Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Forum on the Law: The Italian Who Inspired the Founding Fathers

When analyzing the foundation of legal principles in the United States, that base seemingly started with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. But the bedrock of the American justice system didn’t originate with those revolutionaries. It started with an Italian.

Cesare Beccaria – one of the 18th century’s great philosophers – was the subject of the latest program in the Ohio Supreme Court’s Forum on the Law Lecture Series. The series helps people better understand the American judicial system by focusing on a specific topic, and providing expert views.

Ohio State University Professor Charles Klopp – the featured presenter – has devoted his life’s work to Italian literature and history. In his research, he learned how Beccaria’s insights influenced the American justice system.

“There was some thinking about the rights of everybody — the accused who are innocent, the weak who can’t stand torture,” Klopp said.

Beccaria, who was a criminologist, jurist, philosopher, and politician, had many basic beliefs that appear in the Bill of Rights. Along with a core standard of a defendant being innocent until proven guilty, he advocated for the right to a speedy trial decided by peers to promote transparency and accountability in the courts. He was also against cruel and unusual punishment. To him, that included the death penalty.

His ideals had a far-reaching impact that started with reforms in Europe, worked their way into the U.S. Constitution, and eventually became part of the Ohio Revised Code.

“He said the least amount of punishment should be exacted, and it reflects on the cornerstones of our sentencing statutes in the state,” said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who attended the event.

Following Klopp’s presentation, he took questions from the audience about Beccaria’s notions, and how they contrasted with the predominantly autocratic governments of his era, such as monarchies.

As one of the Age of Enlightenment’s revered thinkers, Beccaria is recognized as a visionary. His conviction was that courts should do the same by trying to prevent crimes instead of reacting to them.

“The overwhelming goal of punishment is not vengeance, but deterrence,” Klopp said.