Danton, A Study

Appendix III.



I will not go in this note into any of the general consideration which have led the greater part of modern historians to reject the legend of Danton’s venality. These general considerations are by far the strongest arguments upon which we can rely in this matter, but I trust that the character which I have attempted to draw in the text of the book will furnish them in sufficiency.


Neither do I desire to insist in this note upon the unquestionable value of the two principal modern authorities in England and in France (Mr. Morse Stephens and M. Aulard), who both of them regard the question as finally settled in Danton’s favour. I have insisted sufficiently upon this in the text. What I shall attempt to do is to quote the contemporary accusations, to determine how much reliance can be placed upon them, to show their character, and to describe in what way and to what extent they are explained by documents which have since come to light.


First of all, a list of those contemporaries who took his venality for certain. It is very formidable.


Mirabeau (letter to Lamarck, Thursday, 10th March 1791)—. . . . “Montmorin has told me . . . of particular schemes . . . for instance, that Beaumetz and . . . D’André dined yesterday alone and got Danton’s confidence . . . and then proposed to demolish Vincennes in order to make themselves popular. Danton got 30,000 livres yesterday, and I have the proof that Danton inspired the last number of Desmoulins’ paper. . . . If it is possible I intend to risk 6000 livres, but at any rate they will be more innocently distributed than the 30,000 livres of Danton.” Here is a categorical statement in which a man says what the court had often said (and Mirabeau was then an agent of the court), “I have managed Danton at such and such a price,” and the passage gives us indirectly the name of Montmorin. The date should be noted.


Bertrand de Molleville, a far less practical and a far less careful man than Mirabeau, also a singularly untrustworthy authority, has the following:—Memoirs Particuliers, i. 354.—“By the hands of this man Durand, under the ministry of De Montmorin, Danton received more than 50,000 francs to propose certain motions of the Jacobins. He was fairly faithful in keeping this contract, but stipulated that he should be left free as to the means he employed.” . . . Again . . . “In the first debates upon the king’s trial the infamous Danton, whose services had been so dearly paid out of the Civil List was one of those who displayed the greatest violence. I was the more alarmed as this scoundrel was at the moment (Autumn 1792) a most powerful and dangerous man in the Assembly. The ardent zeal which I felt for the safety of the king, and which would have made me think all means legitimate, suggested this means against Danton to neutralise the rage of the monster; and though the method I took required a lie, I did not hesitate to employ it without the least scruple. I wrote to him on the 11th December: ‘I must not leave you ignorant, Sir, of the fact that I have found in the papers of the late Monsieur Montmorin notes of the dates of the sums which have been paid out of the secret service money, including a receipt in your handwriting. Hitherto I have made no use of this document, but I warn you that I have enclosed them in a letter which I am writing to the President of the Convention, and I will have them printed and placarded on the corners of the streets if you do not conduct yourself well in the trial of the king.’ As a fact, Montmorin had shown me these papers a year before, though he had not given them to me. But Danton knew they existed, and knew how intimate had been my relations with Montmorin. He did not reply to the letter, but I saw in the published prints that he had got himself named deputy in a mission to the army of the North, He only returned at the end of the king's trial, and contented himself with voting for death without giving any opinion.” (Particular Memoirs, ii. 288-291.) I would have the reader to specially mark this extract, to which I shall return at the end of my note, as it can be easily proved by internal evidence to be a

falsehood. It is, Indeed, of more value to any one who desires to write a life of Bertrand himself, than it is to one who is writing the life of Danton.


Thirdly, Lafayette says (Memoirs, iii. 83-85): “Danton, whose receipt for 100,000 francs was in the hands of Montmorin, asked for Lafayette’s head; that was running a great risk, but he depended on the discretion of Lafayette and on his keeping a secret. For Lafayette to have spoken would have been to have signed the death-warrant of Montmorin, who had paid Danton in order to moderate his anarchic fury.” And again (iv. 328-330), he says of Danton: “He was a vulgar tribune and incapable of turning the masses from evil by persuasion or by respect, but he knew how to flatter their passions, &c. &c. . . . I knew him from the first week of the Revolution in the district of Cordeliers, whither I had been attracted. After the 6th October he took money from Montmorin, whom he caused in consequence to be assassinated on the 2nd September, In connection with this secret he said to me once, ‘General, I know you do not know me, I am more of a Monarchist than you’ . . . I have learnt since from the person to whom Madame Elizabeth told it that he had received, about the 10th August, a considerable sum to give the movement a direction in the king’s favour, and, indeed, he got the royal family sent to the Temple. He said to a friend of the king, ‘It is I who will save him or kill him.’”


Fourthly, there is Brissot (iv. 193-194). “Among the stipendiaries of Orleans was . . . Danton. I have seen the receipt for 500,000 francs which were paid him by Montmorin. He was sold to the court in order to thrust the Revolution into the excesses which would make it odious to the great bulk of Frenchmen.”


Fifthly, Madame Roland (who has so much to say against a character so profoundly antipathetic to her) has this special passage on his corruption (Dauban's edition, 1864, pp. 254-255)”:—“He went to Belgium to augment his wealth, and dared to admit a fortune of 1,400,000 francs, to assume luxury,” &c. &c.


