France Adopts the Guillotine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The invention of the guillotine made decapitation more “humane” and gave equality of punishment to all classes. It also made decapitation “easier” and faster, facilitating the mass executions of the Reign of Terror.

Summary of Event

The guillotine was invented to make execution Execution less painful and to provide one means of execution for all who received the death penalty, regardless of their social class or the crime they had committed. Methods of execution in France, as elsewhere at this time, were cruel and brutal, causing considerable physical suffering to the executed. They were also varied in regard to the type of crime being punished and to the social class of the condemned individual. Only the nobility and upper bourgeoisie had the privilege of being decapitated. The poor were usually hanged in the public square. For certain crimes, however, there were extremely painful methods of execution. Highwaymen were broken on the wheel, those who had committed regicide or crimes against the state were drawn and quartered, heretics were burned alive, and counterfeiters were boiled alive. [kw]France Adopts the Guillotine (Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792) [kw]Guillotine, France Adopts the (Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792) Guillotines [g]France;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] [c]Inventions;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] [c]Science and technology;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1789-Apr. 25, 1792: France Adopts the Guillotine[2860] Guillotin, Joseph-Ignace Louis, Antoine Sanson, Charles-Henri Louis XVI

In October, 1789, the National Assembly National Assembly (France) began a debate on the penal code of France. In an effort to make executions more humane and to minimize the suffering of the condemned, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a noted physician and member of a small movement Law;France that sought the eventual elimination of the death penalty, Death penalty proposed the use of a decapitation machine Machines;for execution[execution] as a means of execution. Guillotin’s proposal consisted of six articles intended to minimize the suffering of the person condemned to death and to assure the same treatment to all individuals as well as protection of the family of the accused from persecution and stigma. He proposed that all offenses be punished by the same penalty, and that in the case of the death penalty, the means of execution should be decapitation by use of a machine, not by sword or axe. He also recommended that the body of the offender be given to the family at their request, that there should be no confiscation of property, that the family should not be censured or excluded from any public office or profession, and that anyone who reproached a family member for the crime should be publicly reprimanded.

In 1791, the National Assembly passed a law stating that all who received the death penalty would be beheaded. Following this decree, Antoine Louis, a renowned surgeon and secretary of the Academie de Chirurgie et de Medecine de sa Majeste (His Majesty’s Academy of Surgery and Medicine) Academy of Surgery and Medicine, France was chosen to oversee the development and construction of a decapitation machine. This type of device was not a new idea. Louis was able to consult drawings of similar machines that had been used occasionally in England, Scotland, and Italy from the twelfth century. He designed a machine that rested upon a platform or scaffold.

The mechanical workings of the guillotine are described in this 1793 etching that represents Louis XVI as a martyr declaring, “I forgive my enemies; I die innocent!!!”

(Library of Congress)

Tobias Schmidt, Schmidt, Tobias a German harpsichord maker, was hired to do the actual construction of the machine with the assistance of Charles-Henri Sanson, chief executioner of France. The machine was first set up near Schmidt’s workshop in the Cour de Commerce and tried out on sheep and calves. Animal experimentation It was then taken to the hospital at Bicetre, where it was tested on three human corpses. It was after this experiment with the machine that the blade was modified and rendered oblique. Schmidt is credited with suggesting the oblique blade.

The device was tested again at Bicetre, using three corpses of well-built men, who had died from accidents or short illnesses, to be certain that the blade severed the head quickly and completely. This device, which was now ready for use in the execution of those condemned to death, could be described in the following manner: It was composed of two upright planks of wood that measured fourteen feet and were connected at the top by a wooden crossbeam. The oblique blade, which was weighted and operated by pulleys, traveled down through greased grooves in the sides of the uprights when it was released. The device was placed on a platform with a stair of twenty-four steps.

