Danton, Georges Jacques (1759-1794): French Revolutionary.
One of the most famous French revolutionaries along with Mirabeau, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de and Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, Danton is rightly considered the best orator of the Revolution, despite the fact he never prepared his speeches. His August 1792 speech at the National Convention where he rallies and unites the different factions to face and fight an 80, 000 Austro-Prussians army marching towards Paris saves France and its revolution.
Danton was born on 26 October 1759 in Arcis-sur-Aube in the Champagne region in a comfortable middle class family. His father dies when young Danton is only three years of age. As a young boy, he catches small pox and has his nose broken by a bull. He goes to school in Troyes where he is educated by the Oratorian Order. At age 21, he leaves for Paris to become a lawyer’s clerk, and in 1784, he graduates from law school. In 1787, he meets his future wife, Antoinette-Gabrielle Charpentier, and partly due to his future father-in-law’s financial help, he is able to purchase the office of lawyer to the King’s Council. In 1789, when political upheavals forge a new social world, Danton with his stentorian voice, his strong physique and his power for improvisation possesses many of the qualities to become a successful orator. His first noteworthy revolutionary activity takes place on July 16, when he leads a company of National Guards from the Cordeliers club to the Bastille but is refused access by the governor. Considering the rebuttal as an insult to the people, he drags the governor to the Hôtel de Ville. Danton quickly realizes how to use popular revolutionary eagerness to his advantage. Residing in the Cordeliers’ district, he is often in contact with political journalists such as Desmoulins, Camille, Fréron, and Marat, Jean-Paul.
With his dramatic gestures and his ardent energy, he soon heads the Cordeliers Club and by the end of the year he is nominated District Representative at the Commune. In January 1791, he is elected to the Council of the Department. After Louis XVI’s failed attempt to leave France with his family, Danton opposes any clearing of the King’s actions and as leader of the Cordeliers refuses to compromise with the Jacobins who ask for leniency for the King. In December 1791, he is elected prosecutor’s deputy. In August 1792, he is elected Minister of Justice by the National Assembly. By the end of the month, an 80,000 Austro-Prussians army crosses the border and takes Verdun. Several ministers, Roland, Servan, Clavière, insist the government must leave Paris to the Prussians and take refuge in Blois. Danton displays then all his talent in his famous speech “To vanquish the enemy…we must have audacity, still more audacity, always audacity… and France will be saved.” He gives back hope to the nation and calls to arms all available French citizens. His speech has a double effect; it recruits numerous soldiers and therefore defeats the enemy armed forces but also provokes prison massacres of over one thousand royalists suspected to be counterrevolutionaries.
In September, he is elected with an overwhelming majority to be one of the twenty-four Paris deputies at the National Convention. Danton, along with Robespierre, Desmoulins, Fréron, and Marat, Jean-Paul form the hard core of the group called the Montagnards. His popularity reaches its peak. The Convention members and the Jacobins, who elect him as their president, praised him nationally. However, his popularity attracts resentment and suspicion. Ministers challenge him on his big expenses and his costly lifestyle; the Girondins and their leaders, Vergniaud and Brissot, will thereon use this very point to embarrass him. Rumors start spreading that he maintains his expensive standard of living because he is paid off by the Royalists and is really playing a double game. This type of report is not uncommon among political figures, but Danton never clears himself undoubtedly of these attacks. In January 1793, in spite of his recognized desire to save the King, he votes for Louis XVI’s execution. In February, Danton loses his wife but remarries Louise Gély a few months later. In April, deputies at the Convention question his silence when General Dumouriez attempts to march to Paris and dissolve the Convention. The Girondins go as far as suspecting Danton to be Dumouriez’s accomplice in trying to restore the monarchy. On April 6, he is chosen as one of the original nine members of the new Committee of Public Safety. After Dumouriez deflects to the Austrians, Danton needs to go on the offensive against the Girondins and denounces them as traitors to the nation. Danton’s plan is to break the European coalition against France; he wants to separate the Prussians from the Austrians. His ultimate goal is to draw a solid constitution to restore order inside the country. He does not achieve his objectives because Robespierre fears to let him become so powerful. Because he wants to save the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, he is suspected of being a moderate and is dismissed from the Committee of Public Safety.
Even though in July he is elected President of the Assembly, Hébert violently criticizes him for stealing state funds. In September 1793, the French state of affairs is very gloomy; the British take possession of French ships in the southern port of Toulon and panic is taking over the Assembly. Again, Danton rises to the situation and gives a speech in which he manages to give back hope, faith, and fervor; therefore transforming the national criticism for the government into enthusiasm and dedication for its decision. In October, ill and worn out by political intrigues, anticipating the condemnation of the Queen and the Girondins, he goes to his native Arcis. Upon learning the execution of his old opponents, the Girondins, he expresses remorse and refuses to rejoice.
Back in Paris, he decides not to hide any longer his moderation behind an apparent verbal violence. In his speech at the Convention, he firmly condemns traitors and “dechristianisers”, but preaches clemency. Danton’s course of action is to isolate extremists such as Saint-Just, Collot d’Herbois, and Billaud-Varenne. The political mood is well captured by Desmoulins, Camille’s new paper “Le Vieux Cordelier.” The title was deliberately chosen to illustrate the difference between the old revolutionaries motivated by freedom and equality versus the new revolutionaries pressed by violence, accusation, terror, and “dechristianisation.” The military situation being stabilized, Danton questions the need for the “Terror”, positions himself in favor of peace with France’s enemies as well as conciliation among political adversaries in the country; he is tagged the leader of the “Indulgents.” By the end of 1793, the tide is turning against Danton and many deputies accuse him of being a traitor and want to see him at the guillotine. Robespierre, believed to have a real esteem for Danton, pushed by Billaud-Varenne and Saint-Just, does not take a strong stand against the accusers. In spite of being informed of his imminent arrest, Danton disregards the warning, misled by Robespierre’s fraternal stance. Having publicly denounced the “Terror”, his popularity is again on the rise but deputies fearing his influence and his power have him arrested on the night of 30-31 March.
Danton is accused by Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de of having supported Mirabeau, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de, the Orleanists, and the Girondins. Once Danton is detained, Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de starts working with Saint-Just on the evidence against his former ally and blames him for assisting Dumouriez and plotting against the Convention. The trial opens on April 2 and Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, is not supplied with any real evidence. Early on, Danton makes it clear he has no doubt he will be convicted. He knows that Robespierre, Saint-Just, Vadier, and their followers must obtain a guilty verdict because if not the situation would immediately reverse and they would be facing impending death. On April 3, Danton speaks almost the entire day demonstrating Saint-Just’s false accusations. With his eloquence, Danton is turning the opinion in his favor and the members of the Convention, worried about their own fate, vote that the trial must continue without the presence of the accused and their witnesses because the aformentioned have supposedly insulted the tribunal. April 5, the jury reaches a guilty verdict and Danton, Desmoulins, Fabre d’Eglantine, and other Dantonists are publicly guillotined.
Norman Hampson, Danton, 1988.
Guy David Toubiana