1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Danton, George Jacques
DANTON, GEORGE JACQUES (1759–1794), one of the most conspicuous actors in the decisive episodes of the French Revolution, was born at Arcis-sur-Aube on the 26th of October 1759. His family was of respectable quality, though of very moderate means. They contrived to give him a good education, and he was launched in the career of an advocate at the Paris bar. When the Revolution broke out, it found Danton following his profession with apparent success, leading a cheerful domestic life, and nourishing his intelligence on good books. He first appears in the revolutionary story as president of the popular club or assembly of the district in which he lived. This was the famous club of the Cordeliers, so called from the circumstance that its meetings were held in the old convent of the order of the Cordeliers, just as the Jacobins derived their name from the refectory of the convent of the Jacobin brothers. It is an odd coincidence that the old rivalries of Dominicans and Franciscans in the democratic movement inside the Catholic Church should be recalled by the names of the two factions in the democratic movement of a later century away from the church. The Cordeliers were from the first the centre of the popular principle in the French Revolution carried to its extreme point; they were the earliest to suspect the court of being irreconcilably hostile to freedom; and it was they who most vehemently proclaimed the need for root-and-branch measures. Danton’s robust, energetic and impetuous temperament made him the natural leader in such a quarter. We find no traces of his activity in the two great insurrectionary events of 1789—the fall of the Bastille, and the forcible removal of the court from Versailles to the Tuileries. In the spring of 1790 we hear his voice urging the people to prevent the arrest of Marat. In the autumn we find him chosen to be the commander of the battalion of the national guard of his district. In the beginning of 1791 he was elected to the post of administrator of the department of Paris. This interval was for all France a barren period of doubt, fatigue, partial reaction and hoping against hope. It was not until 1792 that Danton came into the prominence of a great revolutionary chief.
In the spring of the previous year (1791) Mirabeau had died, and with him had passed away the only man who was at all likely to prove a wise guide to the court. In June of that year the king and queen made a disastrous attempt to flee from their capital and their people. They were brought back once more to the Tuileries, which from that time forth they rightly looked upon more as a prison than a palace or a home. The popular exasperation was intense, and the constitutional leaders, of whom the foremost was Lafayette, became alarmed and lost their judgment. A bloody dispersion of a popular gathering, known afterwards as the massacre of the Champ-de-Mars (July 1791), kindled a flame of resentment against the court and the constitutional party which was never extinguished. The Constituent Assembly completed its infertile labours in September 1791. Then the elections took place to its successor, the short-lived Legislative Assembly. Danton was not elected to it, and his party was at this time only strong enough to procure for him a very subordinate post in the government of the Parisian municipality. Events, however, rapidly prepared a situation in which his influence became of supreme weight. Between January and August 1792 the want of sympathy between the aims of the popular assembly and the spirit of the king and the queen became daily more flagrant and beyond power of disguise. In April war was declared against Austria, and to the confusion and distraction caused by the immense civil and political changes of the past two years was now added the ferment and agitation of war with an enemy on the frontier. The distrust felt by Paris for the court and its loyalty at length broke out in insurrection. On the memorable morning of the 10th of August 1792 the king and queen took refuge with the Legislative Assembly from the apprehended violence of the popular forces who were marching on the Tuileries. The share which Danton had in inspiring and directing this momentous rising is very obscure. Some look upon him as the head and centre of it. Apart from documents, support is given to this view by the fact that on the morrow of the fall of the monarchy Danton is found in the important post of minister of justice. This sudden rise from the subordinate office which he had held in the commune is a proof of the impression that his character had made on the insurrectionary party. To passionate fervour for the popular cause he added a certain broad steadfastness and an energetic practical judgment which are not always found in company with fervour. Even in those days, when so many men were so astonishing in their eloquence, Danton stands out as a master of commanding phrase. One of his fierce sayings has become a proverb. Against Brunswick and the invaders, “il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace,”—we must dare, and again dare, and for ever dare. The tones of his voice were loud and vibrant. As for his bodily presence, he had, to use his own account of it, the athletic shape and the stern physiognomy of the Liberty for which he was ready to die. Jove the Thunderer, the rebel Satan, a Titan, Sardanapalus, were names that friends or enemies borrowed to describe his mien and port. He was thought about as a coarser version of the great tribune of the Constituent Assembly; he was called the Mirabeau of the sans-culottes, and Mirabeau of the markets.
