Danton, A Study

Chapter VII. The Death of Danton.


In the night the armed police came round to the Passage du Commerce; one part of the patrol grounded their muskets and halted at the exits of the street, the other entered the house.


Desmoulins heard the butts falling together on the flagstones, and the little clink of metal which announces soldiery; he turned to his wife and said, “They have come to arrest me.” And she held to him till she fainted and was carried away. Danton, in his study alone, met the arrest without words. There is hardly a step in the tragedy that follows which is not marked by his comment, always just, sometimes violent; but the actual falling of the blow led to no word. Words were weapons with him, and he was not one to strike before he had put up his guard.


They were taken to the Luxembourg, very close by, a little up the hill. We have the story of how Danton came with his ample, firm presence into the hall of the prison, and met, almost the first of his fellow-prisoners, Thomas Paine. The author of “The Rights of Man” stepped up to him, doubtless to address him in bad French.[1] Danton forestalled him in the English of which he was a fair master.


"Mr. Paine,” he said, “you have had the happiness of pleading in your country a cause which I shall no longer plead in mine.” He remembered Paine’s sane and moderate view on the occasion of the king’s trial, and lie envied one whose private freedom had remained untrammelled with the bonds of office; who had never been forced to a 2nd of June, nor had to keep to an intimate conversation his fears for the Girondins. Then he added that if they sent him to the scaffold he would go gaily, And he did. There was the Frenchman contrasted with his English friend.


Beaulieu, who heard him, tells us that he also turned to the prisoners about him and said, “Gentlemen, I had hoped to have you out of this, and here I am myself; I can see no issue.”


So the prisoners came in, anxiously watched by reactionaries, to whom, as to many of our modern scribblers, one leader of the Revolution is as good as another—Lacroix, Westermann (the strong soldier with his huge frame overtopping even Danton’s), and Desmoulins. As they passed to their separate cells, for it was determined to prevent their communication, a little spirit of the old evil[2] used the powerful venom of aristocracy, the unanswerable repartee of rank, and looking Lacroix up and down, said, “I could make a fine coachman of that fellow.” He and his like would have ruined France for the sake of turning those words into action.


Till the dawn of the 11th Germinal broke, they were kept in their separate rooms. But the place was not built for a prison. Lacroix and Danton in neighbouring rooms could talk by raising their voices, and we have of their conversation this fragment. Lacroix said, “Had I ever dreamt of this I could have forestalled it.” And Danton’s reply, with just that point of fatalism which had forbidden him to be ambitious, answered, “I knew it;” he had known it all that night.


There was a force stronger than love—private and public fear. It is a folly to ridicule, or even to misunderstand that fear. The possessions, the families of many, the newly-acquired dignity of all, above everything, the new nation had been jeopardised how many times by a popular idol turned untrue. The songs of 1790 were all for Louis, many praised Bailly; what a place once had Lafayette ! Who had a word to say against Dumouriez eighteen months before? The victories had just begun—barely enough to make men hesitate about the Terror. The “Vieux Cordelier” had led, not followed opinion, as it was just that the great centre of energy should lead and not follow the time. And, men would say, how do we know why he has been arrested, or at whose voice? How can we tell where the sure compass of right, our Robespierre, stands in the matter? and so forth. Nothing then was done; but Paris very nearly moved.


There were thus two gathering forces; one vague and large, one small but ordered, and on the result of their shock hung the life of Danton—may one say (knowing the future) the life of the Republic?


Now the struggle with Europe had taught the Committee a principal lesson. Perhaps one should add that the exuberant fighting power of the nation and of the age had forced the Committee to a certain method, apparent in the armies, in the measures, in the speeches: it was the method of detecting at once the weakest spot in the opposing line, and of abandoning everything for the purpose of concentrating all its strength and charging home. So their descendants to-day in their new army practise the marvellous massing of artillery which you may watch at autumn in the manoeuvres.


What was the opposing line? A vague ill-ordered crowd—Paris; the undisciplined Convention, lacking leaders, ignorant of party rule. Where was its weakness? In the want of initiative, in the fact that, till some one spoke, no one could be sure of the strength of the corporate feeling. Also, on account of the public doubt, during that time men were grains of dust; but the dust was like powder, and speech was always the spark which permitted the affinities of that powder to meet in fierce unity and power. A sudden blow had to be struck and the fire stamped out before it had gathered power; this is how the check was given.


