All social questions achieve their finality around that blade.
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables


During the French Revolution, sentimentalism formed a public psychology of the first order. Developed in the 1740s and animated by anxieties about the collapse of corporatist institutions, it was embraced by an educated public and institutionalized in the schools and radical educational reforms of the Revolutionary period, forming a model for the cultural role of psychologies that came afterwards. Mediating between the natural and the moral sciences, it singled out sensory impressions as the origin of all emotion; and emotion as the basis of the moral and social order. In the decades that followed, observers would blame the excesses and turmoil of the Revolution itself on the public that sentimentalism had helped create—a populace composed of flimsy, fragmented psyches that stood poised between the more stable subjects of the early Enlightenment on one hand and of the nineteenth century on the other. But for the Revolutionaries, and for the Jacobins in particular, sentimentalism formed a key political resource and a crucial solution to one of the Revolution’s most pressing problems—how to secure the sociopolitical order, particularly the regular and predictable functioning of persons, as the traditional structures of the Old Regime crumbled.

This essay explores how the preeminent public psychology of the Revolution shaped the necessity, understanding, and construction of its most iconic public machine. The guillotine provided its own solution to the problem of social order. Deployed against the “enemies” of the Republic, its rationalized, unrelenting efficacy made it a complex symbol in its own time and a harbinger of things to come.

Here, I show how that brutal efficacy—the very efficacy that transformed the history of punishment, underwrote the Terror, and multiplied the cadavers of medical science—was itself a historical product demanded by the guillotine’s origins as a sentimental machine, a device born, in part, from a profoundly public, late-18th century sentimentalist psychology, (which combined with the contemporary mechanical arts in ways I discuss elsewhere). The guillotine’s sentimentalist proponents and inventors saw it as a mechanical safeguard against one of their greatest fears: the public, psychological dangers of sensing and feeling too intensely.[1] The machine’s effects were never primarily focused on the body and suffering of the condemned, but on the sentiments of a Revolutionary spectating public, where it would eliminate the horror and outrage of Old Regime executions by reducing death to a calculated, invariable, and unfailing mechanical effect. Put differently, the case of the guillotine momentarily inverts our usual understanding of the historical relationships between technologies and selves: it features not machines as instruments of a virtuous self-making, but ideas of self as foci of machine-making.

The Unfailing Machine

The guillotine emerged at the intersection at least two sweeping historical developments—the collapse of the Old Regime with its unequal privilege, its brutality, and (for some) its suffocating stability; and the dominance of sentimentalist psychology, limning the threats to individual minds, the dangers of public gatherings and strong sensations, and the possibilities of a new social order. The machine was designed to solve two problems of executions in the age of both reason and sentiment—the problem of how to make punishment uniform, rational and humane; and the related problem of the effect of non-uniformity, variability and inhumanity on a sentimental, spectating public.

The theoretical machine was proposed by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a well-respected physician and freemason, a friend of Robespierre and a fellow Jacobin. When he rose in the chamber of deputies, with Mirabeau’s support, as a representative of the Third Estate on 10 October 1789 during a debate on capital punishment, he was already a prominent figure, having been central to the events that helped launch the Revolution. The text of Guillotin’s speech is lost to history, if it was ever recorded. But when he took up again the postponed question of penal reform on 1 December, the Journal des Etats Généraux reported the details, describing how: “Monsieur Guillotin dwelt at length on the tortures in which man shows himself more ferocious than wild beasts. The torment of red hot pincers and such like, these things I pass over in silence.”[2]


As much as Guillotin sought to make executions painless for the condemned, he valued even more the larger social and emotional tableaux that surrounded them.


But the most shocking element for many observers was his proposal of a decapitation machine. Often treated in isolation even by contemporaries, the machine was in fact proposed in the last of six articles presented to the National Assembly, a set of interlocking legal reforms that embedded the device within a tableau of contemporary judicial concerns surrounding the treatment of criminality writ large. The first five articles protected the individual rights of the criminal, establishing equality of punishment across rank and station, protecting the property of the condemned, and preserving the dignity of their family (a common theme) by legally and morally shielding it from dishonor. Only the sixth article treated capital punishment specifically, doing away with the different regimes of execution and specifying that all death sentences would share a single method—decapitation—carried out by a “simple mechanism.”[3]

Guillotin’s critics would seize on (and mock) the doctor’s emphasis on the speed, certainty and painlessness of the execution—”a slight coolness on the back of the neck,” in Guillotin’s famous words. But a quick and painless death was only one of the machine’s humane effects, and arguably not its most important. An early illustration captured these multiple dimensions (see figure below). Its caption explained how executions would be performed outside the city in a place specially set out for the purpose. They would be rare, private and even intimate affairs. To keep crowds at a distance, the machine would be surrounded by barriers and guarded by soldiers with lowered weapons. The confessor would give the signal for death at the instant of absolution. Even the executioner, yielding to natural sentiment, would look away at the final moment. Jerome Pétion, former mayor of Paris, fleeing the Revolutionary authorities in June 1794 and already committed to suicide, captured the common sentimentalist view of the machine when he explained that the “principle goal of this invention was to avoid in these punishments the horrible experiences that outrage nature and dishonour humanity.” Shortening the suffering of the condemned was a secondary benefit.[4]

