From the 6th April 1793, from the act which was described at the end of the last chapter, we have something new in the course of the Revolution. We have at last an Institution.
It is in the nature of the French people (for reasons which might to some extent be determined, but whose discussion has no place in this book) that their history should present itself in a peculiarly dramatic fashion. Their adventures, their illusions, their violence, their despair, their achievements, seem upon a hundred occasions to centre round particular men or certain conspicuous actions, in such a fashion that those men and these actions fit themselves into a story, the plot and interest of which absorb the reader. But if we attempt to connect the whole into a series, even if we attempt to give the causes or the meaning of a few years’ events, the dramatic aspect fails. This quality, which has fascinated so many, has also mistaught us and confused us, and, in the desire to “throw the limelight” upon the centre of action, one historian after another has left in obscurity that impersonal blind force which directs the whole.
This force in France is the Institution. Understand the character and methods of her central power, and you find yourself possessed of this great key to the understanding of her history, namely, that events follow each other in the order that the Institution requires, and the nation moves along the lines which the Institution determines. The Institution provides a standpoint from which all falls into perspective, even the details of personality no longer remain in confusion. You find, in a little while, that you are dealing with an organism more simple and of far greater vitality than any man, as truly a living, and much more truly a permanent, force than a monarch or a great minister can be.
The consideration of half-a-dozen examples will make this clear. What is all that marvellously dramatic action between Pepin le Bref and the coronation of Hugh but confusion? It ceases to be so when we follow with Fustel de Coulanges the transformation of the Imperial system. You can make nothing of the tenth and eleventh centuries, for all their personal interest, until you have grasped Feudalism, and it is a common-place that the six hundred years that follow are but the development of the Capetian method. It is not in Louis the XI., or in Mazarin, or in Louis XIV. that we find the Force—it is in the French monarchy. Look about you at the present day, ask your- self what has recreated the prosperity of modern France, and you will certainly not be able to find a special man. It is the System that has done the work.
Now it is the note of all the Revolution, as we have followed it up to this point, that the Institution was lacking. France without it was France without herself: she dissolved. The cause of this lack was as follows: The monarchy, round which everything had centred, was dying, and the social theories of the time—the great Philosophy on which France was fed—neglected and despised the Institution, relying as it did upon the vague force of general opinion. It was the chief—I had almost said the only—fault of the Jeffersonians in America and the idealist Republicans in France, that they could see neither the necessity of formulae nor the just power of systems. Nevertheless it was the instinct which remained in the French mind, the “sub-conscious” sense of what the Institution was to France, that made half the violence of the time. I do not mean that the speeches recognised this character openly—on the contrary, the enmities and the divisions seem to turn entirely upon personal hatreds; but I mean that the underlying fear, unexpressed but real, was that such and such a proposition would create a permanent tendency, and that Girondin or Jacobin success meant the deflection of the torrent into one or the other of two divergent channels. Here in England, living under an order which is well established and old, we wonder at the intensity of passion which some abstract resolution could arouse in the Convention. We should wonder no longer were we to comprehend that in the extreme rapidity with which all France was being remoulded, a few words agreed upon, a mere principle, might add a quality to all the future history of the nation.
Two men in the Revolutionary period rose higher than the flood, Mirabeau and Danton. Each was able to perceive what the permanent character of the nation was, and each gave all his efforts to the uniting or welding round some stable centre the new order to which both were attached. In a word, each understood what the Institution was to France, and desired to lend it force and endurance. With Mirabeau it was the monarchy. Would he have saved, recreated, and restored that declining power which had once been the framework of the nation? We cannot tell. Had he lived, ‘92 would have shown us; only we know that if the monarchy had seemed to him at last beyond repair, he would have proposed at once some similar power to replace it. Now Danton had survived; doubtful in 1791, “more monarchist than you, M. de Lafayette,” he was determined in 1792 that the crown and France were separate for ever. He overthrew the palace, but from that very moment all his policy was directed to the construction of a governing power. It is here that he and the Girondins, for all his personal attempts at unity, were hopelessly divided. The Girondins were bent upon that local autonomy and that extreme individual liberty in which the central power disappears. With the growing danger, with his own experience of Belgium, Danton, during the early part of 1793, becomes set upon the idea of government and of nothing else. He gave it a weapon before it existed, for he made the Revolutionary Tribunal, and though Isnard first proposed it, it is known that Danton led the movement which ended in the establishment of the Committee.
All government since that time in France has been its heir. It was the Committee that forged the centralised system, that showed how the administration might radiate from Paris, that gave precedent for the conscription and for all determined action. That dictatorship so plainly saved the country in its worst peril that under many different names the French people have often recalled it, and rarely without success.
All the remaining year with which this chapter must deal is the story of the Committee. The Committee explains and gives us the clue to every action. Its changes, the men who dominated it, the reasons it had for violence or for clemency, its main object of throwing back the invasions—these are the central part of 1793 and 1794.
Had we an accurate account of what passed in that secret council, almost every event could be referred to it. But such an account is lacking. Barrère, always inconsistent, wrote a rigmarole in his old age which has anecdotes of interest, but which is almost valueless for our purpose. Here and there we have a disconnected anecdote or a lame confession, but the doors of the room are as closed to us as they were to the contemporaries who stood in the outer hall and received the official nothings of Barrère, or later of St. Just. Nevertheless what we can reconstruct of its spirit and action, imperfect as our effort may be, does more to explain the time than any descriptions of the orators or of the crowd
The action of this new executive, as it touches Danton, changes rapidly during the year. In the first Committee of nine Danton is everything. He made it and he directs it. Towards the close, however, of its short existence, he is beginning to feel the pressure of the Jacobins, and of Robespierre and of St. Just, the victory of the Mountain. This loss of power on his part ends with the dissolution of the old Committee, and when the new one is formed—with the 10th of July—another period begins. The members are increased to twelve; then enter the Robespierrians. Danton, for motives which we shall discuss later, resigns, and there are two doubtful summer months when he still maintains, from without, the power of the Committee, but first begins to check so far as is possible the tyranny upon which it has embarked. He retires in a kind of despair to Arcis, and with his return a new phase is entered. The Committee is striking furiously; the Terror has taken root; and by an action of generosity, or perhaps of wisdom, Danton sets himself against his own creation. These few months—the winter of 1793-1794—give us that side of Danton which at the time was least explicable, but which best defines him for posterity. He puts his whole weight as an orator, and, through the genius of his friends, he puts the journals also against the Terror. Knowing (as he must have known) how strong was the engine he had made, he yet withstands it, and attempts by a purely personal force, without an organisation and without executive power, to reduce the action of the Committee. So great was he that for some weeks his success hung in the balance. France, we must presume, was with him. Paris doubted, but might have been won. When the violent and unscrupulous Hdbertists were executed lie seemed to have succeeded, and the Terror appeared to be closed. But the Committee had a deeper policy; in the same week that saw the fall of Hubert, Danton was himself suddenly arrested with his friends. How far Robespierre permitted and how far directed the action will never be fully known. The Committee struck the one great force opposed to it, and the Dantonists were executed on the anniversary of its creation.
