Chapter II. The Youth of Danton.


I shall attempt in the following chapter to tell all that is known of the first thirty years of Danton’s life. Our knowledge of this period in his career is extremely slight. It is based upon a minute research, but a research under-taken only in the latter half of this century; and it is to be feared that the scanty materials will never be seriously augmented. Every year makes the task more difficult, and a century has rendered impassable the gulf which Michelet, Bougeart, and even Dr. Robinet, have been able to bridge with living voices.


He was born at Arcis-sur-Aube[1], a lesser town of the Champagne Pouilleuse, that great flat which stretches out from the mountain of Rheims beyond the twin peaks, till it loses itself in the uplands of the river-partings. Here, though it is cold in winter, there are still vineyards making their last bastion on the covered slopes of the hills that form the northern boundary of the plain.


The day of his birth was the 26th of October 1759[2]; the date gives us his relation to, the drama in which he was to be a chief actor. Five months older than Desmoulins, born some months before De Séchelles, eight years older than St. Just, he was the junior of Robespierre by one and a half, of Mirabeau by ten years; Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette were respectively five and four years his seniors. He was sixteen years old when their predecessor died in ignominy and in dirt. Born six weeks after the fall of Quebec, he received the lasting impressions of early youth during the rapid decline of the French monarchy—the end of a slow decay which threatened to be that of the nation itself. But just then Rousseau was writing the Contrat Social, to be published in two years; Voltaire was still in the full vigour of his attack, with nineteen years of life before him; it was the year of Candide; Diderot was founding the Encyclopaedia.


The time of his birth coincided with the rising of a certain sun which has not yet set upon Europe, but the boy’s eyes turned to more immediate things, and saw in a little provincial place the break-up of a wretched, experimental reign.


This point must be insisted upon, that a country town was the best possible place for noting the collapse of misgovernment. The country manors were more wretched, the provincial capitals more loud and able in their expressions of opinion; but few places could show the fatal process of disintegration more clearly than these little provincial centres, the sub-prefectures of to-day. The confusion of power, the excess and the ill-working of privilege, the complexity and weakness of government, were there apparent upon every occasion. The wealth of the nation was diminished most especially by the interference with exchange. This (though ultimately a source of their penury) was less directly evident to the villagers, while the large town with its varied production could (in another form) disguise the evil; but to the small borough the experience was direct and terrible.


Again, the practical equality of educated men was there more apparent and more sinned against than in the wider societies of the large towns. In a place like Arcis-sur-Aube, isolated specimens of classes technically distinct were continually in contact. The less the number of their caste and order (and the less their importance), the more do the noblesse, to this day, put on their pride; and yet the more necessary is it, in the life of a small town, that they should associate with those whose conversation and abilities are precisely their own. In Paris or in Lyons, where large cliques were occupied in general interests, such differences were often neglected; in the forgotten towns of the provinces never.


On the other hand, the blind and dumb anger of the peasantry would hardly reach Arcis. All over France the town misunderstood the countryside, and in the early Revolution actually fought against it. This will appear strange to an English reader, who sees scarcely any contrast between a country market and an overgrown village. In England the distinction hardly exists, but in France the borough is very separate from the peasant society outside, and, though often smaller than some large neighbouring village, it keeps to this day the Roman traditions of a city.


We see, then, that Danton’s birthplace in great part accounts for the peculiar bent of his future politics: practical, of legal effect, inspired by no hatred, though strongly influenced by a personal experience of misgovernment. But v his parentage will show us still more clearly how the conditions of his origin affected his career.


He was of the lawyers. His father was procureur in the bailiwick of Arcis. It is difficult to explain the functions of his office at this date and to an English reader, for it belongs to that “Administration” which is so essentially Latin, and which we are but just beginning to experience in England. Let it suffice to describe him as the official whose duty it was to supply that which in England the institution of the grand jury still in theory provides, as it did once in reality. It was his business to “present” the cases and the accused to the local criminal court—local, because in France the circuit of assize is unknown. Added to this were many duties and privileges of registration, of stamping and so forth; and the position required an accurate, and even a minute knowledge of the royal law and provincial usage, the complicated customary system of the old regime.


