After a brilliant career as a student he first performed duties in the magistracy and the administration of the province, but even then was occupied with juridical works on penal law. When dismissed by the Liberal (anti-clerical) ministry, the University of Louvain appointed him in 1848 to the chair of criminal law. In 1863 he was elected to Parliament.
It is difficult to summarize briefly Thonissen's activity. Although he achieved his fame in his chosen field of penal law, his writings covered the most varied points of history and social science, as was evidenced by the fact that in 1886 the national jury of social sciences awarded him the prize. In penal matters he began with commentaries on the penal code and devoted himself especially to the reform of the penal procedure which he advocated while he was minister, and for the history of which he wrote important works. He had conceived the vast plan of a history of criminal law, but realized only a part of it. The first part, which met with considerable success, dealt with Brahminical India, Egypt, and Judea, and contained a "Penal Code of the Pentateuch ". He published a work on the penal law of the Athenian Republic. Considering the Roman period as sufficiently well-known, he took up the Frankish period, which he was unable to finish. These works are his chief title to fame from the scientific standpoint as are his reports on penal procedure from the practical standpoint. He aroused lively controversy by advocating the suppression of the death penalty, which his influence brought about in Belgium. While not rejecting it as absolutely unlawful, Thonissen considered it useless in the social condition of the time. In fact, although the death sentence is still legal, capital punishment is no longer inflicted in Belgium.
Detailed lists of Thonissen's numerous publications are given in the Bibliography of the Académie Royale and in that of the Catholic University of Louvain, to which the reader is referred. He showed a marked preference for national political history, his principal work on the subject being the "History of the Reign of Leopold I". He also published biographies of prominent Belgians such as Félix de Mérode. He had been impressed by the events of 1848 which determined his career and he devoted himself to a laborious study of innovating systems, especially of those men who are sometimes called the romanticists of Socialism, St. Simon, Fourier, Cabet, Owen, Louis Blanc, and others, being led eventually to write a history of Socialism from ancient times to 1852. These works and many others secured his admission to the Royal Academy of Belgium and the Institute of France ; he was commissioned by the former institution to write the volume devoted to its centenary (1872).
Thonissen's political life began in 1863 and was never interrupted by his constituents. In the Chamber his value as a jurisconsult was much appreciated and he drafted many of the parliamentary reports. He occupied a unique position owing to his characteristic independence which made him disagree with the Right on certain points, for instance, on military matters. He was deeply attached to the Belgian Constitution of 1831, which contained articles proclaiming liberty of worship, of the press, etc. Although profoundly religious he was inbued like many men of his generation with the errors of Liberalism, and he wrongly regarded these liberties as of natural right, and defended this opinion in his commentary on the Constitution (1844). After the papal decisions on these matters, he corrected his ideas, but always had a leaning towards solutions favouring broad tolerance. Although tempered by great geniality Thonissen's independence of character was such that even the Right feared him and did not desire his participation in affairs. Thus when the king during a period of stress entrusted him with the formation of a ministry (1872), he was not supported by his party, which dreaded concessions to the Left or to the Crown. When he finally entered the ministry (1884), age had rendered him unfit for laborious work, though he was able to enforce the new school law which the victorious Right had substituted for the lay regime of 1879; this task consumed the last of his strength and left him unable to resume his scientific pursuits in his retirement (1887); his faculties soon became clouded. Thonissen was an intrepid worker, a firm Christian, an upright and simple man, with just a touch of artless vanity, though sometimes brusque in manner and given to occasional outbursts. He was one of the most important members of the faculty of law at Louvain and he will be chiefly remembered in the sphere of penal law, where his name is destined to survive.
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