The first part of the story of the Committee in its relation to Danton is the period between April the 6th and July the 10th 1793. It is the period of the fall of the Girondins; and to make clear the importance of the new power I shall adopt this method: —
To give first in their order the events that led to the attack on the Parliament and the expulsion of the twenty- two; to show in what confusion the whole story lies, and how difficult (or impossible) it is to follow the motives of the deputies, or to say why they acted as they did. Then to give, as a parallel account, the position and action of the Committee, and to show how fully (in my opinion) its motive determines the history of the time; to look at the insurrection of June 2 from the room where the nine members debated in secret, and to point out how, from that standpoint (which was Danton’s own), the confusion falls into order.
First, then, what was the exterior history of the movement that destroyed the Gironde? It will be remembered that when the Convention first met in September, the great majority of its numbers inclined to a certain spirit. That spirit was best represented by a small group of men, idealists and orators—and of these a number, the most powerful perhaps, had come from the vineyards of the peaceable southern river. The warmth, the calm, the fruitfulness of the Valley of the Gironde, appeared in Vergniaud’s accents. To this devoted band of men, whose whole career was justice and virtue, no one has dared to be contemptuous, and history on every side has left them heroes. They were own brothers to the immortal group that framed the American Constitution, the true heirs of Rousseau, and worthy to defend and at last to give their lives for the Republican idea. They hated the shedding of blood; they tested every action by the purest standard of their creed; and from the first speeches in which they demanded the war, to the day when they sang the Marseillaise on the scaffold, they did not swerve an inch from the path which they had set before themselves.
What led such men into conflict with Paris, and perhaps with France? This fault: that the pure theory which they justly maintained to be the one right government could not meet Europe in arms. What a few millions lost on the littoral of the American continent could do, without frontiers and without memories, that France could not do with civil war raging, and with the world invading her frontiers. A modification was imperative, a compromise with necessary evil. The men who felt reality knew that well. Danton had forced on a dictatorship, and gave it the method of the Terror. But the Girondins, though they had been compelled to give up so much, yet refused to follow the necessary path. They refused the conscription; a volunteer army was the only one tolerable to free men. They refused diplomacy; it involved a secret method, and was of its nature based on compromise. They refused the requisitions to the armies, the forced taxes, the hegemony of Paris, the preponderance of talent or genius in the committees—in a word, they refused to sanction anything, however necessary, in that crisis, which they would not have sanctioned in a time of order and of a pure republic.
The result of this sublime obstinacy was the ruin of France and of themselves. The Royalists saw it, and called themselves “Girondins;” the great name became a label for every reaction, and in every new disaster Paris saw with increasing clearness the restraining hand of the Gironde. For it was Paris and its Commune that took the leadership in the attempt to depose or expel the men who led the Parliament. Already before the Committee had been formed, the Commune on April the 2nd had begun to correspond with the municipalities of France—the fatal step that had so often preceded insurrection. To Paris as a centre, to Paris radical, and especially to Paris violent and unreasoning, the Girondins had grown detestable. Paris for a thousand years had stood for unity—the Girondins were autonomist and federal. Paris was passionate—the Girondins as calm as light. To all this enmity the Gironde answered by no force, but only by an assertion of their inviolable right. All April and May is consumed in the tale of great disasters without, and of the acute battle between the Right and the deputation from Paris within.
It is when we turn to this struggle within the Convention that the confusion arises which can only be made clear by considering the Committee. Especially is this the case with regard to Danton’s action. Thus, on the 10th of April, he opposes the prosecution of those who sent a petition from the Halle aux Blés for the resignation of Roland; on the 13th there is the famous speech in favour of diplomatic action as opposed to the violence of the Mountain. Yet the day before he also opposed in a formal and well-reasoned speech the arrest and trial of Marat. When that madman, with whom his name had been so often linked, came back in triumph from his acquittal, Danton took a yet more inexplicable attitude. While all the Mountain were shouting for joy, and while Paris welcomed the verdict as the first wound of the Gironde (which, indeed, it was), Danton merely said, “Paris, we see, so loves the Convention as to applaud the acquittal of one of its members”—a very transparent speech. On the 1st of May Danton is the only man to speak with sobriety and good sense against the petition of the Faubourg St. Antoine, which attacked the rights of property; yet on the 10th he turns against Isnard, that is, against the Gironde and the Moderates, and causes the proposal of what was practically a popular referendum on the constitution to be rejected. We see, therefore, even when we look at the action of Danton alone, the apparent confusion that was indicated above. Were we to turn to almost any other of the Committee the same would be apparent. Barrère, the chief spokesman, seems to take now one side, now the other. At one moment he attacks the Girondins purposely; at another the petitions from Paris; at every point, in the action of every prominent speaker outside the two opposing groups, there appears this inextricable tangle.
With the 10th of May the battle between Paris and the Gironde entered into its last phase. It was upon this date that the Convention began to sit permanently in the little theatre of the Tuilleries, where they had first met. The news that met them was the death of Dampierre and the taking of Thouars by the Vendeans. Every rumour of disaster (and the rumours were being confirmed with fatal rapidity) was like oil spilt from the lamp of the Gironde. Their own followers were shaken, the great mass of the Convention who put their trust in these pure doctrines grew afraid and doubtful. Within a week (on the 17th) the Commune took a farther step; they made their own law, and put Boulanger at the head of the armed force of the town—a force that was not theirs to govern. Later they gave Henriot the place. The Convention answered by electing Isnard their president; and Guadet, the headstrong, proposed to break the Commune, and to call the “suppliants” to Bourges. By this proposal a kind of Parliament in reserve would have existed to take up the work if the Parliament in Paris should be mutilated. Had the motion passed, the civil war, which was muttering in Lyons and had broken into open flame in Vendee, would have embraced all France.
But at this juncture Danton’s Committee comes in again with its curiously mixed action. By the mouth of Barrère it pleads against the motion, and proposes instead the appointment of twelve members, as Girondin as they pleased, to judge the Commune, to “inquire.” The commission was named, and acted on thorough principle and with haste, and without judgment, as any one might have foretold; for such was the Girondin weakness. Against the army that the Commune was gathering, all it could propose was to double the sergeant’s guard at the Tuilleries, while it exasperated its enemy by ordering the arrest of Hébert.
Hébert was the one man in the Revolution of whom the truth has certainly been told by enemies. There was something of the pickpocket in Hébert, but not of the pickpocket only. He was also a blasphemer, an atheist, a man delighting in the foulest words, and in the most cowardly or ferocious of actions. His prominence was due to two things. First, he was the pamphleteer of the time, the “Père Duchesne.” France had not yet discovered the danger of a free press. Secondly, in the Parisian exasperation against “the Moderates,” the most extreme and the least rational became of necessity a kind of symbol, an accentuated type, and was thrust forward as a defiance. It is not too much to say that the Girondins themselves, by their lack of all measure, pushed Hébert to the front.