It is perhaps of still more importance to appreciate the social position of Jacques Danton. Belonging to the lower branches of the legal profession, and placed in a lesser borough of Champagne, the father of Danton held something of the same rank as would a small country solicitor in one of our market-towns, with whatever additions of dignity might follow from a permanent office in the municipality of the place.


As to fortune, we do not accurately know the amount of the family income during Danton’s boyhood, but we know that the office which was afterwards purchased for him was worth some three to four thousand pounds; that the money was found largely upon the credit of his father’s legacy[3], and that the house in which the family lived was their own—a useful rule existing throughout provincial France. It is a substantial building, among the best pf the little town, standing in the market-place, with the principal rooms giving upon the public square. What with the probable capital and the known emoluments of his position, we may regard Jacques Danton as a man disposing of an income of about four to five hundred pounds a year.


His mother was of a somewhat lower rank. She was the daughter of a builder from the Champagne, and her brother was a master-carpenter of the town. Of her two sisters, one had married a postmaster and the other a shopkeeper, both in Troyes; her brother was the priest of Barberey, near Arcis.


The father died when the boy was two and a half years old, leaving four children. We must presume, though we are not certain, that Danton had one brother; and we know he had two sisters, one of whom married in Troyes; the other died a nun at the same place in the middle of this century[4].


On both sides of his family, through the connections and marriages of his relations, their employment, their dwellings, their descendants, we see the origin of Danton absolutely separate from the lower and from the higher ranks of the old regime. Only by an effort of imagination could he later understand the workman or the peasant; only by daily conversation could he appreciate the strange nobles of 1790, with their absence of national pride.


In fine, Danton came out of that middle class which has made the modern world, and which still insecurely sustains it. “Respectability and its gig” is an epigram that would exactly suit the dull and provincial surroundings of his first home; but the converse of such provincialism is sanity, order, and strength, and out of fuel so solid and so cold the bourgeoisie has time and again built a consuming fire.


From his father s death, before he was three years old, till his ninth year, the child was with his mother in the house at Arcis, for she had from the little fortune just enough revenue to keep the family together and to educate the children. The little boy was taught his Latin elements in the town, and then sent to the “Lower Seminary” at Troyes[5].


It was the intention of his uncle at Barberey to make him a priest, and in that case he would have passed through the regular stages, taking the higher forms in the Upper Seminary, and finally being admitted to orders a year or two after finishing his “Philosophie.” However, this programme was never completed, and the Church lost in him the material for a vigorous, charitable, and obscure country vicar.


The decision was probably the result of one of those family meetings, such as were habitually held in France to decide the career of an orphan child, and which the Revolution raised to the dignity of an institution with legal form. Some biographers have read the politics of a man of thirty into the action of a little child, and have made this step a precocious protest against clericalism. These biographers have no children.


The uncle consented to the change, and, with Madame Danton’s two married sisters, agreed upon the bar as his future profession. He was sent to Troyes and placed with the Oratorians, a religious order which has had the honour of training so many of the great reformers. In their College he went through that training which no amount of social change or new theories in pedagogy has been able to uproot from the secondary education of France. Little Greek, much Latin, two years all employed in the literature of the late Roman republic and early empire—a groundwork in the elements which gives the educated French an almost mediaeval familiarity with Roman thought; such was the course which the bourgeois did and does go through in the French schools. A system founded upon the humanities of the sixteenth, but developed in the classicism of the seventeenth century, it has lost the Hellenism, the subtlety, and the breadth of the former, while it has preserved the rigidity, the strength, and the clearness which the latter owes to the influence of the Jesuits. It fails to develop that initiative coupled with originality to which we in England attach so much importance; it achieves, upon the other hand, a strength in the convictions, and above all a soundness in the judgment, which our public schools often fail to produce.


From just such a curriculum came the exaggerated classicism of Robespierre, the more brilliant but equally Latin style of Desmoulins, though it must be admitted that the first is a reminiscence of Cornelius Nepos, while the second is at times well modelled upon Tacitus himself. The error of such imitation, however, never marred the speech of Danton in his later life; he owed this singular freedom from the spirit of his age to travel, to his vivid interest in surrounding things and men, and to his intimacy with English and Italian[6].


