Page images
PDF
EPUB

of the seigniory assist, when they think proper, at all deliberations.

This court was first instituted in the year 1310, immediately after Theipolo's conspiracy.

It is supreme in all state crimes. It is the duty of three chiefs, chosen every month from this court, by lot, to open all letters addressed to it; to report the contents, and assemble the members, when they think proper. They have the power of seizing accused persons, examining them in prison, and taking their answers in writing, with the evidence against them; which being laid before the court, those chiefs appear as prosecutors.

The prisoners, all this time, are kept in close confinement, deprived of the company of relations and friends, and not allowed to receive any advice by letters. They can have no counsel to assist them, unless one of the judges chooses to assume that office; in which case he is permitted to manage their defence, and plead their cause; after which the court decide, by a majority of votes, acquitting the prisoner, or condemning him to private or public execution, as they think proper; and if any persons murmur at the fate of their relations or friends, and talk of their innocence, and the injustice they have met with, these malcontents are in great danger of meeting with the same fate.

'I am convinced you will think that such a court was sufficiently powerful to answer every good purpose of government. This, it would appear, was not the opinion of the grand council of Venice; who thought proper, in the year 1501, to create the tribunal of state inquisitors, which is still more despotic and brief in its manner of proceeding.

This court consists of three members, all taken from the council of ten; two literally from the ten, and the third from the counsellors of the seigniory, who also make a part of that council.

These three persons have the power of deciding, with

out appeal, on the lives of every citizen belonging to the Venetian state ; the highest of the nobility, even the doge himself, not being excepted. They keep the keys of the boxes into which anonymous informations are thrown. The informers who expect a recompense, cut off a little piece of their letter, which they afterwards shew to the inquisitor, when they claim a reward. To those three inquisitors is given the right of employing spies, considering secret intelligence, issuing orders to seize all persons whose words or actions they think reprehensible, and afterwards trying them when they think proper. If all the three are of one opinion, no farther ceremony is necessary; they may order the prisoner to be strangled in prison, drowned in the canal Orfano, hanged privately in the night-time, between the pillars, or executed publicly, as they please ; and whatever their decision be, no farther inquisition can be made on the subject; but if any one of the three differs in opinion from his brethren, the cause must be carried before the full assembly of the council of ten. One would naturally imagine, that by those the prisoner would have a good chance of being acquitted; because the difference in opinion of the three inqusitors shews, that the case is, at least, dubious; and in dubious cases one would expect the leaning would be to the favourable side; but this court is governed by different maxims from those you are acquainted with. It is a rule here to admit of smaller presumptions in all crimes which affect the government, than in other cases; and the only difference they make between a crime fully proved, and one more doubtful, is, that, in the first case, the execution is in broad day-light; whereas, when there are doubts of the prisoner's guilt, he is only put to death privately. The state inquisitors have keys to every apartment of the ducal palace, and can, when they think proper, penetrate into the very bedchamber of the doge, open his cabinet, and examine his papers. Of course they may command access to the house of every individual in the state. They continue in office only one year, but are not responsible af.

terwards for their conduct while they were in authori. ty.

Can you think you would be perfectly composed, and easy in your mind, if you lived in the same city with three persons, who had the power of shutting you up in a dungeon, and putting you to death when they pleased, and without being accountable for so doing?

If, from the characters of the inquisitors of one year, a man had nothing to dread, still he might fear that a set, of a different character, might be in authority the next; and although he were persuaded, that the inquisitors would always be chosen from among men of the most known integrity in the state, he might tremble at the malice of informers, and secret enemies; a combination of whom might impose on the understandings of upright judges, especially where the accused is excluded from his friends, and denied counsel to assist him in his defence; for, let him be never so conscious of innocence, he cannot be sure of remaining unsuspected, or unaccused ; nor can he be certain, that he shall not be put to the rack, to supply a deficiency of evidence: and finally, although a man were naturally possessed of so much firmness of character as to feel no inquietude from any of those considerations on his own account, he might still be under apprehensions for his children, and other connections, for whom some men feel more anxiety than for themselves."

Such reflections naturally arise in the minds of those who have been born, and accustomed to live, in a free country, where no such despotic tribunal is established ; yet we find people apparently easy in the midst of all those dangers ; nay, we know that mankind show the same indifference in cities, where the emperor, or the bashaw, amuses himself, from time to time, in cutting off the heads of those he happens to meet with in his walks ; and I make no doubt, that if it were usual for the earth to open, and swallow a proportion of its inhabitants every day, mankind would behold this with as much coolness as at present they read the bills of mortality. Such is the effect of habit on the human mind, and so wonderfully does it accommodate itself to those evils for which there is no remedy.

But these considerations do not account for the Venetian nobles suffering such tribunals as those of the council of ten, or the state inquisitors, to exist, because these are evils which it unquestionably is in their power to remedy; and attempts have been made, at various times, by parties of the nobility, to remove them entirely, but without success; the majority of the grand council having, upon trial, been found for preserving these institutions.

It is believed to be owing to the attention of these courts, that the Venetian republic has lasted longer than any other ; but, in my opinion, the chief object of a government should be, to render the people happy; and if it fails in that, the longer it lasts, so much the worse. If they are rendered miserable by that which is supposed to preserve the state, they cannot be losers by removing it, be the consequence what it may; and I fancy most people would rather live in a convenient, comfortable house, which could stand only a few centuries, than in a gloomy Gothic fabric, which would last to the day of judgment. These despotic courts, the state inquisitors, and council of ten, have had their admirers, not only among the Venetian nobility, but among foreigners ; even among such as have, on other occasions, professed principles very unfavourable to arbitrary power.

I find the following passage in a letter of Bishop Burnet, relating to Venice.

• But this leads me to say a little to you of that part of the constitution, which is so censured by strangers, but is really both the greatest glory, and the chief security, of this republic; which is, the unlimited power of the inquisitors, that extends not only to the chief of the nobility, but to the duke himself; who is so subject to them, that they may not only give him severe reprimands, but search his papers, make his process, and, in

conclusion, put him to death, without being bound to give any account of their proceedings, except to the council of ten. This is the dread, not only of all the subjects, but of the whole nobility, and all that bear of, fice in the republic, and makes the greatest among them tremble, and so obliges them to an exact conduct.'

Now, for my part, I cannot help' thinking, that a tribunal which keeps the doge, the nobility, and all the subjects, in dread, and makes the greatest among them tremble, can be no great blessing in any state. To be in continual fear, is certainly a very unhappy situation ; and if the doge, the nobility, and all the subjects, are rendered unhappy, I should imagine, with all submission, that the glory and security of the rest of the republic must be of very small importance.

In the same letter which I have quoted above, his lord ship, speaking of the state inquisitors, has these words.• When they find any fault, they are so inexorable, and so quick as well as severe in their justice, that the very fear of this is so effectual a restraint, that, perhaps, the only preservation of Venice, and of its liberty, is owing to this single piece of their constitution,'

How would you, my good friend, relish that kind of liberty in England, which could not be preserved without the assistance of a despotic court ? Such an idea of liberty might have been announced from the throne, as one of the mysteries of government, by James I or II; but we are amazed to find it published by a counsellor, and admirer of William III. It may, indeed, be said, that the smallness of the Venetian state, and its republican form of government, render it liable to be overturned by sudden tumults, or popular insurrections: this renders it the more necessary to keep a watchful eye over the conduct of individuals, and guard against every thing that may be the source of public commotion or disorder. The institution of state inquisitors may be thought to admit of some apology in this view, like the extraordinary and irregular punishment of the

« PreviousContinue »