Danton, A Study

Chapter V. The Republic August 10, 1792—April 5, 1793.


The 10th of August is not, in the history of the Revolution, a turning-point or a new departure merely; it is rather a cataclysm, the conditions before and after which are absolutely different. You may compare it to the rush of the Atlantic, which “in one dreadful day and night” swept away the old civilisation in the legend. It is like one of the geological “faults” which form the great inland escarpments, and to read or to write of it is like standing on the edge of Auvergne. You have just passed through a volcanic plateau, rising slowly, more and more desolate: you find yourself looking down thousands of feet on to the great plain of Limagne.


There is no better test of what the monarchy was than the comparison of that which came before with that which succeeded its overthrow. There is no continuity. On the far side of the insurrection, up to the 9th of August itself, you have armies (notably that of the centre) contented with monarchy; you have a strong garrison at the Tuilleries, the ministers, the departments, the mayor of Paris (even) consulting with the crown. The King and the Girondins are opposed, but they are balanced; Paris is angry and expectant, but it has expressed nothing—it is one of many powers. The moderate men, the Rolands and the rest, are the radical wing. It is a triumph for the Revolution that the Girondins should be again in nominal control. Pétion is an idol. The acute friction is between a government of idealists standing at the head of a group of professional bourgeois, and a crown supported by a resurrected nobility, expecting succour and strong enough to hazard a pitched battle.


Look around you on the 11th of August and see what has happened. Between the two opponents a third has been intervened—Paris and its insurrectionary Commune have suddenly arisen. The Girondins are almost a reactionary party. The Crown and all its scaffolding have suddenly disappeared. The Assembly seems something small, the ministry has fallen back, and there appears above it one man only—Danton, called Minister of Justice, but practically the executive itself. A crowd of names which had stood for discussion, for the Jacobins, for persistent ineffective opposition, appear as masters. In a word, France had for the moment a new and terrible pretender to the vacant throne, a pretender that usurped it at last—the Commune.


The nine months with which this chapter will deal formed the Republic; it is they that are the introduction to the Terror and to the great wars, and from the imprisonment of the King to the fall of the Girondins the rapid course of France is set in a narrowing channel directly for the Mountain. The Commune, the body that conquered in August, is destined to capture every position, and, as one guarantee after another breaks down, it will attain, with its extreme doctrines and their concomitant persecution, to absolute power.


What was Danton’s attitude during this period? It may be summed up as follows: Now that the Revolution was finally established, to keep France safe in the inevitable danger. He put the nation first; he did not subordinate the theory of the Revolution; he dismissed it. The Revolution had conquered: it was there; but France, which had made it and which proposed to extend the principles of self-government to the whole world, was herself in the greatest peril. When discussion had been the method of the Revolution, Danton had been an extremist. He was Parisian and Frondeur in 1790 and 1791; it was precisely in that time that he failed. The tangible thing, the objective to which all his mind leaned, appeared with the national danger; then he had something to do, and his way of doing it, his work in the trade to which he was born, showed him to be of a totally different kind from the men above whom he showed. I do not believe one could point to a single act of his in these three-quarters of a year which was not aimed at the national defence.


It is a point of special moment in the appreciation of his politics that Danton was alone in this position. He was the only man who acted as one of the innumerable peasantry of France would have acted, could fate have endowed such a peasant with genius and with knowledge. The others to the left and right were soldiers, poets, or pedants every one. Heroic pedants and poets who were never afraid, but not one of them could forget his theories or his vision and take hold of the ropes. Such diplomacy as there is is Danton’s; It is Danton who attempts compromise, and it is Danton who persistently recalls the debates from personalities to work. It is he who warns the Girondins, and it is he who, in the anarchy that followed defeat, produced the necessary dictatorship of the Committee, Finally, when the Committee is formed, you glance at the names, the actions, and the reports, and you see Danton moving as a man who can see moves among the blind. He had been once “in himself the Cordeliers”—it had no great effect, for there was nothing to do but propose rights; now, after the insurrection, he became “in himself the executive” and later “in himself the Committee.” So much is he the first man in France during these few months of his activity, that only by following his actions can you find the unity of this confused and anarchic period.


It falls into four very distinct divisions, both from the point of view of general history and from that of Danton’s own life. The  first includes the six weeks intervening between the 10th of August and the meeting of the Convention; it is a time almost without authority; it moves round the terrible centre of the massacres. During this brief time the executive, barely existent, without courts or arms, had him in the Ministry of Justice as their one power a power unfortunately checked by the anarchy in Paris.


The second division stretches from the meeting of the Convention to the death of the King. It covers exactly four months, from the 20th of September 1792 to the 21st of January 1793. It is the time in which the danger of invasion seems lifted, and in which Danton in the Convention is working publicly to reconcile the two parties, and secretly to prevent, if possible, the spread of the coalition against France.


The third opens with the universal war that follows the death of Louis, and continues to a date which you may fix at the rising of the 10th of March, or at the defeat of Neerwinden on the 19th. Danton is absent with the army during the greater part of these six weeks; he returns at their close, and when things were at their worst, to create the two great instruments which he destined to govern France—the Tribunal and the Committee.


Finally, for two months, from the establishment of these to the expulsion of the Girondins on the 2nd of June, he is being gradually driven from the attempt at conciliation to the necessities of the insurrection. He is organising and directing the new Government of the Public Safety, and in launching that new body, in imposing that necessary dictator, we shall see him sacrificing one by one every minor point in his policy, till at last his most persistent attempt—I mean his attempt to save the Girondins—fails in its turn. Having so secured an irresistible government, and having created the armies, the chief moment of his life was past. It remained to him to retire, to criticise the excesses of his own creation, and to be killed by it.


Immediately after the insurrection, a week after he had taken the oath and made the short vigorous speech to the Assembly,[1] Danton sent out his first and almost his only act as Minister of Justice, the circular of the 18th of August,[2] which was posted to all the tribunals in France. It is peculiar rather than important; it is the attempt to convince the magistracy and all the courts of the justice and necessity of the insurrection, and at the same time to leave upon record a declaration of his own intentions now that he had reached power. In the first attempt he necessarily fails. The old judicature, appointed by the Crows, and by the moderate ministers, largely re-elected by the people, wealthy for the most part, conservative by origin and tradition, would in any case have rejected such leadership; but the matter is unimportant; this passive body, upon which the reaction had counted not a little, and which De Cicé had planned to use against the Revolution, was destined to disappear at the first demand of the new popular powers. France for weeks was practically without courts of law.


Those passages, on the other hand, in which Danton makes his own apology are full of interest. They contain in a few sentences the outline of all his domestic policy, and we find in them Danton’s memories, his fears of what his past reputation might do to hurt him.


“I came in through the breach of the Tuilleries, and you can only find in me the same man who was president of the Cordeliers. . . . The only object of my thoughts has been political and individual liberty, . . . the maintenance of the laws, . . . the strict union of all the Departments, . . . the splendour of the State, and the equality, not of fortune, for that is impossible, but of rights and of well-being.”