Sixthly (if it is worth quoting), among the papers that Robespierre left, in the notes that formed the basis of St. Just’s report, are the words “Danton owed an obligation to Mirabean; it was Mirabeau who got him repaid the price of his practice. It has even been said that he was paid twice. I heard him admit to Fabre certain thefts of shoes belonging to the army.”


Such are the contemporary accusations. There are the following points to be noted with regard to them. No one says that he himself paid money; the sums of money are very various. They are paid, according to some, on a few definite occasions; according to others, upon all occasions. Finally, every accusation that has any definite basis at all pivots round the name of Montmorin. “Montmorin held the receipt,” “Montmorin told me,” and so forth. Now, if we remember that Montmorin held the receipt for a legitimate and open reimbursement (see Appendix VI.), and then compare the accusations with what we know of the men and of the time, if we then proceed to check these merely general conclusions by matters of absolute knowledge drawn from the valuations upon Danton’s estate at various moments of his life, we shall agree with the more modern authorities who have worked with the documents before them, that Dan ton is innocent of actions to the charge of which his uncertain temper and his lack of solid social surroundings laid him open.


In the first place, let us consider the words of the accusations which appear above, and which include all those of any importance.


That of Mirabeau is what you would expect from such a man it is quiet, contemptuous, treating of Danton as something on the very last level of the time. But if we take the specific accusation and separate it from all general points of view, we find this much: that Montmorin has been talking to him with regard to what “those fellows” were doing. “In connection with this,” says Mirabeau, “Danton got 30,000 yesterday” to work such and such a political move. The grave feature in the quotation is the way in which Mirabeau, who understood men and who had a good grasp of Paris, treats Danton’s venality as being something well known, gives a particular example of it, and passes at once to other things. But the specific accusation is hearsay from Montmorin, and, as I have said, it is always Montmorin's name which crops up when this gossip is on foot.


I would, therefore, sum up the value of Mirabeau's accusation somewhat as follows:—“If we could prove that Danton was a spendthrift, and that large sums of money passed through his hands for his personal pleasures, then Mirabeau’s chance remark, while it would be worthless in a court of law, ought to have some small weight before history. Mirabeau was (on a higher plane) a bon viveur such as Danton was reputed to be, and the circles in which the men moved touched each other especially in the point of their good living j but if we can find that Danton did not, as a fact, spend nor invest great sums of money, then the accusation is simply a common error based upon a remark of Montmorin’s, suited to the current impression of Danton’s character, but disproved by the known facts of Danton’s life.


Bertrand de Molleville’s accusation is of particular value to any one who is concerned, as I am, in attempting to get to the truth in this matter. It is the only one which is perfectly categorical and detailed. In proportion as it is categorical and detailed it is untrue. If you wish to know whether a man has committed a certain crime, and you hear a number of witnesses against him, one of whom only gives careful evidence with dates, details, and so forth, and if you can then prove that this witness has lied upon all the points which supported his principal accusation, you are in a fair way to winning your case.


De Molleville begins by making the sum 500,000 francs. It seems enormous. It is a sum which no man could receive and spend in a few days’ debauch without attracting the attention of the whole city, which no man could invest without leaving some obvious accession of property, and he puts the receipt of this sum as coming under Montmorin’s ministry—that is, at a time when public order was secured, when the course of the registries, the transmission of property and so forth, were in the fullest light.


He gives the name of the man who handed him the sum, and calls him Durand. On this point it is impossible to say yes or no, but we can say with absolute certitude that the incident of the letter upon which Bertrand de Molleville makes the whole matter turn, is an untruth added to an untruth. In the first place, he makes Danton “violent in his demands against the king.” This accusation is absolutely false.


When the trial of the king was mooted, Danton did speak (notably on the 6th of September), with some decision in favour of the king’s being brought to trial upon particular points. He expressed himself in that speech with very great energy upon this particular feature of the trial, that the king merited condamnation because he had obviously and openly betrayed the nation,—a thing which nobody doubted, which nobody denied, and which Louis himself and his advisers would simply have met by saying (at a later epoch of course), “We called in the foreigner as a necessary police in the time of anarchy; we desired to save France by its betrayal.” So far, however, from Danton being a leader of the attack on Louis or of the demand for his trial, that attack and that demand were as spontaneous aa anything the Convention ever did; and Danton followed rather than led, as a glance at the Moniteur can prove.


In the much more important debates wherein the life of Louis was first implicitly and then explicitly at stake, Danton was absent, and in the days of November there is no question at all but that Danton's one preoccupation was to reconcile the Mountain with the Girondins.


De Molleville goes on to give his letter a date—such thinga are done on purpose, as a rule, in order to give a special character of legal evidence to one's accusations. He says that he wrote the letter on the 11th of December, that Danton on receiving the letter was frightened, and without replying to it got himself put upon the mission to the army of the North.


Now Danton left for the army of the North on the 1st of December, and if the letter was written at all (which I doubt), it was written at a time when Danton, being absent, could not possibly have acted as De Molleville said he did. He could not have “asked” to go on a mission (he did not ask, but was sent), and have started on the ist in consequence of a letter written on the 11th.


