The report of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (session of May 23rd, 1791): the death penalty is immoral

Source : Portrait of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivante – Montreuil), photograph: Véronique Fau-Vincenti

Extracts from Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau’s Report on the proposed Penal Code, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 23rd 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.325-329). Portrait of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau.

Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (1760-1793), born into a rich family of Parisian politicians, was the President of the Parisian Parliament and became President of the National Constituent Assembly in June 1790. Politically moderate at the beginning of the French Revolution, he quickly sided with the left (the side of Montagne) in the Assembly, and once he was elected deputy of Yonne for the Convention, he voted for the death of the king – a vote that eventually led to his assassination on January 20th, 1793. As a member of the criminal legislation committee of the National Constituent Assembly, he was the recorder of the Penal Code project which was formally adopted on October 6th, 1791. He notably insisted on imprisonment as nearly the sole form of punishment in order to punish and reform the criminal at the same time: “Let us use our institutions to call for repentance in the heart of the criminal; so that he may live again in virtue by giving him the hope of living in honor; that he can cease being cruel out of interest in what you can offer him for being good” (trans. P. Bass). The issue of capital punishment dominated these debates: Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau clearly sided with the abolitionists. He considered the death penalty – even without torture – inefficient and immoral, because spectators of executions either experienced cruel sentiments in reaction to the scene or pity for the condemned. The full text of the part of the report dedicated to the death penalty is available on Criminocorpus: Peine de mort. Débat parlementaire de 1791.

For more information: See the biographical article on Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on Wikipedia.

 

The report of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (session of May 23rd, 1791): the death penalty is immoral (continued)

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, Extracts, p. 325-329.

 

 

The report of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (session of May 23rd, 1791): the dungeon, an alternative punishment

Extracts from Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau’s Report on the proposed Penal Code, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 23rd 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.325-329). The idea of an alternative to the death penalty was consistently brought up during the parliamentary debates of 1791, 1908 and 1981. Abolitionists considered an alternative imperative during the first two debates, and death penalty supporters would regularly critique the options proposed. In the report on the 1791 Penal Code, Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau suggested “a dark dungeon” as a temporary but long-lasting (24 years maximum) punishment that would include isolation, iron shackles, and limited food for the detainee. Recognizing that this punishment was “crueler” than death, Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau and the committee of penal legislation suggested “progressive mitigation” based on work and the modulation of solitary confinement. The exemplary nature of this new punishment meant that citizens could evaluate the severity of punishments for large-scale crimes: once a month, the public would be invited to visit the dungeons where the prisoners were held. Read the part of the report dedicated to the death penalty on the Criminocorpus website: Death Penalty. Parliamentary debate of 1791

The report of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (session of May 23rd, 1791): the dungeon, an alternative punishment (continued)

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, Extracts, p. 325-329.

Robespierre: “Erase the death penalty from the laws of France”

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.622-623

Extract from Robespierre’s speech, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 30th 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.622-623). Portrait of Robespierre, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil), (photograph: Véronique Fau-Vincenti) Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) was one of the main actors of the French Revolution, incarnating the democratic movement that triumphed in “year II”. During the 1791 debates over the Penal Code, he was the first to argue for the abolition of capital punishment, which he called “legal murder”, a symbol of the “blood laws” of the Ancien Régime – a marker of tyranny and despotism. He notably used examples from Antiquity as arguments showing the inefficiency of cruel repression. According to him, the use of excessively cruel punishment “weakens government resources”. Like all revolutionaries, he hoped for a free society that would, à priori, lower the number of crimes. Read the full text of his speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary debate of 1791.

For more information: See the biographical article on Robespierre on Wikipedia.

Robespierre: “Erase the death penalty from the laws of France” (continued)

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.622-623

Pétion de Villeneuve: “The experience of all centuries and all peoples”

