Before the invention of the guillotine, an executioner might make several attempts with a sword before effectively chopping someone’s head off. The process was quite gruesome, bloody, and painful. When Joseph Guillotine invented a contraption that would quickly behead those sentenced to death, his goal was a more humane form of execution. The guillotine would execute anyone who was believed to stand against the principles of the revolution. Joseph Guillotine had no idea his invention would become known as the national razor of France for how frequently it was used.
Understanding the French Revolution can be quite a challenge, considering all of the political alliances that formed and the shifting ideologies. Also, how the seemingly incorruptible Maximilien Robespierre, a champion of the poor, led a dictatorial government that instated the Reign of Terror.
Many of the early supporters of the Revolution, including intellectuals whose ideas helped spawn it in the first place, were sent to die at the guillotine. Many of them died to declare their allegiance to the French Republic and the people as well as denounce the terror that Robespierre had forced upon the people. In fact, looking at the people who died at the guillotine may be the best way to understand the intricacies and complications of the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI, came to represent to the people the excesses of the French monarchy. She was known for her expensive tastes and lavish parties, while the people of France languished in the streets and were dying of hunger. This mindset is characterized by the famous words, “Let them eat cake!” However, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette said this, and she was known to actually be very concerned about France’s poor.
On July 14, 1789 – now known as “Bastille Day” – a mob stormed the Bastille prison to take the arms and ammunition that would fuel their revolution against the monarchy. On October 6 of that year, they entered Versailles and the royal family was taken into Paris, where they lived virtually under house arrest. In 1792, the monarchy was officially abolished, and the French Republic was declared.
The following year, in 1793, Marie Antoinette was put on trial for treason and various other crimes, including inflating the French national debt with her expensive lifestyle. She was found guilty by the jury and lived her final days in a deplorable prison, which was deemed to be too fancy for the queen. She met her end at the guillotine on October 16, 1793, four years after being taken to Paris.
The French monarchy, which ended with King Louis XVI, existed under the idea of the divine right of kings, which is essentially the idea that a king is set in place by God and is effectively above the law. He was not required to be competent to hold the position, and unfortunately, King Louis XVI is remembered for his political incompetence that may have caused the French Revolution.
Effectively funding a proxy war with France’s historical archrival, England, King Louis sent French troops to fight on the side of the American colonies during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, this carried the national debt spiraling out of control, and he refused to raise taxes in order to pay for it. The country found itself in a fiscal crisis, so in May 1789, he convened the Estates-General – a collection of nobility and commoners – to try to address the problems that were facing the country. The meeting didn’t go well for the king, as the members decided to write a new constitution that would limit the powers of the “divinely instated” king.
Ever indecisive and unable to deal with conflicts, the king was unable to stave off the impending revolution. He was taken along with his wife and family, to Paris where the new National Assembly declared him guilty of treason. The king was killed at the guillotine on January 21, 1793.
Maximilien Robespierre was a practicing lawyer and advocate for reform within the monarchy. He was heavily influenced by the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed in the idea of a “perfect man” who lived only by conscience rather than on external moral constraints that were thrust upon him. As such, he was concerned about the poorest members of society and earned the nickname “the incorruptible.”
Robespierre was a member of the Estates General, who wrote a new constitution, and also participated in the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a cornerstone of the revolution’s ideals. He argued in favor of the king’s execution and was elected to the committee that would create a new government for France. Perhaps this was when his own political ambitions were realized, and the incorruptible proved that he was fallible.
Robespierre went on to mastermind the Reign of Terror, a period of fear and discord in which any alleged enemies of the revolution were imprisoned. As many as 300,000 dissidents were arrested, and 17,000 were guillotined. During this time, Robespierre effectively eliminated any political opponents.
The executions that he was calling for led to widespread discontent with the now-radical dictator, and he was imprisoned. Robespierre tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide and was later arrested. He was executed at the same guillotine on which he had condemned so many.
Jacques Pierre Brissot had a background in law and literature before the French Revolution began. Like Robespierre, he was heavily influenced by the ethical precepts advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was even imprisoned in the Bastille for a short period because his advocacy for penal reform was seen as incitement against the king and queen.