* * * * * *


In the morning of the 12th Germinal the Convention met, and each man looked at his neighbour, and then, as though afraid, let his eyes wander to see if others thought as he did. At last one man dared to speak. It was Legendre the butcher;[3] he vacillated later before a mixture of deceit in others and of doubt in himself, but it should be remembered to his honour that he nearly saved the Revolution by an honest word. “Let Danton be heard at the bar of the Convention,” was his frank demand; common-sense enough, but it fatally opened his guard, and gave an opportunity to the thrusts most dangerous in the year II.—an accusation of desiring privilege, and an accusation of weakening that government which was visibly saving the state on the frontiers.


Tallien was President that day, and he gave the reply to Robespierre. Now Robespierre was no good fencer. The supreme feint, the final disarming of opinion, was left to an abler man. He had gone home from the Committee to Duplay’s house in the early morning; a monomaniac hardly needing sleep, he reappeared at the early meeting of the Convention. But, poor debater as he was, he could take advantage of so easy an opportunity. In a speech which was twice applauded, he asserted that Legendre had demanded a privilege. He struck the note which above all others dominated those minds. “Are we here to defend principles or men? Give the right of speech to Danton, and you give rein to an extraordinary talent, you confuse the issue with a hundred memories, you permit the bias of friendship. Let the man defend himself by proofs and witnesses, not by eloquence and sentiment.” Yet he did not add—perhaps he hardly knew that the memories and friendship would but have balanced a direct enmity, and that witnesses and proofs would be denied. Again he used that argument of government—had not they saved France? were they not the head of the police? did not they know in the past what they were doing? He assured them that a little waiting would produce conviction in them also. It did not, but time was gained, already half the Convention doubted.


Legendre, bewildered, faltered a reply; he admitted error, and begged Robespierre not to misunderstand. He could have answered for Danton as for himself, but the tribunal was of course to be trusted. It was almost an apology.


On that changing, doubtful opinion came with the force of a steel mould the hard, high voice of St. Just.


St. Just spoke rarely. There has been mention in an earlier part of this book of the speech against the Girondins. There will be mention again of a vigorous and a nearly successful attempt to save Robespierre. That he should have been given the task of defending the Committee’s action that day is a singular proof of the grip which they had of the circumstances. Barrère could never have convinced an unsympathetic public opinion. Robespierre could meet a rising enthusiasm with nothing but dry and accurate phrases. But St. Just had the flame of his youth and of his energy, and his soul lived in his mouth.


The report, even as we read it, has eloquence. Coming from him then, with his extreme beauty, his upright and determined bearing, it turned the scale. The note of the argument was as ably chosen as could be; moreover it represented without question the attitude of his own mind: it was this. “The last of the factions has to be destroyed; only one obstacle stands between you and the appreciation of the Republic.[4] Time and again we have acted suddenly, but time and again we have acted well and on sufficient reasons so it is now. If you save Danton you save a personality something you have known and admired; you pay respect to individual talent, but you ruin the attempt in which you have so nearly succeeded. For the sate of a man you will sacrifice all the new liberty which you are giving to the whole world.” There follows a passionate apostrophe in which he speaks to Danton as though he stood before him, as striking as the parallel passage in the fourth Catiline Oration.[5] Had Danton been present he would have been a man against a boy: a loud and strong voice, not violent in utterance, but powerful in phrase and in delivery, a character impressing itself by sheer force of self upon vacillating opinion. Had Danton spoken in reply, his hearers would have said with that moral conviction which is stronger than proof, “This man is the chief lover of France.”


But such is rhetoric, its falsity and its success—the gaps of silence grew to a convincing power. The accusations met with no reply; they remained the echo of a living voice; the answers to them could be framed only in the silent minds of the audience. The living voice won.


