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Georges-Jacques Danton. Musée Carnavalet, Paris
|Member of the Committee of Public Safety|
6 April 1793 – 10 July 1793
|Preceded by||Office created|
|Minister of Justice|
10 August 1792 – 9 October 1792
|Preceded by||Étienne Dejoly|
|Succeeded by||Dominique Joseph Garat|
|President of the National Convention|
25 July 1793 – 8 August 1793
|Preceded by||Jean Bon Saint-André|
|Succeeded by||Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles|
|Member of the National Convention|
20 September 1792 – 5 April 1794
|President of the Committee of Public Safety|
6 April 1793 – 10 July 1793
|Born||26 October 1759|
|Died||5 April 1794 (aged 34)|
|Political party||Cordeliers Club (1790–1791)|
Jacobin Club (1791–1794)
|The Mountain (1792–1794)|
Antoinette Gabrielle Charpentier (m. 1787–1793); her death
Louise Sébastienne Gély (m. 1793–1794); his death
François Georges (1792–1848)
|Parents||Jacques Danton and Mary Camus|
|Relatives||Anne Madeleine Danton (1755-1802) (Sister) |
Marie Nicole Cecile Danton (1757-1814) (Sister) Danton's Family
Georges Jacques Danton (French: [ʒɔʁʒ dɑ̃tɔ̃]; 26 October 1759 – 5 April 1794) was a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution, in particular as the first president of the Committee of Public Safety. Danton's role in the onset of the Revolution has been disputed; many historians describe him as "the chief force in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic".
Danton was born in Arcis-sur-Aube in northeastern France to Jacques Danton and Mary Camus; a respectable, but not wealthy family. As a child, he was attacked by several animals, resulting in the disfigurement and scarring of the skin on his face, also contributed to by smallpox.
After obtaining a good education he became an Advocate in Paris. He married Antoinette Gabrielle Charpentier (6 January 1760 – 10 February 1793) on 14 June 1787 at the church of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois in Paris. The couple had three sons:
On 10 February 1793, while Danton was on a mission in Belgium, Charpentier died, aged 33, giving birth to a boy, who also did not survive. Danton was so affected by her death that he recruited sculptor Claude André Deseine and brought him by night to Sainte-Catherine cemetery to excavate Charpentier's body and execute a death mask. Her bust is now on display at Troyes museum. After his first wife's death, Danton married Louise Sébastienne Gély, aged 16, daughter of Marc-Antoine Gély, court usher (huissier-audiencier) at the Parlement de Paris and member of the Club des Cordeliers. She looked after his two surviving sons.
Danton's first appearance in the Revolution was as president of the Cordeliers club, whose name derives from the former convent of the Order of Cordeliers, where it held its meetings. One of many clubs important in the early phases of the Revolution, the Cordeliers was a centre for the "popular principle", that France was to be a country of its people under popular sovereignty; they were the earliest to accuse the royal court of being irreconcilably hostile to freedom; and they most vehemently proclaimed the need for radical action.
In June 1791, the King and the Queen made a disastrous attempt to flee from the capital. They were forced to return to the Tuileries Palace, which effectively became their prison. Queen Marie Antoinette opened negotiations with the moderate leaders of the Revolution in an attempt to save the monarchy and to establish a moderate constitutional settlement. The popular reaction was intense, and those who favored a constitutional monarchy, including Lafayette, became excited. A bloody dispersion of a popular gathering, known as the massacre of the Champ de Mars (July 1791), kindled resentment against the court and the constitutional party. Danton was, in part, behind the crowd that gathered and fearing counter-revolutionary backlash, he fled to England for the rest of the summer.
The National Constituent Assembly completed its work in September 1791. Due to the Self-denying Ordinance none of its members were eligible to its successor, the short-lived Legislative Assembly. Danton's party was able to procure for him a subordinate post in the Paris Commune.
In April 1792, the Girondist government—still functioning as a constitutional monarchy—declared war against Austria. A country in turmoil from the immense civil and political changes of the past two years now faced war with an enemy on its eastern frontier. Parisian distrust for the court turned to open insurrection.
