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To What Extent Was the Guillotine Used as an Instrument of Justice During the French Revolution?

Info: 2688 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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Internal Assessment

  1. Evaluation of Sources

This investigation will explore the question: To what extent was the guillotine used as an instrument of justice during the French Revolution? The focus of this investigation will be on the years 1789 – 1799 in order to highlight the use of the guillotine during the period of revolution in France.

The first source that I will be evaluating in depth is an excerpt from the Paris newspaper La Feuille Villageoise issued on September 27th 1792. This source originates from the newspaper company called La Feuille Villageoise which published weekly in Paris, France. The main audience for this newspaper were the common village people who wanted to be informed about the events in the midst of the revolution. The purpose of this source is to inform the common people of Paris that executing King Louis XVI would not be incompetent for what he has done wrong.  The contents of this particular excerpt is a sense of persuasiveness to spare the King of execution by guillotine as the writer feels it will promote sympathy rather than torture to the King if he was left in jail suffering. This is a valuable source because it is a reflection of the true opinions of the people during the time period of this event. Since this newspaper was written for the lower middle class of French society, the notions of the contents show that execution could not severe enough justice for the wrongdoings of King Louis XVI. In addition this source holds value in offering a different viewpoint in the execution of the King since the writer opposes the act of execution. This source is limited because the author writes from an extremely biased point of view and does not show the full depiction of the sition. Furthermore the source does not list a clear author making it unsure as to the accuracy of the information that is held within the excerpt.

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The next source is an article titled “French scientists in the shadow of the guillotine: the death roll of 1792–1794” written by William Smeaton in 1993. The origin of the source comes from a collection of articles written by William Smeaton, this source being volume 17. The purpose of this source is to explain the use of the guillotine during its height time of fame: the Reign of Terror. The contents is a detailed and chronological recall of the rise to usage of the new form of capital punishment during the French Revolution. This source can be seen to be valuable as it holds hindsight to the events and details that occurred during the time period. It also gives support and upholds the title of the guillotine to be a successful form of punishment at the time. However, it is limited because it has bias to only one perspective which is the support of the the guillotine to serve justice. In addition it may hold inaccuracy and not reflect the opinions of those in the tru time period since it was published long after the French Revolution.

  1. Investigation

Equality and justice was seen to be some of the most important foundations of French Revolutionary belief system. In conjunction to this, they were also the most significant ideals behind the advancement of the guillotine, which was accepted as the official capital punishment method by the Legislative Assembly in 1792. [1]Although it is associated with negative connotations such as its relation with the Reign of Terror, the people of France did not see the guillotine in a negative manner but rather a symbol of justice and equality.

The guillotine is named after its creator, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who proposed his idea and invention to the National Assembly in 1789. [2] Guillotin seeked to alter France’s penal framework and sought changes unconventional for the timeframe. He proposed that those who committed the same crimes should be executed in the same manner.[3] The guillotine would serve as an equal punishmental for all criminals regardless of their position in society. The new method contrasted the old death punishments as it could range from quick and painless to long-lasting and torturous. The overall aim was to achieve justice in an equal manner while making the deaths quick and painless.

 The guillotine was seen as a symbol of justice during the French Revolution because it ranged in such a large variety in who died at the blade. The people that died through the Guillotine were representative to the diversity of the French population. From King Louis XVI and Queen Antoinette to farmers and peasants met their fate through the same method. At whatever point individuals of the lower, average workers were condemned to death, they would regularly be hung, which could take hours if inappropriately executed. Those that were wealthier and in high societies, would have the advantaged in method of execution. The executioner would be hired on the family’s or individual’s choice although those in the lower level of the high society could sometimes hire an incompetent executioner resulting in dull blades that would not kill in on hit.[4] Execution before the guillotine heavily relied on how an individuals rank in society. After Nicolas Jacques Pelletier was the first man to be executed by the guillotine, thousands of others criminals would lose their life in the same way.[5] It was not difficult to become a victim of the guillotine. Young women who talked negatively of the revolution could lose their lives and even priests who did not follow the revolution could be convicted.[6] Offenses went all the way up to King Louis XVI who was convicted of treason died the same way that peasants did. This shows that the guillotine acted as an equal method of delivering justice to everybody regardless of their position in society.

 Furthermore, the guillotine acted as a symbol of justice as it ended the rule of an incompetent king. King Louis XVI, became overpowered by occasions outside his ability to control. Climbing the position of authority in 1774, Louis acquired a domain driven almost bankrupt through the richness of his ancestors Louis XIV and XV. Subsequent to wearing the crown, things just deteriorated. The economy spiraled descending, crops fizzled, the cost of bread and other nourishment took off. The third estate and the general population were could no longer deal with the price of high taxes and starvation. The people took out their frustrations on the foreign queen, the Austrian Marie Antoinette. Motivated by anger, citizens stormed to march Louis and his family from their wealthy living conditions at the Palace of Versailles to Paris. [7]After the King and his family made a failed attempt to flee, they were seen as incompetent and had failed the French people. Then on January 15th 1793, the National Convention gave the king a guilty verdict of treason, 693 votes to none. [8] He was sent to execution and away with him went monarchical rule. King Louis XVI’s death by guillotine gave justice to the people of France as they were no longer tied back by the rule of an incompetent king. They were able to become more involved in the decisions as the citizens of France which serves justice to the people.

