The Marquis Beccaria: An Italian penal reformer’s meteoric rise in the British Isles in the transatlantic Republic of Letters

John D. Bessler


This article traces the reception of Cesare Beccaria’s book, Dei delitti e delle pene (1764), in Britain and in colonial and early America. That book, first translated into English as An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1767), catalyzed penal reform and the anti-gallows movement on both sides of the Atlantic. As the first Enlightenment text to make a comprehensive case against capital punishment, On Crimes and Punishments became a bestseller, appearing in multiple English-language editions and attracting much public attention. Widely read by an array of British and American lawmakers and other civic-minded penal reformers, On Crimes and Punishments was printed in a number of European and American cities, including London, Glasgow, Dublin, Edinburgh, Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina, and New York. Beccaria’s book influenced a large number of prominent figures (from William Blackstone, Jeremy Bentham, and Samuel Romilly in England to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and William Bradford in America), and it led to the end of the Ancien Régime.


Cesare Beccaria; Enlightenment; Dei delitti e delle pene; On Crimes and Punishments; Penal Reform

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