Yet in a famous speech upon public education he makes a just reference to the influence of this schooling upon the mind of his contemporaries, and notes truly its tendency to turn men republican[7].


Unfortunately he did not remain at such a school long enough to receive its last and most beneficial impressions. The head form at a French school is called “Philosophic,” and the last year is spent largely in reading the sociology and the metaphysics of the old world. Danton left at the age of sixteen, when he had just completed “Rhétorique,” but what he lost in polishing he gained in being left to his own development for one more year of his life than were his fellows.


Active, often rebellious, full of laughter, he showed his intelligence in the final examinations, his vigour in an escapade that endeared him to at least one of his school-fellows[8], who has given us, with Rousselin, the only notes we possess as to this period of his life. He ran off in his last year to Rheims, seventy odd miles away, that he might see the crowning of Louis XVI. Going and returning on foot, lie satisfied the desire which he had expressed to his school-fellows of “seeing how they made a king.” So as a boy he went to look at the making of a king, and afterwards, when he grew older, Danton himself unmade him.


In 1780—his twenty-first year[9]—he entered the office of a solicitor at Paris named Vinot. Apprenticed as a clerk in order to read law, and above all to watch the procedure of the courts, he spent the next four years in preparing for the bar. If we are to depend on a chance phrase dropped just before his death, he was at that time entirely dependent on his master and his pen[10]. We know, at any rate, that he received no salary, but lodged and boarded with his employer; nor is it probable that he received any money from home, for his mother had married again, and a short time after this second husband (a certain Recordain) was so deeply involved that Danton was begged to hand over the most part of his inheritance to save the family. He did so, and remained with some five or six hundred pounds only as his share of the family fortune. It was invested in land near Arcis, and he kept it for his ultimate purpose of buying a barrister’s practice in one of the higher courts.


He was called to the bar (a process in the same form as taking a degree) in 1785;[11] choosing, with provincial patriotism, Rheims as the place in which formally to join the profession; but he intended to practise in the capital, and returned thither at once.


It is not easy to render to an English public the meaning of the various courts before 1789. Even in France (so completely has the new order supplanted the old anarchy) their forms have been forgotten, and research purely antiquarian cannot give us more than disjointed particulars as to their procedure[12]. There was a division corresponding to the English between Common Law and Equity. This was to be discovered in every country of the West, and had arisen of necessity from the imposition of the king’s power and the Canon Law over those local customs, mixed with reminiscences of Rome, which had once been the whole life of the early Middle Ages.


To the body of lawyers who in Paris (or in any of the great centres) formed the courts for all ordinary pleas, the name of “Parliament” was given. But that it comprised more persons, that it never went upon circuit, and that it included many barristers as well as judges, the Parliament of Paris corresponded more or less to what the English Bench would be were our judges to form a kind of permanent council for advising the Crown and registering its decrees, as well as for trying the cases brought before them. To plead at their bar was no difficult matter. It required but the taking of one’s degree in law, and the fees of entrance wore slight. Danton determined to adopt this branch of the profession, and to use it as a stepping-stone towards the higher court, which he soon reached.


This higher court, “Court of Appeal,” as we should call it, or “Cour de Cassation,” as it is named in the modern French system, bore a title significant of the intense conservatism of old France. It was called the “Court of the King’s Councils”—very much what we should have to-day in England had we preserved in fact the theory that the king in his council is the final authority. But though it bore a name drawn from the Curia Regis of the thirteenth century, it had of course lost all its old simplicity. It was a Bench like any other, but there pleaded at its bar an order of lawyers strictly limited in number and highly privileged[13]. It dealt, as did its parallel in the English system, mainly with disputed inheritances, especially in matters of land, and, as we shall see, it showed the true mark of a court of Chancery, in that it took more than a hundred and thirty years to make up its mind. To plead before this court, with its monopoly of valuable causes, was to have at once an assured income and prestige; therefore its vacancies were prizes to be bought and sold. Danton determined to plead so long at the common law courts as might assure him, with economy, a substantial addition to the few hundred pounds that formed his whole capital, and then to seek a loan that might eke out these savings and place him at the Chancery bar.