Upon his release, he joined the anti-slavery movement and, along with the American political theorist Thomas Payne, advocated for a republican form of government that allowed for representation of the people’s will. He even traveled to America while it was still forming its government; these trips undoubtedly influenced his political ideals.
After the French Revolution began, Brissot was elected to the National Convention and became the leader of the Girondins, a group that was despised by the powerful Robespierre. When the king was found guilty of treason, Brissot argued that his life should be spared so that France could retain him as a bargaining chip in foreign negotiations; he also believed that people should be allowed to vote on what the king’s fate would be.
During the Reign of Terror, Robespierre accused Brissot of counterrevolutionary activity, including but not limited to his stance on the king’s execution. He was also accused of being a spy. Like many others who Robespierre perceived as being a threat, Brissot was executed at the guillotine.
Georges Danton, who came from a respected but not wealthy family, had a background in law before the French Revolution. He became the leader of the Cordeliers Club, a meeting of people who supported popular sovereignty for France and believed that the monarchy was irreconcilable with notions of freedom for the people. Critical to his later demise, he was accused of being the mastermind behind the September Massacres, when over a thousand prisoners were murdered in France’s war with Austria. Despite the allegations, he was elected to the National Convention when it convened in 1792.
He went on to become a member of the Committee of Public Safety, which was effectively France’s government during the Reign of Terror. He also helped create the Revolutionary Tribunal, which tried alleged political dissidents of the revolution and also disarmed the populace so that they could not rise against the new dictatorial government.
However, he became a more moderate voice that spoke against the institution of terror as normative for the government. He also advocated better international diplomacy so that France’s new government would be respected throughout Europe.
Danton’s ideas were very much out of favor with Robespierre, who began looking for a means of charging Danton with counter-revolutionary activities. He was accused of taking bribes from foreign governments and using the revolution for personal gain and met his end with Madame Guillotine in 1794.
Princess Elisabeth was the sister of King Louis XVI. She was only a year old when he ascended to the throne and remained very close to him and the rest of her family throughout his reign. She never married, possibly because she was very close to her brother and did not want to enter into a foreign alliance through marriage, which would undoubtedly take her away from her family. She was known to be very religious and, possibly because religion and the monarchy were inextricably intertwined through the divine right of kings, took a conservative royalist political stance.
When the palace at Versailles was stormed, she was carried off to Paris with her brother and the rest of the royal family. During the family’s house arrest, she may have secretly engaged in negotiations with factions sympathetic to the monarchy in the effort to be released. Her attempts were unsuccessful, but she remained with Marie Antoinette and her children. Despite not being considered a threat, Robespierre had her arrested and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1794; seeing as both the king and queen had already been executed, her fate had been sealed. She was charged with treason for helping the royal family try to escape and was executed at the guillotine.
Charlotte Corday grew up in an abbey at Caen, France, where she had access to volumes by writers such as Plutarch, Rousseau, and Voltaire at the library. When the revolution began to radicalize as the Reign of Terror took hold, she found herself sympathetic to the Girondin movement, which was held in contempt by Robespierre for its moderate approach to how the revolution should proceed. Robespierre wanted the bloodbath at the guillotine to intensify, but the Girondins wanted a more representative, republican government to lead France.
Robespierre belonged to the radical Jacobin action, and one of its most prominent leaders was a journalist named Jean-Paul Marat. He was believed to have a role in the September Massacres, and Corday thought that his ideas, which were being published in a national newspaper, were leading the country towards a civil war that would ruin France. She traveled to Paris, where Marat lived and bought a 6-inch knife which she used to stab him while he was taking a bath.
Corday was arrested and put on trial for assassinating a friend of the people. She was found guilty of killing Marat and executed at the guillotine. Shortly before her death, she requested that a portrait of her be made so that she might be remembered as she actually was.
Olympe de Gouges was a social activist who began to rise to prominence during the 1780s. She was particularly outspoken against the slave trade in the French colonies and the system of patriarchy that denied women their rights. She wrote a provocative pamphlet called Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791, shortly before the French Republic was declared.