If we except the puerilities of the new great seal, the Hercules with eighty-four stars (to represent the union of the Departments), replaced by the conventional Liberty and fasces, there is practically nothing more from Danton as Minister of Justice. But as the one active man in the Cabinet he is the pivot of the whole time. Those qualities in him which had so disgusted the men of letters were the exterior of a spirit imperatively demanded in Paris at the time. His heavy, rapid walk, the coarseness and harshness of his voice, his brutality in command, exercised a physical pressure upon the old man Roland, the mathematician Monge, and the virtuous journalists who accompanied them. I know of but one character in that set which could have prevented Danton’s ascendancy, and have met his ugly strength by a force as determined and more refined. Roland’s wife might have done it, but though she was the soul of the ministry, she was hardly a minister, and being a woman, she was confined to secondary and indirect methods. Her hatred of Danton increased to bitterness as she saw him succeed, but she could not intervene, and France was saved from the beauty and the ideals which might have been the syrens of her shipwreck.


The three weeks following the 10th of August were filled with the news of the invasion. The King of Prussia had hesitated to march. France, full of herself, never understood that such a thing was possible. The kings were on the march, the great and simple ideas, so long in opposition, had met in battle. All France thought that 1792 was already 1793. Perhaps there were only two men in the country who saw the immaturity, the complexity, and the chances of the situation—I mean Danton and Dumouriez: Dumouriez, because he was by nature a schemer who had seen and was to see the matter from close at hand; Danton, because, from the first moment of his entrance into the ministry, he had gathered up the threads of negotiation into his hand.


The King of Prussia had hesitated, so had Brunswick. It was the success of the insurrection that decided them. They made the error that the foreigner always makes, the error that led the most enlightened Frenchmen to exaggerate the liberal forces in England, the error of seeing ourselves in others. They imagined that “the sane body of the nation,” the Frenchmen that thought like Prussians, would rise in defence of the monarchy and in aid of the invasion. They had no conception of how small in number, how hesitating, and how vile were the anti-national party.


On Sunday the 19th the frontier was crossed; on the Thursday Longwy capitulated, and a German garrison held the rocky plateau that overlooks the plain of Luxembourg. A week later, Thursday the 30th, Verdun was surrounded.


From the hills above the town, the same hills which make of Verdun the fifth great entrenched camp of modern France, the Prussian batteries bombarded with a plunging fire. There may have been food and ammunition for two or three more days, but fire had broken out in several quarters, and the town council was imploring Beaurepaire to surrender. Brunswick proposed a truce and terms of capitulation. On the Saturday, the 1st of September, after a violent discussion, the terms were rejected, but Beaurepaire knew that nothing could save the town, and in the night he shot himself. On the next day, Sunday the second, Verdun yielded and the road to Paris lay open.


Meanwhile, in the capital itself, a vortex was opening, and the poor remnants of public authority and of public order were being drawn down into it. The 10th of August had been a victory into which there entered three very dangerous elements. First, it was not final; it had been won against a small local garrison under the menace of an invasion, and this invasion was proving itself irresistible. Secondly, it had left behind it terrors accentuated by success; I mean whatever fears of vengeance or of the destruction of Paris existed before the insurrection were doubled when so much greater cause had been given for the “execution” that Brunswick had threatened. Finally, the success of the insurrection had of itself destroyed the last shadow of executive power, for all such power, weak and perishing though it was, had centred in the King.


But besides these clear conditions which the 10th of August had produced, there was something deeper and more dangerous the fear which fed upon itself and became panic, and which ran supported by anger growing into madness. There was no news but made it worse, no sight in the streets and no rumour but increased the intolerable pressure. Trade almost ceased, and the whole course of exchange, which is the blood of a great city, seemed to have run to the heart. Over the front of the Hotel de Ville hung that enormous black flag with the letters “Danger” staring from it in white, and in the heavy winds another blew out straight and rattled from the towers of Notre Dame. Every action savoured of nightmare, and suffered from a spirit grotesque, exaggerated, and horrible. The very day after the fight a great net had been cast over Paris and drawn in full of royalists. The gates had been shut suddenly, and every suspect arrested by order of the Commune. The prisons were full of members of the great conspiracy, for in civil war the vanquished appear as traitors. Then there arose a violent demand for the trial and punishment of those who had called in the foreigner, and a demand as violent, touching on miracle, for innumerable volunteers. In every project there ran this spirit of madness mixed with inspiration.


If Paris lost its head, so did the Assembly and the Moderates, but in another fashion. Paris was pale with the intensity of anger, Roland from a sudden paralysis. The fear of Paris was an angry panic; with the Girondins it was the sudden sickness that takes some men at the sight of blood. Paris had clamoured for an excess when it demanded the trial of the Swiss, who had done nothing beyond their mercenary duty; but the executive met it by an excess of weakness when it produced its court of ridiculous and just pedants, afraid to condemn, afraid to decide. Already the people had learned the secret payments of the old civil list,[3] the salaries paid to the emigrants, the subsidised press. Golier’s report had appeared but a day before the invasion.


The news of Longwy was already known. Verdun stood in peril, when the acquittal of Montmorin on Friday the 31st seemed to be the deciding weakness of the government that pushed the populace to their extreme of violence.


He had been governor of Fontainebleau, openly and patently a conspirator on the side of the Tuilleries; he was not acquitted of this. It was admitted that he had “planned civil war;” he was released by that heroic but fatal fault of the Girondins, the fault that later sent them to the guillotine, and that now inspired their tribunal—they would not bend an inch to compromise with necessity; rather than do so they would deliberately aggravate the worst conditions by inclining against the passions of the moment. They seemed to say, “You clamour for mere reprisals; we will show, on the contrary, that we are just, and we will even irritate you with mercy.” Yet they knew that Montmorin deserved death.


After that decision, and when Osselin the judge took with great courage the prisoner’s arm in his own and led him away, a voice in the court cried out, “You acquit him now, and in a fortnight his friends will march into Paris.” The massacres were certain from that moment; the thing had been said which made the small band of murderers start out, which made Paris look on immovable, and which kept the National Guard silent, refusing to stop the carnage. “We will go to the frontier, but we will not leave enemies behind us. If the law will not execute them, the people will.” The damnable spirit which runs in colonies and wild places had invaded civilised Europe, and the lynching was determined.


When the Assembly had yielded to the Commune, when it was certain that the insurrectionary Commune would have its own way, and when it was known that Longwy had fallen, that Verdun was surrounded, there took place one of those scenes that stand out like pictures in the mind, and that interpret the characters of history for us better than any accumulation of detail.


In the garden of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at its end, and away from the house, and under the low foliage, the six ministers were met in an informal gathering—rapid, half -silent, a council not predetermined, suited to the time; a few hurried words, whose description has come down to us by no minute, but by the accident of Fabre’s presence. Fabre D’Eglantine, the uncertain poet, Danton’s protégé, and dangerous, ill-balanced friend,[4] stood watching at a little distance.


Roland spoke for all his friends. He was very pale and broken-down; he leaned his head against a tree—“We must leave Paris.” Danton spoke louder, “Where do you mean to go?” “We must go to Blois. We must take with us the King and the treasure.” So said Servan; so said Clavière. Kersaint, whom Danton had known at the old Commune in 1791, and who was something of Danton’s kind, added his word: “I have just come from Sedan, and I know there is nothing else to be done. Brunswick will be here in Paris within the fortnight as surely as the wedge enters when you strike.” Danton stopped six waverers by a phrase, a phrase of just such a character, exaggerated, violent, as his good sense made use of so often in the tribune. “My mother is seventy years old, and I have brought her to Paris; I brought my children yesterday. If the Prussians are to come in, I hope it may be into a Paris burnt down with torches.” Then he turned round to Roland in person and threw out a fatal sentence, necessary, perhaps, but one of many that dug the great gulf between him and the Girondins. “Take care, Roland, and do not talk too much about flight; the people might hear you.”[5]


I know of no anecdote that tells more about Danton, or explains with greater clearness his attitude during the crisis that brought on the massacres. For these over-vigorous words, full of excess, were uttered by a man whose character was all for material results—results obtained, as a rule, by compromise. This same Danton, who talked of “torches” and “Paris en cendres,” was the only man in France who had the self-control to negotiate for the retreat of the Prussians after Valmy. His “mother of seventy years” had indeed been brought to Paris, but from Arcis, which every one knew to be right in the track of the invasion. What we have to discover in this speech, as in every phrase he uttered, is the motive; for with any other of the great Revolutionaries words were the whole of the idea, and sometimes more than the idea, but with Danton alone words were the means to a tangible end.


