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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4.4 The guillotine

The new system of departments introduced in 1790 removed the many differing and often overlapping jurisdictions of Old Regime France and replaced them with a uniform system of justice. Each department had its own criminal court, each district a civil court. All criminal cases were to be tried by jury, another revolutionary innovation. Enlightenment thinkers including Montesquieu and Voltaire had criticized the arbitrariness and brutality of penal practice in Old Regime France. Judicial torture as a means of exacting evidence in criminal proceedings and torture in general – notably the horrific penalty of breaking on the wheel (suffered in 1762 by the innocent Jean Calas, whose cause had been taken up by Voltaire) – were abolished in October 1789. There remained the question of capital punishment itself. The Legislative Assembly resolved by a narrow majority to retain the death penalty and adopted the guillotine as the instrument of execution, following a report from Dr Louis, secretary of the Academy of Surgeons and author of the article ‘Death’ in the Encyclopédie.

Click to view The Decree on the death penalty [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Exercise 7

Now read the decree concerning the death penalty, March 1792 (Anthology I, p.87–9). Why did the Assembly approve the guillotine?


The guillotine was adopted on expert advice and after experimentation on scientific and humanitarian grounds: as the quickest and least painful form of execution for victim, spectators and executioner alike (‘humanity requires that the death penalty be as painless as possible’). It applied the fundamental principle of mechanics: Newton's law of gravitation. Newton's law was infallible, and so was the guillotine: the falling bevelled blade never failed to decapitate and there would be no more botched executions.

The adoption of the guillotine was another example of legal and social equality in action. Nobleman and common murderer suffered the same penalty, and both were executed publicly. The king and queen were guillotined in the year after this decree. The guillotine was named after Dr Guillotin, a member of the Constituent Assembly, who enthused over the instrument as a symbol of the penal, technological and humanitarian progress inspired by the Enlightenment.