And there was, as we have said, intense conviction to aid St. Just. He was a man who would forget and would exaggerate with all the faults of passion, but he believed the facts he gave. Not so Robespierre. Robespierre had furnished the notes of St. Just’s report,[6] and Robespierre must have known that he had twisted all to one end. Robespierre was a man who was virtuous and true only to his ideal, not to his fellowmen. Robespierre had not deceived himself as he wrote, but he had deceived St. Just, and therefore the young “Archangel of Death” spoke with the added strength of faith, than which nothing leaps more readily from the lips to the ears. Can we doubt it? There is a phrase which convinces. When he ends by telling them what it is they save by sacrificing one idol, when he describes the Republic, he uses the phrase common to all apostolates, the superb “les mots que nous avons dits ne seront jamais perdus sur la terre"—the things which they had said would never be lost on earth.


It ended. No one voted; the demand of the Committee passed without a murmur. The Convention was never again its own mistress; it had silenced and condemned itself.[7]


Meanwhile at the Luxembourg the magistrate Dérizot was making the preparations for the trial. Each prisoner was asked the formal question of his guilt, and each replied in a single negative, but Danton added that he would die a Republican, and to the question of their defence replied that he would plead his own cause. Then, at half-past eleven they were transferred to the Conciergerie.


From that moment his position becomes the attitude of the man fighting, as we have known it in the crisis of August 1792 and of the calling up of the armies. Ready as he had always been to see the real rather than the imaginary conditions, he recognised death with one chance only of escape. He knew far better than did poor Desmoulins the power of a State’s machinery; he felt its grasp and doubted of any issue. The people, for Desmoulins, were the delegators of power; for Danton the people were those who should, but who did not rule. To live again and enter the arena and save the life of the Republic the people must hear his voice, or else the fact of government would be more strong than all the rights and written justice in the world.


He was like a man whose enemy stands before him, and who sees at his own side, passive and bewildered, a strong but foolish ally. His ally was the people, his enemy was Death.


Therefore we have of his words and actions for the next four days two kinds: those addressed to death and those to his ally. Where he desires to touch the spirit of the crowd—in what was for their ears—we have the just, practical, and eloquent man apologising for over-vehemence, saying what should strike hardest home—an orator, but an orator who certainly uses legitimate weapons.


But there is another side. In much that he said in prison, in all that he said on his way to the scaffold, he is simply speaking to Death and defying him. The inmost thing in a man, the stock of the race, appears without restraint; he becomes the Gaul. That most un-northern habit of defiance, especially of defiance to the inevitable and to the strongest, the custom of his race and their salvation, grows on his lips.


He insults Death, he jests; his language, never chaste or self-conscious, takes on the laughter of the Rabelaisian, and (true Rabelaisian again) he wraps up in half-a-dozen words the whole of a situation.


Thus we see him leaning against the window of his prison and calling to Westermann in the next cell, “Oh ! if I could leave my legs to Couthon[8] and my virility to Robespierre, things might still go on.” And again when Lacroiz said, “I will cut my own hair at the neck, so that Sanson the executioner shall not meddle with it,” Danton replied, “Yet will Sanson intermeddle with the vertebrae of your neck.” So he meets death with a broad torrent of words; and that a civilisation accustomed rather to reticence should know what this meant in him, my readers must note his powerful asides to Desmoulins and to Hérault, coinciding with the fearful pun in which he tried to raise the drooping courage of D’Eglantine.


Also in his prison this direct growth of the soil of France “talked often of the fields and of rivers.” Shakespeare should have given us the death scenes of so much energy, defiance, coarseness, affection, and great courage.


In the Conciergerie they spent the rest of the day waiting for the trial, and this time Danton was next to “Westermann, to whom and to Desmoulins he said, “We must say nothing save before the Committees or at the trial.” It was his plan to move the people by a public defence, but his enemies in power had formed a counterplan, and, as we shall see, forestalled him.


Desmoulins, “the flower that grew on Danton,” was still bewildered. So he remained to the end; at the foot of the scaffold he could not understand. “If I could only have written a No, VII. I would have turned the tables."[9] “It is a duel of Commodus; they have the lance and I have not even a reed.” To that man, his equal in years,[10] but a boy compared with him in spirit, Danton had always shown, and now continued to show, a peculiar affection. He treated him like a younger brother, and never made him suffer those violent truths with which all France and most of his friends were familiar in his mouth. So now, and in the trial, and on the way to the scaffold, his one attempt was to calm the bitter violence and outburst of Camille.


