On Nov. 26, 2014, Professor John Bessler spoke at an international seminar in Rome sponsored by the Aspen Institute Italia. The occasion was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene (1764). Translated into English in 1767 as On Crimes and Punishments, Beccaria’s book had a major influence on both European and American law.
The seminar delved into Beccaria’s life and the legacy of his writings on economics and crimes and punishments. Professor Bessler spoke about the influence of the Italian Enlightenment on the American Revolution and on early American law. He also spoke about the findings of his new book, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014). In the book, Bessler details how Cesare Beccaria’s work—the first Enlightenment text to make a comprehensive case against the death penalty—influenced George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Wilson, Dr. Benjamin Rush and many other American founders and framers. An economist often called “the Italian Adam Smith,” Beccaria—who wrote On Crimes and Punishments when he was just 26 years old—called for proportionate punishments and spoke out against torture and the death penalty.
Bessler is also the author of Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth Amendment, Kiss of Death: America's Love Affair with the Death Penalty and Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America, among other books.
Learn more about John Bessler .