Young, eloquent, eminently capable of seeing a real issue, he was well fitted for the lower practice, and he succeeded. Within two years he had a sum to offer as part payment, which was at once a proof of his business habits and of his talents. His family, therefore, especially those members of it who had urged him to go to the bar, were willing to advance the necessary sums in addition to his own savings and his little patrimony. The purchase-money was delivered, and a bond to the amount of £3000 (a sum which he could not then have furnished) was signed by his aunts and uncles at Troyes. It was in March 1787[14] that this step was taken, and this date was in some sense his entry into public life, for it brought him into direct contact with the wealthy—that is, with the ruling class.


We have on this date a vivid anecdote surviving, A Latin oration had to be delivered off-hand to the assembled college on the reception of a candidate to the order. The subject set for Danton when he entered the hall was “The Moral and Political Situation of the Country in their relations with the Administration of Justice.” A fine theme for 1787! Such a quaint scene the old regime delighted in, and its older members delighted also in catching here and there a phrase of quotation which they could understand. The genius and the memory of their candidate seem on this occasion to have furnished something new, to have given them less platitude than was expected. He mentioned reform; he spoke of the struggle in which the Parliament was engaged against the ministers—a struggle of which he wisely said, “They are fighting for the sacred centres of civic liberty, but present no positive reform by which that liberty may be brought into existence.” “Sacred centres” was, of course, aris et focis. The speech was necessarily in a large measure a series of clichés, a stringing together of the well-worn Latin mottoes. It even contained salus populi suprema lex, but its argument was Danton’s own. There is to be marked also this phrase, for it is the note of all his future work “Let the government feel the gravity of the situation sufficiently to remedy it in the simple and in the natural way downwards from its own authority.”


The young men understood and applauded; the old men were assured that, if they had not quite followed an unconventional harangue, it was due to the originality of the speaker. Presumably their souls were softened by aris et focis, and salus populi suprema lex.”


For the next two years his forensic reputation is continually rising. No longer the Common Law pleader, with pathetic and oratorical appeals for a shepherd against his lord, he had shown how large a part intellect had to do with his power of commanding attention. On the intricacies of his Chancery practice and the clearness and ability of his analysis we have an excellent witness in one of the most learned of the modern Parisian bar[15], and three of his opinions, on the Amelinau, Dubonis, and De Montbarey cases, have come down to us, and have received the favourable criticism of an opponent.


The last case (that of De Montbarey) shows us Danton defending the claims of an old house and at work in the rustiest of all the legal grooves. It had been on the stocks since 1657, and Danton, in attempting to give the quietus to this intolerable longevity, uses a phrase which shows us the feeling that spared one grave at least when the mob sacked St. Denis: “Jeanne d’Albret[16] is a name dear to all Frenchmen, for it recalls the memory of that other Jeanne d’Albret who was the mother of Henri IV.”


There came to be his clients, among others De Barentin, the minister of justice, and De Brienne[17] comptroller-general; it is on his intimacy with the former that his first recorded opinions on public affairs turn. They will be dealt with in the next chapter.


It is, of course, difficult to give an exact proof of a man’s private income at any moment, but we are certain that Danton’s cannot have fallen far short at this date of a thousand pounds a year. His immediate success at the bar, the monopoly and privilege of the body to which he now belonged (the work certain to come to the most inept was worth a lump sum of 60,000 francs, to which talent would add indefinitely), his eloquence and proved ability, the name of his clients, their importance and their wealth—everything leads to this as a certain conclusion. Immense fortunes were not then made in the profession; his position was not an obscure one.


He married, on attaining this status, the daughter of a man who kept one of the students' restaurants, Charpentier by name. It was a café (Café des Écoles) very much frequented by the University and the younger men at the bar, and still one of the few remaining cafés of the last century. Danton himself was a regular customer, and there is an interesting picture, drawn by a friend, of the avocats in their special costumes at this place. It occupied the site of what is now the south-western corner of the Place de l'Ecole[18],  nor has any change been made in it save the raising of the road level. Looking on the river, and just over the river from the Palais, it was the natural rendezvous for the young barristers in the mid-day adjournment and after the court rose.