 Due to the open nature of execution, the guillotine turned into a social symbol of the revolution. The message of delivering justice to all people motivated citizens from all around to come watch as the blade came crashing down on a head. Individuals from society who once were not involved had the option to effectively take part in the progressive development by going to open executions. These individuals felt a nearby association with the guillotine, and some even wore pins to show their likeness towards the guillotine. It quickly became the symbol for the revolution and integrated into French culture as well. Hundreds even thousands of people would stand outside of the Place de la Révolution in Paris to watch.[9] The act of watching beheading came as excitement to the people as they enjoyed the message of justice and equality that it conveyed.

 Despite the pure intentions of the guillotine, things turned to the worst through the span of the Revolution. It had turned out that the majority of those who became executed were political detainees and not the normal criminals that the guillotine had intended it’s purpose for. This meant that it’s sole purpose to deliver was taken away by corrupt leaders who would chose which people to be executed. This heighten time of unjustified execution was led by Maximilien Robespierre, who was on the Committee on Public Safety and created a new era called the Reign of Terror where those who did not support the revolution would be executed. Under this framework, 40,000 French people would be executed, incorporated into these numbers were the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. [10]Albeit every social class were focused on, the loss of life was particularly high for both church and nobles. During this period, the guillotine was not used for its intended purposes and did not serve justice but rather as a symbol to induce fear among those who wanted to speak up.

  French Tribunal Révolutionnaire was the court that was a sector created by the French National Convention in Paris in order to judge the trials of the political criminals. During the Reign of Terror, the tribunal would become one of the most dominating factors in installing injustice with the use of the guillotine. Across France, there was about 44,000 of these tribunals that would dictate the lives of those who got caught in political offenses. Many of these political offenses were based off of suspicions and rarely on true evidence. When it came to trial, these tribunals gave no mercy and rarely delivered justice as trials would not last long. The verdicts were easily made and heavily affected by one another.[11] Being sent to the guillotine to be executed meant that those who died over an innocent act were not served justice and during this time, the guillotine was not an instrument of justice during the French Revolution.

 During the French Revolution, the guillotine played a vital role in the social as well as political aspects of the time period. Although, leaders during the Reign of Terror were quick to misuse it, the guillotine was important in installing a sense of justice and equality in society. The guillotine was created out of pure intentions with a message of serving equal justice however, the corruption during the Reign of Terror destroyed the intended message.

  1. Reflection

 Through this investigation, I was able to gain insight on the methods that a historian uses. I was able to research sources that pertained to my topic and I learned about the difference in a strong source and a weak source. I was able to analyze these sources through OPCLV and go in depth into my sources. With the help of these sources I evaluated the answer of my research question and interpreted the answer to what I had learned. One of the many challenges that a historian faces is that history itself is extremely biased so it is difficult to start from a fresh point of view. This is different for scientists and mathematicians as they have clear answers that never change. It is clear to see that historical events are difficult to describe without bias since it can be interpreted in many different ways. Since archive-based history already has been written down to be biased the historian can face difficulties interpreting the event. To investigate the reliability of a source and to avoid greater difficulties, a historian should analyze the origin of the source and consider to see if it is credible. The most credible sources are often times primary sources although they can be heavily biased on the topic as well. Through this investigation I learned that the role of a historian is to interpret the information in the best way possible and in the most accurate way, making sure to eliminate unreliability. It is difficult to establish proof in history but that does not mean that all versions of history all equal. This only means that all of the versions have a different way of interpreting the situation and we must make the best decision in choosing a reliable source. This investigation benefitted my knowledge of what it takes to become a credible historian and the process of research that leads into careful investigation.


  • Arasse, Daniel. “The Guillotine and the Terror.” London: Penguin Group, (1989)
  • Carlyle, Thomas, and Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher. The French Revolution, a History in Three Parts: The Bastille.-v. 2. The constitution.-v. 3. The guillotine. Vol. 1. Methuen, 1902.
  • Cronin, Vincent. “Louis and Antoinette. New York: Morrow. (1975)
  • Doyle, William. “The execution of Louis XVI and the end of the French monarchy.” History Review (2000): 21-25.
  • Edgeworth, Henry in Thompson, J.M., English Witnesses of the French Revolution (1938,  Memoirs originally published 1815).
  • Moogk, Peter. “The liturgy of humiliation, pain, and death: The execution of criminals in New  France.” Canadian historical review 88, no. 1 (2007): 89-112.
  • “The National Convention’s Charges Against the King”, Paris, (1792),                                      https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/national-convention-charges-king-1792/
  • Smith, Philip. “Narrating the guillotine: Punishment technology as myth and symbol.” Theory, Culture & Society 20, no. 5, (2003)

[1] Arasse, Daniel. The guillotine and the terror. Lane, Allen, 1989.

[2] Smith, Philip. “Narrating the guillotine: Punishment technology as myth and symbol.” Theory,  

     Culture & Society 20, no. 5, (2003)

[3] Arrase, The Guillotine and the Terror

[4] Carlyle, Thomas, and Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher. The French Revolution, a History in Three

     Parts: The Bastille.-v. 2. The constitution.-v. 3. The guillotine. Vol. 1. Methuen, 1902.

[5] Arrase, The Guillotine and the Terror

[6] Ibid

[7] Doyle, William. “The execution of Louis XVI and the end of the French monarchy.” History

      Review (2000): 21-25.

[8] National Convention, “Charges Against The King”, 1792

[9] Smith, Philip. “Narrating the guillotine: Punishment technology as myth and symbol.”

[10] Arasse, Daniel. “The Guillotine and the Terror.”

[11] Ibid


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