Such measures as those which “the twelve” had decreed were but fuel for the insurrectionary flame. Once more Danton appears, this time against the Gironde. To the demand for a large guard drawn from the Departments he said, “You are decreeing that you are afraid!” Whereupon a voice from the right cried with some humour, “I am.” Danton had his way, the guard was not formed, and on the following day (the 25th of May) Isnard’s imprudence brought on the catastrophe.
It was in the matter of the petition for the release of Hébert. Isnard rose in the chair, lifted his hand, and pronounced in his hollow voice the words that have enriched history at the expense of his country: “If such a thing should happen as an attempt upon the representatives of the nation, I say to you, in the name of all France, that very soon men would search upon the banks of the Seine for proofs that Paris had once been there.” Danton intervened, but he could do nothing. The glove had been thrown down. He asked for the withdrawal of those words; the Girondin majority reaffirmed them. Two days later he obtained the freedom of Hé; but though for a moment he was promised the dissolution of the “Commission of the Twelve,” his effort failed, for they were immediately reinstated. In the night between the 30th and the 31st of May the Sections named a new and insurrectionary Commune; for one day the danger was warded off, and you may see Danton, still so difficult to understand, urging the Committee, while Barrère is proposing the conciliatory message to France, a document which blamed neither the Girondins nor Paris, and the twelve were dissolved. But the final blow was not to be avoided. On the 2nd of June the news of the counter-revolution in Lyons reached Paris. The Convention was surrounded; Henriot, at the head of the city militia, guarded its approaches, lined the corridors. Even in that moment, when Isnard proposed to retire, and made his superb apology, the Gironde, as a whole, stood firm. The inflexible Jansenist, Lanjuinais, proposed, with heroic folly, “a decree dissolving the authorities of Paris,” at a moment when these very authorities were holding the doors with fixed bayonets; but in spite of Barrère’s demand for Henriot’s condemnation, in spite of Danton’s demand for “a signal punishment,” the Convention yielded, voted the arrest not only of the twenty-two, whom the Commune had demanded, but of twenty-nine, and Vergniaud, Barbarous, Guadet; Le Brun, and Clavière (who were nominally ministers), Roland (who had fled, and whose wife was imprisoned by the Commune)—in fine, the whole body of those great orators who had made the Republic—were thrust out of the Assembly, some to be held in the honourable confinement of their own houses, some to fly and raise civil war in the Departments. The Commune offered hostages in equal number, but they were refused; and before the day was over the Parliament was mutilated, and the obstacle to the dictatorship and to the Terror had been swept away.
Such is a rapid summary of the fall of the Girondins—a story of contradictions and of inextricable cross-purposes, in which for two months men seem (especially the men of the new Committee) to change sides, to hesitate, and to falter, in which the majority passes over to the Jacobins with a startling rapidity, and in which (apparently) the only two fixed points are the immovable figures of the Gironde and their opponents of the Commune.
I know that this confusion has commonly led writers to adopt an equal confusion in their explanation of the insurrection and of its motives. To disentangle such a skein it was apparently necessary to make Robespierre a prophet, Isnard for once a coward, Barrère a skilful diplomatist, Canton a vacillator. Such a method appears to me false. If, to explain a difficult passage in history, we make men behave in a way which contradicts all their lives, we must (it seems to me) be in error. These special theories are mechanical, and do not satisfy the mind.
The question is this: Somewhere a power existed; why was not that power in evidence either on one side or on the other? And why do we not see it acting? I believe the answer is as follows: —
The power was in the Committee. The Committee believed it necessary to be rid of the Girondins. But the Committee was part of the Convention—the existence and the authority of the Convention was necessary to it. It saw on the one hand a set of Parliamentary leaders who would not permit it to act with vigour, on the other it noted the angry spirit of Paris. The Committee permitted that spirit to act, but gave it its measure and its direction unknown to itself, desiring to eliminate the Moderates, but anxious to avoid their proscription, exile, or death. With this clue the maze seems to me resolved. It was the Committee that expelled the Gironde, using Paris for its arm.
Now to prove this certain steps are necessary. In the first place, why can we say that the Committee was the centre of power? Because it alone had access to a complete knowledge of France, it alone debated in secret, and it alone existed for the express purpose of dictatorship. When once the generals, the deputies in mission, and the police became familiar with the new organ, they referred to the Committee as naturally as the corresponding men to-day would refer to a cabinet or to a monarch. If the reader will glance at any portion of the document which is printed as Appendix XI. of this book, and to which I shall continually refer in this passage, he will at once perceive that the men who drew it up had in their hands every lever of public machinery. I would not maintain that this power sprang at once into existence on the 6th of April, but the two months that produced such a report was ample time to have developed a corresponding grasp upon the armies, upon the diplomacy, and upon the internal resources of Revolutionary France. Where else will you find such a document in all the offices of the time? Compared with it the decisions of the ministry are vague abstractions, the reports of the Commune puerilities or ravings. Revolutionary France, until the formation of the Committee, may be compared to a marsh in which the water tends to flow to no one centre; the information, the revenue, the public forces stood incoherent and stagnant. The creation of this secret body may be compared to a pit dug in its centre, to which the waters would immediately flow. It may be objected that they had not the control of finance, No , but they had Cambon. In an assembly of men new to government this very difficult province fell of itself into the hands of a man whose genius all admitted, and whose probity no one of his enemies would deny. Long before the insurrection took place, any man with information, with authority, or with a special duty to perform, had learnt to regard the Committee as his chief, for the simple reason that no other centre of authority existed. Add to this the incalculable force of secrecy, the power by which the most glaring failures of our cabinets can be hidden by merely saying, “We know what all the rest ignore,” and it will appear reasonable to say that by June the Committee could almost, had it wished, have summoned an army to Paris. The Committee then held the power.
In the second place, we must establish, as far as is possible, the aims of the Committee and their method of guiding the insurrection. As was said earlier in this chapter, those aims and methods can only be arrived at by inference; the very nature of a body that deliberates in secret makes this method of inquiry necessary. There is no direct evidence, unless the contradictory anecdotes of a much later period can be given that name. Now we can infer with some accuracy what went on in their deliberations. There should be noted at the outset the document to which I have already referred, and which, if I am not mistaken, is printed for the first time in this book. It was the first of those general Rapports which were delivered by Barrère to the Convention for the next sixteen months, and which so profoundly affected the course of the Revolution. It sums up the result of two months of astonishing labour; everything—all the weakness of France—has been noted with the accuracy of a topographical survey. It gives the equipment, the provisioning, the local difficulties of each army, the detailed condition of the fleet (a most deplorable picture), the result of what is evidently an elaborate spy-system in the department of foreign intrigue, and everywhere the indictment is obvious—“whatever has governed France hitherto has hopelessly failed.” There are, indeed, polite references to the ineptitude of the old regime, but side by side with these there is a direct attack on the Girondin Ministers of War, and on the diplomatic, or rather non-diplomatic, methods which had been pursued abroad; indeed, many parts of this report would not be out of place had they appeared in a Compte Rendu drawn up by the victorious insurrection, instead of preceding, as they did, the fall of the Gironde.
