Georges Danton Biography
DANTON, dän′tôn′, Georges Jacques (1759–94). A great popular leader in the French Revolution. He was born, Oct. 28, 1759, at Arcis-sur-Aube, of a bourgeois family. Though his parents wished him to become a priest, Danton preferred the law, and, after being educated in his native town and at Troyes, he went to Paris. A born orator, Danton quickly rose in his profession, and as early as 1785 he was known as a successful practitioner before the Parlement of Paris. In 1787 he married, purchased, at a cost of 80,000 livres, a position as advocate of the Royal Council, and was soon earning an income of 25,000 livres a year. At this time he is described as a forcible and eloquent speaker, a man of liberal tastes, fond of books, and happy in his domestic life. He saw the Revolution approaching and as early as 1787 said to his patron, M. de Barentin, "Moderate reforms are no longer possible; do you not see the avalanche soon to descend?" It is said that Mirabeau, perceiving Danton's genius, sought to attach him to himself. In the early revolutionary outbreaks Danton took no prominent part, but early in 1790 he was threatened with arrest for protesting in violent terms against Marat's arrest, and in June of the same year he appears as one of the chief founders of the club of the Cordeliers, or ultra-Jacobins, while in the autumn he was chosen to be commander of the National Guard of his district. The next year he appeared as the advocate of the extremists of Paris and publicly attacked the antirevolutionary leaders. His utterances having exposed him to arrest, he fled to England and remained there some six weeks, during which time he had conferences with the chief leaders of the Whig opposition. On returning to Paris he was elected to office in the commune and probably was largely instrumental in inciting and bringing to a successful issue the insurrection of Aug. 9 and 10, 1792. After the taking of the Tuileries and the suspension of the royal power, Danton became Minister of Justice, and in this capacity entered the provisional government and became a member of the executive.
The strongest personality of them all, Danton at once assumed the leadership. He took active measures to free the country of its foreign invaders. His eloquence thrilled the people, and when, on September 2, he made his wonderful speech before the Assembly and cried Pour les vaincre, pour les atterer, que faut-il? De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace ('To vanquish them, to crush them down, what is necessary? To dare, to dare again, and always to dare'), France responded by placing 14 armies in the field. In October, 1792, partly by force and partly by diplomacy, the foes had been expelled. In the fearful days of the September massacres, when political prisoners were taken out and butchered by hundreds, Danton would not let the government leave Paris. Of the atrocities that took place he was presumably not guilty, but he certainly acquiesced in and condoned the deeds of his associates. In September, 1792, he resigned as Minister of Justice and was elected to the Convention. There he successfully repelled a venomous attack made on him by the Girondists and, later, on his return from his mission to Dumouriez, answered Marat's insinuations that he had been privy to the treachery of that general. Danton was among those who voted for the death of the King (January, 1793). After being elected president of the Jacobin Club Danton, in March, 1793, became a member of the Committee of Public Safety and later its president. This was the period of his greatest services to France, when he organized her defenses and directed her foreign policy. The irreconcilable attitude of the Girondists forced him to take active measures for their suppression (June 2, 1793), for he felt that they were not true revolutionists. In his revolutionary enthusiasm, however, Danton called up a force that was destined to crush him. After the fall of the Girondists he advocated the formation of a new and more powerful Committee of Public Safety, endowed with unlimited authority and ample resources. He himself ceded his right to a seat on this tribunal, an error of judgment which cost him his life. Danton's aim at this time was undoubtedly the conciliation of the various republican and revolutionary factions in France into a stable and peaceful government; the aim of the committee was to make its own power supreme over all others. Robespierre began to emerge as its leader, supported by Saint-Just, Billaud-Varennes, and Couthon. While Danton, with his friend and ally, Camille Desmoulins (q.v.), the inspirer and chief author of the Vieux Cordelier papers, was advocating moderation, the followers of Robespierre were preparing to strike. The first of their opponents to fall were the fanatical Hébertists, in March, 1794; after them came the turn of the Dantonists. Their leader seemed no longer to care for the turmoil of politics, but pursued a policy of inaction and awaited the attack. For a short time Danton retired to his home at Arçis-sur-Aube, having recently married a second wife. His enemies were active, and, after some show of hesitation, Robespierre yielded to Billaud-Varennes (q.v.), and the fate of the Dantonists was sealed. On March 30, 1794, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and others of the party were seized and imprisoned.
Before the revolutionary tribunal the strength of Danton's character shone forth. Questioned by the president as to his name and dwelling, he replied: "My name? It is Danton: a name tolerably well known in the Revolution. My dwelling? It will soon be annihilation; but my name will live in the pantheon of history." His trial was a farce, the formal charge being that of conspiring to restore the monarchy. The eloqùence of the man was so great that Paris thrilled as he hurled defiance at his accusers, and there was danger of a popular revolt in his favor. The Convention eagerly seized on the infamous suggestion of Saint-Just, that disrespect for justice merited summary conviction, and, with 14 of his supporters, Danton was at once condemned to the guillotine. Almost his last words were inspired by the treachery of Robespierre. "I could have saved him," he said; "I leave it all in a frightful welter; not a man of them has any idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me." On April 5, 1794, Danton mounted the scaffold with calm courage. A moment he stood erect, facing the mob, then, turning to the executioner, said, "Show the people my head; it is worth seeing." Danton was extremely large and extremely ugly, his face roughly corrugated by pockmarks, his nose crushed by an early accident, his eyes small and deep-set. He was rough in word and overquick in action: his speeches were always extemporaneous, the hot, passionate declamations of the moment, as, e.g., those on the trial of the King; his acts, such as the law of the 40 sous, equally hot-headed and ill-considered. But the accusations of venality, of dissolute conduct, of bloodthirsty ferociousness, so often made against Danton, have been long since disproved.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 492-493.