The Republican Razor: The Guillotine as a Symbol of Equality


Equality was one of the cornerstones of French Revolutionary ideology; it was also one of the most important principles behind the development of the guillotine, which was adopted as the official means of execution by the Legislative Assembly in 1792. Despite its association with the Reign of Terror, the guillotine itself was never viewed by the common people of France in a negative way. Instead, it was symbolic of the equality that guided its creation.

The guillotine is named for Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a member of the Third Estate who proposed his invention to the National Assembly in 1789.[1] Seeking to revolutionize France’s penal system, Guillotin gave a speech to the National Assembly introducing reforms  innovative for the time period. His proposal ensured, for instance, that the family of an accused man would not be punished for his crimes, and that all people who committed the same crime would be punished in the same way.[2] The introduction of a common method of execution was only a small fraction of the sweeping changes that Dr. Guillotin and others in the assembly sought to implement.

Article 6 of Guillotin’s proposal to the Constituent Assembly makes the intention behind the guillotine’s creation clear: “The method of punishment shall be the same for all persons on whom the law shall pronounce death, whatever the crime of which they are guilty. The criminal shall be decapitated. Decapitation is to be effected by a simple mechanism.”[3] Guillotin and other reformers also hoped that this method would be painless, especially in comparison to the forms of execution which it replaced, like hanging, drawing and quartering and breaking on the wheel. Through the implementation of a uniform means of execution, Guillotin and his contemporaries sought to make the process more equitable, rational, and above all, just. Truly, this was to be a machine of the Enlightenment. The guillotine would not discriminate between a person of noble blood and a common peasant. That everyone who committed a capital offense would die in the same way was a truly revolutionary idea in a world so fraught with social hierarchies.

Who Died on the Scaffold?

At least two aspects of Guillotin’s proposal were successful. First, Executions became more uniform after the construction and implementation of the guillotine; all classes of people who faced execution faced in in the same ritualized fashion. Second, the machine was, when used correctly, efficient. Victims of the guillotine met death quickly, seemingly painlessly, and all the while being afforded the dignity of a noble death. In these ways, the guillotine represented the leveling of society that the revolutionaries sought, in both life and death.

The victims of the guillotine during the Reign of Terror were as diverse as the citizens of France. Records of the time show that all levels of society were represented proportionally to the percentage of society that they constituted.[4]  The King and Queen of France met their fates at the end of the guillotine’s blade, as did former nobles, clergymen, tradesmen, and peasants[5]. However, something went wrong over the course of the revolution. The majority of those killed during the terror were political prisoners, not the common criminals that Guillotin and other penal reformers had in mind in 1789.

During the Reign of Terror, the number of capital crimes increased dramatically. Anyone considered an enemy of the revolution was executed. The National Convention declared, for instance, that hoarding would be punished by death, a move celebrated by the sans-culottes. The people who died on the guillotine during this period may not have been the victims that Guillotin had intended. In fact, he narrowly escaped execution by his own invention, and his family was eventually driven to change their name due to the association with the machine and the Reign of Terror.

The first man to die by the guillotine was a common criminal named Nicolas Jacques Pellitier,[6] and he is remembered almost exclusively for this distinction. But within a year of his execution, the guillotine had been used to silence thousands of enemies of the revolution. Priests who refused to take oaths of allegiance to the republic, young women who wrote negative letters about the government to relatives, and so many others died by the blade at the hands of the Revolutionary regime. Queen Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine not only for her treasonous crimes against her people, but also because she was a symbol of the monarchy and of the decadence of the old regime. Anyone could easily become a victim of the Terror. Even Robespierre himself fell victim to “the sword of retribution”.

The threat of execution by the guillotine was effectively used by the government to control the public. For instance, a law was passed at the urging of the Sans Culottes in Paris mandating that the hoarding of food be punished by death. Though harsh, enforcing the death penalty for this offense ensured that the French troops could be fed. By using a few select people as examples, those in power could scare the rest of the population into submission to protect the fragile government.

“The People’s Axe”

Because of the public nature of execution, the guillotine became a cultural symbol of the times. The guillotine itself was associated with the ideology behind the revolution, representing equal treatment for all under the law, while the executions, which were popular public events, also inspired feelings of patriotism and equality. Members of society who were once marginalized were able to  actively participate in the revolutionary movement by attending public executions. These people felt a close connection to the guillotine, and this is reflected in the language they used to describe it.

There were many terms of endearment for the guillotine popular with the common people of Paris. Albert Soboul writes, “The guillotine was popular because the sans-culottes regarded it as the avenging arm of the nation, accounting for such expressions as ‘national hatchet’, and ‘the people’s axe’; the guillotine was also ‘the scythe of equality’.[7] The guillotine promoted equality not only in the way that it executed criminals from all segments of society in the same way, but it also allowed those who were politically disenfranchised to have a feeling of close involvement with the revolution. It was a machine of the common people, the sans-culottes and the working class men and women of Paris.