Again, there is the date of its appearance. It was not by a coincidence that Barrère was given it to read on the 29th of May. Note this sequence. Isnard made his fatal speech on Saturday the 25th. Monday the 27th was the date of Danton’s attempt to dissolve “the twelve;” and his failure followed on Tuesday the 28th, when, by the blindness or firmness of the Gironde, they were reinstated. It is on Wednesday the 29th that Barrère rises at the end of a long and stormy discussion, and, late in the afternoon, presents his report. The vague phrases on the importance of unity which it contains have made some imagine that it was an attempt at conciliation, rapidly devised and thrown out at that critical moment That opinion is surely erroneous. It is long (some 17,000 words) and carefully prepared; it must have taken some time to draw up, and it has all the appearance of a weapon framed at leisure and held in reserve; it comes at that moment with some such force as this, saying from the Committee, from Danton, to the Gironde—“You have refused to do what France absolutely needed. You have rejected my attempts to save you, the avenues which I opened for your escape; you were given the commission of twelve; you have fatally abused the gift. Will you be convinced at the last moment by this picture of the terrible straits to which you have brought the nation?”
Finally, we can draw a fairly conclusive set of proofs from our knowledge of the men in the Committee and of the public action they took. Of all the nine, Danton was the one commanding personality. Cambon was a specialist, and but for him and Lindet, honest but not an orator, there were Danton and his men only. Barrère, it may be urged, was not a Dantonist; but he was pliant to a degree; his pliancy is notorious, and has ignorantly been given a still worse name. Moreover, Barrère was closeted with Danton day after day; they undertook the same department in the Committee (that of foreign affairs), and they follow exactly the same course in the tribune. In the Department of War was Delacroix, Danton’s friend and right hand. Of the report itself, all the last part, and possibly some paragraphs in the middle, were drawn up by Danton. Later we shall see that his preponderance was notorious and a danger to him.
Well, Danton and the Committee being so nearly identical, can we make a description of the motive that urged him? I think we can. Desmoulin’s “Histoire des Brissottins” was certainly not of Danton’s inspiration. Camille wrote that deadly pamphlet under the eye of Robespierre. But Fabre D’Eglantine at the Jacobins, on May the 1st, calling on the Girondins “to go, and return when all is settled,” is almost using Danton’s own phrase—“Qu’ils s'en aillent, et qu’ils revennent profiter de notre victoire.” All that he and Barrère say, from then to the day of June the 2nd, seems to fall under this formula. He permits the attack of the Commune, while he does everything to moderate its force. He speaks continually for the defence, but he and his Committee refuse to act, and if ever he has spoken a little too strongly, has given the Girondins a little too much power, he retreats somewhat towards the Commune. He resembles a man who is opening a sluice in a dyke of the fen country: behind him is the sea; he admits and plays with its power, but unless his calculation is just it may rush in and overwhelm him. He permitted Paris to strike, and he created a tyranny; both the mob of the capital and the dictatorship were destined to break from his hands.
These are, as I read them, the causes of the fall of the Girondins. I have dealt with them at this length because the passage from the 31st of May to the 2nd of June 1793 is not only one of the most fiercely debated, but also one of the most important in the history of the Revolution. I have not given it too much space, for upon the understanding of what led to and what permitted the insurrection depends, without any question, our final judgment on Danton’s position.
Here, then, the Committee, even in its infancy, furnishes the clue to a difficult passage in the Revolution. It is becoming more and more necessary as research progresses to refer the mysteries of the period to that central body; and, as it seems to me, we have in its first general report the first explanation of that most complex movement, the insurrection of the 2nd of June.
The Gironde having disappeared, there was left before Danton a task of extreme difficulty. He was about to attempt the management of men whom he deliberately permitted to engage in battle. It is of the very first importance in our study of his career to appreciate the conditions of this task. Consider for a moment what he has done. He has by arguments, by threats, and finally by the use of the mob, made the Revolutionary Government a reality. It is in this last ally that we find the cause of his future failure. Hitherto he has been battling with particular men, preventing a small group of politicians from obstructing the Revolutionary measures, cajoling on the other hand the extreme members of the Convention by calculated outbursts of sympathy. Such a task no one would find impossible, did he possess at once a clear object and the genius to approach it. But after the 2nd of June it was another matter. He had let loose the storm, and with the pride of a man who felt his strength inwards and outwards (for scheming and for haranguing), he had determined deliberately to ride it. It was a miscalculation. Something resembling a natural force, something like an earthquake or a lava stream, opposed itself to his mere individual will; and Danton, who among the politicians had been like a man among boys, became in the presence of these new forces like a lonely traveller struggling at evening against a growing tempest in the mountains. From this moment we shall see him using in vain against the passions of 1793 the ability, the ruse, the eloquence, the energy which had so long succeeded among the statesmen. They will be swept down like driftwood upon the current of popular madness which he himself has let loose. The Committee will be formed of new members, the Terror will grow from day to day, the Revolution will begin to take on that character of fanaticism which was directly opposed to Danton’s plan, and he will retire disappointed and beaten. He will return frankly out of sympathy with the excesses, and in expiation of that fault of sanity he will die.
The months in which he fights this losing battle are the hot months of 1793. I will not deny that during this summer his name is more conspicuous than at any period of his life. I will admit that if we deal with history as a spectacle, the climax of 1793 should be distinguished by his voice and presence. But it is this fascination of the picturesque which has made his life inexplicable, and a biographer dares not leave it so. Although June, July, and August are full of his speeches, his warning, and even his energy, yet I say that he was day after day losing his hold and slipping. He is conspicuous because in the face of such disaster he redoubled his energy; but even that redoubled energy is dwarfed in the face of the spirit that animated the Terror.
First with regard to June: it was still a period of hope, and he still thought himself the master. He had added to the Committee, not thinking them dangerous, but as a kind of sop, five members of the Mountain. Among them were two who were to prove the ruin of his whole system—Couthon and St. Just. Perhaps to temper their action, perhaps merely because he was a friend, he included Hérault de Séchelles. The names were typical of what was to happen in 1794, when, by the power of St. Just, Hérault was to be thrust out of the Committee and sent to die with Danton himself.
Unconscious of what this addition would lead to, unconscious also of what echoes the 2nd of June might arouse in the provinces, Danton pursued his path as though the insurrection had been but one event of many. The minister Le Brun was brought by his guards day after day to aid in the discussions, and taken back to the custody of his own house. One might have thought that the “moral insurrection” of which Robespierre had talked had led only to a “moral suppression” of the Girondins. Moreover, the whole of these days of June are full of Danton’s yet remaining supremacy. He goes on with his two principal methods, namely, a strong secret government and moderation in the application of its tyranny, as though, the situation was his to mould at his will. Thus, on the 8th, he says with regard to the decree against foreigners: “I will show you such and such an alien established in France who is much more of a patriot than many Frenchmen. I say to you, therefore, that while the principle of watching foreigners is good, you should send this proposal to the Committee and let it be discussed there.” Again, two days later, he refuses to admit the violent attitude of the Mountain towards Bordeaux. He even praises that city at a time when it was practically in rebellion, to defend its proscribed members. Within the same week he continues to talk of La Vendée as the only centre of insurrection. He continues to be the Danton of old, although the Girondins are raising the standard of civil war on every side, and he maintains that continuous effort and compromise which had saved so much in the autumn of 1792, and which could do so little now.