On 10 August 1792, the popular forces marched on the Tuileries; the king and queen took refuge with the Legislative Assembly. Danton's role in this uprising is unclear. He may have been one of its leaders; this view is supported because on the morning after the effective fall of the monarchy, Danton became minister of justice. This sudden rise from the subordinate office which he held in the commune is a demonstration of his power within the insurrectionist party.
In the provisional executive government that was formed between the king's dethronement and the opening of the National Convention (the formal end of the monarchy), Danton found himself allied with Jean-Marie Roland and other members of the Girondist movement. Their strength was soon put to the test. The alarming successes of the Austrians and the surrender of two important fortresses caused panic in the capital; over a thousand prisoners were murdered. At that time, Danton was accused of directing these September Massacres, but no evidence of this is available from modern research. However, he apparently did nothing to prevent the atrocities, and instead insisted that his colleagues should remain firm at their posts.
The election to the National Convention took place in September 1792; after which the remnant of the Legislative Assembly formally surrendered its authority. The Convention ruled France until October 1795. Danton was a member; resigning as Minister of Justice once it was clear that the invading Austrian and Prussian armies had been turned back, he took a prominent part in the deliberations and proceedings of the Convention.
In the Convention, according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, "He took his seat in the high and remote benches which gave the name of "the Mountain" to the revolutionists who sat there. He found himself side by side with Marat, whose exaggerations he never countenanced; with Maximilien Robespierre, whom he did not regard very highly, but whose immediate aims were in many respects his own; with Camille Desmoulins and Pierre Philippeaux, who were his close friends and constant partisans." As for his foes, the Girondists, they were "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." Dreading the people who had elected Danton, and holding Danton responsible for the September Massacres, they failed to see that his sympathy with the vehemence and energy of the streets positioned him uniquely to harness on behalf of the defense of France that insurrectionary spirit that had removed the monarchy. Danton saw radical Paris as the only force to which the National Convention could look in resisting Austria and its allies on the north-east frontier, and the reactionaries 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 voted for the death of Louis XVI in 21 January 1793. After the execution had been carried out, he thundered "The kings of Europe would dare challenge us? We throw them the head of a king!" Danton had a conspicuous share in the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, which on the one hand took the weapons away from the disorderly popular vengeance of the September Massacres, but which would become the instrument of the institutionalized Terror. When all executive power was conferred upon a Committee of Public Safety (6 April 1793), Danton had been one of the nine original members of that body. He was dispatched on frequent missions from the Convention to the republican armies in Belgium, and wherever he went he infused new energy into the army. He pressed forward the new national system of education, and he was one of the legislative committee charged with the construction of a new system of government. He tried and failed to bridge the hostilities between Girondists and Jacobins. The Girondists were irreconcilable, and the fury of their attacks on Danton and the Mountain was unremitting.
Although he was—again in the words of the 1911 Britannica—"far too robust in character to lose himself in merely personal enmities", by the middle of May 1793 Danton had made up his mind that the Girondists must be politically suppressed. The Convention was wasting time and force in vindictive factional recriminations, while the country was in crisis. Charles François Dumouriez, the senior commander of the Battles of Valmy and Jemappes, had deserted. Danton had defended Dumouriez against attacks in Convention, probably to allow Dumouriez to concentrate on the war, before the General's defection, so it decreased Danton's standing with the public and made him lose some of the support of the more moderate members of the Jacobin club. The French armies were suffering a series of checks and reverses. A royalist rebellion was gaining formidable dimensions in the west. The Girondists were clamoring for the heads of Danton and his colleagues in the Mountain (a name for the group of Jacobins in the General Assembly, stemming from their raised seats in the back of the hall), but they would lose this struggle to the death.
There is no positive evidence that Danton directly instigated the insurrection of 31 May — 2 June 1793, which ended in the purge of the Convention and the proscription of the Girondists. 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 Girondists, 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 Girondist 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 Girondists, "accepted the fury of popular passion as an inevitable incident in the work of deliverance." (1911 Britannica) He was not an enthusiast of the Reign of Terror like Billaud-Varenne or Jacques René Hébert; he saw it as a two-edged weapon to be used as little as necessary. The authors of the 1911 Britannica see him at this time as wishing "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."