Often, the guillotine was personified by supporters of the revolution. In a pamphlet entitled, “Letter from the guillotine of erstwhile Lyon to her elder sister, the guillotine of Paris,” one guillotine is literally portrayed as communicating with another:

Dear Sister, I read with wonder a report printed in Paris recounting your miraculous achievements, your admirable feats and the progress of your work. I was moved to emulate you and, though your junior, I pursued my work with new enthusiasm… How many heads in one bag, dear sister! But our work is not yet done. There are many enemies at the heart of the republic. It is our bounden duty to perform this last service for them, such a pleasant one to fulfil. Never have surgeons achieved such ‘beautiful cures’.[8]

By personifying the machine in this manner, attributing feelings of self-satisfaction and patriotism to an inanimate object, revolutionaries were perpetuating the idea of the guillotine as the mechanism of equality, and as a symbol of the revolution.

Women, especially, took an interest in the guillotine. While there is no historical evidence for the existence of the “knitters” that Charles Dickens describes in A Tale of Two Cities, it is certainly true that women attended executions in droves. Dominique Godineau explains that women were “fervent supporters of the Terror,”[9] because the guillotine was a very effective means of combating rising bread prices.

These women and other supporters of the terror gave the guillotine an almost cult-like following, often referring to it as “saint-guillotine.” This canonization of the Guillotine was a common theme in writings of the time and was a popular theme with the people of Paris:

The informer Pourvoyeur noted that on 13 Pluviôse year II (1 February 1794), “the people” said that “the guillotine has acted and performs more miracles than Saint Geneviève has ever done and has even performed more miracles than all the saints in the calendar, without including those still to come.”On 26 Ventôse he wrote, “There is good reason to say that only this saint can save us.” [10]

The positive popular attitude towards the guillotine is apparent in the writings of the time. Jeremy Popkin describes the way that Jacques Hébert characterized execution by guillotine in his journal, Le Père Duchêne: “The dread machine was the ‘vis à vis of Master Samson[the executioner]’ and those who fell under it suffered a “raccourcissement” (shortening) or played “à la maine chaude” (a children’s game whose name Hébert adapted to mean execution.)”[11] His use of popular language and crude metaphors appealed to the working class man of Paris who were so taken with the guillotine and the spectacle of public execution.

“Don’t Forget to Show My Head to the People:” The Spectacle of Execution

Witnessing a guillotine execution in  Reign of Terror Paris was  a common sight.  Despite the repetitious, or even boring, amptions involved in operating the machine, there was a certain ceremonial glamour which accompanying each execution that was fully appreciated by the public and fully exploited by the government. Guillotines often drew very large crowds to the city squares in which they were erected, and the graphic nature of executions inspired much fanfare. The amount of blood produced by decapitation was prodigious, but this did not deter the crowds.

No matter who was mounting the scaffold, there was bound to be a show. And the regime often used this to their advantage. Public executions were an excellent platform for controlling the public through propaganda. Thousands of people gathered in public squares to witness executions as a form of entertainment during the Terror. Events on the scaffold could be construed in a variety of ways and twisted by the press to give a more positive or negative impression of the deceased.

Perhaps the most important political usage of the guillotine occurred with the execution of Louis XVI. To die by beheading was a special privilege in the old regime, reserved solely for aristocrats; the guillotine changed that. When the king was executed in the same fashion as common criminals, he was reduced to their social level. When Louis lost his head, the republic gained legitimacy and the country became free. Through the guillotine, “the body of the king [was] made commonplace[12]” because the king was killed in the same way as common criminals. However, this equalizing effect of the guillotine was not only evident in the case of the royal family. It placed all individuals  unfortunate enough to mount the scaffold on the same level.

Since all criminals were executed in the same fashion, they were given an equal opportunity to ensure that they each died what was perceived as a good death. The way in which one behaved on the scaffold was considered highly important. By conducting oneself in a calm and collected manner on the scaffold, one could avoid the shame of a bad death.  Louis XVI, who is said to have conducted himself better as he walked to his death than he ever did while he ruling France, is a prime example. The king was reportedly courteous, and tried to deliver an eloquent final speech before being drowned out by the roll of drums.

Not everyone could be present for an execution, so writers often used their accounts of the executions to persuade the public to their cause. While some writings, especially those of royalists or foreigners, attempted to rally sympathy for the deceased enemies of the Revolution, others celebrated the successful delivery of revolutionary justice. Written accounts or drawings of an execution reveal the political persuasion of the speaker. For instance, in their accounts of the Louis XVI’s death, republicans were quick to note small signs of his weakness, like his objection to the cutting of his hair, or a change in his complexion. English accounts and artistic renderings of the execution of the King, on the other hand, attribute to the monarch a more regal air, even portraying him as a martyr. [13] These English examples starkly contrast the much more grotesque French examples – a dissimilarity that points to the revolutionaries’ desire to remove distinctions between symbols of monarchy and other victims of the guillotine.