Within the Committee they framed the Constitution of 1793—that great monument of democracy, which never took its place in history, nor ever affected the lives of men. It stands like an idol of great beauty which travellers find in a desert place; its religion has disappeared from the earth; no ruins surround it; in the day when it was put up the men who raised it were driven from what should have been the centre of their adoration. That Danton was still in power when the result was debated in the Parliament during the third week of the month is evident from two things: first, that the Constitution, with its broad guarantees of individual liberty and of local autonomy, with its liberal spirit, so nearly approaching the great dream of Condorcet, so opposed to the narrow fanaticism of the Jacobins, was definitely intended to appease the growing passions of civil war. Two-thirds of France, of the country-sides at least, was arming because Paris had dared to touch the representatives of the nation. The Constitution was thrown like a hostage; the men who saw the necessity for a dictatorship said virtually, “The violence that offends you is only for a moment. Here is what we desire with the return of peace.” And the document so responded to the heart of France that it succeeded.
The second proof that Danton had still hold of the reins is to be found in this: that the advice which he gives during the discussions on the Constitution is not that of violence, nor of flattery, but of moderate common-sense; and of such advice which the Convention accepts the best example is to be found in the speech on the power of mating war. It was a difficult thing to convince the Assembly, in those days of abstractions, that the nation, as a whole, could not exercise such a right without hopeless confusion. Yet Danton had his way. This month of June, then, which was so full of terrible internal danger, during which Buzot had raised a Girondin army sixty miles from Paris, during which Normandy was in full revolt, during which Lyons had attacked the Republic, and during which the counter-Revolution seemed on the point of breaking out this month was still Danton’s own. He was secure in his public position, for the very conquerors of the 2nd of June, the violent extremists, could not prevent him from exercising his diplomacy abroad and his pacificatory compromise in domestic affairs.
He was also secure in that which mattered so much more to him—I mean in his home. His mind had sufficiently steadied after the shock that had maddened him in February for him to follow the advice which his dead wife had left him. On the 17th of June he re-married. The woman was not suited to Danton, She did not love him, nor probably did he love her. There were two young children, whom, in the winter his first wife, finding herself to be dying, felt she was leaving orphans. The eldest was only three years old. This good woman, Catholic and devout, knowing her husband, and the sheer necessity for a home which his character had shown, determined on a religious education for her sons, and determined on a Catholic woman to be about her husband. She urged him to marry her younger friend, Mdlle. Gély. An incident, which is doubtful, but which, on the whole, I accept, does not seem to me to prove the violence of an uncontrolled affection, but, on the contrary, to show a kind of indifference, as though Danton said to himself, “The thing must be done, and had better be done so as to offend the family as little as possible.” I mean the story of his marriage before a non-juring priest. At any rate, that marriage shows an element of determination and security. He was still master of his fortunes and of himself.
But he had called up a spirit too strong for him. July was to prove it.
June, which had seen the rise of the Girondin insurrection, had also seen its partial appeasement and suppression. It was, as we have said, the Constitution, hurriedly improvised for this purpose, that had been the main cause of such a success, but there remained for July, more dangerous than ever, the foreign invasion and the three outstanding strongholds of the civil war—Lyons, Toulon, and La Vendée. It was against them and their growing success, against the rebels and the invaders, that the Terror was serviceable, and it was on account of their continual progress that the Terror assumed such fearful proportions.
I said earlier in this chapter that Danton inaugurating and strengthening the dictatorship of the Revolutionary Government was like a man deliberately opening a sluice behind which was the whole sea. There was an element of uncertainty upon the chances of which he had staked the success of his effort, and, with the reverses, he soon discovered that the forces which he had let loose were going beyond him. It may be that he thought the results of the 2nd of June would be more immediate than they were. As a fact, it took many months to recover the position which the supineness of the Girondins had lost. In those months the Revolutionary Government crystallized, as it were, became permanent, and fell into the hands of the extremists.
On the very day that the Norman insurrection was crushed at Vernon, a Norman girl stabbed Marat. It is not within the scope of this book to deal at any great length with the fate of the man whom Danton had called “l’individu.” That most striking and picturesque episode concerns us only in this matter, that it was a powerful impetus to the system of the Terror, and such an one as Danton, with all his judgment, could not possibly have foreseen. Moreover, on the very day that Marat was killed, the allied forces entered Warsaw, and there can be no doubt that the success of this infamy gave them a freer hand morally, at least upon the French frontier. Mayence fell, and its fall cost the life of Josephine’s first husband. The Allies had crossed the Rhine. Five days later, on the 28th of July, Valenciennes fell. At the same moment the Spaniards were pouring in east and west of the Pyrenees, and the Piedmontese had crossed the Alps. From a little press in Newcastle (the family of the printer yet remain to tell the tale), Pitt was drawing the thousands of forged assignats to ruin the Republic, Five foreign armies were occupying the territory of France, and late in the following month the Spanish and English fleets were admitted to the harbour and arsenal of Toulon. Let it then be granted that, with the possible exception of the Roman power after Cannae, no power in history was ever so near destruction as was Revolutionary France in that summer.
Let us see how the misfortunes of the country reacted upon the position of Danton. Already, with early July, he felt himself pressed and constrained by the growing power of the Jacobin doctrine and of its high priest. His system of conciliation, his attempts (in large part successful) to coax rather than to defeat the insurrection, were violently criticised in the debate of the 4th. The anger against the Girondins, which the death of Marat was to increase to so violent a degree, produced the report of St. Just upon the 8th of July, which, though history has called it moderate, yet mentions the accusation of Vergniaud and of Gaudet, and to this Danton was forced reluctantly to put his name. Two days afterwards the old Committee to which he had belonged was dissolved and a new one was elected.
It would be an error to regard this as a mere resignation on the part of Danton; it would be equally an error to regard it as a violent censure on the part of the Convention. It is certain that he chose to withdraw because the fatal necessity of things was giving power to men of whom he had no opinion. Thus Robespierre joined the Committee on the 27th of July—Robespierre, of whom Danton could say in private, “The man has not wits enough to cook an egg.” Yet this was the man who was so worshipped by the crowd, that, once within the Committee, he was destined to become the master of France. It may be remarked in passing that something fatal seemed to attach to the date on which a mar entered and began to lead the Committee. On the day that Danton entered in ‘93, on that day was he guillotined in ‘94. On the day that Robespierre entered in ‘93, on that day in ‘94 he fell.
