The Guillotine & the French Revolution
One of the most recognizable and terrifying symbols of the French Revolution is the guillotine. Named for Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the man who created it, the guillotine was developed as a way to execute people in a more humane way. Dr. Guillotin was disturbed by the brutal beheadings that were taking place in his country as a form of capital punishment. Up until the late 1700s, those sentenced to death by decapitation had their heads cut off by swords or axes. Dr. Guillotin believed that a machine could be created which would swiftly and effectively decapitate people, sparing them suffering or mangling during their death. Thus, in 1789, the guillotine was born, a tall mechanism that featured a sharp, heavy blade positioned at the top and a kneeling area for people to stick their head through at the bottom. Once the blade came down, the execution was complete.
Despite Dr. Guillotin’s initial goal of creating a humane form of execution, the guillotine was used to kill thousands of people during the Reign of Terror. Among them were members of the bourgeoisie, aristocrats, peasants, foreigners, and sympathizers of the revolution. The guillotine was also used to execute Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Maximilien Robespierre, the man responsible for the Reign of Terror.
King Louis XVI, who had formerly been the absolute monarch of France but was reduced in stature during the revolution, tried to flee the country with his wife, Marie Antoinette. They were unsuccessful in their attempt and didn’t make it very far. In 1793, King Louis XVI was sentenced to death by the guillotine after he was found to have been conspiring with other countries and engaging in counter-revolutionary acts. He was found guilty of treason and later executed.
Nine months later, Marie Antoinette, the former Queen of France, was executed by the guillotine. She was known - and widely disliked - for her opulent lifestyle and her extreme spending habits. For this reason, she earned herself the nickname of “Madame Deficit” because of all the money she spent in her time as queen. The courts also found her guilty of treason just like her husband, and she was beheaded by the guillotine in October of 1793.
During the Reign of Terror, Maximilien de Robespierre made it his duty to seek out any individuals who disagreed with or criticized the French Revolution. Those who were found guilty of this behavior were thrown into prison or killed. His methods were deemed much too extreme to continue, and he was subsequently arrested by the National Convention. Robespierre was put to death by the guillotine in July of 1794