He desired to prevent that fatal breach with Paris which he had foreseen to be a risk from the beginning, and which Mirabeau in his time had thought so near as to be necessary. He was determined to keep this shadow—the national executive—in reach of the one thing that was alive and vigorous and defending the nation. It is of the greatest importance in appreciating his attitude to know that he dreaded the Commune. Later, no one of the deputies of Paris in the Convention saw as he saw the necessity of amalgamation with the Departments. Marat he thoroughly despised. Most of the men of the Commune had sat in one room with him; Panis and Sergent had even desks under him. He knew them, and he contemned them all. He did not know to what crimes they were about to commit themselves, or perhaps he would have interfered, but he knew they were worthless.


Behind them, however, he saw Paris, and in Paris he ardently believed, in its position and in its necessity. He was entirely right. Once let the ministers leave the city, and civil war would begin—a civil war waged within ten days’ march of the enemy, and between what forces? An imbecile, a man like one of our moderns, who thinks in maps and numbers, would have said, “Between eighty-three departments and one.” But Danton knew better. He had that appreciation which is common to all the masters; he knew the meaning of potential and of the word ‘quality.’ It would have been a fight between the members and the brain, and the brain would have died fighting, leaving a body dead because the brain had died.


Thus while the Assembly and the Commune fight their sharp battle of the last days of August, while the Parliament commands new municipal elections, breaks the municipality, then flatters it, then yields and permits it to be practically reinforced under the form of a fresh vote from the Sections,[6] Danton acts as though both Parliament and Commune had dropped from the world. There are two speeches of his, one of the 28th of August, one of the 2nd of September, and between them they mark his attitude and form also the origins of that full year of action and rhetoric which define him in history.


In the first, he proposes and carries the measure which has been made an excuse for laying upon his shoulders the responsibility of the massacres. The speech was made for a very different purpose. He authorised the domiciliary visits, but his object was to obtain arms. One thought only occupied him: to counteract the intense individualism of the Moderates, to force despotic measures through a Parliament that hated them, and to force these measures because without them the situation was lost. He got his arms, and just afterwards his mass of volunteers, but the other measure which he had introduced to pacify the Commune, the domiciliary visits, have marked more deeply in the memories of the time, because in the troubled days that followed these visits seemed to be a beginning.


It was Sunday morning, the 2nd of September. Verdun (though no one knew it yet in Paris) had just fallen; Beaurepaire was dead. The “Comité de Surveillance” of the Commune had admitted Marat illegally,[7] and for a sinister reason. For three days the prisons had been marked, and those whom the Comité wished to save had been withdrawn; and though the movement was spontaneous, though the most of the Sections spoke before Marat,[8] yet there was an executive and a directory, and that madman was its chief. The moment that the massacres were beginning at the Cannes, Danton was making the last effort to turn the anger of the moment into an enthusiasm for the Champ de Mars and for the volunteers. If ever there was an attempt to influence by rhetoric a popular emotion which could not be checked, and to direct energy from a destructive to a fruitful object, it is to be found in this his most famous speech—the speech that even the children know to-day in France, the closing words of which are engraved upon his pedestal. For the only time in his life he turned and leant upon the mere power of words: there is something in their extraordinary force which savours of despair, and they rise at the close to an untranslatable phrase in which you hear rhythm for the first and last time in his appeals: “De 1’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace—et la France est sauvée.”[9]


He did not wholly fail. When he had rung the great bell of the Hotel de Ville and had gone to the Champ de Mars, he looked over a great and growing crowd of young men running to the enlistment. But for four days—days in which he doggedly turned his back to the Commune which called him—the killing went on in the prisons. He and his volunteers, his silence, were most like this: a man in a mutiny on ship-board, in a storm at night, keeping the helm, saving what could be saved and careless whether the morning should make him seem a traitor on the one hand or a mutineer upon the other. For the tragedy of those five days the days of Sedan—always seems to be passing in a thick night. We read records of action at this or that hour in the daylight, but we cannot believe the sun shone. Maillard, tall and pale in his close black serge and belt, is a figure for candles on the Abbaye table and for torches in the cloisters and the vaults. There never was a horror more germane to darkness.


But why did Danton not save the prisoners? I know that question is usually answered by saying that he was indifferent. So much (it seems to me) survives of a legend. For history no longer pretends that he organised or directed the crime. Indeed, history finds it daily more difficult, as the details accumulate, to fix it upon any one man. But the fact that he persistently defended the extremists in the following month, that he made himself (for the purposes of reunion) an advocate for many men who were blameworthy, and tried to reconcile the pure minds of the Girondins with such terrible memories in a word, the fact that for months he sacrificed himself in the Convention, that he demanded union, has condemned him to every suspicion. Que mon nom soit flétri et que la France soit libre.


He might, indeed, have spoken. Popular, the one vigorous and healthy personality in the face of Paris, he might have bent his energy to the single aim of preventing an outbreak. I will not deny that in his mind, over which we have seen passionate anger falling suddenly in October 1789 and in June 1792, there may have arisen some such feeling as that which restrained the vast mass of the Parisians from interfering with the little band of murderers a feeling of violent hatred, a memory of the manifesto and a disgust which made the partisans of Brunswick seem like vermin. There is something of that deplorable temper in the anecdote which Madame Roland gives of him, striding through the rooms on the second day and saying that the prisoners “could save themselves.” But this anecdote is not history; it is an accusation, and one made by a partisan and an enemy.[10] There is another and better reason for his action, which must, I think, have made the greater part of his motive. To have spoken would have been to play a very heavy stake. If he spoke and failed to prevent the rising, he ceased to be Danton, His influence fell, he became a Moderate, and himself, the one man left to direct affairs, entered the confused ranks of opposition—un-Parisian, rejected of either party, while Prance beneath him fell into mere anarchy.


It would have been gambling with all that he most desired: the English neutrality, the union of the coming Parliament, the rapid organisation of the armies, all this staked to win something that was not precious to him at all—the lives of a mass of men the bulk of whom had demanded the success of the invasion.