In the executive government that was formed on the king’s dethronement, this strong revolutionary figure found himself the colleague of the virtuous Roland and others of the Girondins. Their strength was speedily put to a terrible test. The alarming successes of the enemy on the frontier, and the surrender of two important fortresses, had engendered a natural panic in the capital. But in the breasts of some of the wild men whom the disorder of the time had brought to prominent place in the Paris commune this panic became murderously heated. Some hundreds of captives were barbarously murdered in the prisons. There has always been much dispute as to Danton’s share in this dreadful transaction. At the time, it must be confessed, much odium on account of an imputed direction of the massacres fell to him. On the whole, however, he cannot be fairly convicted of any part in the plan. What he did was to make the best of the misdeed, with a kind of sombre acquiescence. He deserves credit for insisting against his colleagues that they should not flee from Paris, but should remain firm at their posts, doing what they could to rule the fierce storm that was raging around them.
The elections to the National Convention took place in September, when the Legislative Assembly surrendered its authority. The Convention ruled France until October 1795. Danton was a member; resigning the ministry of justice, he took a foremost part in the deliberations and proceedings of the Convention, until his execution in April 1794. This short period of nineteen months was practically the life of Danton, so far as the world is concerned with him.
He took his seat in the high and remote benches which gave the name of the Mountain to the thoroughgoing revolutionists who sat there. He found himself side by side with Marat, whose exaggerations he never countenanced; with Robespierre, whom he did not esteem very highly, but whose immediate aims were in many respects his own; with Camille Desmoulins and Phélippeaux, who were his close friends and constant partisans. The foes of the Mountain were the group of the Girondins,—eloquent, dazzling, patriotic, but unable to apprehend the fearful nature of the crisis, too full of vanity and exclusive party-spirit, and too fastidious to strike hands with the vigorous and stormy Danton. The Girondins dreaded the people who had sent Danton to the Convention; and they insisted on seeing on his hands the blood of the prison massacres of September. Yet in fact Danton saw much more clearly than they saw how urgent it was to soothe the insurrectionary spirit, after it had done the work of abolition which to him, as to them too, seemed necessary and indispensable. Danton discerned what the Girondins lacked the political genius to see, that this control of Paris could only be wisely effected by men who sympathized with the vehemence and energy of Paris, and understood that this vehemence and energy made the only force to which the Convention could look in resisting the Germans on the north-east frontier, and the friends of reaction in the interior. “Paris,” he said, “is the natural and constituted centre of free France. It is the centre of light. When Paris shall perish there will no longer be a republic.”
Danton was among those who voted for the death of the king (January 1793). He had a conspicuous share in the creation of the famous revolutionary tribunal, his aim being to take the weapons away from that disorderly popular vengeance which had done such terrible work in September. When all executive power was conferred upon a committee of public safety, Danton had been one of the nine members of whom that body was originally composed. He was despatched on frequent missions from the Convention to the republican armies in Belgium, and wherever he went he infused new energy into the work of national liberation. He pressed forward the erection of a system of national education, and he was one of the legislative committee charged with the construction of a new system of government. He vainly tried to compose the furious dissensions between Girondins and Jacobins. The Girondins were irreconcilable, and made Danton the object of deadly attack. He was far too robust in character to lose himself in merely personal enmities, but by the middle of May (1793) he had made up his mind that the political suppression of the Girondins had become indispensable. The position of the country was most alarming. Dumouriez, the victor of Valmy and Jemmappes, had deserted. The French arms were suffering a series of checks and reverses. A royalist rebellion was gaining formidable dimensions in the west. Yet the Convention was wasting time and force in the vindictive recriminations of faction. There is no positive evidence that Danton directly instigated the insurrection of the 31st of May and the 2nd of June, which ended in the purge of the Convention and the proscription of the Girondins. He afterwards spoke of himself as in some sense the author of this revolution, because a little while before, stung by some trait of factious perversity in the Girondins, he had openly cried out in the midst of the Convention, that if he could only find a hundred men, they would resist the oppressive authority of the Girondin commission of twelve. At any rate, he certainly acquiesced in the violence of the commune, and he publicly gloried in the expulsion of the men who stood obstinately in the way of a vigorous and concentrated exertion of national power. Danton, unlike the Girondins, accepted the fury of popular passion as an inevitable incident in the work of deliverance. Unlike Billaud Varenne or Hébert, or any other of the Terrorist party, he had no wish to use this frightful two-edged weapon more freely than was necessary. Danton, in short, had the instinct of the statesman. His object was to reconcile France with herself; to restore a society that, while emancipated and renewed in every part, should yet be stable; and above all to secure the independence of his country, both by a resolute defence against the invader, and by such a mixture of vigour with humanity as should reconcile the offended opinion of the rest of Europe. This, so far as we can make it out, was what was in his mind.