There are two phrases of Danton’s which have been noted on this first day passed at the Conciergerie, and which cannot be omitted, though in form they have not his diction, yet in spirit they might be his; they are recollections presumably of something of greater length called to Westermann.


The first: “On such a day[11] I demanded the institution of the Revolutionary tribunal. I ask pardon of God and of man.”


The second: “I am leaving everything at sixes and sevens; one had better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the art of governing men.” There you have the real Danton—a reminiscence of some strong and passionate utterance put into this undantonesque and proverbial form. A real sentiment of his all of him; careless of life, intense upon the interests of life, above all upon the future of the Revolution and of France, knowing the helpless inferiority of the men he left behind. And in the close of the phrase it is also he; it is the spirit of great weariness which had twice touched him, as sleep an athlete after a day of games. It was soon to take the form of a noble sentence: “Nous avons assez servi—allons dormir.”


On the 13th (April 2, 1794), about ten in the morning, they were led before the tribunal


The trial began.


It must not be imagined that the Dantonists alone came before the tribunal to answer for their particular policy. There had originated under Robespierre (and later when he alone was the master it was to be terribly abused) the practice of confusing the issues. Three groups at least were tried together, and the Moderates sat between two thieves—for D’Eglantine on a charge of embezzlement alone, Guzman, the Freys as common thieves and spies to the Republic, were associated on the same bench. Fourteen in all, they sat in the following order: Chabot, Bazire, Fabre, Lacroix, Danton, Delaunay, Héault, Desmoulins, Guzman, Diederichsen, Phillippeaux, D’Espagnac, and the two Freys. D’Eglantine occupied “the arm-chair,” and it will be seen that the five—the Moderates—were carefully scattered.


The policy was a deliberate one; it was undertaken with the object of prejudicing public opinion against the accused. Nor was it permitted to each group to be separate in accusation and in its method of defence. They were carefully linked to each other by men accused of two out of the three crimes.


Herman was president of the tribunal, and sat facing the prisoners; on either side of him were Masson-Denizot, Foucault and Bravé, the assistant-judges. They say that Voullaud and Vadier, of the lower committee, appeared behind the bench to watch the enemies whom they had caught in the net. Seven jurors were in the box to the judges’ left, by name Renaudin (whom Desmoulins challenged in vain), Desboisseaux, Trinchard, Dix-Aout, Lumière, Ganney, Souberbielle,[12] and to these we must add Topino-Lebrun, whose notes form by far the most vivid fragment by which we may reconstruct the scene. The jury of course was packed.[13] It was part of the theory of the Revolutionary Government that no chance element should mar its absolute dictatorship. It was practically a court of judges, absolute, and without division of powers.


At a table between the President and the prisoners sat Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor; and finally, on the judges’ right was the open part of the court and the door to the witnesses’ room.


Here was a new trial with a great and definite chance of acquittal, a scene the like of which had not been seen for a year, nor would be seen again in that room. The men on the prisoners’ bench had been the masters, one of them the creator, of the court which tried them; they were evidently greater and more powerful than their judges, and had behind them an immense though informal weight of popularity. They were public men of the first rank; their judges and the public prosecutor were known to be merely the creatures of a small committee. More than this, it was common talk that the Convention might yet change its mind, and even among the jury it was certain that discussion would arise.


By the evidence of a curious relic we know that the Committee actually feared a decree or a coup-de-main which would hare destroyed their power. This note remains in the archives, a memorandum of a decision arrived at in the Committee on the early morning of the 13th or late in the night of the 12th.


“Henriot to be written to, to tell him to issue an order that the President and the Public Prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal are not to be arrested”


Then in another hand:


“Get four members to sign this.”


Finally, the memorandum is endorsed in yet another hand:


“13th Germinal.—A policeman took this the same day.” [14]


It will thus be seen that the Committee was by no means sure of its ground. It had indeed procured through St. Just the decree preventing Danton from pleading at the bar of the Convention and permitting his trial, but it would require the most careful manoeuvring upon their part to carry through such an affair. As we shall see, they just—and only just—succeeded.


The whole of the first day (the 13th Germinal, 2nd of April 1794) was passed in the formal questions and in the reading of accusations. Camille, on being asked his age and dwelling, made the blasphemous and striking answer which satisfied the dramatic sense, but was not a true reply to the main question.