Charpentier, the “limonadier” of Mdme. Roland, was a man worth from five to six thousand pounds, part only invested in his business[19]; he had, moreover, a little post under the Taxes, requiring a slight amount of work and bringing in only a hundred pounds a year. When he married his daughter to Danton, she was given 20,000 francs[20].


As will be seen later, it is of the first moment in proving Danton’s position to know accurately the capital amount of which he disposed when the Revolution broke out; for in the case of generous men in a democracy, the accusation of venality is the most common and the hardest to rebut.


Passionately fond of his wife, and successful in his profession, on the threshold of a great career, I would apply to him a phrase which one of his worst enemies has given us to describe a far lesser man, “Actif et sain, robuste et glorieux, il aima sa femme et la parure”


We leave him, then, at the summit of a laborious and perhaps of an arduous youth. He is twenty-eight years old, in the best of his vigour and of his intelligence—the age at which Jefferson ten years before had drafted his immortal paragraph; the age at which Napoleon, with his moving island of men, was ten years later to break five armies of the Austrians from Lodi to Campo Formio,


What picture shall we make of him to carry with us in the scenes in which he is to be the principal actor?


He was tall and stout, with the forward bearing of the orator, full of gesture and of animation. He carried a round French head upon the thick neck of energy. His face was generous, ugly, and determined. With wide eyes and calm brows, he yet had the quick glance which betrays the habit of appealing to an audience. His upper lip was injured, and so was his nose[21], and he had further been disfigured by the small-pox, with which disease that forerunner of his, Mirabeau, had also been disfigured. His lip had been torn by a bull when he was a child, and his nose crushed in a second adventure, they say, with the same animal. In this the Romans would perhaps have seen a portent; but he, the idol of our Positivists, found only a chance to repeat Mirabeau’s expression that his “boar’s head frightened men.”


In his dress he had something of the negligence which goes with extreme vivacity and with a constant interest in things outside oneself; but it was invariably that of his rank. Indeed, to the minor conventions Danton always bowed, because he was a man, and because he was eminently sane. More than did the run of men at that time, he understood that you cut down no tree by lopping at the leaves, nor break up a society by throwing away a wig[22]. The decent self-respect which goes with conscious power was never absent from his costume, though it often left his language in moments of crisis, or even of irritation.


I will not insist too much upon his great character of energy, because it has been so over-emphasised as to give a false impression of him. He was admirably sustained in his action, and his political arguments were as direct as his physical efforts were continuous, but the banal picture of fury which is given you by so many writers is false. For fury is empty, whereas Danton was full, and his energy was at first the force at work upon a great mass of mind, and later its momentum.


Save when he had the direct purpose of convincing a crowd, his speech had no violence, and even no metaphor; in the courts he was a close reasoner, and one who put his points with ability and with eloquence rather than with thunder. But in whatever he undertook, vigour appeared as the taste of salt in a dish. He could not quite hide this vigour: his convictions, his determination, his vision all concentrate upon whatsoever thing he has in hand.


He possessed a singularly wide view of the Europe in which France stood. In this he was like Mirabeau, and peculiarly unlike the men with whom revolutionary government threw him into contact. He read and spoke English, he was acquainted with Italian. He know that the kings were dilettanti, that the theory of the aristocracies was liberal. He had no little sympathy with the philosophy which a leisurely oligarchy had framed in England; it is one of the tragedies of the Revolution that he desired to the last an alliance, or at least peace, with this country. Where Robespierre was a maniac in foreign policy, Danton was more than a sane—he was a just, and even a diplomatic man.


He was fond of .wide reading, and his reading was of the philosophers; it ranged from Rabelais to the physiocrats in his own tongue, from Adam Smith to the “Essay on Civil Government” in that of strangers; and of the Encyclopædia he possessed all the numbers steadily accumulated. When we consider the time, his fortune, and the obvious personal interest in so small and individual a collection, few shelves will be found more interesting than those which Danton delighted to fill[23].


In his politics he desired above all actual practical, and apparent reforms; changes for the better expressed in material results. He differed from many of his countrymen at that time, and from most of his political countrymen now, in thus adopting the tangible. It was a part of something in his character which was nearly allied to the stock of the race, something which made him save and invest in land as does the French peasant[24], and love, as the French peasant loves, good government, order, security, and well-being.