Why did he not act? Because nobody could act. Remember the phrase which he delivered while Louis was being executed four months later: “Nulle puissance humaine.”[11] We are so accustomed to an aristocratic and orderly society that a title of office implies power. The Home Secretary or some other man “does this,” but the man who really does it—does it with his hands—is the policeman or the soldier. Now these did not exist at the moment in Paris. It explains a hundred things in the Revolution to remember that every successive step reduced society to powder, to a mere number of men, Rousseau had said that this compact, this thing based on voluntary union, was not made for the cities. Paris gave us in September an awful proof. Roland, a man whom Marat had put upon his list and whom Danton had saved, talked on the Monday of the “just anger of the people.” Yet Roland was a just man, and brave in matters that affected himself alone, and the massacres chiefly concerned him. He was Minister of the Interior, that is, responsible for order, but there was nothing with which to work. On the Tuesday he sent to Santerre and said, “Call out the National Guard.” Santerre answered that he could not gather them. He was right. Again, Pétion was an honest man, a Moderate, the mayor of Paris; all he could do was to sit at a useless committee of the Sections and talk of the “National Defence;” that utter disintegration which the theories of the Revolution had produced that purely voluntary condition of the soldier, the official, the police (a mere anarchy)—was irresistible when there was spontaneity of action; it was useless where the conditions demanded organisation and initiative. It withstood the cannonade at Valmy, it stormed the height of Jemappes, but it fled in rout when the spring had melted enthusiasm. So here police, the function that most requires discipline, was lacking in the State. And the whole situation is summed up in the sharp picture we have of Manuel pushing his way though the crowd with “two policemen” who had “volunteered,” and trying in vain to stop the lynching at the Carmes. It was to this anarchy that Danton, after six months of struggle, succeeded in giving government during 1793.


Danton himself, after four months of vain effort to reconcile his enemies, put the whole matter in the last phrase of his defence: “No human power” could have stopped the massacres;[12] all that could be done was to work, from that moment forward, against the extreme theories of a voluntary state, and towards the establishment of a strong government.[13]


When, on the Thursday, September 6, the wave receded, and when on the morrow Pétion was able to interfere, the people and the Assembly looked round them and saw that a thing had happened which was to hurt the future of the Revolution more than all the armies. It was like the breaking of day after that moral night, a daybreak in which the wind goes down and you see the wreckage.


Paris was very silent; the accusations had not yet begun; the Assembly was dying. The electoral council of Paris had met during the very days of the massacre, and had proceeded to choose the members who were to represent the capital in the Convention that was about to meet. It also voted in silence, and sat in the mingled panic and remorse that oppressed the whole city. The names came out in the balloting. On the 5th (the murderers were still growling in the streets) Robespierre was elected in a small meeting of 525; on the 6th Danton was elected second, but with a much larger attendance and with a much greater majority—638 votes out of an attendance of 700, a curious result. Danton’s name forced itself upon them, was acclaimed beyond any other; yet his attitude of conciliation, his attempt to have all Paris represented, was set aside. The man and his reputation succeeded, his policy failed. They elected also Marat, Panis, Sergent those who had directed the crime. Danton and Manuel alone of all the twenty-four had any touch of the Moderate about them. The long list ends with the name of Egalité, elected by a majority of one.[14]


There came, therefore, into the Convention an apparently united body of men from Paris—the Mountain, Up on the benches of the extreme left, in the grey, dark theatre of the Tuilleries, there were to sit, in a compact group, these extremists; and across the floor the Departments, the pure Republicans of the south, who despised the city and them, who feared them terribly, and who hated with the force of a religion, were to single them out as tyrants. And in this Mountain, this body of Reds, Danton was to find himself imbedded, bound up, falsified. He had determined to prevent such parties. He had tried hard to make Paris elect not only Robespierre but Pétion also as a mark of unity: he had failed.


When the country members came up to the capital, September had grown to be an awful legend. The number of those killed was multiplied ten times,[15] twenty times—number lost meaning. Paris seemed a city of blood. Guides volunteered story after story. “, in the Abbaye, the blood had risen so high”—they made a mark in the wall; “there, under that tree, the massacres were planned by such and such a one”—any name suited, sometimes it was Robespierre, sometimes Danton. The deputies came from their little towns and from the fields, over seven hundred—pilgrims from places where the pure enthusiasms of 1790 still lingered, where even 1792 had brought no passion. They came, many of them for the first time, bewildered in the enormous city; its noise confused them, its crowds, its anger “Yes; that was where the massacres were committed a fortnight ago—we can believe it.” The Convention from its first day seemed a battlefield—Paris defiant in the Mountain, and the Departments silent with an angry fear in the plain and on the benches of the right. And when the newcomers asked to be shown the group of deputies for Paris, as men would ask to be shown lurking enemies or wild beasts, they would have their gaze directed to that high place on the left where sat the names that had terrified and fascinated them in the prints of their country-sides.


There were no windows; the skylight, high above that deep well of a room, sent an insufficient light downwards upon the foreheads, making the features sharp and yet lending them a false gloom. That man with the small squat body and the frog’s face was Marat; you could just see his great vain mouth in the dim light. Those small, keen features, well barbered and set up, the high forehead, the pointed bones of the cheek and chin, stood for Robespierre. The light fell chiefly on the white of his careful wig; his thin smile was in shadow. And who was that huge figure, made larger by the darkness and carrying a head like Mirabeau? They saw it moving when the others were fixed. He would speak to his neighbours with heavy, sweeping gestures. They grew accustomed to the half-light, and they could distinguish his face—the strong jaw, the powerful movement of the lips, torn and misshapen though they were; the rough, pitted skin, the small, direct, and deep-set eyes. Who was he? He seemed to them the very incarnation of all the bloodshed and unreason which they hated in Paris, a master of anarchy. It was Danton.


Against that impression all policy and wisdom broke. He demanded unity; he checked the growing attack on the rich; he said things that were like France speaking. But the voice was harsh and loud; they heard it in their minds at the head of mobs; they fled from him to the Girondins; they forced him back upon the Mountain, and he had to do his work alone in spite of those orators whom he would have befriended and whose genius he loved in spite of those madmen who surrounded him, and who later killed him and the Republic with one axe.


It was on the 25th of September, a Thursday, that the Convention met in the Tuilleries; on the Friday, in the same place, with doors shut and with the galleries empty, they declared the Republic, and moved off to the Manège, where their predecessors had sat. In those two days the violent quarrel between Paris and France was hushed for a moment. Danton, in the lull, said all he could to define his own position and to prevent that quarrel from ever reaching a head. He went out to meet the Moderates. He declared, with the common sense of the peasant, that property must first be declared inviolable; and it is curious that the Convention, the majority that misunderstood him and broke with him, was yet less moderate than he; it passed the resolution, but in the form, “property is under the safeguard of the nation.” In order to calm opinion he resigned the Ministry of Justice on the spot;[16] he did everything to make his position clear and true, and to save the unity of the Parliament.


But the attack came from the others. Within a week Lasource had proposed a guard for the Convention, “drawn from the departments;” and in the face of this proposition, that was almost civil war, Danton found himself able to speak once more for unity. The Girondins had elected one of themselves for president, and had chosen from among their own members the secretaries of the Assembly; they had wittingly ostracised the left, and they desired to make it dumb. Danton still attempted union. “I myself come from the Departments, from a place to which I always turn my eyes. But Paris is made of the Departments, and we are not here as members of this place or that, but as members for France.” He continually presented the idea of France united; the Girondins as continually rejected it. He knew that they thought him a shield for Marat; he rejected Marat openly from the tribune. But all this intense and personal action had but an effect upon individuals. Two especially it moved—Vergniaud, the young orator, sincere and brave beyond all his colleagues, and more far-seeing than any of the dreamers around him; Condorcet, to whom a year before Danton had seemed so repulsive, but whose calm and just mind had arrived at the truth; who had said, “Danton has that rare faculty of neither hating nor envying genius in others;” who had voted and spoken for his appointment as Minister of Justice, and who, up to the catastrophe of the following June, continued to understand and to support him.