In March of 1792, King Louis XVI had signed the law adopting the machine. On April 25, 1792, Jacques Nicolas Pelletier, Pelletier, Jacques Nicolas a highwayman, was executed with the device, which was operated by Sanson. The machine was then moved to the Place de Carrousel, where political offenders were executed. It was subsequently moved to the Place de la Revolution (the present-day Place de La Concorde), where Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793. By this time, people were referring to the machine as the “louison” or “louisette.” (There is some controversy as to whether this name made reference to Antoine Louis or to Louis XVI.) Eventually, in spite of Guillotin’s protests, the machine became known as the guillotine. It also acquired other descriptive names among the populace, such as Madame la Guillotine, la Veuve (the Widow), and la Becane (the Machine).

It is ironic that an invention that was the result of a humanitarian’s strong desire to alleviate suffering and eventually to eliminate the death penalty should be the instrument of so many deaths and come to inspire fear and trepidation. Such, however, was the fate of the guillotine. The Reign of Terror French Revolution (1789-1796);guillotine[guillotine] began in September of 1793 with the rise to power of Robespierre and escalated into the Great Terror with the passage of the Law of 22 Prairial (June 21, 1794), which gave the Revolutionary Tribunal Revolutionary Tribunal (France) the right to condemn to death whomever they pleased. The Great Terror lasted until Robespierre’s fall from power in July of 1794.

This period witnessed the guillotining of approximately twenty thousand French citizens, including nobility, clergy, and commoners. The guillotine deprived the nation of many of its best thinkers and scientists, such as the chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent It also took the lives of many of the promulgators of the Revolution, including Georges Danton Danton, Georges and Robespierre. Robespierre Although Guillotin was arrested and imprisoned, his neck did not come under the machine’s blade. After Robespierre’s demise, Guillotin was released. He died in 1814. The guillotine continued to be used as the means of execution in France until 1981, when capital punishment was outlawed.

The guillotine quickly acquired a symbolic import throughout Europe. This 1798 cartoon portrays the British pro-French politician George Tierney as an executioner, standing before a guillotine dripping with blood and gore.

(Library of Congress)

The thought and philosophy of the Enlightenment brought about the invention of the guillotine. It was a physical representation of the period’s efforts to improve the life of the individual. Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, and their fellow philosophes (philosophers) believed that humans had the ability to improve the conditions of their lives by the use of reason. To achieve this end, they spoke out against superstition, brutality, violence, and prejudice, including that prejudice that privileged one class over another. They believed in the perfectibility of humans and the right of the individual to dignity and respect. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a humanitarian as well as a physician and politician, applied these principles to his medical and political activities. Thus, he proposed the device named after him to minimize human suffering, to eliminate privilege before the law, and to maintain the dignity of the condemned. The quick severing of a head lessened the horror of execution as it replaced long torturous methods of breaking and rending the victim’s body.

Guillotin believed that establishing mechanical decapitation as the only means of execution would lead eventually to abolishment of the death penalty. It is ironic that the French Revolution would turn the invention into a diabolical and bloody symbol of death. The revolutionaries unable to maintain control over the political change that they had put into motion fell into a violent frenzy of killing. Either the Enlightenment’s beloved reason had left them or they had abandoned it, for they were no longer thinking, just acting brutally, violently, and without respect for human dignity.

The guillotine played an important role in execution from its invention until the last years of the twentieth century. It was adopted by several countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, and Greece. In Nazi Germany, it was used for at least as many executions as during the French Revolution. In 1939, a French law was passed requiring that executions not be done in public. Thus, Guillotin’s hope that execution should be private, and not a public spectacle, finally became a reality. The last execution in France actually took place in 1977.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edited by L. G. Mitchell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Treats the mismanagement of change during the Revolution, which turned into violence and terror.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Good, comprehensive presentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardman, John. The French Revolution Sourcebook. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. English translations of original French documents pertaining to the Revolution (1785-1795).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hershaw, Alister. A History of the Guillotine. London: John Calder, 1958. The best, most-detailed book on the guillotine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Popkin, Richard, ed. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Chapter 6 provides an overall view of Enlightenment philosophy, its origins, and its results.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutton, Geoffrey V. Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Examines the popularization of science, the use of demonstration lectures, and the century’s interest in inventions.

Early Enlightenment in France

Fall of the Bastille

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Georges Danton; Denis Diderot; Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier; Louis XVI; Marie-Antoinette; Montesquieu; Robespierre; Voltaire. Guillotines

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