Finally, De Molleville says he came back to vote on the punishment of the king, but had been coerced by the letter into merely voting for death without giving his opinion. This again is a lie. If there is anything remarkable to the historian in the vote Danton gave on the 16th January 1793, and in the speech which he made before his vote, it is that he, by nature so wary, should have discovered in this crisis a violent manifestation of opinion and motive. I have amply shown in the text that we could only reconcile those abnormal days in Danton’s life by some extreme shock to the emotions. Some represent him as suffering a violent rebuff from his political opponents; some consider the scene of misery and impending death which he found in his home on returning from his long journey. He demanded a simple majority vote; he spoke violently against the appeal to the people; and when he voted for the death of the king he turned to the Bight and said, “I am not a statesman; I am not one of those who are ignorant of the duty of not compromising with tyrants, and who do not know that kings can only be struck on the head, who do not know that we can expect nothing from the kings of Europe save by force and by arms. I vote for the death of the tyrant.”


If these are the words, and if that is the action of a man terrorised by a letter into a silent and furtive vote, then evidence has no meaning.


De Molleville, I think, can in this, as in nearly all his historical evidence (with the exception of that which turns upon the personal habits of the king, where he has the details of a valet), be dismissed.


With Lafayette, again, we have that half-truth and half-lie which runs through all his accusations. “The receipt for 100,000 francs was in the hands of Montmorin.” This was true. The sum was not quite 100,000, it was 61,000 (Appendix VI.); but the receipt did exist, and to any one who did not know that all the men occupying positions on the Council had been reimbursed, it might look like a receipt for a bribe, or might be twisted into meaning such. It is impossible for us to discover whether Lafayette meant to tell an untruth, as we can prove De Molleville did; he may in this matter have been perfectly loyal, for there was a note found among his papers after his death (Memoirs, iii. 84-85), saying that “a position on the Councils was only worth 10,000, and had been reimbursed at 100,000 as a bribe.” We now know from the discovery of so many receipts that from 60,000 to 80,000 was the regular price of reimbursements, but Lafayette might easily have been ignorant of this, and have jumped to a false conclusion.


As to his mention of Madame Elizabeth’s having told the man who told him that Danton had been paid before the 10th August, the old man’s memory is certainly turning to the remark which many witnesses heard from the lips of that saintly woman just before the attack on the Tuileries, when she said with simplicity (she knew nothing at all of the characters of the Revolution save what she might hear from the courtiers), “Well, we can count on Danton; he has been paid.” That is not evidence. If Danton was paid to make the 10th of August turn in favour of the monarchy, and if, as Lafayette hints, he had attempted to make it so turn, he certainly took the most extraordinary way of defending his employers. One might as well say that Lord Chatham’s principal object in the taking of Quebec was the defence of the French power in Canada. For the 10th of August was openly and directly an attack upon the ancient crown of France, to over throw it and to substitute in its place a new regime, and Danton worked at it as indefatigably as a general before a battle would work.


The remark, “General, I am more monarchist than you,” reads to me like truth; it is exactly what Danton would have said. He despised Lafayette as much as any one man can despise another. He believed right up to the moment of the war that the existing fact of the monarchy was worth all the theories in the world as a nucleus for the new regime, and he saw the emptiness of Lafayette’s vanity. He may quite probably have met it upon some occasion as direct as that which Lafayette has given us, and Lafayette, in the abundance of his folly, may quite easily have misunderstood the meaning of his criticism.


Brissot is an admirable example of how the false rumours arose. He says: “I have myself seen the receipts which Montmorin held from Danton.”


How, as we have seen, that receipt (to any one who did not know the details of the transaction) might quite honestly appear a damning piece of evidence, and it is without question the document round which the great mass of accusations have been built.


As to Madame Roland, I cannot imagine what flight of feminine inaccuracy made her put down a fortune of £60,000 to her enemy’s name. If a witness in any other circumstances than revolution should tell one that a young lawyer and politician had secretly and suddenly become possessed of this sum, he would be reputed mad. In such a time, however, anything seems possible to an enemy, and we must rely upon the simple fact that Danton can be definitely proved neither to have spent, invested, nor left a tenth of such a sum. It seems to me that this accusation of Madame Roland’s is on a par with that other extreme remark that she had known “the Dantons living on 16s. a week, which they borrowed regularly from their father-in-law,” and this “at the opening of the Revolution,” a time when we know him positively to have been defending cases involving half a million pounds in the issue of the trial, and when we know him to have had for clients some of the richest men in France.


Now, the papers that prove Danton's financial position are quite simple. He was cut off suddenly; they were all seized, and they all remain. Unless he spent huge sums in debauch (sums like those of Orleans), or unless he buried the money, he cannot have received much more than what openly appears. He entered his married life with a debt of £2500 secured on his office. He enjoyed a good practice for four years; he was reimbursed to somewhat less than the value of his office, and on his death the sum sequestrated by the State, and later refunded to his sons, tallies with this small fortune.