But, for the mass of the Girondins, he remained an outcast. He used words that one could not use before Roland’s wife, and the great group that surrounded her (men over-full of Utopias, but heroic, men whom Danton himself regretted bitterly) made him an outcast. He replied often with passion, and once with insult, but as we shall see he did not abandon them entirely till the insurrection destroyed them in ‘93.


Meanwhile, while they voted the Republic in Paris, under Argonne a battle among the most curious in history was making a momentary security—that is, a momentary union of good feeling throughout France, and even in Paris itself. The Prussian army had been checked on the little rise of Valmy. As you stand upon the field in that same season of the year to-day, in the mist of the early morning, as the volunteers and the battered remnants of the line stood then; as you look from that standpoint at the open road, at the great plain of Champagne, so well suited to maintain an army; as you see to the east the long wall of the Argonne, and remember that Dumouriez had been outflanked in his Thermopylae, a confusion seizes the mind. Why on earth was Valmy so important a victory  It is a common-place to say that Valmy was a cannonade, but what was a cannonade in 1792? If indeed to-day a line of guns were drawn up and served, as I have seen them served in the manoeuvres within sight of these same hills, and if a force should be discovered capable of withstanding the shrapnel of twelve batteries of artillery, sure of their range, turning the mark into a ploughed field—then that force would merit peculiar names, for it would be immortal. But in the eighteenth century guns were not the arbiters of battles. Infantry could charge the batteries then. France, which was crushed yesterday and will succeed to-morrow solely through artillery, had not a hundred years ago to dread the random solid shot of smooth bores; what she had to dread was the bayonet charge of that superb infantry which the great Frederick had trained, and on which the monstrous scaffolding of Prussia still reposes. All we can say of Valmy is this, that men quite ignorant of warfare, badly held together, managed to stand firm under an ill-directed, at times a desultory and distant cannon fire.


Valmy was not a victory. The results of Valmy have changed the world, but no one could have seen it then. Goethe, in the course of a long life, discovered it, and put it beautifully into his own mouth over one of the bivouac fires: “We entered on a new world then;”  but there were better prophets than Goethe, and not one perceived it. For days the Prussian army hesitated. Dumouriez did not dare to meet them. A pitched battle in the last days of September might have changed all history.


Why then did the King of Prussia retreat? No force compelled, but two arguments convinced him. The peasantry, and Danton, the man who through the whole year is, as it were, a peasant trained and illumined. The resistance of the peasantry had taught the King that to reach Paris it required not a war of the dynasties, such as had filled the eighteenth century wars in which armies passed like visiting caravans; the invasion of France would need a crusade. He was no crusader. He had undertaken the war with only half a heart, and at this slight check he hesitated. The second argument came from Danton. He bargained like a peasant secretly for the purchasable and obvious good, while the Parliament was talking as might talk a conqueror who was something of a poet and well read in the classics. When there was a talk of negotiations just after the battle, it launched the great words, “That the Republic does not discuss till its territory is evacuated.” That was on Tuesday; the Republic was young to discuss anything—it was four days old. On Wednesday night, Westermann, Danton’s man of the 10th of August, and his companion at the scaffold, started off secretly to diplomatise. That foolish man D’Eglantine followed him, but his folly was swallowed up in the wisdom of Danton, who sent him, a secretary and a mouthpiece, to do that which, had he done it himself, would have produced some violent and ill-considered vote. Between them this clique settled the matter, and the invaders passed back through the Argonne heavily, in wet roads and through drenched woods, with Kellermann following, impatient, above the valleys, but bound by Danton’s policy not to harass the retreat; till at last, more than a month after Valmy,[17] he fired the salute from Longwy, and the territory was free.


Did Danton know, as he was pursuing these plans, why Dumouriez helped him? Did he understand thoroughly that vain, talented, and unprincipled soldier? I think it certain. It is among those things which cannot be proved; one does not base such convictions upon documents, but rather on the general appreciation of character. Thus Danton undoubtedly helped and used Talleyrand at another time in England, and Talleyrand was patently false. But Talleyrand was, as patently, the cleverest diplomatist he could find. Dumouriez wished the King of Prussia to be left unmolested for a number of very mixed reasons, in which patriotism played a small part; Danton wished it for the sake of France, and for that only; but if Dumouriez at the head of an army was to hand, so much the better. Danton supported Dumouriez, his policy, even his retreats up to the disaster of March. To say “he sympathised with a traitor” is one of those follies which men can only make when they forget that contemporaries cannot have known what we know. With all his time-serving and his separate plans, no one dreamt that in six months the general would join the Austrians; it was a sudden blow even to those who sat in his tent.


October was a month of reconciliation. When the man broad awake succeeds, the dreamer is ready to build a new dream on that result. The Gironde was almost silent, the Mountain was afraid. In the short visit that Dumouriez paid, between a victory and a victory, to Paris, Danton appears for a moment a partner in the mental ease, the brilliant expression, and the Republican faith of the Girondins. He might perhaps have ended there, and with his great arms and shoulders have held apart the men whose mutual hatred killed the Republic. In his success—and every one bore him gratitude after Valmy—that which he most desired almost happened, and the alliance between the opposing Girondist and the Mountain was half realised.


Michelet gives us two pictures[18] which, like the revelation of lightning, show us that rapid drama standing still. In the first it is Madame Roland, in the second Marat, who makes the tragedy. In the first Dumouriez and Danton sat in the same box at the theatre, and Vergniaud was coming in with the soul of the Girondins. The door opened and promised this spectacle: Danton and the general and the orator of the pure Republicans, and the woman most identified with the Right. It would have been such a picture for all the people there as Danton would have prayed or paid for. The door was ajar, and, as she came near, Madame Roland saw Danton sitting in the box; she put out her hand from Vergniaud’s arm and shut the door. There is in her memoirs a kind of apology, “des femmes de mauvaise tournure.” Utter nonsense; it was Roland’s box, and his wife was expected, Danton and Dumouriez were not of the gutter. No, it was the narrow feminine hatred, so closely allied to her intense devotion, that made Madame Roland thrust Danton at arm’s length. The same spirit that made her vilify the Left like a fury made her the calm saint of the Girondins. For she lived entirely in the Idea.


The second scene is a reception. I will not repeat Michelet’s description; its spirit is contained in an admirable phrase: “France civilised appealed therein against France political.” Danton was surrounded with those whom he would have taught, as he taught all who ever knew him closely, to respect or to love him. Marat heard that he was there—Marat, whom he had repudiated in public a few days before. He heard that Danton was there, surrounded by the soldiers, and the women, and the orators. He called at the door, and shouted in the hall, “I want to see Danton,” and at the sound of his voice everybody grew troubled, and Danton was left alone. On the 29th of October Danton attempted openly to break with Marat: “I declare to you and to France,” he said in the Convention, “that I have tried Marat’s temperament, and I am no friend of his.” But the attempt came too late.


The discussions broke out again in November. On the 10th, the victory of Jemappes was heard in Paris. This book, dealing only with a man, cannot detail those famous charges; it was a victory won by men singing the new songs; it is the inspiration of “La victoire en chantant.” But the security it gave only went further to destroy what was left of union. Danton found himself more and more alone. He who had been named on a committee with Thomas Paine, with Condorcet, with Pétion, on the very day after his election to the presidency of the Jacobins,[19] who had in his own temporary success seemed to realise his policy of union, found himself after a month once more pushed back towards the Mountain. The growing sense of security had destroyed the chances of union. He remained silent. One would say that the time passed him by untouched, because the one thing he cared for had failed, and because the inevitable civil dissensions of the next spring covered his mind with clouds. France was irretrievably divided. The arraignment of the King, the discovery of the secret papers, all the movement of November leaves him, as it were, stranded, waiting his mission to Belgium.