De Gouges was in favor of the revolution on the grounds that all people were created equal, regardless of race or gender, and should be given equal rights rather than be enslaved or subjected to patriarchy. However, she became disenchanted with the revolution when she realized that there was no intention of giving women equal rights as men. She was also opposed to the use of violence in all of its forms, including capital punishment, which led her to resist the execution of the king.
As the revolution continued to radicalize through the Reign of Terror, de Gouges’ writings became more and more forceful in calls for law and order to be restored rather than the ongoing violence. She was arrested for opposing the revolution and siding with the Girondin movement and denied legal representation because the National Convention considered her to be competent to represent herself. She was executed at the guillotine for attempting to reinstate the monarchy.
As you can probably see by now, the French Revolution may have started out as a means of abolishing the monarchy and establishing popular rule in France; however, it quickly descended into a bloodbath intended to destroy any opposition to Maximilien Robespierre. This notion is particularly seen in the case of Madame Roland, a supporter of the revolution, who eventually fell prey to it and died at the guillotine.
Roland was particularly religious, having been educated at a convent. She was also well-read in many of the philosophers – Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Plutarch – whose ideas helped spawn the revolution. As an adult, Madame Roland supported her husband’s political activism and ambitions, which contributed to the revolution. She became particularly well-known for her social finesse and ability to form large social networks; as such, an invitation by Madame Roland to an event was considered significant to the nascent republican government.
She and her husband supported Jacques-Pierre Brissot in forming the Girondin movement, something that set her at odds with Robespierre. Accusations against her mounted, and she was arrested for treason, along with many other Girondins. While in prison, she wrote her personal memoirs and reflections on the role of women in French society. She was able to help her husband escape Paris but was herself executed.
Antoine Lavoisier was an essential French chemist who helped move science from being qualitative to be more quantitative and empirical. He showed the role of oxygen in combustion and even named the elements of oxygen and hydrogen. He wrote out a comprehensive list of elements, which helped lead to the modern periodic table, and worked out the system of chemical nomenclature. His work was so foundational that he is considered to be the father of modern chemistry.
Unfortunately, Robespierre was more concerned with consolidating his power than with the role of French scientists. Lavoisier was a leader of the Femme Generale, which was a particularly hated aspect of the monarchy. Along with other former members of the Femme Generale, he came under question for his suspected role in adding water to tobacco to increase its weight before selling it and of defrauding the state of funds. He was convicted; despite efforts to save his life because of his role as a scientist, the judge allegedly said that France does not need scientists but rather needs swift justice.
Lavoisier was later exonerated, and his personal effects were brought to his wife, complete with a note that said, “To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.”
Camille went on to publish pamphlets calling for a republican government that would represent the will of the people and celebrating the political violence that was coming to define the revolution. One of the more radical revolutionaries, he also publicly slandered Jean Pierre Brissot as a cheater who had betrayed the causes of the revolution.
His views were very much aligned with those of Georges Danton, whom he actually served under at one point. Like Danton, he tried to apply moderation to the Revolutionary Tribunal when he saw that the Reign of Terror was turning into an orgy of bloodshed. He was tried with Danton in a tribunal that had political rather than criminal overtones and denied any legal defense. Camille was guillotined with Danton.
Andre Chenier was one of the more tragic figures of the revolution, being a foreign-born poet who lived in France and died three days before the Reign of Terror came to an end. He was born to a French father and Greek mother in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey. After a short stint in the French military, he dedicated himself to the writing of poetry in the neoclassical style. He frequently traveled throughout Europe and was enabled to write and study poetry without interruption from his family, who supported his ventures. Many of his poems dealt with philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the place of man in the universe.
Following the shocking events of 1789 that gave way to the revolution, Chenier’s younger brother became widely published as a pamphleteer and political activist. However, Andre remained a moderate who believed that, following the downfall of the monarchy, France simply needed to impose a new rule of law. He went on to write political satires about the Reign of Terror. Robespierre, who by July of 1794 was in a precarious position, personally had him sentenced to death for opposition to the revolution. Shortly after that, Robespierre himself was arrested and executed.
Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville was widely considered to be one of the most sinister figures of the revolution, particularly of the Reign of Terror. Having been trained in law, he was the public prosecutor, appointed by the Revolutionary Tribunal. However, many considered him to have carried out his duties in such a way that they only carried with them the appearance of legality when he was actually executing opponents to a political regime. As such, there was little need to establish actual guilt in the people that he sent to the guillotine.
Towards the end of his career (and life), he prosecuted a group of nuns, who had allegedly acted as fanatics against the state and attempted to foment rebellion and civil war by providing housing to enemies of the revolution. He labeled them criminal assassins, and the judge duly sentenced all of them, as well as those whom they had sheltered. One of the last people that he prosecuted was Robespierre himself, of whom he had previously been an ardent supporter.
When the Thermidorian Reaction began, following the fall of Robespierre, Fouquier-Tinville was tried with other former members of the Revolutionary Tribunal. They were found guilty and executed in May of 1795.
If Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville was one of the most sinister figures of the revolution, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just was the public face of the Reign of Terror. He rose through the ranks of the National Convention and became personal friends with Robespierre. He wrote the draft of the French Constitution of 1793, the second constitution of the revolution (the first having been written in 1791) that did away with the moderate reforms that had previously been promised.
When the revolution began, de Saint-Just wrote prolifically on social and political theories, with a moralizing tone, in pamphlets and other mediums. He was also impassioned rhetoric, who often moved audiences to tears regarding the principles of the revolution and his dedication to it.
By the time he drafted the 1793 constitution, martial law had effectively been established throughout France. This rule probably suited de Saint-Just just fine, as he was a military leader who was noted for his strict discipline and ruthless zeal for the revolution. When he returned from the war with Austria in 1794, he found that Robespierre had lost much of his power. Still, he continued to give impassioned speeches to the National Convention, even when the threat of physical violence was imminent. He was arrested soon after his return and executed with Robespierre.
Georges Couthon was a leading revolutionary who worked side-by-side with Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. He was a member of the radical Jacobin faction and, as a member of the National Convention, voted in favor of the execution of the king. He was also a member of the committee that, with Louis de Saint-Just, wrote a new constitution that legitimated the Reign of Terror. He advocated fiercely for all “enemies of the revolution” to be executed and helped spearhead the moves that led to the deaths of members of more moderate groups, such as the Girondins. He also pushed forward legislation that helped secure the Reign of Terror by ensuring that anyone who resisted the revolution could be swiftly executed.
In July 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt against the Reign of Terror. Weary of the excessive executions (as many as 2% of the French people were arrested for supposedly being enemies of the revolution, and 17,000 were guillotined), the reaction led to the arrest of Robespierre, de Saint-Just, and Couthon, amongst other leaders of the Terror. Couthon was executed at the guillotine with the leader that he had so ardently supported. He was one of the last people to die at France’s national razor.
Jacques Cazotte was one of the more interesting figures to be executed in the revolution, and his story illustrates just how far-reaching Madame Guillotine’s fingers were. He was not a politician or otherwise affiliated with the revolution; he was an author and translator who wrote children’s books and translated works by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire. Some of his works had a mystical element and dealt with supernatural beings, like the devil.
Around 1775, Cazotte employed the teachings of the infamous Illuminati, a primarily misunderstood band of intellectuals and Enlightenment thinkers. As a mystic, though, he embraced a more spiritual side of the group’s teachings and believed himself to be a prophet. In fact, one writer, Jean-Francois de la Harpe, claimed that Cazotte had uncannily prophesied even the most molecular events of the revolution.
During the revolution, Cazotte became a Martinist, a member of an esoteric group that focused on a spiritual return to the divine source through a process of illumination or reintegration. He also considered himself to be a monarchist, albeit a mystical one and wrote letters that were seen as antithetical to the revolution. He was arrested in August 1792 and sent to die at the guillotine.
Today, the French Revolution stands as a pivotal point in Western history, when ideals of democracy and Enlightenment quickly gave way to barbarism and frenzied killing. However, it did achieve many things, including the end of the divine right of kings, the French monarchy, and proof that people could successfully rebel against a government that they deemed to be tyrannical.
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