This sentimentalist attention to the effects of executions on the sentimental spectator drove the broader Enlightenment reforms that framed Guillotin’s proposals. As much as Guillotin sought to make executions painless for the condemned, he valued even more the larger social and emotional tableaux that surrounded them. Yet when the National Assembly finally took up Guillotin’s proposal in December 1790, it undid two key elements of his original vision. It put aside the original commitment to a decapitation machine, and it insisted on the social value to be extracted from public executions.[5] Decapitation was adopted by the Assembly on 3 June 1791 (Article 3), insisting on its educational value. (Article 4 specified it should be done in public). The decision, however, put off the question of the precise method of execution which, as late as March 1792, was still assumed to be the sword.

Asked for his opinion, the hereditary Royal Executioner of France and later High Executioner of the Republic, Charles-Henri Sanson, stressed that swords would quickly dull under multiple executions, requiring a store of spares. He especially warned about the dangers that strong emotion—particularly terror—could produce in the condemned. Anticipating the steady flow of executions in the years to come, with subjects overcome by fear and unable to compose themselves, he cautioned that the event could become a struggle and a massacre, with possibly disastrous effects for executioner, victim, and, above all, the public. “Can you be the master of a man who is unwilling or incapable of controlling himself?”[6] In particular, there was no guarantee the commoner would be able to show the public stoicism that bourgeois men in particular strove to embody as an individual ethos and as part of the theater of contemporary political culture. Even the executioner might be moved and, in such a delicate operation, emotions were dangerous.

The Assembly refused to decide on the question of method, considering it too disturbing. It fell to Antoine Louis, Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Surgery and one of the nation’s foremost experts on death to determine the exact method. Born in Metz, educated by Jesuits, and a surgeon at the Salpêtrière hospital, Louis was considered supremely qualified for the task. As a surgeon he was familiar with cutting implements and their effects on the body. He had authored the Encyclopédie’s entry on “Death,” explaining that it was not “so fearful a thing as we imagine;” what generally frightened us most were “the convulsions of the disintegrating machine,” that is, the body.[7]


He was talking about the physical sensations of the condemned; but he might just as well have been talking about the sentiments of the Revolutionary public.


Louis’ concerns focused on ensuring the certainty of death and avoiding the horrors produced by variability. For this, the method had to be infallible. In early March, the Directory government had expressed its fear that “by the imperfection of the means or a lack of experience and clumsiness, the ordeal would become horrible for the patient [sic] and for the spectators,” inspiring the public to take revenge on the executioner “out of humanity.”[8] As a surgeon, he knew first-hand the difficulties caused by varying human abilities and, in an age before anesthetic, by the struggles of the patient, which echoed Sanson’s fears of massacre on the scaffold.[9] He concluded that a “humane” execution was impossible to achieve “by confiding it to an agent who is susceptible to variations in ability [adresse], due to moral or physical causes; it is absolutely necessary, for the certitude of the procedure, that it depend on invariable mechanical means whose force and effect can be determined” (added emphasis).[10]

Louis’ account is fascinating for the way it mixes human and machine reliability, combining Enlightenment concerns over punishment and the legal subject with anxieties over the obduracy and sensitivity of human bodies and faith in the capacities of mechanisms. The idea of an unerring, public execution machine embodied both a belief in the redemptive power of sentiment and an anxiety about the perils of unsettling human emotion. For the machine to carry out its ambitious purpose, its very operation had to disappear: “The executioner triggers the release, and the man is no more.” In perhaps the most remarkable statement of an already remarkable report, Louis asserted that it was “an easy enough matter to build such an unfailing machine.” “This device,” he asserted, “if it seems necessary, will cause no sensation, and will barely be noticed.”[11] He was talking about the physical sensations of the condemned; but he might just as well have been talking about the sentiments of the Revolutionary public.


