“France shares with England and Spain the honor of being one of the last countries this side of the iron curtain to keep capital punishment in its arsenal of repression. The survival of such a primitive rite has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty.” — Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” in Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien (1961)
Today marks the 225th anniversary of the day that the proposed machinery of death that Albert Camus assailed with his typical moral astringency achieved irresistible momentum. The Nobel laureate wrote this extended essay in 1957, when the urge to have the French state punish opponents with the ultimate penalty remained strong (and would receive additional impetus with the terror launched the following year in the Algerian War of Independence). It would take nearly another quarter-century after the essay’s publication, though, before France banned the guillotine and, with it, capital punishment.
The guillotine has come to symbolize not just the Reign of Terror, but also the French Revolution as a whole. But it might be better seen as a product of the Enlightenment—and specifically, the very influential 1764 meditation by the Italian Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments.
In pre-revolutionary France, aristocrats enjoyed privileges even in the face of death. While the rest of the population (the poor especially) were subject to cruel, unorganized, and arbitrary death sentences (torture on the wheel, death at the stake, and, especially, hanging), the nobility could have the less prolonged and/or ignominious method of beheading.
In contrast, Beccaria held that a sentence must be "proportionate to the offense and determined by the law," and it should not be unnecessary or cruel. The most prominent leaders of the French Revolution seized on his belief in rational punishment meted out equally, but forgot another rather crucial element in his thinking: rejection of the death penalty.
Enter doctor and politician Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Now, he didn’t design or even construct the deadly instrument named for him (those honors went to, respectively, another surgeon, Antoine Louis, and piano maker Tobias Schmidt). But he was the one who, after the revolution’s outbreak in the second half of 1789, proposed the notion of doing away with unequal methods of death: Why not behead all criminals judged by the state to deserve death? At the same time, why not make the administration of death reliable for a change, through a machine with a blade that could unerringly split the neck? "With this machine," he explained, not without a little sly humor, "I'll take off your head in the blink of an eye and you don't suffer."
Many delegates in the National Assembly on that December 1789 day chuckled, unaware that within a very short time, either they or someone they knew would be subject to this awful apparatus that would at various times be nicknamed La Veuve (The Widow), Le Glaive de la Liberte (The Sword of Freedom), Le Rasoir National (The National Razor), or Sainte Guillotine.
A month later, on January 21, 1790, Dr. Guillotin was able to promulgate his proposal more aggressively because of a national controversy. The brothers Agasse, convicted of falsifying bills of exchange in London, had been sentenced to hang. Protests erupted over a form of punishment that not only left the “criminal” dead but stigmatized his surviving family members.
Guillotin persuaded the rest of the assembly on the day of the Agasses’ deaths that their offenses were personal, without application to the rest of the family. In the process, delegates looked with renewed interest on his idea for a machine that would spare survivors collateral cruelty.
By 1792, France’s revolutionary government voted to institute this new method of capital punishment, and its first use came in April of that year.
Over the next two years, as the death toll from the new instrument reached the tens of thousands, Dr. Guillotin became squeamish about this machine named after him. In the 19th century, his descendants petitioned the French government unsuccessfully to have it renamed.
In 1981, France eliminated capital punishment at the same time that it banned its longstanding particular form of it. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party National Front, has called for its reinstatement following the massacre of editors of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, but that prospect still appears a long way off.
In contrast, over the past 125 years, the United States has continued to labor under the same delusion that spawned the guillotine: that swifter, more certain forms of capital punishment will make application of the ultimate penalty itself more humane. First, the electric chair was invented for that purpose, then lethal injection.
U.S. death penalty advocates—and the judges who continue to uphold the practices--have still not figured out what Camus did, with his typically acute insight: “No government is innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay down to so absolute a power as death.”