Danton remained, for a little longer than a month, more and more separate from the management of affaire more and more out of sympathy with the men who were conducting the government. Nevertheless, he stands almost as an adviser and certainly with pure disinterestedness throughout the month of August. He was alone. Desmoulins was more with Robespierre than with him at that moment. Westermann, his great friend and ally on the 10th of August 1792, was under censure for his defeat in Vendée. But standing thus untrammelled, Danton for the moment appears with an especial brilliancy. Indeed there is no act of his public life so clear, so typical of his method, or so successful as his great speech on the 1st of August. It was as though, divorced from the pre-occupations of political intrigue and free from the responsibility of executive power, he was able for the first time in his whole life to speak his mind fully and clearly. The speech is a précis, as it were, of all his pronouncements on the necessity for a dictatorship and the methods it should employ. It turns round this sentence, “I demand that the Committee of Public Safety should be erected into a Provisional Government.” He said openly that while he asked for absolute powers for the Committee, he refused ever to join it again. He pointed out to them the necessity of uniting all power in the hands of one body, of making a unique command for a nation at war. To men who had been lost for so long in the discussion of constitutional checks and guarantees, he talked of the necessities as a general would to his staff. If you will read this speech through, you will find it to be the clearest exposition in existence of the causes and of the methods of the action of France In all her dangers from that day to our own. This speech, which is the climax of his career, and which . stands at the fountain-head of so much in the modern nation, was followed throughout the month by many a piece of practical and detailed advice. He talks always quietly, and always with a specific object in view, on the educational proposals, on the great conscription (14th of August), on the enforcement of an absolute military discipline (15th of August), and so forth. But while he is still in this position, of which the brilliancy and success have deceived some into thinking that it was the centre of his career, two things were at work which were to lead to the strange crisis in which he lost his life. First, the Terror was beginning to be used for purposes other than those of the National Defence. Secondly, there was coming upon him lethargy and illness. He seems to have remained for a whole month, from the middle of September till the middle of October, without debating. There had come a sudden necessity for repose into his life, and until it was satisfied he gave an impression of weakness and of breaking down.
This was emphasised by a kind of despair, as he saw the diplomatic methods abandoned in dealing with foreign nations and the personal aims of the mystics, the private vengeance of the bloodthirsty, or the ravings of the rank madmen capturing the absolute system which he had designed and forged at the expense of his titanic powers. It was during this period that Garat saw him, and has left us the picture of his great body bowed by illness, and his small deep eyes filled with tears, as he spoke of the fate that was following the Girondins, and of how he could not save them. It was then also that, walking slowly with Desmoulins at sunset by the Seine, he said with a shudder that had never taken him before, “The river is running blood.”
With October the Terror weighed on all France by the decree of the month before. The suspects were arrested right and left, and the country had entered into one of those periods which blacken history and leave gaps which many men dare not bridge by reading. He broke down and fled for quiet to his native place. From thence the Great Mother, of whom in all the Revolution he had been the truest son, sent him back to fulfil the mercy and the sanity of Nature as he had up till then fulfilled her energies.
This book is the life of a man, and a man is his mind. Danton, who has left no memoirs, no letters even—of whose life we know so little outside the field of politics—can only be interpreted, like any other man, by the mind. “We must seek the origin, though we have hut a phrase or two to guide us. What was that meditation at Arcis out of which proceeded the forlorn hope of the “Vieux Cordelier” and of the “Committee of Indulgence”?
He was ill already; the great energies which had been poured out recklessly in a torrent had suddenly run dry, Garat saw him weak, uncertain, refusing to leave his study, troubled in the eyes. The reins were out of his hands; all that he thought, or rather knew, to be fatal to the Republic was succeeding, and every just conception, all balance, was in danger. This, though it was not the cause of his weariness, coincided with it, and made his sadness take on something of despair. There had always been in his spirit a recurrent desire for the fields and rivers; it is common to all those whom Nature has blessed with her supreme gift of energy. He had at this moment a hunger for his native place, for the Champagne after the harvest, and for the autumn mists upon the Aube. It was in this attitude, weary, despairing, ill, and needing the country as a parched man needs water, that he asked and obtained permission to leave the Convention. It was upon the 12th of October, just as the worst phase of the Terror was beginning, that he left the violence and noise of the city and turned his face eastward to the cool valley of the Marne.
Starting from this point, his weariness and his longing for home, we can trace the movement of his mind during the six weeks of his repose. He recovered health with the rapidity that so often characterises men of his stamp; he found about him the peaceable affection, the cessation of argument and of self-defence which his soul had not known since the first days of 1789. His old mother was with him, and his children also, the memories of his own childhood. The place refreshed him like sleep; he became again the active and merry companion of four years before, sitting long at his meals, laughing with his friends. The window of the ground-floor room opened on to the Grande Place, and there are still stories of him in Arcis making that window a kind of little rendezvous for men passing and repassing whom he knew, his chatting and his questions, his interests on every point except that political turmoil in which the giant had worn himself out. The garden was a great care of his, and he was concerned for the farm in which he had invested the reimbursement of his pre-revolutionary office. He delighted to meet his father’s old friends, the mayor, the functionaries of the place. This man, whom we find so typical of his fellow-countrymen, is never more French than in his home. The little provincial town, the amour du clocher, the prospect of retirement in the province where one was born—the whole scene is one that repeats itself upon every side to-day in the class from which Danton sprang.
Moreover, as quiet took back its old place in his soul, he saw, no longer troubled, but with calmness and certainty, the course that lay before the Republic. The necessity of restraint, which had irritated and pursued him in his days of fever in Paris, was growing into a settled and deliberate policy; he began to study the position of France like a map; no noise nor calumny was present to confuse him, and his method of action on his return developed itself with the clearness that had marked his first attitude in the elections of Paris. How rapidly his mind was working even his friends could not tell. One of them thought to bring him good news, and told him of the death of the Girondins. Danton was in his garden talking of local affairs, and when this was told him, the vague reputation which he bore, the “terrible Danton,” and the fear he had inspired, led them to expect some praise. He turned as though he had been stabbed, and cried sharply, “Say nothing. Do you call that good news? It is a terrible misfortune. . . . It menaces us all.” And no one understood what was passing in his mind. It was the note that Garat had heard, and later Desmoulins: “I did my best to save them; I wish to God I could have saved them!”
Whatever other news reached Arcis in those terrible months served only to confirm him more strongly in his new attitude. Had he been tinged in the slightest degree with the mysticism that was common to so many in that time he would have felt a mission. But he was a Champenois, the very opposite of a mystic, and he only saw a task, a thing to be planned and executed by the reason. Perhaps if he had had more of the exaltation of the men he was about to oppose he might have succeeded.
It was upon the 21st of November that he returned to Paris. His health had come back, his full vigour, and with the first days of his reappearance in politics the demand for which the whole nation was waiting is heard. And what had not the fanatics done during the weeks of his silence! Lyons, the Queen, the Girondins, Roland’s wife—the very terms of politics had run mad, and he returned to wrestle with furies.