There belongs to this period only one considerable speech. It is the only thing in all his public acts in which you can discover beauty. You may find in this speech the pity and the tenderness which his intimates loved, the memory which they for sixty years defended, but which no document or letter remains to perpetuate.


Cambon, careless of anything but his exchequer, had thought the new era come. That cold and inflexible head determined, seeing the steep fall towards bankruptcy that France was making, to save a hundred millions, but to save it at an expense. He proposed to separate the State from what was left of the Church, to break the vow of 1790. In almost the last speech before he went off to the armies, Danton opposed him and gave this passage—a passage better fitted to the defence of an older and stronger thing than the wretched constitutional priesthood: —


“. . . It is treason against the nation to take away its dreams. For my part, I admit I have known but one God. The God of all the world and of justice. The man in the fields adds to this conception that of a man who works, whom he makes sacred because his youth, his manhood, and his old age owe to the priest their little moments of happiness. When a man is poor and wretched, his soul grows tender, and he clings especially to whatever seems majestic: leave him his illusions—teach him if you will . . . but do not let the poor fear that they may lose the one thing that binds them to earth, since wealth cannot bind them.”


Before he left on the mission to the armies there occurred a scene which has always been, since Michelet described it, the most striking passage of his relations with the Girondins. He, the man who saw safety for France only in diplomacy, had, for the sake of unity, held his tongue when the Girondins passed the decree of the 19th November, which was to sustain a revolutionary crusade against Europe. I say that November is full of Danton’s attempt to maintain the unity of the Parliament. After all these efforts he was worsted, because the Girondins were possessed by a dream which admitted of no compromise and of no realities.


The scene of his last attempt was this: —He made a rendezvous with their party. They were to meet secretly at night and away from Paris in a house in the woods of Sceaux at the very end of November. The whole life of this man was a tragedy, and we see in this sad journey that kind of dramatic presentiment of his death and of theirs, the “foreknowledge” with which the tragedies of the world are filled.


He went through the desolate bare woods of November, under the hurrying sky, that recalls to our minds in France to-day the charges of Jemappes. The night was as wild as the time, and as dark as his forebodings, when he came on to the little group of men in the candlelight, and argued with them, and against them, and alone. Michelet gives to Danton’s mind a sentiment of coercion. He shows us Danton dragged by necessity. But I can see no necessity except the supreme desire to unite the parties and make the government real. They would not receive his alliance, and he went away from that meeting at midnight, pushed back upon Paris, thrown into the comradeship of violence. Guadet rejected him with an especial fervour. Danton as he left turned upon him with this phrase: “Guadet, Guadet, you cannot understand and you do not know how to forgive; you are headstrong, and it will be your doom.” The next day he started on his mission to the army.


During the arraignment and during the trial of the King the opinions that divided the Left and the Eight fought it out in his absence.[20] He was not there to attempt such a movement as his character demanded No one in all the Assembly dared hold out a hand as he would have done and see whether after all Vergniaud might not perhaps be right on the one hand, and the Mountain perhaps be patriots on the other.


There was in this debate upon one man’s life an element to which Danton’s nature was well suited, There had to be kept in view for the French nation the effect upon Europe which would follow from the determination as to the death or life of the King, and Danton’s great voice has so strongly and so rightly affected the historians of the period that he thrusts his personality forward into their narrative, and in at least one notable place Danton appears, in history, and in one of the greatest pages of history, by no right, and figures upon scenes which do not possess the advantage of his voice. He has been made to defend Louis’s life, to plead for a respite, and then by a violent change to vote for his death.


Let me now explain how this error passed into the mind of Michelet and of other men. Danton returned from Belgium on the night of the I4th January. On that same day a certain Dannon, apparently an honest man,[21] rose late in the evening and demanded respite for Louis, When Gallois reprinted the Moniteur, he saw this obscure name coupled with a politic demand; he read it again, and said, “This Dannon must be a misprint for Danton.” He corrected it so. On this chance venture there fell the eye of Michelet, the eye that from a glance or a word could bring back the colours and the movements of living men. In him also the tragedy of Danton powerfully worked; he moulded a figure from these few words in the Moniteur, and made of them an admirable anti-climax. Here was Danton (Dannon) hot from the armies, knowing in what peril France stood, having seen with his own eyes how momentary had been the effects of Jemappes. He comes from his travelling coach to the Assembly, and with the mud of the road yet upon him, gives his expression as an ally to the Girondins and to the Moderates. Then some rebuff, some unrecorded insult throws him back again as he had been so often thrown back into the arms of the Extremists. On the next day, the 15th of January, we are asked to watch him sitting by the side of his dying wife, sullen and despairing. On the 16th he comes back furious, and votes for the death of the King.


There are those for whom detail in history is pedantic, yet here upon three letters and their order hangs the interpretation not only of an individual character but of a policy whose effects we are still feeling. Michelet’s great picture is false from beginning to end. Danton had returned on the 14th, and came jaded with his journey to the bedside of her who had been his young wife of five years, who was now near to childbirth and to death. He had his own drama as well as that of the historian’s, and our own dramas are acted upon a stage where the results are real. All that night of the 14th and all the 15th he was watching in his flat of the Passage du Commerce a fate which was coming upon him, and certainly for whose thirty-six hours the Revolution was a little thing to him. He came back wearily to his position and to his duties on the 16th; he remembered there was such a thing as the Revolution—that Louis was after all on trial, and descended from his home into the hall of the Parliament to give the short angry sentence in which we seem to read less moderation and less of diplomacy than was his by nature. The scene in the home had made him not only bitter but weak, for there is surely weakness in saying, “I am not a statesman,” in borrowing, that is, the vulgar acrimony of Marat, or in talking of “the tyrant,” and in repeating the phrases of the Mountain.


But in the days that followed Michelet finds a good excuse. Certainly one would say, if one knew nothing about him except his action of January 1793, that Danton was the Mountain and nothing else. This error would be supported by the unreasoning vehemence, the almost brutal anger, into which he allows himself to fall.


They asked whether the King could be condemned to death by a mere majority, and whether that majority was decisive. Danton threw back at them: “You decided the Republic by a mere majority, you changed the whole history of the nation by a mere majority, and now you think the life of one man too great for a mere majority; you say such a vote could not be decisive enough to make blood flow. When I was on the frontier the blood flowed decisively enough.”


So naturally was he at that moment the Danton of unreason, so much had his character yielded to its persistent temptation of violent words, that there could be heard a voice once calling out to him as he rushed to the tribune without leave from the Speaker, “You are not a king yet, Danton.” And yet this was the man who had saved France from any folly of defiance after Valmy, who was determined upon saving her in the future by keeping upon the helm a quiet and unswerving hand. Vergniaud’s great simile, “That France might become, if she did not take care, like the statues of Egypt; they astonish by their greatness, and yet are enigmas to all who see them, because the living spirit that made them has died,” passed him by without effect. He was one of those who voted in the fatal majority, and he threw down as gage of battle the head of a king.[22]


The word had become reality, and Louis had stood at mid-day trying to be heard beyond the ring of soldiers, had cried out that he was innocent, and had died in the noon of that cold January day. This act was destined to produce the one thing that Danton had most ardently desired to avoid—it put an end once and for all to the neutrality of England.