The position of the Mountain had completely changed. In the Constituent Assembly, its members had been a mere 30 out of the 578 of the third estate. In the Legislative Assembly, they had not been numerous, and none of their chiefs held a seat. In the first nine months of the Convention, they were struggling for their very lives against the Girondists. In June 1793, for the first time, they found themselves in possession of absolute power. Men who had for many months been "nourished on the ideas and stirred to the methods of opposition" [1911 Britannica] suddenly had the responsibility of government. Actual power was in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee 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 committees (especially the former, which would gain ascendancy) to retain power: first, against the insurrectionary municipal government of Paris, the commune; 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. He was prominent in the task of setting up a strong central authority, taming the anarchical ferment of Paris. It was he who proposed that the Committee of Public Safety be granted dictatorial powers and that it should have copious funds at its disposal. He was not a member of the resulting committee: 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 and left it in July 1793. His position during the autumn of 1793 was that of a powerful supporter and inspirer from outside the government which he had been foremost in setting up.
The French National Convention during the autumn of 1793 began to assert its authority further throughout France, creating the bloodiest period of the French Revolution in which some historians assert approximately 40,000 people were killed in France. Following the fall of the Girondins, a group known as the Indulgents would emerge from amongst the Montagnards as the legislative right within the Convention and Danton as their most vocal leader. Having long supported the progressive acts of the Committee of Public Safety, Danton would begin to propose that the Committee retract legislation instituting terror as “the order of the day.”
While the Committee of Public Safety was concerned with strengthening the centralist policies of the Convention and its own grip over that body, Danton was in the process of devising a plan that would effectively move popular sentiment among delegates towards a more moderate stance. This meant adopting values popular among the sans-culotte, notably the control of bread prices that had seen drastic increase with the famine that was being experienced throughout France. Danton also proposed that the Convention begin taking actions towards peace with foreign powers, as the Committee had declared war on the majority of European powers, such as Britain, Spain, and Portugal.
The Reign of Terror was not a policy that could be easily transformed. Indeed, it would eventually end with the Thermidorian Reaction (27 July 1794), when the Convention rose against the Committee, executed its leaders, and placed power in the hands of new men with a new policy. But in Germinal—that is, in March 1794—feeling was not ripe. The committees were still too strong to be overthrown, and Danton, heedless, instead of striking with vigor in the Convention, waited to be struck. "In these later days," writes the 1911 Britannica, "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 her body exhumed so as to see her again. Despite genuine grief, Danton quickly married again, and, the Britannica continues, "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."
Ultimately, Danton himself would become a victim of the Terror. As he attempted to shift the direction of the revolution, by collaborating with Camille Desmoulins through the production of Le Vieux Cordelier, a newspaper that called for the end of the official Terror and dechristianization, as well as launching new peace overtures to France's enemies, those who most closely associated themselves with the Committee of Public Safety, among them key figures such as Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Couthon, would search for any reason to indict Danton for counter-revolutionary activities. These actions would lead to an investigation of Danton’s revolutionary vigor, and in the end he would be tried and executed for his shady dealings with foreign countries in the interest of filling his own pockets.
Toward the end of the Reign of Terror, Danton was accused of various financial misdeeds, as well as using his position within the Revolution for personal gain. Many of his contemporaries commented on Danton's financial success during the Revolution, certain acquisitions of money that he could not adequately explain. Many of the specific accusations directed against him were based on insubstantial or ambiguous evidence.
Between 1791 and 1793, Danton faced many allegations, including taking bribes during the insurrection of August 1792, helping his secretaries to line their pockets, and forging assignats during his mission to Belgium. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of financial corruption was a letter from Mirabeau to Danton in March 1791 that casually referred to 30,000 livres that Danton had received in payment.
During his tenure on the Committee of Public Safety, Danton organized a peace treaty agreement with Sweden. Although the Swedish government never ratified the treaty, on 28 June 1793 the convention voted to pay 4 million livres to the Swedish Regent for diplomatic negotiations. According to Bertrand Barère, a journalist and member of the Convention, Danton had taken a portion of this money which was intended for the Swedish Regent. Barère’s accusation was never supported by any form of evidence.