Extract from Pétion de Villeneuve’s speech, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 31st 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p.640-642).Portrait of Pétion, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil) (photograph: Véronique Fau-Vincenti) Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve (1756_1794), a lawyer in Chartres, was considered as a progressive patriot on the side of Robespierre before he became one of the leaders of the Gironde. During the debates on the Penal Code, he was against the death penalty. He considered it “unintimidating” for criminals – reminding us of the famous highwayman Cartouche’s notorious phrase, “those disagreeable 15 minutes will soon be over”. Pétion took arguments from history, and notably Ancient Greece and Rome (Attica and the draconian laws, Rome and the laws of Valeria and Porcia, Egypt under Tabacos, etc) as well as from other countries to prove that the death penalty was not an efficient or effective solution. Crimes, he argued, were more numerous in countries where capital punishment was practiced with severity, and less numerous in countries where it was abolished. This reasoning called on history and international comparison, methods of both supporters and abolitionists of the time, and would be taken up again during the parliamentary debates of 1908. Dracon, an Athenian legislator from the 7th century BC, famously wrote a Penal Code in blood that condemned the majority of criminals to death. Louis Dominique Bourguignon, commonly called “Cartouche” (1693-1721) was the leader of a criminal gang that committed robbery and murder in Paris during the beginning of the 18th century. Valeria’s laws (509 B.C) and Porcia (198-184 BC) punished the beating (with sticks) or the execution of any Roman citizen with exile. Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary Debate of 1791.

For more information: See the biographical article on Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve on Wikipedia.

 

Duport: the death penalty is not a deterrent

Source : Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 643-650.

Extract from Adrien Duport’s speech, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 31st 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 643-650). Adrien Duport (1759-1798), an advisor of the Parisian Parliament, a deputy of nobility in the Estates-General, joined forces with the Revolution. With Barnave and Lameth, a triumvirate who led the Club of Jacobins, he played a significant role in the inspiration of revolutionary politics through July 1791. He actively participated in the projects of the National Constituent Assembly, and particularly in the legislative committee. He also played a decisive role in legal reform, such as the establishment of juries. During debates on the Penal Code, he made a long speech – frequently interrupted by other deputies – which was one of the most elaborate pleas against the death penalty. He notably insisted on the fact that death, which every man knows (a “condition of existence”), could not, by principle, be a punishment because that would put soldiers who sacrifice their lives for their country on the same footing as criminals. Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary debate of 1791.

For more information: See the biographical article on Adrien Duport on Wikipedia.

 

The vicar Jallet: “Distance yourselves from these horrors”

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 656-661.

Extract from the opinion of J. Jallet, a vicar and deputy of Poitou, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 31st 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 656-661).

Jacques Jallet (1732-1791), the son of a gardener in Deux-Sèvres, became vicar of Chérigné and ardently took up the revolutionary cause. A deputy for the clergy in the Estates-General, he was one of the first religious figures to join the representatives of the Third Estate and to take the oath of the Jeu de Paume. He voted for the clergy’s Civil Constitution, but declined the position of constitutional bishop of Deux-Sèvres in order to dedicate himself to activist politics. He died shortly after his participation in the debate on the death penalty, on August 14th 1791. Jallet’s contribution was not actually read at the Assembly because he claimed to lack public speaking skills and preferred to submit a written text. His contribution was published in the Annex of the debates and it remains unfairly under-recognized even today. His text combines clear arguments with vehemence in order to reason against capital punishment. As did a portion of the clergy who participated in the Revolution, he espoused the humanitarian philosophy of his era, although in the following century the church allied itself more closely with conservative forces and rarely contested the death penalty. For Jallet, capital punishment should be left behind in history books as an example of the “sophistication of savagery” that legislators could inflict, applying the principle of “public condemnation”. His forceful attack on Ancien Régime torture included references to the chevalier de La Barre (“What more do cannibals do?”). But aside from condemning torture, which was a viewpoint shared by all the deputies, Jallet outspokenly opposed the death penalty, which he saw as contradictory to the Assembly’s goal of establishing moderate, “corrective” punishments. There was no question of providing a “gentle death” – his text references Guillotin’s famous contraption that was presented to the Assembly at the end of 1789 – but instead of abolishing capital punishment completely.
Read Jallet’s complete text on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary Debate of 1791.

The vicar Jallet: “The death warrant of countless innocents”

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 656-661.

One of the major arguments of abolitionists was the danger of judicial error: the punishment was irreversible. Jallet’s arguments remained pertinent until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981 and his critique of the principle of judicial infallibility was taken up in the speech of Robert Badinter during the last parliamentary debate. While the majority of deputies in the National Constituent Assembly considered that legal reform (creating juries, advising the accused) would make erroneous judicial decisions practically a thing of the past, Jallet, taking England as an example (where juries had long existed), showed that judicial error could not always be prevented since justice was carried out by mere men. His warning to legislators, that they would “sign the death warrant of countless innocents”, was particularly justified given that he could add “it is not the judge who murders, but the legislator.”
Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary Debate of 1791.