Another people, then in their infancy, now old, whom Louis had been persuaded to help against his will, received the death of Louis like a kind of blow in the face. The people of the United States in their simplicity had imagined the French king to be their saviour; they did not know Louis’s phrase, “I was dragged into that unhappy affair of America; advantage was taken of my youth.” They regarded his crown with a certain superstition, as they still regard what is left of baubles in Europe; and when the axe fell upon him, France lost not only the calculating hypocrisy of Pitt, but the genuine sympathy of the American people.


In the days that followed (they were only ten) between the 21st of January and the end of the month, it is still plain that the shock which most affected Danton’s vigorous and independent judgment was that return after seven weeks to the wife whom he had passionately loved, and whom this ugly Orpheus felt slipping from his arms back into the shades. After her death, as we shall see, he did not reel so heavily, but in that fortnight of January, which was of such supreme importance, he permitted misfortune to rouse mere passion in his mind; and he who might have led the Moderates, who might have played with the life of Louis like a card, chose to remember his rebuff in the winter and threw his trump away.


Many have tried to explain Vergniaud’s vote. Is it not probable that he was drawn by the example of a man whom he did not understand, and whose opinion attracted an orator not unappreciative of energy? Vergniaud has always before history a doubting and a hesitating face, and it seems more than possible that the wrath of Danton carried him and many others into the vote for death.


Ever since the 10th of August had thrust him into unexpected power, Danton had held in one way or another the threads of a certain diplomacy. It was as follows: —To rely upon all the elements in Europe which admired or were indifferent to the Revolution, and to combine them in a kind of resistant body; to use, as it were, their inertia against those who were setting out as crusaders against France. On this account the foolish war of propaganda was most distasteful to him. On this account England’s neutrality haunted his mind. He knew that in this country there existed a body strong in its influence though not in its numbers, a body which would have supported the French. Priestley had written to him before his exile. Talleyrand was working for him at the moment, and opposing as an informal Dantonist the Girondin acerbity of Chauvelin.[23] Danton was even willing to use Dumouriez, mainly because Dumouriez was about to compromise with England. To this policy of observation, a policy which took advantage of England as the lover of individual liberty and of England as the merchant, the death of the King put a sudden stop. It was Danton that killed his own intrigue.


Before he left on his second mission to the armies on the 31st January 1793, he shows that new face in which he attempts to retrieve, as far as possible, the errors of which he had been largely the author. In a speech which shows once again all his old power of party political action, he demands the annexation of Belgium. He has seen that general war is inevitable, and harking back again to that unique French conception of which he was the heir, the raison é’dtat, he determines to save the State, and to do it by an action which opposed every theory of the Revolution, He asked “everything of their reason, nothing of their enthusiasm,” and he demanded the annexation of Belgium with France. It was pure opportunism—the determination to get hold of a revenue by force of arms; and the next day, after having painfully come back to his old policy of the real and objective, burdened by a past error, and having broken with all that he valued in French opinion, he went off again to the army. While his chaise was yet rolling on the flat roads of Flanders, Chauvelin returned with Pitt’s scrawl in his hand, and France was at war with the whole world.


This next voyage to Belgium occupied but a very short time. He did not get there until the 3rd February, and he started to come back on the 15th. But the moment, which is necessarily a silent one in his biography, would be one of capital importance to us had he remained in Paris to speak, and to leave us by his speeches some clue as to the revolution through which his mind had massed.


Consider these contrasting pictures: Danton, up to the death of the King, seems uniquely occupied in pursuing the threads of a very careful diplomacy, and in welding as far as possible the opposing factions of the Parliament. Of course, his general theories in politics remain unaltered, but something has happened which makes him, on returning from Belgium for the second time, pursue this different policy: the immediate construction of a strong central government, and the providing of it with exceptional and terrible machinery. He works this as absolutely the unique policy. He seems to have forgotten all questions of diplomacy, nearly to have despaired of settling the quarrel between Paris and the Girondins. In fine, Danton, when first in power, had been a man so representative of France as to have many different objects, and to attempt their co-ordination. We see him the brief fortnight of Louis’s execution violent, angry, unreasoning; we see him again in less than a month transformed into a man with a single object, pursued and succeeded in with the tenacity common to minds much narrower than his own.


I know that events will largely account for the change. The Girondins had repelled him; diplomacy had no further object when once the universal war was declared; the grave perils, and later the disasters of the French armies, which he had seen with his own eyes, called imperatively for a dictatorship. Nevertheless events will not of themselves account for the very great transformation in all that he says and does. I believe that we must look to another cause—one of those causes which historians neglect, but which in the lives of individuals are of far more importance than their political surroundings. By nature he had great tendencies to indolence as well as to violence. He was capable of temporising to a dangerous extent, and this, I think, was largely the cause of his action in the autumn. But such natures are also of the kind which disaster spurs to action. As we have seen, the return in January to his household, mined by an impending fate, made him the violent and bitter speaker who spoiled his own plans by his own speeches. But returning from Belgium in February, not a menace but a definite disaster awoke in him a much more useful energy.


Coming from fields in which he had seen the whole force of the early battles breaking up in confusion and retreat, he had suddenly to meet the news of his wife’s death. He bought a light carriage for himself in order to travel with greater speed, and arrived at the city in time, they say, to have her coffin taken out of the grave and opened, so that he might look once more upon her face. The home was entirely empty. The two little children, one of whom was in arms, the other of whom was just beginning to talk, had been taken away to their grandmother’s. The seals were on the furniture and on the doors. One servant only remained. The house had been without a fire for a week when he entered. It was an opportunity and a command for another origin in his political life. Coming and going from these rooms, he found them intolerable; he took refuge in direct and determined action, calling to his aid all that vast reserve of energy which he was accustomed to expend at the cost of so much future exhaustion.


Here was the first thing to be done—to construct at once that strong and simple government which he had talked of so long. The report which he and the other commissioners had prepared on the state of the army[24] was one deliberately intended to make such a government voted. The Commune of Paris immediately after the preparation of the report made its vigorous appeal for a further levy, and on the 8th of March Danton made the first of those speeches which riveted the armour all round France.[25]


In the first phrase of this speech he strikes the note upon which depended so much of his power. He reads his own character into that of the nation. “We have often discovered before now that this is the temper of the French people namely, that it needs dangers to discover all its energy.” Then he strikes the other note, the appeal to Paris which had marked so much of his career. “Paris, which has been given so ill a fame” (a stroke at the Girondins), “I say is called once more to give France the impulse which last year produced all our triumphs. We promised the army in Belgium 30,000 men on the 1st of February. None have reached them. And I demand that commissioners be named to raise a force in the forty-eight Sections of Paris.”


If there was some talk at that moment of making him Minister of War after Beurnonville’s resignation, it was because no one but Danton himself understood how much his energy could do. He rejected the proposal, but he had the desire to replace the ministers themselves by a power more formidable and more direct.


In these days one disaster after another came to help his scheme. More than one of his enemies had suspected in a vague fashion that he was framing a new power,[26] but they could not imagine in Danton anything higher than ambition, and they lent him the ridiculous project of forcing a new ministry upon the Assembly. What he was really preparing, and what he produced on the 10th of March, was the weapon which history has called the Revolutionary Tribunal.


