Danton, A Study

Appendix IV.



The arguments for and against Danton’s responsibility in this matter must necessarily be of a more general order than those which can be advanced for and against his character in regard to money matters. There are but one or two really definite facts upon either side, and, as the purport of these notes is to deal with actualities, I will treat of these known facts only.


In the first place, it must be clearly understood that Danton did not shrink from, and was not unsympathetic with, the extreme measures of the Revolution. His position with regard to them in perfectly clear in history, and is simply this—his violence was persuaded that an exceptional time required, almost as a method of government, the most exceptional terrors.


But, on the other hand, Danton was a man to whom not only a useless massacre but a useless anything was detestable. Death in itself, the infliction of death on others, even the death to which he himself was led, never seemed to him a matter of vast moment. It is a common fault in courageous men to have this disregard for the life of others and of oneself, but I deny that you will ever discover Danton causing the death of a single human being unless it is in the furtherance of his policy.


In the second place, consider what is actually known to have proceeded from his mouth, (1) Quite early in the Revolution (in June 1791) he demanded the head of Lafayette, and he probably meant it; (2) he boasted of, or confessed to, being the author of Mandates death; (3) in the course of speeches which led up to the establishment of the Revolutionary tribunal he speaks in favour of the extreme penalties and of the terror that they would inspire, always as a means to an end, and as a means to be employed without hesitation. Let me quote but one sentence from the speech of the 10th March 1793 to illustrate what I mean:—“I feel to what a degree it is necessary to take judicial measures by which we may punish the counter-revolutionaries. This tribunal should be erected in order to replace for them the supreme tribunal of popular vengeance. It is very difficult to define a political crime, but if a man of the common people for his sort of misdeed gets punished at once, is it not necessary that extreme laws, something out of the common running of our social machinery, should be passed to terrify rebels and to strike the guilty? In this matter the safety of the people demands from you extreme methods and the measures of terror.”


Finally, we know that Danton was, on the whole, the guide of that earlier part of the Terror between May and August 1793, in which (as he thought) the system was doing necessary work without which the nation could not have been saved.


Now, let us set against these what we definitely know of Danton’s character which would lead us to a conclusion that he would not have countenanced massacre.


No one questions the fact that the leading motive in Danton’s mind was the establishment of a strong government around or in the place of a weak monarchy. He was a true descendant of the lawyers of the Code. The massacres of September took place at a moment when he was using the whole, of his personal energy in trying as well as may be to supply that Government. He guides the ministry in Paris; he dominates Roland as a man might dominate a woman. It was of supreme importance to such a scheme that the thin ice between government and anarchy in the days that preceded Valmy should not be broken. The massacre of September broke it; there was a week of anarchy in Paris. There is the first great argument against Danton’s complicity with the massacres.


It must, however, be remembered that a theory exists, by no means untenable, which would make Danton argue something in this fashion: “Once let the popular fury have full rein against what it regards as the internal enemy, and I shall have the disappearance of that disturbing factor of royalist reaction in Paris, while on the part of the mob I shall have the lassitude and shame that follow excess; they are not difficult to govern.” It is only a personal opinion, but it seems to me that in a mind of Danton’s type, downright and practical to excess, such, a far-reaching and subtle idea as the last would hardly occur, and that the massacres must have produced on him an especial annoyance, because they were the breakdown of a system the support of which occupied his every effort.


Secondly, Danton’s allusions to the massacres of September were always of a more definite and more reasonable nature than those of his colleagues The attitude which he adopts with regard to them after their occurrence is this: “There was no public force, none of that disciplined government which I postulate as the first necessity of the Revolution; nothing on earth could prevent them, and they occurred in spite of every governing power.” So much for generalities.


Now let us turn to one or two points which have been made the basis of a definite accusation against Danton in this matter.


Firstly: that he knew that the massacres were coming, and withdrew from prison more than one of his friends on the eve of the uprising. This I take to be true, or rather I am certain of it; but one would have to be very ignorant of the time not to know that all Paris expected the massacres, and that those who were at all in touch with the Commune knew two or three days before that anything illegal might be done. To have worked to prevent them, in which Danton might have employed his energy, would, as I have said in the text, have been to risk that which he most desired, and to risk it for the sake of saving the prisoners. Certainly he did not desire to save them as passionately as he desired to remain, at the helm and build up a government; he preferred to keep his influence over the city. That accusation is just


Secondly, it is affirmed with justice that Danton, from the peculiar position of the ministry which he occupied, filled the prisons, which were afterwards gutted. It is true that on Danton, as Minister of Justice, and above all as a general power in the Cabinet, the responsibility of arresting the prisoners rests; but was this action taken with a knowledge of what the consequences would be nearly a month later? Certainly not It would show a complete ignorance of what happened in the last fortnight of August to say that an action taken just after the 10th was taken with a view to something that would occur on the 2nd of September. The state of public feeling in those four weeks went through a most violent crisis, and one might say that the intensity of the feeling against the Royalists and the foreigners was not only a hundred-fold greater when Verdun was actually falling than it had been just after the success against the Tuileries, but different in quality as well.


Thirdly, there is one detailed accusation—the circular which Marat sent out to the Departments. If it can be proved that this circular was approved of, that its distribution was aided by Danton, then we shall have a definite piece of evidence which cannot be overridden. Now let me describe what that circular was, and see how far we must blame circumstances, how far the carelessness, and how far the deliberate act of the minister. All the accounts are much the same. Madame Roland says, “Sent out above the signature of the Minister of Justice.” Bertrand de Molleville is also perfectly definite (Memoirs, ix. 310)—“Sent by the minister Danton.”