Let me describe the confusion of parties through which Danton had to wade in his progress towards the re-establishment of liberty and of order. As for the Convention itself, nominally the master, it was practically of no power. It chose to follow now one now another tendency or man; to be influenced by fear at this moment, by policy at that, and continually by the Revolutionary formulae. In a word, it was led. Like every large assembly, it lacked initiative. Above it and struggling for power were these: First, the committees, that of Public Safety, and its servant, that of General Security—the Government and the police. It was Danton, as we know, who desired to make the committees supreme, who had raised them as the institution, the central government. But by this time they were a despotism beyond the reach of the checks which Danton had always desired. To save so mighty an engine from the dangers of ambition, he had resigned in July. His sacrifice or lethargy did not suffice. The Committee which had once been Danton was now the Triumvirate—Robespierre, Couthon, St. Just. It pursued their personal objects, it maintained by the Terror their personal creed. Still Danton did not desire to destroy it as a system. He wished to modify its methods and to change its personnel, to let it merge gradually into the peaceable and orderly government for which the Revolution and the Republic had been made. By a strange necessity, the workers, the men who were most like Danton in spirit, the practical organisers on the Committee, such as Carnot, Prieur, and Lindet, could not help defending it in every particular. They knew the necessity of staying at their post, and they feared, with some justice, that if the Robespierrian faction was eliminated their work might be suddenly checked. It was because they were practical and short-sighted that they were opposed to the practical but far-sighted policy of Danton. They feared that with the cessation of the Terror the armies would lack recruits, the commissariat provisions, the treasury its taxes.
Against the Committee was the Commune. Hébert at its worst; Clootz at its most ideal; Pache at its most honest. This singular body represented a spirit very close indeed to anarchy. It preached atheism as a kind of dogma; it was intolerant of everything; it was as mad as Clootz, as filthy as Hébert. It possessed a curious mixture of two rages—the rage for the unity and defence of France, the rage for the autonomy of Paris. In the apathy that had taken the voters this small and insane group held command of the city. But the Committees were not what the Girondins had been You could not bully or proscribe Carnot, St. Just, Cambon, Jean Bon. With the fatal pressure of the stronger wrestler the Committee was pressing the Commune down. The Terror remained in either case. But with the Committee supreme it was a Terror of system striking to maintain a tyranny, a pure despotism working for definite ends. Had the Commune succeeded, it would have meant the Terror run mad, the guillotine killing for the sake of killing—and for ever.
The third party in the struggle was Robespierre. He also desired the Terror, but he intended to use it, as he did every power in France, towards a definite end—a certain perfect state, of which he had received a revelation, and of which he was the prophet. Of his aims and character I shall treat when I come to his action after the fall of Danton. It suffices to point out here that of the three forces at work Robespierre alone had personality to aid him. He had a guard, a group of defenders. They were inside, and led the Committee itself; they were the mystics in a moment of strong exaltation, and unreal as was the dream of their chief, the Robespierrians were bound to succeed unless the force of the real, the “cold water” that came with Danton’s return, should destroy their hopes. Therefore, as a fact, though no one, though Danton himself, did not see it, it was between him and Robespierre that the battle would ultimately be fought out.
For what was Danton’s plan? He put into his new task the ability, the ruse, the suppleness that he had only lost for a moment in the summer. First, Hébert and the “enragés” must go—they were the vilest form of the spirit that he perceived to be destroying the Republic. Then the Committee must be very gradually weakened. In that task he hoped, vainly enough, to make Robespierre his ally. And finally, the end of all his scheme was the cessation of the Terror. He had created a dictatorship for a specific purpose; that purpose was attained. Wattignies had been won, Lyons captured; soon La Vendée was to be destroyed, and even Toulon to fall. It was intolerable that a system abnormal and extreme, designed to save the State, should be continued for the profit of a few theorists or of a few madmen. How much had not his engine already done?—this machine which, to the horror of its creator, had found a life of its own! It had killed the Queen after a shocking trial; it had alienated what was left of European sympathy; it had struck the Girondins, and Danton was haunted by the inspired voice of Vergniaud singing the “Marseillaise” upon the scaffold; it had run to massacre in the provinces. He feared (and later his fears proved true at Nantes) that September might be repeated with the added horror of legal forms. The Terror finally had reopened the question that of all others might most easily destroy the State. A handful of men had pretended to uproot Catholicism for ever, and what Danton cursed as the “Masque Anti-Religieuse” had defiled Notre Dame. This flood he was determined to turn back into the channels of reason; he was going, without government or police or system, merely by his voice and his ability, to realise the Revolution, to end the dictatorship, and to begin the era of prosperity and of content.
The first steps taken were successful. On the very night of his return, Robespierre was perorating at the Jacobins against atheism and on the great idea of God, but within twelve hours, on the morrow, Danton’s voice gave the new note. It was in the discussion upon the pension to be paid to the priests whom the last decree had thrust out of their regular office and of its salary. Danton spoke with the greatest decision on this plain matter and the Convention heard with delight the fresh phrases to which it had so long been a stranger. He says virtually, “If you do not pay this sum you are persecutors.” There are in this speech such sentences as these: “You must appreciate this, that politics can only achieve when they are accompanied by some reason. . . . I insist upon your sparing the blood of men; and I beg the Convention to be, above all, just to all men except those who are the declared and open enemies of the Republic.” Four days later he went a little further, and the Convention still followed him. On the question which he had most at heart he spoke plainly. Richard complained of Tours. He said that the municipality of that town were arresting “suspects” right and left, and had even attacked himself. Danton said in a speech of ten lines: “It is high time the Convention should learn the art of government. Send these complaints to the Committee. It is chosen, or at least supposed to be chosen, from the élite of the Convention.” Later in the same day he spoke on a ridiculous procession such as the violence of the time had made fashionable. It was a deputation of Hébertists bringing from a Parisian church the ornaments of the altar. Already, it will be remembered, the Commune had ordered the churches in Paris to be closed, and the attempt to enforce such scenes were being copied in all the large towns of France. He said: “Let there be no more of these mascarades in the Convention. . . . If people here and there wish to prove their abjuration of Catholicism, we are not here to prevent them . . . neither are we here to defend them. . . . The Terror is still necessary, the Revolutionary Government is still necessary, but the people does not demand this indiscriminate action. We have no business save with the conspirators and with those who are treating with the enemy.” There was a protest from Fayan, who cried, “You have talked of clemency!” for all the world as though such talk was blasphemy. But Danton was getting back his old position and was leading the Convention. His success seemed certain. On the 3rd of December (14th Frimaire) he was violently attacked at the Jacobins, but he managed to hold his own. Robespierre defended him in a speech which has been interpreted as a piece of able treachery, but which may with equal justice be regarded as an attempt to hold himself between the opposing parties; and within a fortnight after his return Danton, who had in him a directness of purpose and a rapidity of action that prefigured Napoleon, had gained every strategic point in his attack.