It was the moment when the mutterings against the Girondins seemed about to take the form of an insurrection, when their printing presses were broken, and when, in the vague panic that always followed any popular movement since September, men feared a renewal of the massacres. The proposal is put forward with ability of argument rather than with passion; but, in the teeth of the majority and a ministry to which such methods were detestable, in the teeth, that is, of the Girondin idealism which was ruining the country, he affirmed the necessity of his scheme, and he passed it.[27] He had given the Revolutionary Government its first great weapon, a weapon that was later to be turned against himself, his second move was to put it into vigorous hands.


This next proposition, which, combined with the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal, was to change the history of Prance, did not proceed from Danton alone, but it was based upon Danton’s suggestion; it sprang largely from the vivid impression he had given of the peril in which France lay and of the necessity of forming something central and strong, of providing a hand which could use the dictatorship of the Terror. The Committee of Public Safety, in a word, could not have been declared but for the interpretation which Danton had given to the disasters of March.


The crowning defeat of Neerwinden, which at the time must almost have seemed the death of the Republic, gave the first impulse. The old Committee of General Defence was renewed. But though this committee was far too large and far too feeble, we owe it to Danton that it contained a vigorous minority from the Left. The final blow that replaced it by an institution round which the rest of this book will turn was the treason of Dumouriez.


Let us consider what the situation was at this moment. The Republic had lost every man upon whose ability she could rely in the leadership of armies. Of all the school of generals who had grown up under the old regime, Lafayette alone in his weak way had loved freedom, and Dumouriez alone had remained on the side of the French. Spain, England, the German Powers—nine allies—were threatening the territory of the Republic and the very existence of the new regime; the civil war, which was soon to take such gigantic proportions, had already made its successful beginning at Machecoul. Between the Convention and immediate disaster there lay only the personality of Dumouriez. When the news of his desertion, following on the news of his defeat, reached Paris, the Girondins were hopelessly discredited, and the line of their political retreat, the pursuit of their enemies, ran in a direction that Danton’s speeches had prepared.


For several days he had himself been the object of the most violent attacks, especially for his friendship with Dumouriez and on the question of the Belgian accounts. For he had just returned from a third mission to the army, and had been close to the general On the 1st of April practically the whole sitting was devoted to an attack upon him and to his defence. Had you been sitting in the house that night, you would have said that a violent demagogue, surrounded by a little group of yet more violent friends, was resisting with some difficulty the attacks of an honest and loyal majority. But this demagogue was so far-seeing, was so much the greatest of all those in the hall, that when three days afterwards the Parliament was brought face to face with the reality, Danton’s method becomes the only solution. They hear of Dumouriez’ treason, and on the night of the 4th of April, Isnard, himself a Girondin, proposed the creation of the Committee. Danton supported him at midnight with a definite speech such as no Girondin would have dared to make. He said practically, “This Committee is precisely what we want, a hand to grasp the weapon of the Revolutionary Tribunal.”


It was Isnard that formulated the idea, but it was Danton that baptised it “A Dictator.” It was at midnight that he spoke, and he closed his short speech just on the turn of the morning of the 5th of April. That very day a year later the Dictator seized him, and his own Tribunal put him to death.


On the 5th of April, the next day, in the evening, we begin to get those large measures and rapid which came with the new organ of power. And Danton speaks with a kind of joy, and demands at once such measures as only a dictatorship can produce—calling all the people to the defence, fixing a maximum upon the price of bread, even the first mention of a levée en masse. The air is full of such a spirit as you get in an army, the certitude that with discipline and unity and authority all things can be done, On the following day, the 6th, the Committee was chosen, and on the 7th the names were read out, which showed that the power had finally passed from the Girondins to those whom they had rejected at the moment when France was forgiving everything for the sake of Jemappes, The Convention, in need of men of action, had been forced to abandon its own leaders and to turn to Danton.


The names that they heard read out were Barrère, Delmas, Bréard, Debry, Morvaux, Cambon, Treilhard, Lacroix, and Danton.


[1] Journal des Debats, 183.


[2] I take this document from Robinet, Danton, Homme d'État, pp. 109, 112; but neither he nor Aulard (who quotes it) gives the authority. The circular is quoted often under the date of August 19; it was issued on that Sunday, but was drawn up and dated on the Saturday to which I have assigned it.


[3] Aulard, who quotes from the Moniteur, xii. 445.


[4] The scene can be reconstructed from his testimony at the trial of the Girondins and from his speech at the Jacobins on the 5th of November.


[5] I take all this from Aulard’s article in the Revolution Française of June 14, 1893.


[6] The votes of the 30th, 31st, and 2nd.


[7] The word “illegally” is just, for the constitution of the Commune and all its acts were legally dependent on the Assembly. On the other hand, the Commune had given this committee right to add to its numbers, but such men as Marat, who was not a member of the Commune, were surely not intended.


[8] First La Poissonnière, then the Posits and the Luxembourg.


[9] It is possible that this sentence, including the preceding phrase, “le tocsin qui va sonner,” &c., are the only part of the speech that has been literally reported. The Logotachygraphe was not founded till January, and while the Moniteur and the Journal des Debats give much the same version, the latter calls it a “summary.”


[10]Appel à l'impartiale posterité.” Madame Roland had the great historical gift of intuition, that is, she could minutely describe events which never took place. I attach no kind of importance to the passage immediately preceding. If Danton and Pétion were alone, as she describes them, her picture is the picture of a novelist. The phrase quoted above may be authentic there were witnesses.


[11] Moniteur, January 25, 1793. Speech of January 21st.


[12] Speech of January 21, 1793.


[13] The accusations against Danton in this matter are given and criticised in Appendix IV., where the reasons are also given for omitting any mention of Marat’s circular in the text.


[14] For the figures and very interesting details as to Egalité’s election see Révolution Française, August 14, 1893, second note, page 129.


[15] More than 700 and less than 1000 died. The common exaggeration is Peltier’s 12,000.


[16] As a fact, his successor, Garat, was not elected till the 9th of October, and did not begin to act till the 12th. Danton seems to have remained at the Ministry till the evening of the 11th.


[17] October 23.


[18] Michelet, 1st edition, vol. iv. pp. 392-394.


[19] October 10 and 11.


[20] He made a speech on the 6th of November demanding (of course) the trial of the King, but not with violence. He left for Belgium with Delacroix on the 1st of December.


[21] This Dannon was a friend of Danton’s. He began, but did not complete, a collection of his speeches, &c., and an inquiry into his accounts. He was a member for Pas de Calais. It is not easy to get his name accurately spelt I follow the spelling of a list of the Convention published in 1794, Dannon voted for banishment.


[22] I must not omit to mention one phrase which is far more characteristic of him that spoken after Lepelletier’s assassination: “It would be well for us if we could die like that.”


[23] The proofs of the connection with Talleyrand are based only on inference. They will be found discussed in Robinet’s Danton Emigré, pp. 12-16 and pp. 270, &c. As for Priestley’s correspondence, it was sympathetic and deep, and continued in spite of the massacres of September. There is a draft of a Constitution in the French archives which some believe to be Priestley’s, but I am confident it is not in his handwriting.


[24] Moniteur, March 9, 1793.


[25] Ibid. March 10, 1793.


[26] See Patriote Français, No. 1308.


[27] See Moniteur, March 13, 1793.