Not everyone behaved as nobly as the king on the way to the scaffold. The execution of Jacques Hébert, or Pêre Duchene, inspired the following song:

Père Duchesne has been condemned

To the guillotine, by God.

How he blinds and swears and shouts

To see his head come off!

Oh dear, really,

He’s not a happy man…[14]

 Hébert’s behavior on the scaffold made him seem  hypocritical after speaking so harshly in favor of executing so many people. A man’s undignified behavior on the scaffold could ruin his posthumous reputation. With so many supporters in life, the “Pêre Duchesne” had no one to protect him from death. Hebert’s execution and the mockery he suffered shows that the loyalty of the sans-culottes was to the guillotine itself, and not to those who exalted it. Nobility in death was of the utmost importance.

In order to ensure a good death, and avoid the posthumous mockery faced by men like Hèbert, maintaining one’s honor in the face of execution was important. This meant remaining stoic at trial, after receiving one’s sentence, and especially on the scaffold. This was reflected in the behavior of many of the condemned. When Madame Roland was condemned for her association with the Girondists, a less radical faction of the National Assembly which was persecuted by Robespierre and his followers, she thanked her judges for her sentence. “I thank you, gentlemen,” she said, “for thinking me worthy of sharing the fate of the great men whom you have assassinated. I shall endeavor their firmness on the scaffold.”[15]

Often, prisoners rehearsed their execution or planned speeches or last words before their execution took place in order to prepare themselves for a good and noble death. Georges Danton, a fiery radical speaker of the period and one of the key players of the early stages of the revolution, is famous for asking the executioner to show his head to the people. He also delivered the following poem on the scaffold:

We are led to our deaths

By villains; and this

Is a sorrow we cannot deny.

But the time will come

When they too shall succumb,

Which consoles us as we die.[16]

Speech-making and other theatrics on the scaffold were by no means limited to men of noble birth like the king. In fact, it was relatively common for individuals of all social backgrounds to make speeches or recite prose on the scaffold.



This guillotine’s role during the Reign of Terror was vital both politically and socially. Its threat to the French public deterred them from speaking out against the radical regime. Conversely, the guillotine also promoted the revolutionary ideas of equality and justice, rendering it a machine of the Enlightenment and a mechanism of barbarity simultaneously. What was created with the best of intentions was used by a group of people to do something truly horrible in the name of the ideals upon which the revolution and the guillotine were both founded. Dr. Guillotin did not create a monster, it was the society in which he lived that turned his creation into a monster.

The Reign of Terror is commonly said to have ended in 1794 with the death of Robespierre, who ironically perished by the republican razor just as he had guaranteed that so many of his contemporaries would. Severely wounded in the jaw from his attempted suicide, Robespierre screamed in pain until the blade fell.[1]The use of the guillotine did not die with him. This means of execution continued to be used in France until the 1970s, applauded for the quick and painless death that it brought to its victims. However, these more modern executions were not public affairs. The guillotine’s continued use after the French Revolution reveals its significance, not only as a weapon of terror against the people, but as a means of execution reflecting the original intentions of the revolution, equality and justice for all French citizens.

[1] Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 845-846.

[1] Arasse, Daniel. The Guillotine and the Terror. (London: Penguin Group, 1989),  8-18

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Donald Greer, The incidence of the Terror During the Frenh Revolution. (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1966),

[5] Oliver Blanc, Last Letters: Prisons & Prisoners of the French Revolution. (London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1987).

[6] Arasse, Guillotine 26

[7] Albert Soboul, The Parisian Sans-Coulotte and the French Revolution 1793-4 160

[8] Cobb, Richard and Jones, Colin, eds. Voices of the French Revolution (Topsfield, Massachusetts:  Salem House Publishers,1988), 201

[9] Dominique Godineau, The Women of Paris and their French Revolution (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), 229-232.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Popkin Revolutionary News: The Press in France 1789-1799 160

[12] De Baecque, Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution. (New York: Routlidge, 2003),  97

[13] Arasse, 65-70

[14] Arasse, Guillotine 117

[15] John S.C. Abbot, Makers of History: Madame Roland. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902), 294

[16]Daniel Gordon, “The Theater of Terror: The Jacobin Execution in Comparative and Theoretical Perspective.”

 Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques , Vol. 29, No. 2, Interpreting the Death Penalty: Spectacles and Debates (Summer 2003), pp. 251-273

[17] Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 845-846.

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