Page:History of the Guillotine.djvu/22

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7
ITS ORIGINAL INTENTION.

and inadequate means will allow, to do something—however little it may be—to supply this general deficiency.

The Guillotine was not originally designed with any view to what turned out to be its most important characteristic—the great numbers of victims that it could dispose of in a short space of time: it is curious, and ought to be to theorists an instructive lesson, that this bloody implement was at first proposed on a combined principle of justice and mercy.

It seems almost too ludicrous for belief, but it is strictly true, that, amongst the privileges of the old Noblesse of France which the "Philosophes" taught the people to complain of, was the mode of being put to death—why should a noble be only beheaded when a commoner would be hanged? Shakspeare, who penetrated every crevice of human feeling, makes the gravedigger in Hamlet open a grievance on which the French philosophers improved—'the more pity that great folks should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian.' Why, the Philosophes asked, should the Noblesse 'have countenance' to die otherwise than the Tiers Etat? There was also another liberal opinion then afloat on the public mind—that the prejudice which visited on the innocent family of a criminal some posthumous portion of his disgrace was highly unjust and contrary to the rights of man.[1] Now there happened to be at this time in Paris a

  1. As early as 1784 this question was proposed by the Society of Arts at Metz, as the subject of a prize Essay, and it is as a competitor for this prize that we first hear of Robespierre.