Patrick Delany on the Severity of Theft Laws

This was published in 1767 in The Virginia Gazette.  It is taken from “Eighteen Discourses and Dissertations upon various and interesting Subjects” by Patrick Delany, D.D. and Dean of Down in Ireland.

Delany was an Irish clergyman and described by A Compendium of Irish Biography as “an eloquent preacher, a man of wit and learning.” He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered as a sizar, rising to be Senior Fellow. He became well known as a preacher at St. Werburgh’s, attracting the attention of Lord Carteret, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Exchanging the Fellowship for the office of Chancellor of Christ Church, Dublin, impoverished him in the late 1720s, but in 1731 he married Mrs. Margaret Tenison, “a rich Irish widow, and again found himself in a position to gratify his hospitable disposition and indulge his literary tastes.”

"Eighteen Discourses and Dissertations upon various and interesting Subjects" by Patrick Delany, D.D.

“Eighteen Discourses and Dissertations upon various and interesting Subjects” by Patrick Delany, D.D.

On Theft

I cannot help observing with concern, that the laws of our land, in the case of theft, are the most unrighteous and unequitable that can be imagined.

Here, the stealing of a cow, or a sheep, is death by the law! Now, what can be more unrighteous, or absurd, than that the life of a man should be estimated by that of a cow or a sheep? And, besides this, it is putting the highest and the lowest guilt upon a monstrous foot of equality: A man must go to the gallows for stealing a sheep, and he can only go thither for murder, and with this advantage that be hath sometimes a better chance of escaping in the latter case.

Is not this reviving all the cruelty and iniquity of Draco’s laws, where death was the punishment of the lowest crimes, as well as of the highest?

Published weekly in Williamsburg, Virginia between 1736 and 1780, The Virginia Gazette contained news covering all of Virginia and also included information from other colonies, Scotland, England and additional countries. The paper appeared in three competing versions from a succession of publishers over the years, some published concurrently, and all under the same title.

And, after all, when the thief is executed, what reparation is made to the sufferer? None at all; if the felon had any property, it is forfeited to the Crown, and the poor man that was defrauded must be at the expense and trouble of prosecution. And so the injury, instead of being repaired, is aggravated; and if he should enter into any measures to have his damages repaired out of the felon’ s substance, though perhaps his whole being and livelihood in the world depended upon it, this is called compounding of felony, and is interpreted into one of the most heinous and punishable offences he can be guilty of in society!

Whereas, if the offender were either sold into another country (where he was bound to labour, and his price, or a proper part of it, paid to the person injured by him) or were confined to labour at home, in such manner as that the profits of his labour might be applied to repay the damages he did, the injury might then be repaired; and a vagrant, that stole from sloth and idleness, being forced to hard labour for a season, would naturally acquire a habit of honest industry; and so, instead of being cut off from the commonwealth as a nusance, might be preserved as a profitable member! Now all this folly, and absurdity, and iniquity, arises entirely from the Legislature’s neglecting to form and build itself upon the laws of God (xod. xxii.) an omission which it is astonishing how any Christian society could be guilty of!

Publication: The Virginia Gazette, March 5, 1767

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