Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 16.djvu/459

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THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY.



FEBRUARY, 1880.



THE ORIGIN OF CRIMINAL LAW.
By WILLIAM W. BILLSON.

ANTERIOR to all regulations for the punishment or suppression of wrongs by an exercise of public authority, there was, as is generally agreed, a time when injuries found redress only through the resentment and retaliation of the injured party or his kin.

The progress of society from this rude sort of vindictive justice toward approved systems of criminal law presents some suggestive examples of the devious paths through which early communities were led to the recognition of truths which to us appear elementary. Nor is the history of this progress less intelligible or instructive to the general reader than to the professional • student of the law; since it derives its interest not from its professional bearings, but from the interesting illustration which it affords of general methods of institutional development. In order to secure an accurate conception of the legal system, the early growth of which it is proposed to examine, it may be well to premise that the criminal law, which with a substantial uniformity of cardinal ideas now prevails in all civilized states, is well defined as "that branch of juridical law treating of those wrongs which the government notices as injurious to the public, and punishes by what is called a criminal proceeding, in its own name."

If it is desired to ascertain the point at which public authority began to supersede private revenge in the punishment of wrong-doers, it is worthy of observation that instances abound of tribes among whom the only offenses punishable by public authority are treason and its cognates, such as cowardice and desertion. Such was at one time the condition of the old German nations, and a similar paucity of recognized crimes is still discoverable among many of the Polynesian and American Indian tribes, and is indeed quite characteristic of un-