By August 1792, the Commune of Paris had decided to mount the machine permanently in Place de la Carrousel, with only the blade removed after the daily string of executions. There were reports of its fallibility, particularly under heavy use.[12] But overall, and especially in Paris, people ignored these failures to focus instead on the machine’s startling and dispiriting efficacy. The doctor Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, intimate friend of Mirabeau and the true author of his sensationist papers on public education, argued that “the death of a man ordered in the public interest is probably the greatest act of social power: the instrument [of death] itself should make the punishment rarer and more trying; … it should not accustom the people to the sight of blood.” For Cabanis, not only did the guillotine lack dramatic dignity, but “spectators see nothing; there is no tragedy for them; they haven’t time to be moved” (added emphasis).[13] Himself a chief proponent of sentimentalist psychology, Cabanis signaled how the culture of sensibility would ultimately be turned against the guillotine itself as it dispatched larger and larger numbers of “conspirators,” a group that would expand dramatically during the Terror. Over the course of that brutal year, the machine would make a great circle of Paris—traveling from Place de la Carrousel to Place de la Révolution, place Saint-Antoine, and Place du Trone Renversé, before finally returning to the entrance of the Tuileries, where Robespierre and his fellow conspirators met their fate.

Even if Cabanis saw the guillotine as working against the sentimentalist principles that had inspired it, later commentators would associate the two intimately. Nineteenth century psychologists would see the rupture of the Revolution and the excesses of the Terror as a product of the public that sentimentalism had helped create. In doing so, the sentimental machine would play a significant role in the emergence and explicit discussion of the self in French public psychologies that followed. But those associations would not have to wait for the turn of the century. They were already taking form within the Revolution itself. Towards the end of May 1794, Jerome Pétion wrote a satirical article intended for the Encyclopédie. Pétion, who had supported the Revolution and the fall of the monarchy, was one of a number of deputies purged with the Girondins when they opposed what they saw as the excesses of the Revolution. Within a few days, he would submit to that other form of stoic death—suicide.[14] Looking beyond the execution as event to the machine itself, Pétion pointed to the troubling public pedagogy of the instrument: “There is not a single major town in France where they have not placed a guillotine in the public squares to convert the enemies of Maratism and the Sainte Montagne.”

Pétion, who had argued alongside Robespierre in May 1790 for the abolition of the death penalty and who had been in the Tuileries Palace with the king when it was stormed in August 1792, would go on to denounce the hypocrisy of the “so-called men of principles,” a veiled reference to the “incorruptible” Robespierre and his inner circle. Early in the Revolution, he and his allies had argued that the torment of human beings was an appalling spectacle that society should never provide as an example. But they had then proceeded to turn the guillotine into a “public entertainment.” Once upon a time, Pétion continued, the people at least had the weakness of being moved at the sight of the guilty about to be put to death; they turned away at the moment the fatal blow was struck. Now, full of republican energy they looked at the guillotine with joy and greeted the spectacle with cries of “Long live the Republic!” Pétion closed by accusing the “barbaric” legislators of perverting the morality of the people, and of “denaturing” the character of a sensitive and generous nation.[15] They would never, he claimed, be able to atone for the sins they had committed against France.

In the meantime, while they awaited Pétion’s capture, the sentimental public guillotined him in effigy.

Edward Jones-Imhotep is Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto. He is the author of The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press, 2017) and co-editor (with Tina Adcock) of Science, Technology, and the Modern in Canada (UBC Press, forthcoming). His current research project, Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines, examines how observers from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries saw technological failures as a problem of the self.



[1] Anne C. Vila, “Introduction: Powers, Pleasures, and Perils of the Senses in the Enlightenment Era,” in Anne C. Vila, ed., A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 7.

[2] M. Le Hodey de Saultchevreuil, ed., Journal des Etats Généneraux (Paris: Chez Devaux, 1789): 236-7.

[3] “Proposition, par M. Guillotin de six article relatifs aux supplicié,” 10 October 1789, Archives Parliamentaires, C.S. 1, carton 33, dossier 303.

[4] E. Charavay, Revue des documents historiques; Suite de pieces curieuses et inédites, publiées avec des notes et des commentaires (Paris: A. Lemerre, 1876), 58.

[5] Anne Carol, Physiologie De La Veuve: Une Histoire Médicale De La Guillotine (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2012)

[6] Daniel Arasse, The Guillotine and the Terror (New York: Penguin, 1989), 20; G. Lenotre, La Guillotine et les exécuteurs des arrêts criminels pendant la revolution, d’après des documents inédits tires des Archives de L’état (Paris: Perrin et Cie, 1920), 221.

[7] Arasse, Guillotine, 21.

[8] Lenotre, La Guillotine et les exécuteurs, 224.

[9] Carol, Physiologie, 48.

[10] E.T.B. Saint-Edme, “Guillotine,” in Dictionnaire de la pénalité dans toutes les parties du monde connu (Paris: Rousselon, 1828), 160-1.

[11] Ibid., 163-5.

[12] Carol, Physiologie, 56-7.

[13] Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, “Note sur l’opinion de MM. Ölsmer et Sömmering, et du citoyen Sue, touchant le supplice de la guillotine,” Oeuvres Philosophiques 2 (1954): 502-3.

[14] Dorinda Outram, The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class, and Political Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 68-9.

[15] Charavay, Revue des documents historiques, 60.


Image of Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution from Wikimedia Commons.


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