attempts to murder, where dangerous bodily injuries are effected; burglary and robbery, when attended with violence or wounds; arson of dwelling-houses, where life is endangered; and six other offences of very rare occurrence. The number of capital convictions in 1829 was 1,385; and in 1834, three years after the extensive abolition of capital punishments, the number was reduced to 480. Only four years have elapsed, says Mr. Redgrave, since the passing of these acts, as to which we as yet know the result; and the " Criminal Tables " reveal their very important operation upon the criminal procedure. These tables show the capital convictions under the existing laws to have been reduced, if we deduct the number of offences committed in 1838, before the passing of the act of that year, to a number not exceeding that of the executions in a like period up to the end of 1829. The effect on the secondary punishments has been very great. The proportion sentenced to transportation for life was reduced from 1 in 20 to 1 in 86; and the effect of the change in the chief punishments has been visible down to the bottom of the scale.

By means of the classification of offences, which took place for the first time in 1834, it has been possible to ascertain the effects of education upon crime; and the result has been most satisfactory, falsifying the evil prognostications of the enemies of popular instruction, and proving that, instead of stimulating the faculties merely to give greater development to criminal propensities, and greater ingenuity to offenders, it really operates as an effective restraint; insomuch that crime is confined almost entirely to the uneducated. The classes into which offences are divided are the following: - 1st. Offences against the person. 2nd. Offences against property, committed with violence. 3rd. Offences against property committed without violence. 4th. Malicious offences against property. 5th. Forgery, and offences against the currency. 6th. Other offences not included in the above classes.

In 1835 returns were first obtained of the degree of instruction that had been imparted to persons committed for trial - distinguishing, 1st. Persons who can neither read nor write. 2ndly. Persons who can read only, or read and write imperfectly. 3rdly. Persons who can read and write well; and, 4thly. Persons who have received instruction beyond the elementary branches of reading and writing. The result of a comparison upon this point, during thirteen years from that date, has been all that the most sanguine friends of popular education could desire, and more than they could have anticipated. Out of 335,429 persons committed, and whose degrees of instruction were ascertained, the uninstructed criminals were more than 90 out of every 100; while only about 1,300 offenders had enjoyed the advantages of instruction beyond the elementary degree, and not 30,000 had advanced beyond the mere art of reading and writing. Then, with regard to females, among the 30,000 that could read and write, there were only about 3,000, or 10 per cent, of the female sex; and among those who had received superior instruction, there were only 53 females accused of crimes, throughout England and Wales, in thirteen years - that is, at the rate of four persons for each year. In the year 1841 not one educated female was committed for trial out of nearly 8,000,000 of the sex then living in this part of the United Kingdom. In the disturbances which took place in Cheshire, Lancashire, and Staffordshire, as appeared by the trials that were held in 1842, out of 567 persons tried, there were only 73 who could read and write well, and only one person who had received a superior education - a fact full of instruction as to the duty of the state in respect to the education of the people. There is another fact worth mentioning. "In fifteen English counties, with a population of 9,569,064, there were convicted 74 instructed persons, or 1 to every 129,311 inhabitants; while the twenty-five remaining counties of England and the whole of Wales, with a population of 6,342,661, did not among them furnish one conviction of a person who had received more than the mere elements of instruction. It will be remembered as a most interesting fact - one which speaks irresistibly in favour of a general system of education - that not one of the 109 was a female."

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