The position of the Mountain had now undergone a complete change. In the Constituent Assembly its members did not number more than 30 out of the 578 of the third estate. In the Legislative Assembly they had not been numerous, and none of their chiefs had a seat. In the Convention for the first nine months they had an incessant struggle for their very lives against the Girondins. They were now (June 1793) for the first time in possession of absolute power. It was not easy, however, for men who had for many months been nourished on the ideas and stirred to the methods of opposition, all at once to develop the instincts of government. Actual power was in the hands of the two committees—that of public safety and of general security. Both were chosen out of the body of the Convention. The drama of the nine months between the expulsion of the Girondins and the execution of Danton turns upon the struggle of the committee to retain power—first, against the insurrectionary commune of Paris, and second, against the Convention, from which the committees derived an authority that was regularly renewed on the expiry of each short term.
Danton, immediately after the fall of the Girondins, had thrown himself with extraordinary energy into the work to be done. The first task in a great city so agitated by anarchical ferment had been to set up a strong central authority. In this genuinely political task Danton was prominent. He was not a member of the committee of public safety when that body was renewed in the shape that speedily made its name so redoubtable all over the world. This was the result of a self-denying ordinance which he imposed upon himself. It was he who proposed that the powers of the committee should be those of a dictator, and that it should have copious funds at its disposal. In order to keep himself clear of any personal suspicion, he announced his resolution not to belong to the body which he had thus done his best to make supreme in the state. His position during the autumn of 1793 was that of a powerful supporter and inspirer, from without, of the government which he had been foremost in setting up. Danton was not a great practical administrator and contriver, like Carnot, for instance. But he had the gift of raising in all who heard him an heroic spirit of patriotism and fiery devotion, and he had a clear eye and a cool judgment in the tempestuous emergencies which arose in such appalling succession. His distinction was that he accepted the insurrectionary forces, instead of blindly denouncing them as the Girondins had done. After these forces had shaken down the throne, and then, by driving away the Girondins, had made room for a vigorous government, Danton perceived the expediency of making all haste to an orderly state. Energetic prosecution of the war, and gradual conciliation of civil hatreds, had been, as we have said, the two marks of his policy ever since the fall of the monarchy. The first of these objects was fulfilled abundantly, partly owing to the energy with which he called for the arming of the whole nation against its enemies. His whole mind was now given to the second of them. But the second of them, alas, was desperate.
