Front Page Titles (by Subject) 329.: THE CASE OF WILLIAM BURN MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 NOV., 1846, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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329.: THE CASE OF WILLIAM BURN MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 NOV., 1846, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE CASE OF WILLIAM BURN
Here Mill comments on a case heard on 10 Nov. and reported in “Police Intelligence. Mansion House,” Morning Chronicle, 11 Nov., 1846, p. 7 (from which the quotations are taken) and also in The Times of the same day, p. 6. It is the fifth of the comments on injustice and cruelty jointly authored by Harriet Taylor and Mill (for the series, see No. 303). This unheaded second leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the case of one William Burn convicted of ill-treating his horse; in the Morning Chronicle of 17th Nov. 1846. Very little of this was mine.”
(MacMinn, p. 63.)
in a mansion-house report of last week, it is stated that one William Burn was charged before the Lord Mayor1 “with having most cruelly beaten one of the horses he was driving in a waggon. He had been sitting on the middle horse, which was without reins, and he struck one of the poor animals most desperately about the head with the butt-end of his whip. The horse fell, and the prisoner struck it even more brutally when down. The Lord Mayor expressed great indignation at the conduct of the defendant, and was about to fine him to the utmost extent, when he suddenly learned that he had a large family,” whereupon he said to him, “You deserve the highest punishment; but I cannot think of punishing your wife and children. The sentence of the court upon you is, that you pay a fine of ten shillings, or be confined in the House of Correction for fourteen days.” The defendant “thanked his lordship, and paid the fine.”
We regard this leniency, together with the reason assigned for it, as a match for the most unthinking and ill-judged exercises of magisterial discretion with which the London police-courts have lately favoured us. “A large family” has long been familiar as an excuse for begging, and a recommendation to the benevolent electors whose suffrages confer the responsible office of parish beadle. Hereafter, it seems, it is to be a license for violating the law, and, worse than that, for committing acts of savage brutality, which excite not merely regret but indignation that such a creature should have a wife and children in his power to treat in the same manner.
Let us look at the thing first on the general principles of the administration of justice. The Lord Mayor thought the man deserved the full penalty, and was about to inflict it. He thought, therefore, that the highest fine which the law authorised, forty shillings, or in default of payment fourteen days in the House of Correction (for the law actually allows no longer term),2 would not have been more than enough to make some impression upon the man’s obdurate nature, and induce him and others like him to put some restraint upon their brutality. And who will not agree with the Lord Mayor in so thinking? Rather, who will not go far beyond him? Who does not see that the maximum penalty ought to be much higher; that it is ridiculously and lamentably inadequate; that it was fixed so low, not because it was thought sufficient, but because the promoters of the bill were too happy to get the consent of the Legislature to any penalty at all, in order at least to establish the fact that the law disapproves and stigmatises ferocious abuse of power against the helpless? This recognition, we suspect, is the chief part of the good which the Act against Cruelty to Animals has yet done; and even that, the insignificance of the penalties in a great measure neutralizes, for if those who commit the crime are now aware that their superiors think it wrong, they cannot suppose that it is thought to be anything very bad by people who are so very much more than gentle in their repression of it.
But to return to the Lord Mayor. He thought, at any rate, that forty shillings, or imprisonment for fourteen days, was not more than sufficient severity to give the man a salutary lesson. If forty shillings were not more than enough, ten shillings are less than enough; and the man is let off with a penalty which the magistrate knows to be insufficient to correct his own vicious habits and to deter others. And this because the Lord Mayor “cannot think of punishing” the wife and children. In the first place, the instantaneous payment of the ten shillings renders it more than probable that ample means existed for a fortnight’s support. In the second place, did the law intend that the inconvenience which a man’s wife and children may suffer, from penalties imposed on himself, should be a reason for not inflicting the punishment which he has merited by his misdeeds? Would the Lord Mayor have given him the benefit of this excuse if he had stolen a handkerchief? No, truly; there would have been no thought then of hardship to the family, although in that case the offence might actually have been committed to relieve their hunger; and at any rate, the offender would not have been proved to be the kind of man from whom it would be a mercy to have separated them.
Real consideration for the wife and children would have spoken a very different language to the magistrate. It would have said something like this—A man capable of the act of which this man is found guilty, must be one of two things. He is either a wretch who wantonly ill-treats a helpless being, for the pleasure of tyranny, because it is in his power and cannot resist; or an irritable, violent creature, who on the smallest provocation (provocation from the unconscious dumb animal who slaves to death for his benefit!) flies into an uncontrollable rage, and cannot restrain himself from wreaking a savage vengeance. One of these two characters the man must be; and on either supposition we may infer what sort of a taskmaster he is to the unfortunate woman and the unfortunate children, who are as much in his power, and much more liable to rouse his ferocious passions than the animal over whom he tyrannised. It really seems to us, that they are more objects of pity for being compelled to live with such a man than they would have been for being deprived during a whole fortnight of his agreeable society, and that it would have been a greater kindness to them to have seized the opportunity of giving a severe lesson to one who had the power of making so many human creatures miserable. If he could have been made less brutal to his horses it would have made him less brutal to his human victims likewise. Disgusting enough it is that animals like these should have wives and children; and disgusting that, merely because they are of the male sex, they should have the whole existence of these dependants as much under their absolute control as slave masters in any modern slave country have that of their slaves; and without even the wretched compensation of supporting them—for in that rank the wife always, and the children by the time they are seven or eight years old, take part, to the full measure of their physical strength, in the labours for the support of the family. But as if all this was not enough, the man is told by a magistrate, that because he has a family to ill-use, he may indulge himself in ill-using any other creatures who come in his way, and may practise on them the amiable propensities of which his family are to reap the full enjoyment. We have no doubt the Lord Mayor meant kindly; but the tender mercies of thoughtless people are cruel; and we wish that, instead of being thanked by the ruffian whom he let off, he had deserved the thanks of the public for a rigorous exercise of the most important moral power a magistrate possesses—that of putting down strongly and manfully, by word and deed, the brutal vices of the worst part of the populace.
[1 ]The Lord Mayor was Sir George Carroll (1811-60), a banker who had served as Sheriff of London and Middlesex, 1837-38, and was sitting in the justice seat as Lord Mayor for the first time.
[2 ]5 & 6 William IV, c. 59 (1835), Sect. 2.