In 1769, George Washington bought a copy of Beccaria’s book, “On Crimes and Punishments,” first published in Italian 250 years ago and translated into English in 1767. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Washington told Congress that executions were too ­frequent. In 1770, during the Boston Massacre trial, John Adams quoted Beccaria’s treatise in defending British soldiers accused of murder.

“I am for the prisoners at the bar,” Adams said, “and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: ‘If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.”

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