It was to no purpose that, both in his own action and in the writings of Camille Desmoulins (Le Vieux Cordelier), of whom he was now and always the intimate and inspirer, he worked against the iniquities of the bad men, like Carrier and Collot d’Herbois, in the provinces, and against the severity of the revolutionary tribunal in Paris. The black flood could not at a word or in an hour subside from its storm-lashed fury. The commune of Paris was now composed of men like Hébert and Chaumette, to whom the restoration of any sort of political order was for the time indifferent. They wished to push destruction to limits which even the most ardent sympathizers with the Revolution condemn now, and which Danton condemned then, as extravagant and senseless. Those men were not politicians, they were fanatics; and Danton, who was every inch a politician, though of a vehement type, had as little in common with them as John Calvin of Geneva had with John of Leiden and the Münster Anabaptists. The committee watched Hébert and his followers uneasily for many weeks, less perhaps from disapproval of their excesses than from apprehensions of their hostility to the committee’s own power. At length the party of the commune proposed to revolt against the Convention and the committees. Then the blow was struck, and the Hébertists were swiftly flung into prison, and thence under the knife of the guillotine (March 24th, 1794). The execution of the Hébertists was the first victory of the revolutionary government over the extreme insurrectionary party. But the committees had no intention to concede anything to their enemies on the other side. If they refused to follow the lead of the anarchists of the commune, they were none the more inclined to give way to the Dantonian policy of clemency. Indeed, such a course would have been their own instant and utter ruin. The Terror was not a policy that could be easily transformed. A new policy would have to be carried out by new men, and this meant the resumption of power by the Convention, and the death of the Terrorists. In Thermidor 1794 such a revolution did take place, with those very results. But in Germinal feeling was not ripe. The committees were still too strong to be overthrown. And Danton seems to have shown a singular heedlessness. Instead of striking by vigour in the Convention, he waited to be struck. In these later days a certain discouragement seems to have come over his spirit. His wife had died during his absence on one of his expeditions to the armies; he had now married again, and the rumour went that he was allowing domestic happiness to tempt him from the keen incessant vigilance proper to the politician in such a crisis. He must have known that he had enemies. When the Jacobin club was “purified” in the winter, Danton’s name would have been struck out as a moderate if Robespierre had not defended him. The committees had deliberated on his arrest soon afterwards, and again it was Robespierre who resisted the proposal. Yet though he had been warned of the lightning that was thus playing round his head, Danton did not move. Either he felt himself powerless, or he rashly despised his enemies. At last Billaud Varenne, the most prominent spirit of the committee after Robespierre, succeeded in gaining Robespierre over to his designs against Danton. Robespierre was probably actuated by the motives of selfish policy which soon proved the greatest blunder of his life. The Convention, aided by Robespierre and the authority of the committee, assented with ignoble unanimity. On the 30th of March Danton, Desmoulins and others of the party were suddenly arrested. Danton displayed such vehemence before the revolutionary tribunal, that his enemies feared lest he should excite the crowd in his favour. The Convention, in one of its worst fits of cowardice, assented to a proposal made by St Just that, if a prisoner showed want of respect for justice, the tribunal might pronounce sentence without further delay. Danton was at once condemned, and led, in company with fourteen others, including Camille Desmoulins, to the guillotine (April 5th, 1794). “I leave it all in a frightful welter,” he said; “not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!”
Events went as Danton foresaw. The committees presently came to quarrel with the pretensions of Robespierre. Three months after Danton, Robespierre fell. His assent to the execution of Danton had deprived him of the single great force that might have supported him against the committee. The man who had “saved France from Brunswick” might perhaps have saved her from the White reaction of 1794.
Bibliography.—Sources for the life of Danton abound in the national archives and in the columns of the Moniteur. His Œuvres were published by A. Vermorel (Paris, 1866), and his speeches are included in H. Morse Stephens’ Principal Speeches of the Statesmen and Orators of the French Revolution (vol. ii., Oxford, 1892); cf. F. V. Aulard, Les Orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention (Danton and his group; 2 vols., 1885–1886). The charges of corruption freely brought against Danton by contemporaries were accepted by many historians, and he has been persistently accused of instigating or at least abetting, by failure to use the power he possessed, the September massacres. A minute examination of the evidence by F. V. Aulard and J. F. E. Robinet in France, followed by A. H. Beesly in England, has placed his career and his character in a fairer light. The chief books on Danton’s life are:—A. Bougeart, Danton, documents pour servir à l’histoire de la Révolution française (Brussels, 1861); J. F. E. Robinet, Danton, mémoire sur sa vie privée (Paris, 1865), Le Procès des Dantonistes (Paris, 1879), Danton émigré (Paris, 1887), Danton, homme d’état (Paris, 1889); F. V. Aulard, Hist. pol. de la Rév. fr. (Paris, 1901), and Danton (Paris, 1887); A. Dubost, Danton et la politique contemporaine (Paris, 1880); A. H. Beesly, Life of Danton (1899, new ed. 1906); H. Belloc, Danton (1899). There is a short “Life of Danton” in Morse Stephens’ Principal Speeches, cited above. See also C. F. Warwick, Danton and the French Revolution (1909). (J. Mo.)