The examination of the documents seventy years later has given more accurate results to history than the memoirs of contemporaries, whether they are truthful and enthusiastic like Madame Roland, or frankly dishonest like Bertrand de Molleville. Bougeart was at the pains of looking up the original documents at the archives of the police. What appears in this document (Bougeart, pp. 121-122) is a series of signatures, Panis, Sergent, Marat, &c., that is, the Committee of Surveillance appointed by the Commune. There is no trace of any ministerial signature, and even the stamp which was used in the office by the clerks for everything that passed officially through the Ministry of Justice is not attached to the sheet. What did happen was this. The circulars were sent out in envelopes which bore the official mark of the Ministry. It is as though some act of a body in London, let us say, should be distributed to the provinces in the blue envelopes of Her Majesty’s Service. That is all, either for or against Danton, that remains of the incident of the circular.


Now it is certain that Danton had not at that time openly broken with Marat. Moreover, Danton had not actually quarrelled with the Commune, though he certainly treated it with contempt. But Danton had no conceivable object in helping Marat to distribute the circulars unless he himself was openly on Marat’s side. A man of his character would either have signed, or else, had he known that the circulars were going out, he would have forbidden their distribution; he would have taken some definite line. Why? Because the distribution of the circular was bound to condemn him to a very definite position here is a man who has stood aloof from a very violent conspiracy, a conspiracy whose authors came out at last in the open day and gloried in what they had done. They wrote the most violent of all their manifestoes, containing such phrases as “the ferocious prisoners have been put to death by the people;” “it was an act of justice indispensable to our Committee,” and so forth. It would be quite impossible to send out unwittingly such a circular as that without knowing that one was compromising oneself and definitely entering the most extreme party of the Parisians. It is inconceivable, therefore, that he would have lent official envelopes for the purpose, and have said, “So far I will help you, but I will not help you more than that.” You might as well suppose an English official in India, of the stronger kind, saying, “I will allow you, an unofficial personage, to send out the order for an illegal execution from this office, but I will not put my name to it.”


Again, how comes it that this document alone, of all those sent from the Minister of Justice at the time, goes out in the official envelope, but bears in itself no mark whatsoever of the Ministry of Justice? How was it that the officials in the country towns, among the mass of papers that they received from the Ministry in Paris, should receive this single one without any stamp or signature, and should then discover that it had proceeded from a body which had nothing on earth to do with the Ministry of Justice? There are but two replies possible to this question—either that the envelopes were taken from the Ministry by one of the clerks (several of whom we know to have been intimately linked with the Commune), or that Danton timidly lent envelopes but refused to do anything further. Of these two replies, the second appears to me absolutely at variance not only with Danton’s own character but also with the general routine of A great office. I cannot conceive the Cabinet Minister offering, in the very gravest conditions, a few blue envelopes, when a whole political party desire from him a definite pronouncement on one side or the other.


Finally, it may be asked, could these envelopes go out without his knowledge? To that I answer that such a thing might be done from any government office to-day. It was, moreover, a time of revolution; the whole complicated organism had been shaken and partly transformed; there was confusion in every department of the building, and even under these conditions Danton was doing far more work than depended upon his office. I think, therefore, that it is eminently possible that the circulars should have been sent out by one of the clerks without his knowledge; and the fact that no signature was used, and that the documents did not even pass through one of the many hands whose duty it was to affix the formal stamp, still further corroborates the view that the circulation of the appeal was surreptitious.


As to the accusations such as that of Lafayette (Memoirs, iv. 139, 140), “He commanded the massacre of September and paid the murderers, who went all covered with blood to get their money from Roland,” I attach no importance to them at all Even the phrase in which Danton is supposed to have saluted the return of the murderers from Versailles is very doubtful. It does not occur in any contemporary account; it is not in the Moniteur; it is not in the “Revolutions de Paris;” Madame Roland does not quote it, even on hearsay; it is not one of Peltier’s inventions, and I have some difficulty in tracing it to its origin.


I think, then, that the general position of Danton during the days of September may be summed up as follows. He did not regard the lives of the prisoners as being of the first importance; he did not use what would have been to his certain knowledge a useless energy in protesting; he did not (as he might conceivably have done) form a special and vigorous tribunal to replace that which was on the point of acquitting L. de Montmorin. By all those, therefore, who would regard public order and a security for life as being more important than the success of a political idea, or the integrity and defence of a nation, he can be accused of a criminal negligence in the matter of the massacres of September, He certainly cannot be accused of having designed them; he cannot be accused on any definite proof of having approved them, and he cannot be accused of having failed to share in the regret and misery which that terrible blunder caused, If we may judge the attitude of his mind by comparing it with that of contemporaries, rather than by comparing it with our own attitude in a time of security and order, we may say that the massacres taught him a more definite lesson than they taught to Roland, for they caused him to pursue a policy of conciliation and to strengthen the government; that, on the other hand, he did less to stop them than Manuel did; and that in a comparison with men whom we know to have been honest, such as Roland himself, or by a contrast with men whom we know to have been evil, such as Hérbert, or whom we know to have been frenzied, such as Marat—judged in the midst of all this, Danton will appear responsible to history for having been guilty of indifference at a moment when he might have saved his reputation by protesting, though perhaps his protest would not have saved a single life.


The object of the remainder of this Appendix is to provide for the reader certain documents that illustrate the statements and the line of argument in the text. Of these documents but few have been translated, because only a few appeal to any one but a special student of the Revolution, or are necessary to the understanding of this book.


By far the most important of the documents here printed is the last, Barrère’s report of the 29th of May 1793. Hitherto unpublished, it furnishes (to my mind) the most complete explanation of the somewhat complicated manoeuvres pursued by the Committee, manoeuvres which permitted the revolution of May 31st and June 2nd.


To each document a short preface has been attached for the purpose of explaining its origin and of mentioning the authorities (if any) in which it can be found.