There is to be discovered in all the fragments which remain to us of his conversations before the bursting of the storm, and still more clearly in his demand for a centre when the invasion and the rebellion threatened the Republic, a certain conviction that the revolutionary thing rather than the revolutionary idea should be produced: not an inspiring creed, but a goal to be reached, sustained him. Like all active minds, his mission was rather to realise than to plan, and his energies were determined upon seeing the result of theories which he unconsciously admitted, but which he was too impatient to analyse.


His voice was loud even when his expressions were subdued. He talked no man down, but he made many opponents sound weak and piping after his utterance. It was of the kind that fills great halls, and whose deep note suggests hard phrases. There was with all this a carelessness as to what his words might be made to mean when partially repeated by others, and such carelessness has caused historians still more careless to lend a false aspect of Bohemianism to his character. A Bohemian he was not; he was a successful and an orderly man; but energy he had, and if there are writers who cannot conceive of energy without chaos, it is probably because in the studious leisure of vast endowments they have never felt the former in themselves, nor have been compelled to control the latter in their surroundings.


As to his private life, affection dominated him. Upon the faith of some who did not know him he acquired the character of a debauchee. For the support of this view there is not a tittle of direct evidence. He certainly loved those pleasures of the senses which Robespierre refused, and which Roland was unable to enjoy; but that his good dinners were orgies or of any illegitimate loves (once he had married the woman to whom he was so devotedly attached) there is no shadow of proof. His friends also he loved, and above all, from the bottom of his soul, he loved France. His faults—and they were many—his vices (and a severe critic would have discovered these also) flowed from two sources: first, he was too little of an idealist, too much absorbed in the immediate thing; secondly, he suffered from all the evil effects that abundant energy may produce --the habit of oaths, the rhetoric of sudden diatribes, violent and overstrained action, with its subsequent demand for repose.


Weighted with these conditions he enters the arena, supported by not quite thirty fruitful years, by a happy marriage, by an intense conviction, and by the talents of a man who has not yet tasted defeat. I repeat the sentence applied to another: “Active and sane, robust and ready for glory, the things he loved were his wife and the circumstance of power.”


[1] All biographers agree. The first publication of the extract from the civil register was obtained by Bougeart in August 1860. It was furnished to him by M. Ludot, the major at the time. There is a ridiculous error in the Journal de la Montagne, vol. ii. No. 142, “né à Orchie sur Aube.”


[2] The date is given in the extract mentioned in the preceding note.


[3] See the action of the relatives in No. VI. of the Appendix.


[4] Bougeart, p. 12. A Danton, who was presumably the son of this brother, was an inspector of the University under the second Empire.


[5] See Appendix No. V.; also Théâtre de l’ancien Collège de Troyet, Babeau, published by Dufour-Bouquet, Troyes, 1881.


[6] See list of his library, Appendix VIII., and his interview with Thomas Payne, at the beginning of Chapter VII.


[7] Speech of August 13, 1793. Printed in Moniteur of August 15.


[8] M. Béon.


[9] Danton, Homme d' États, p. 29.


[10] See “Notes of Courtois de l’Aube” in Claréties Desmoulins.


[11] Danton, Homme d’États, p. 30.


[12] An excellent reading is afforded by the Avocat aux Concels du Roi of M. Bos (Machal & Billaud, Paris, 1881), quoted more than once in this work.


[13] Since 1728 membership of this body had been purchaseable and hereditary; a striking example of how wrongly society was moving.


[14] See Appendix VI.


[15] M. Bos, quoted above.


[16] Ibid., p. 520.


[17] See Appendix V.


[18] See Appendix II. on Danton’s lodgings in Paris.


[19] See Robinet, Danton vie Privée, p. 284. 1


[20] See Appendix VI.


[21] By nature his nose was small His was one of those faces rarely seen, and always associated with energy and with leadership, whose great forehead overhang a face that would be small, were it not redeemed by the square jaw and the mouth. Thus Arnault “une caricature de Socrate.”


[22] I refer to the English reformer who, on taking ship at Bristol, cast his perruque into the water, crying, “I have done with such baubles,” and sailed bald to the New World.


[23] See Appendix VIII.


[24] See Appendix IX.