Gary Schwartz HIST-1020
Do a web search on the history of the guillotine. Discuss its use during the French revolution. How effective was it as a weapon of terror?
Prior to the French Revolution, capital punishment in France intentionally included an element of torture. As a result of “enlightened thinking,” there was a movement to remove this element, if not do away with the death penalty altogether. After debate, the French Legislative Assembly decided to leave capital punishment in place; however, torture was abolished. On December 10, 1789, in a presentation made to the Assembly, Dr. Joseph Guillotine put forth an idea for a more humane killing machine, one that would come to bear his name. The guillotine provided a more compassionate death for each of its victims, and did so in an efficient manner. The machine’s proficiency dramatically increased the capacity to kill individuals. As the Revolution spiraled out of control into a Reign of Terror, the guillotine easily accommodated the dramatic rise in daily executions throughout France. As a result, many individuals, “often without trial and with little cause – were beheaded by guillotine blades” (Klein). According to Patrick Brunet, a direct descendent of the state executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, “three quarters of those who were guillotined at that time were innocent” (Lawday).
The guillotine symbolized the egalitarian aspirations of the French Revolution. Prior to the Revolution, methods of executions differed by social status or professional rank. While members of the aristocracy had the privilege of a relatively more humane death by decapitation, commoners were executed by more tortuous methods, such as bludgeoning by the breaking wheel or burning at the stake. On September 25, 1791, the French Assembly approved new laws that codified equality for like offenses and crimes. Among other statutes, the new penal code stated, “same crimes were punishable by same penalties regardless of rank or status” and “regardless of the nature of the offense, the death penalty will o...