John Bessler


The influence of the Italian Enlightenment—the Illuminismo—on the American Revolution has long been neglected. While historians regularly acknowledge the influence of European thinkers such as William Blackstone, John Locke and Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria’s contributions to the origins and development of American law have largely been forgotten by twenty-first century Americans. In fact, Beccaria’s book, Dei delitti e delle pene (1764), translated into English as On Crimes and Punishments (1767), significantly shaped the views of American revolutionaries and lawmakers. The first four U.S. Presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—were inspired by Beccaria’s treatise and, in some cases, read it in the original Italian. On Crimes and Punishments helped to catalyze the American Revolution, and Beccaria’s anti-death penalty views materially shaped American thought on capital punishment, torture and cruelty. America’s foundational legal documents—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights—were themselves shaped by Beccaria’s treatise and its insistence that laws be in writing and be enforced in a less arbitrary manner. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin studied Italian and read or spoke the language to one degree or another, and many early Americans also had a fascination with Italian history and the civil law. Though On Crimes and Punishments is focused largely on the criminal law, the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights—written documents protecting individual rights—echo the Beccarian idea of a fixed code of laws. Not only did leading figures of the Italian Enlightenment mold Beccaria’s work, but Beccaria’s treatise—now more than 250 years old—influenced a whole host of European and American thinkers, from Jeremy Bentham to Gaetano Filangieri and from James Wilson to Dr. Benjamin Rush. Beccaria’s ideas on government and the criminal justice system thereby profoundly shaped American law.