The Guillotine (Part Two: The Citizen)
“I picture the law as being the centre of a huge globe; all citizens, without exception, stand equidistant from it… all are equally dependent on the law, all present it with their liberty and their property to be protected” — Sieyès
The Brothers Agasse
In Part 1 we saw that the guillotine had long existed prior to the French Revolution, but what was new were the emerging ideas of justice and law. Of particular interest were three propositions by Dr. Guillotin: that no disgrace should befall a criminal’s family; that their property not be confiscated; and that their bodies be returned to their family. Following the Revolution, these principles were put to the test during the trial and execution of the Agasse Brothers.
The Agasses were a respectable family in Paris, owners of a printing press, well-to-do but not too significant and of commoner blood. The two eldest brothers (of three) were convicted of using forged bank notes in London, and sentenced to be publicly displayed then hanged. The hanging of commoners aroused the interests of the revolutionary crowds within Paris, and people mobilised to address this affront. In January 1790, the district of Saint Honoré elected the uncle of the brothers as its president as a show of solidarity. People took to the streets and marched to the National Assembly to demand reform. On the 21st of January Abbe Pepin convinced the National Assembly to accept Dr. Guillotin’s propositions 3, 5 and 6. Simultaneously the Agasse brothers received their final sentence.
The key principle was that the executed brothers’ family would no longer suffer the taint of dishonour — the “odious prejudice which degraded France… the most revolting and the most ridiculous” aspect of the aristocratic regime — and Parisians eagerly put this principle into practice. The National Guard assembled a grand parade; they voted an address to the uncle to condole him, and to announce their adoption of the whole surviving family as friends and brothers. This included electing the youngest of the Agasse brothers, as well as their younger cousin, as lieutenants of the National Guard. The brothers were paraded by the Louvre, where they were complimented on their new rank by Marquis de Lafayette. They were then formally introduced into the National Assembly and they were again complimented by the President. A banquet was thrown in their honour, where the Agasses sat on either side of Lafayette and were embraced by him. They were then led in procession between churches and paraded with every kind of ostentation. A public dinner of six hundred National Guards was hosted, and a further parade was held, with full marching band, to usher the youths back to their homes.
Meanwhile, the elder brothers remained in captivity, their appeals denied, and public calls for clemency ignored. Days later, they were hanged, and a final parade would draw the matter closed by returning the bodies to the family.
What are we to make of this event and all its spectacle? Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, speaks with a venomous tongue:
Amidst assassinations, massacre, and confiscation, perpetrated or mediated, they are forming plans for the good order of future society. Embracing in their arms the carcases of base criminals, and promoting their relations on the title of their offences, they drive hundreds of virtuous persons to the same end, but forcing them to subsist by beggary or by crime.
The Assembly, their organ, acts before them the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience
Looking past Burke’s loaded framing, it does seem hard to not see the whole event as farcical. Unreservedly, ending the extension of guilt to the condemneds’ family was just, but turning the matter into a literal spectacle, all the while still carrying out the grisly execution, seems to my 21st century sensibilities quite the half-measure. The elevation of the family, their celebration, seems more self-congratulatory regarding the Parisians supposed enlightened ethos than a genuine empathy to a family. John Wilson Crocker, a historian and archiver of the Revolution, cynically puts forward the view that “the good people of Paris” had a “general desire that [the Agasse brothers] should suffer the full sentence of the law” so they “might have a practical opportunity of carrying out the principle that the ‘crime does not disgrace the family’”.
The milieu of the Agasse’s execution is captured in Jean Louis Prieur’s tableux that opened this section. The condemned Agasse brothers are barely discernible, and instead the Conciergerie and the Palais de Justice dominate the illustration. The ordered ranks and files of soldiers fill the picture, providing an overall sense of official order and solemnity, and yet around the edges are glimpses of an excited working class crowd: jeering, running, and mounting roofs to best see the last kicking gasps of the hanged. Compare this with The Execution of Damiens we saw in Part 1, where all attention is centred on Damiens, his body disproportionately large and framed by the events around him.
In both the actual event and Prieur’s capture, we see the values of the new society vaunted: great parades to uphold dignity, fraternal feasts with national heroes, the domineering structures of Justice looming in the background. Amongst all the music, food and marching, the bodies of the actual condemned fade into obscurity, and are all but forgotten entirely.
“The ultimate expression of Law…”
Returning to the Guillotine, Guillotin’s argument for execution by beheading were for similar reasons: it was an aristocratic death, it was clean, swift and simple, and allayed the victim’s family with no additional infamy. By May 1791 the text of the new criminal code would include Guillotin’s prescription: tout condamné à mort aura la tête tranchée — every person condemned to death shall be beheaded. This text would remain in French criminals codes for the next two centuries. The rapporteur of the drafting committee explained the reasons behind generalised beheading. Firstly, a desire to inflict less pain. Secondly, “since opinion attaches no infamy to being beheaded, one is assured of destroying the ancient prejudice that stained an entire family on account of a crime committed by one of its members.”