Prugnon: “To scare by example”

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 617-622.

Extract from Prugnon’s speech, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 30th 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 617-622).

Louis Pierre Joseph Prugnon (1789-1828), a lawyer in Nancy and a moderate representative of the Third Estate in the Estates-General, played an important role in debates over legal reform, and notably the creation of juries and justices of the peace. Prugnon sided with the majority in the National Constituent Assembly, the side which supported the death penalty as a necessary method of “scaring [criminals] with big examples” under the assumption that criminals were “an exception to the laws of nature”, insensitive to torture. Because of this, the majority supported keeping capital punishment as a last resort. Prugnon criticized the “illusions” of the generous Enlightenment philosophy, which saw man as inherently virtuous, and wanted to be realistic, because “crime exists on earth (in reality)”. His criticism of alternative punishments was cited during the debates of 1908: since the horror inspired by crime fades over time, those who are tortured over the long-term may inspire pity, and even a mitigation of their sentence – not to mention the possibility that criminals escape punishment by their own means.
Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary debate of 1791.

 

Brillat-Savarin criticizes the proposed alternative to the death penalty

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 642-643.

Extract from Brillat-Savarin’s speech, National Constituent Assembly, session of May 31st 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 642-643).
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) is certainly famous for his work as an epicure and gastronome, notably writing The Physiology of Taste (1825). A representative in the National Constituent Assembly, and partisan of the Girond, he was forced to flee the Reign of Terror, and took exile in Switzerland. When he returned to France in 1797, he was named advisor to the Court of Cassation. Brillat-Savarin based his opinions on his experience as a judge; according to him, the death penalty alone could strike fear in the hearts of “crooks”, who he considered beyond help, as “bad apples” from birth. This type of reasoning was taken up and made systematic by turn-of-the-century criminology, and notably by the positivist “Italian School” of Cesare Lombroso (author of the famous “born-criminal” theory). Brillat-Savarin also developed the notion that the death penalty could be a form of life insurance: it could guarantee that citizens would be safe from heinous crimes because of the right of self-defense. He also used his professional experience to criticize alternatives to the death penalty that were proposed during the debates on the Penal Code. According to Brillat-Savarin, neither labor in the mines nor the “dark dungeon” would sufficiently deter future crimes. Furthermore, such long sentences would be counterproductive, because prison was “the school of crime” and, even if it wasn’t, Brillat-Savarin did not believe in the ability of prisoners to be reformed.
Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary Debate of 1791.

Barère: “Let’s leave the honor of abolishing the death penalty to our successors.”

Source : Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 685-687

Extract from Barère’s speech, the National Constituent Assembly, session of June 1st 1791 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXVI, p. 685-687).

Bertrand Barère (1755-1841) was a lawyer in the Parliament of Toulouse, a deputy of the Third Estate in the Estates-General and then in the National Constituent Assembly, before gaining a significantly larger role as one of the most important members of the Public Welfare Committee during the Reign of Terror. Barère declared himself as an opponent to capital punishment because of “reason, philosophy and justice”, but simultaneously thought that abolition would be premature in 1791. He based his reasoning on the idea that in such a revolutionary context, it would be dangerous to abolish the death penalty, an action that would be possible once the state reached “social perfection”. First, the new judicial and penal institutions were not yet established and abolition could thus allow criminals to “hope for impunity”. Secondly, the changing power structure had weakened the repressive power of the state. Third, and above all, “two parties” divided France and Barère expressed a popular revolutionary idea that this meant that all force was necessary, including the death penalty, in order to suppress counter-revolutionary actions. This reasoning is similar to that used during the Ancien Régime and to that used by those who were fearful of the working-class “excesses” of the Revolution, as well as to the justifications of revolutionaries themselves. This lead Prugnon to ask the question: “And so, when will we abolish the death penalty? In a time of anarchy, when you don’t have enough force to combat the people, who we have taught should take power for themselves; when it is better to increase the limits and the barriers against them, far from weakening them.” (trans. P. Bass) This political context explains the failure of abolition in 1791; the death penalty remained a “necessary political tool”, to defend the Revolution for some, and to curb the rebelling populace for others.
Read the complete text of the speech on Criminocorpus: Death Penalty. Parliamentary Debate of 1791.