Human Rights Center Hosts Legal History Expert

May 1, 2018

On April 26, Professor John Bessler, a visiting researcher at the Human Rights Center, gave a book talk on his latest book, The Celebrated Marquis: An Italian Noble and the Making of the Modern World (2018). The book provides a fascinating account of the Italian criminologist and economist Cesare Beccaria (1734-94), and his landmark work that inveighed against judicial torture, the death penalty, and religious intolerance.

During the talk, Bessler examined how Beccaria’s book—first published in 1764 and translated into English as An Essay on Crimes and Punishments—became a runaway bestseller in the Enlightenment, influencing a wide network of jurists, intellectuals, and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Importantly, the book found an eager reception in the American colonies, where it had a great impact on the Founding Fathers’ ideas about criminal law and punishment. As Bessler discussed, Beccaria’s rejection of torture and the death penalty, and his utilitarian views on punishment, provided the spur to 18th-century penal law reform and paved the way to modern criminology. In the process, it shaped laws and constitutions around the globe.

In addition, Ryan Greenwood, curator of rare books and special collections at the Law Library, highlighted several copies of Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishments that are held in the Library’s collections, as well as works that influenced and were influenced by Beccaria’s book.

John Bessler is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and also teaches at Georgetown. He has published widely on issues related to capital punishment, the Eighth Amendment, and legal history, including an award-winning 2015 book, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution. The Celebrated Marquis: An Italian Noble and the Making of the Modern World is his ninth book.

Professor John Bessler, visiting researcher at the Human Rights Center
Professor John Bessler, visiting researcher at the Human Rights Center

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