The most serious accusation, which haunted him during his arrest and formed a chief ground for his execution, was his alleged involvement with a scheme to appropriate the wealth of the French East India Company. During the reign of the Old Regime, the original French East India Company went bankrupt. It was later revived in 1785, backed by royal patronage. The Company eventually fell under the notice of the National Convention for profiteering during the war. The Company was soon liquidated while certain members of the Convention tried to push through a decree that would cause the share prices to rise before the liquidation. Discovery of the profits from this insider trading led to the blackmailing of the directors of the Company to turn over half a million livres to known associates of Danton. While there was no hard evidence that Danton was involved, he was vigorously denounced by François Chabot, and implicated by the fact that Fabre d’Eglantine, a member of the Dantonists, was implicated in the scandal. Danton continued to defend Fabre d'Eglantine even after the latter had been exposed and arrested.
On 30 March 1794, Danton, Desmoulins, and others of the indulgent party were suddenly arrested. Danton displayed such vehemence before the revolutionary tribunal that his enemies feared he would gain the crowd's favour. The Convention, in one of its "worst fits of cowardice", assented to a proposal made by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just during the trial that, if a prisoner showed want of respect for justice, the tribunal might exclude the prisoner from further proceeding and pronounce sentence without him being present.
Danton, Desmoulins, and many other actual or accused Dantonist associates were tried from 3–5 April before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The trial was less criminal in nature than political, and as such unfolded in an irregular fashion. The jury had only seven members, despite the law demanding twelve, as it was deemed that only seven jurors could be relied on returning the required verdict. Danton made lengthy and violent attacks on the Committee of Public Safety and the accused demanded the right to have witnesses appear on their behalf; they submitted requests for several, including, in Desmoulins' case, Robespierre.
The Court's President, M.J.A. Herman, was unable to control the proceedings until the aforementioned decree was passed by the National Convention, preventing the accused from further defending themselves. These facts, together with confusing and often incidental denunciations (for instance, a report that Danton, while engaged in political work in Brussels, had appropriated a carriage filled with two or three hundred thousand pounds' worth of table linen) and threats made by prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville towards members of the jury, ensured a guilty verdict. Danton and the rest of the defendants were condemned to death, and at once led, in company with fourteen others, including Camille Desmoulins and several other members of the Indulgents, to the guillotine. "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!" The phrase 'a poor fisherman' was almost certainly a reference to Saint Peter, Danton having reconciled to Catholicism.
Of the group of fifteen who were guillotined together on 5 April 1794, including Marie Jean Hérault de Séchelles, Philippe Fabre d'Églantine and Pierre Philippeaux, Desmoulins died third, and Danton last.
His influence and character during the French Revolution was, and still is, widely disputed among many historians, with the stretch of perspectives on him ranging from corrupt and violent to generous and patriotic. Danton did not leave very much in the way of written works, personal or political; therefore most information about his actions and personality has been derived from secondhand sources.
One view of Danton, presented by historians like Thiers and Mignet, suggested he was "a gigantic revolutionary" with extravagant passions, a high level of intelligence, and a tolerance of violence for his goals. Another perspective of Danton emerges from the work of Lamartine, who called Danton a man "devoid of honor, principles, and morality" who found only excitement and a chance for distinction during the French Revolution. He was merely "a statesman of materialism" who was bought anew every day. Any revolutionary moments were staged for the prospect of glory and more wealth.
Another view of Danton is presented by Robinet, whose examination of Danton is more positive and portrays him as a figure worthy of admiration. According to Robinet, Danton was a committed, loving, generous citizen, son, father, and husband. He remained loyal to his friends and the country of France by avoiding "personal ambition" and gave himself wholly to the cause of keeping "the government consolidated" for the Republic. He always had a love for his country and the laboring masses, who he felt deserved "dignity, consolation, and happiness".
The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote that Danton stands out as a master of commanding phrase. One of his fierce sayings has become a proverb. Against the Duke of Brunswick and the invaders, "il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace"—"We need audacity, and yet more audacity, and always audacity!"
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| Minister of Justice
Dominique Joseph Garat