Events helped him, or rather he had foreseen them. The Vendeans, moving more like a mob than an army, were caught at Le Mans on the 13th of December. On the 7th of December the genius of Bonaparte had driven the English and Spanish from Toulon. On the 26th the news came to the army of which Hoche had just been given the command, and, as though the name Bonaparte brought a fate with it, the lines of Wissembourgwere carried, Landau was relieved, the Austrians passed the Rhine.
All these victories were the allies of the party of indulgence. The men who said, “The Terror has no raison d’être save that of the national defence,” found themselves expressing what all France felt. After such successes it only remained to add, “The nation is safe; the Terror may end.” Already Danton had called up a reserve, so to speak, in the shape of the genius of Desmoulins. The first issue of “Vieux Cordelier” had appeared, and the journal was read by all Paris.
That club, in which we saw the origin of Danton’s fame, was now the Hébertists, and nothing more. The pamphlets which Camille issued under the leadership of Danton were given a name that might recall its position and its politics of the old days. And indeed the two men most concerned in the new policy of clemency had been, from their house in the Cour du Commerce, the heart of the “République des Cordeliers.” There are not in the history of the Revolution, in all the passages of its eloquence and genius, any words that strike us to-day as do the words of these six pamphlets which spread over the winter of the year II. It is a proof of Danton’s clear vision, of his strong influence, that a distant posterity, far removed from the passions of 1793, should find its own expression in the appeals which his friend wrote, and which form the Testament of the Indulgents.
The first two numbers were an attack upon the Hébertists alone. Robespierre, from his position in the Committee of Public Safety, from the spur of his own ambition, was willing to agree. He himself corrected the proofs. But on the 15th of December appeared the famous Numero III., which ran through Paris like a herald’s message, which did for reaction something of what the great speeches had done for liberty in clubs during the early days of the Revolution. Few men cared to vote, but every man read the “Vieux Cordelier.” To those who had never so much as heard of Tacitus the pen of Tacitus carried conviction. A crowd of women passed before the Parliament crying for the brothers and husbands who filled the prisons; the “Committee of Clemency” was within an ace of being formed; and, coinciding with the victories and with Danton’s reappearance, the demand of Desmoulins was dragging after it, not France only (for France was already convinced), but even the capital. It was then that the Committee, who alone were the government, grew afraid. Robespierre still hesitated. He could only succeed through the committees; but Desmoulins was his friend; there was an appeal to “the old college friend” in the “Vieux Cordelier” that touched his heart and his vanity; they had sat together on the benches of the Louis le Grand, and Robespierre seems to have made an honest attempt to aid him then. A fourth number had appeared on the 20th, a fifth (written on Christmas Day) appeared on January 8th.
The Jacobins denounced Camille, and Robespierre, the eyes of whose mind looked as closely and were as short-sighted as the eyes of his body, grew afraid. The men determined on rigour had warned him in the Committee; now when he tried to defend Camille he saw the Jacobins raging: what he did not see was France. Perhaps, had his sight been longer, he would not have been dragged six months later to the guillotine. He attempted a compromise and said: “We will not expel Camille, but we will burn his journal, punishing his act but not himself.” Camille answered with Rousseau, “Brúler n’est pas repondre” He would not be defended.
The battle was closely joined. Desmoulins was pushing forward his attack with the audacious infantry of pamphlets; Danton, from the Convention, was giving from time to time the heavy blows of the artillery; the advance was continuous; when there was felt a check that proved the prelude to disaster and that showed, behind the opposing lines, the force of the Committees. In the middle of January, just after Desmoulins’s defence at the Jacobins, Fabre D’Eglantine, the friend and old secretary of Danton, was arrested. It was in vain that Danton put into his defence all the new energy which he had discovered in himself. It was in vain even that he called for “the right of the deputy to defend himself at the bar of the house.” Like all organised governments, the Committee could give reasons of State for this silent action. Danton was overborne, and the Convention for the first time since his return deserted him.
He had yet seven weeks to live. Desmoulins still attacked, but Danton knew that the action was lost. He knew the strength of that powerful council whose first efforts he himself had moulded, and when he saw it arise in support of continuing the Terror, when he saw it and Robespierre allied, he lost hope. The policy of the Committee grew more and more definite. One member of it, (Hérault de Séchelles) was Danton’s friend: they expelled him. Silently, but with all their strength, they disengaged the government from either side. The Committee and Robespierre determined to strike at once, when the occasion should arise, both those in the Commune who desired to turn the Terror to their own ends and those of the Convention—the Dantonists, who desired to end it altogether.
Danton still speaks in the tribune, but the attack is no longer there. He defends modestly and well the practical propositions that appear before the Parliament on education, on the abolition of slavery, on the provisions for the giving of bail under the new judiciary system, and so forth. But there is in his attitude something of expectancy. He is waiting for a sudden attack that must come and that he cannot prevent. He holds himself ready, but the Committee is working in the dark, and he does not know on which side to guard himself. A last personal interview with Robespierre failed, and there was nothing left to do but to wait and see whether they feared him so much as to dare his arrest. It was with Ventose, that is, with the first days of March, that the blow fell.
The Hébertists, chafing under three months of growing insults—insults which their old ally the Committee refused to avenge broke out into open revolt. Carrier was back from his truly Hébertist slaughtering at Nantes, and it was felt at the Cordeliers that the public execration would destroy them unless they rose. In the autumn they would have had the Committees on their side, but the strong action of the Indulgents had broken the alliance. They determined on insurrection. The Commune this time was, once and for all, to conquer the government. The decision was taken at the Cordeliers on the 4th of March—within ten days they were arrested. The Committee pushed them through the form of a trial Less than three weeks after the first talk of revolt, Hébert, Clootz, and the rest were guillotined.
There were many among the Dantonists who thought this the triumph of their policy. “The violent, the enragés are dead. It is we who did it.” But Danton was wiser than his followers. He knew that the Committee were waiting for such an opportunity, and that a blow to the right would follow that blow to the left. Both oppositions were doomed. Only one chance remained to him—they might not dare.
On the occasion of the arrest of the Hébertists he made a noble speech on the great lines of conciliation and unity, which had been his constant policy—a speech which was all for Paris, in spite of the faction.
But that week they determined on his arrest and that of his friends. Panis heard of it, and sent at once to warn him. He found him in the night of the last day of March 1794 sitting in his study with his young nephew, moody and silent. His wife was asleep in the next room. On the flat above him Camille and Lucille were watching late. The house was silent. Panis entered and told him what the Committee had resolved. “Well, what then?” said Danton. “You must resist.” “That means the shedding of blood, and I am sick of it. I would rather be guillotined than guillotine.” “Then,” said Panis, “you must fly, and at once.” But Danton shook his head still moodily. “One does not take one’s country with one on the soles of one’s boots.” But he muttered again to himself, “They will not dare— they will not dare.” Panis left him, and he sat down again to wait, for he knew in his heart that the terrible machine which he himself had made, and which he had fought so heroically, could dare what it chose. They left him silent in the dark room. From time to time he stirred the logs of the fire; the sudden flame threw a light on the ugly strength of his face: he bent over the warmth motionless, and with the memories of seven years in his heart.