12.2.08

Danton

Born to Arcis-sur-Aube in 1759, Died in Paris in 1794, Danton was born in a lower middle class family . Grandson of an usher and son of lawyer. His mother becomes a widow with six children in 1762 and he is put in the care of a wet nurse at a farm. It is there that he falls which crushes his nose and distorts his lips giving him the look of a pugilist.

He attended the seminary at Troyes but is so mediocre in his studies that he gives up the idea of a religious life.

He leaves for Paris, and finds a position with a lawyer. He attends the faculty of Reims where he buys a law degree as it was possible to do under the Ancient Regime.

He becomes a member of the bar in Paris, but he rarely offers a plea at court, preferring to frequent cafes with his many friends. He is married to Antoinette Gabrielle Charpentier daughter of one of a café owner and is named to the Law Counsel of the king in 1787.

He does not play a role in the rebellion prior to August 10, 1792, although he has participated in the meetings of the Cordeliers Club and becomes friends of Camille DesMoulins, and Jean Paul Marat who call for the club to take up arms. He becomes president of the Cordeliers, due in part to his oratorical skills, he continued in popularity.

During the crisis of Varennes in June 1791 he skillfully supports the Jacobin club’s idea of a regency of Phillip d’Egalitie, cousin to the King and Grandmaster of the Freemasons in Paris. Allying himself to the Jacobins he demands the replacement of Louis XVI, in opposition the Cordeleiers who demand his abdication. During a petition drive seeking the removal of King Louis XVI on the Champ de Mars July 17, 1791 assassins fire into the crowd which causes the national guards under La Fayette to open fire on the crowd. Danton leaves and goes to England for safety.

Upon the return to Paris in November 1791, he is elected to be the substitute of the prosecutor for the city of Paris. The National Constituent Assembly having completed its work in September 1791. Danton was not elected to its successor, the short-lived Legislative Assembly, and his party was only 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 August 10, 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 at its head; this view is supported because on the morning after the effective fall of the monarchy, Danton who favors the revolutionary Parisians and with their connivance he becomes the Minister of Justice.

This sudden rise from the subordinate office which he held in the commune is a demonstration of his power within the insurrectionary party. In September 1792, when the Austrians threaten invasion he uppers his famous, “L’Audace, L’Audace, toujours L’Audace,” (“Audacity, again audacity, always audacity!”)

In the provisional executive government that was formed between the king's dethronement and the opening of the National Assembly, Danton allied himself with Jean Marie Roland and other Girondists. The alarming successes of the Austrians and the surrender of the fortress of Verdun caused panic in the capital; over a thousand prisoners were murdered. The first attack occurred when twenty-four non-juring priests being transported to the prison of L'Abbaye, were attacked by a mob that quickly killed them all as they were trying to escape into the prison, then mutilated the bodies, "with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe" according to the British diplomatic dispatch. On September 3 and September 4, crowds broke into other Paris prisons, where they murdered the prisoners, who some feared were counter-revolutionaries who would aid the invading Prussians. Danton was accused of directing this slaughter, but investigation has failed to prove this.

In the convention he found himself side by side with Marat, Robespierre, DesMoulins and Phélippeaux, close friends and partisans. 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 center of free France. It is the center of light. When Paris shall perish there will no longer be a republic."

Danton voted for the death of Louis XVI, and he helped creat the revolutionary tribunal which would become the instument of the terror. Danton became one of the original members of the Committee of Public Safety on April 6, 1793. He travelled as a consiquence of his duties and went to Belguim to infuse energy in the republican armies.

The gap between the Girondists and the Jacobins widened ever farther and danton was unable to bridge the difificulties between the two. The fury of the Girond was unceasing, the attacks upon Danton and the mountain continued unabatted. The Grondists saw him as the personification of the fury of the revolutionalry spirit.

During the spring of 1793 Danton made up his mind that the Girondist mst be politacally supressed. The convention had become factionary and wasted much time in vindicitiveness and political revenge. (Seemingly a hallmark of democracy.) The country still in crisis, General Dumoriez deserted to the enemy for fear of the guillotine after suffering defeat at Valmy and Jemappes, and to the west the Vendee has risen up in rebellion to the levee’ en masse, the installation of juring priests and the supression of the true faith. Danton found himself in the fight of his life for his life as the Girondists clamoured for his head. This was one struggle they would lose.

Danton remained slippery as an eel. Again there is no proof that he engineered the insurrection of May 31, through June 2, 1793, which expunged the convention and proscribed the Girondists. 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.

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" suddenly had the responsibility of government. Actual power was in the hands of the two Committees, Public Safety and the Committee of General Security. Danton has nine months to live.

When discussing the revolution many people feel a certain emapthy for Danton. It comes from the modern readers republican upbringing as Danton is most oftern portrayed as a man of the people, however he was a ruthless politician who as we have seen was responsible for all and resonsible for nothing. That characteristic is what led to his downfall.

Immediately after the fall of the Girondists he threw himself into the task of setting up a strong central authority, and controlling the forces of anarchy in Paris. He proposed that dictatorial power be granted to the Committee of Public Safety. It is here I pause to reflect that this supposed Revolution was started in order to destroy a supposed Tyrant and instead had devolved to the point of installing a dictatorship. He was cafeful not to be on this committee lest he be placed under some personal suspicion. He set himself up as a powerful supporter of government from without.

The commune of Paris composed of animals like Hébert and Chaumette. They had no concern for the near-term restoration of any sort of political order. These enragés 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. Thus the Terror.

The Reign of Terror was not a policy that could be easily transformed. Indeed, it would eventually end with the Thermidorian Reaction when the Convention would rise against the Committee, execute its leaders, and place power in the hands of new men with a new policy. It is on one of his trips to Belgium that the wife of Danton, Gabrielle died. Four months after the death of his first wife, Louise Gély becomes his wife, a delicate girl of sixteen years from a bourgeois family with religious principles. The family was initially against this union. Sherequired that the marriage be blessed by a nonjuring priest after a confession. The marriage ceremony was celebrated in a garret away from prying eyes. Dr Warren H. Carroll, in his book the “Guillotine and the Cross”, marks this as the metanoia in the life of Danton and the salvation of his soul.

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 deliberated on his arrest soon afterwards, and again Robespierre resisted the proposal. Yet if 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. Or it may have been that he felt this was the moment of the expiation of his sins.

On March 30, 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, assented to a proposal made by Saint-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 Desmoulins, 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!" Danton's last words were addressed to his executioner. He said to him "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's well worth seeing."

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.

Vive le Roy!
de Brantigny

http://les.guillotines.free.fr/danton.htm

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