The thread we see being pulled though all of this is the individualisation of the condemned. Liberal individual rights juridically represented the severing of the connection between a criminal and their family or community. We see the abstraction of a person, as a living, breathing being with connections and friends and family, to an “individual.” At the same time, we also see the construction of the “citizen”, an equal member of the broader nation. However, unlike family ties, defined by blood or personal relations, the “citizen” is connected to their fellow citizens only through equal membership of the State.
Torture and shaming was intensely personal, beheading was not. An “individual” or “citizen” who abused their “individual rights” by committing crime aginst the body polis was to be deprived of their individual rights, and they were simply cut. The crime was not construed as a personal attack by a subject on the monarch-as-sovereign, but as a dereliction of duty by a citizen against their state.
Foucault sees a triple significance in this policy of generalised beheading: an equal death for all; one death per condemned man, obtained by a single blow; and punishment for the condemned alone, as decapitation was the least shaming for the criminal’s family.
Death was reduced to a visible, but instantaneous event. Contact between the law, or those who carry it out, and the body of the criminal, is reduced to a split second. There is no physical confrontation; the executioner need be no more than a meticulous watchmaker… The guillotine takes life almost without touching the body, just as prison deprives of liberty or a fine reduces wealth. It is intended to apply the law not so much to a real body capable of feeling pain as to a juridical subject, the possessor, among other rights, of the right to exist. It had to have the abstraction of the law itself.
Still here, we are discussing beheading, and have yet to reach the eventual guillotine. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier was the first condemned under the new policy of general beheading, not a nobleman, but a highwayman, a common criminal. Pelletier’s sentence would confront the high-minded liberal theory of generalised beheading with the gruesome practicality of severing a person’s head from their shoulders. Duport du Turtre, Minister for Justice, would write:
…without some precautions… the act of decollation will be horrible to spectators. It will either prove the spectators to be monsters if they are able to bear such a spectacle; or the executioner, terrified himself, will be exposed to the fury of the people
Charles-Henri Sanson, the old Royal (and now State) executioner, voiced his own concerns on the matter:
…one could never get through an execution by sword without the certainty of dangerous accidents.
After one execution, the sword will be no longer in a condition to perform another… It would then be necessary then to have a sufficient number of swords all ready. That would lead to great and almost insurmountable difficulties…
It is to be considered that, when there shall be several criminals to execute at the same time, the terror that such an execution presents, by the immensity of blood which it produces and which is scattered all about, will carry fright and weakness into the most intrepid hearts of those whose turn it is to come… the execution, if persisted in, will become a struggle and a massacre.
…in order to fulfil the humane intentions of the National Assembly, some means should be found to avoid delays and assure certainty, by fixing the patient so that the success of the operation shall not be doubtful.
By this the intention of the legislature will be fulfilled, and the executioner himself protected from any accidental effervescence from the public.
It is at this impetus that Antoine Louis investigated the use of a beheading machine. In his report “On the Mode of Decollation” Louis again voices concern that “it might be feared that the people, out of mere humanity, might be led to take vengeance on the executioner himself — a result which it is important to prevent.” Louis proposes the construction of an instrument so that “the decapitation will be performed in an instant according to the letter and the spirit of the new law.”
Here we see the guillotine playing a dual role. Firstly, a rational solution to ensure the law is carried out precisely, deliberately, and effectively. Secondly, to sanitise the effect of the law, to ensure that “mere humanity” does not rile the crowd against this function of the State. The guillotine was not immediately successful in this effect, and the construction of a prototype was impeded by “a prejudice against the object in view” from the workmen approached to build the device. Others agreed to construct the device, but only if they were to remain anonymous and not be asked to sign contracts connecting them to the endeavour.
Nevertheless, the device was tested in mid-April 1792 on corpses, and those present toasted the new device as “a most distinguished project for equality”. A week later, Pelletier would become its first victim.
Rather than a scene of revolutionary fervour or upheaval, the guillotine’s first use emphasises its function as a static, bureaucratic, machine of the state. The guillotine took a full two hours to construct, with all parts needing perfect alignment and care. General Lafayette himself oversaw a contingent of guard to ensure this large, expensive machine would not be damaged by the crowd. Sanson, who had tortured Damiens decades earlier with such performance, was reduced to a mere clerk: with a swift pull of a lever the execution was finished.
The Guillotine was a product of the liberal-bourgeois revolution, though it was not revolutionary itself. It was the manifestation of the liberal state, which stood literally up and above society. It was created by those in power in a technocratic manner, guarded by their army, and used by literally the same executioner from the ancien régime. It was a symbol of equality beneath the nation state, and its rationally determined laws. While the players, the executioner and executed, remain, their roles were drastically recast. No longer a deeply personal performance by a torturer-as-artist, dealing with a real human with a real body and real pain, the executor became a mere appendage of the state machinery which was severing its citizens’ right to life.
Victor Hugo would invoke the oppressive encompassing spectre of the guillotine, writing:
“A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death-penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. (…) The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner’s accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.”
In Part 3 we turn to the Terror, and see how the Law can turn against its subjects.