Danton gave the reply so often quoted: “I am Danton, not unknown among the revolutionaries. I shall be living nowhere soon, but you will find my name in Walhalla.” The other answers, save that of Hérault, attempted no phrases.


Yet Guzman would have made more point of his assertion if he had chosen that moment to say, “I am Guzman, a grandee of Spain, who came to France to taste liberty, but was arrested for theft;” while the two Freys missed an historic occasion in not replying, “We are Julius and Emanuel Frey, sometime nobles of the Empire under the title of Von Schonfeld, now plain Jews employed by the Emperor as spies.”


The public prosecutor read the indictment. First at great length Amar’s report on the India Company. The details of the accusations which cost Fabre his life need not be entered into here. Suffice it to say that it was an indictment for corruption, for having suppressed or altered for money the decree of the Convention in the autumn before, and being accomplice in the extra gains which this had made possible—one of those wretched businesses with which Panama and South Africa have deluged modern France and England. It is an example of the methods of the tribunal that Fouquier managed to drag in Desmoulins’s name because he had once said, “People complain of not being able to make money now, yet I make it easily enough.”


The second group, the Freys, Guzman, the unfrocked priest D’Espagnac, and Diederichsen the Dane, were accused of being foreigners working against the success of the French armies, and at the same time lining their pockets. In the case of three of them the accusation was probably true. It was the more readily believed from the foreign origins of the accused, for France was full of spies, while the name of a certain contumacious Baron de Bartz made this list sound the more probable.


Finally, the small group at which they were really aiming (whose members they had already mixed up with the thieves) was indicted on nothing more particular than the report of St. Just—virtually, that is, on Robespierre’s notes. Danton had served the King, had drawn the people into the place where they were massacred in July 1791, did not do his duty on the 10th of August, and so forth—a vapid useless summary of impossible things in which no one but perhaps St. Just and a group of fanatics believed. With that the day ended, and they were taken back to prison.


On the next day, the 14th Germinal (3rd of April 1794), Westermann, who, though already arrested, had only been voted upon in Parliament the day before, appeared on the prisoners’ bench, and sat at the end after Emanuel Frey. He was the last and not the least noble of the Dantonists, with his great stature, his clumsy intellect, and his loyal Teutonic blood.


“Who are you?” they said. “I am Westermann. Show me to the people, I was a soldier at sixteen, and have been a councillor of Strasbourg. I have seven wounds in front, and I was never stabbed in the back till now.”


This was the man who had led the 10th of August, and who had dared, in his bluff nature, to parley with the Swiss who spoke his language.


It was after some little time pased in the interrogation of the prisoners who had been arrested for fraud, especially of D’Espagnac, that the judge turned to Danton.


In the debate and cross-questioning that followed we must depend mainly upon the notes of Lebrun,[15] for they are more living, although they are more disconnected, than the official report. We discover in them the passionate series of outbursts, but a series which one must believe to have had a definite purpose. There was neither hope of convincing the tribunal nor of presenting a legal argument with effect. What Danton was trying to do in this court, which was not occupied with a trial, but merely in a process of condemnation, was to use it as a rostrum from which he could address the people, the general public, upon whose insurrection he depended. He perhaps depended also on the jury, for, carefully chosen as they were, they yet might be moved by a man who had never failed to convince by his extraordinary power of language. He carries himself exactly as though he were technically what he is in fact—a prisoner before an informal group of executioners, who appeals for justice to the crowd.


He pointed at Cambon, who had sat by him on the Committee, and said, “Come now, Cambon, do you think we are conspirators? Look, he is laughing; he believes no such thing.” Then he turned, laughing himself, to the jury and said, “Write down in your notes that he laughed.”


Again, he uses phrases like these: “We are here for a form, but if we are to have full liberty to speak, and if the French people is what it should be, it will be my business later to ask their pardon for my accusers.” To which Camille answered, “Oh, we shall be allowed to speak, and that is all we want,” and the group of Indulgents laughed heartily.


It was just after this that he began that great harangue in answer to the questions of the judge, an effort whose tone reaches to this day. It is, perhaps, the most striking example of a personal appeal that can be discovered. The opportunities for such are rare, for in the vast majority of historical cases where a man has pleaded for his life, it has either been before a well-organised court, or before a small number of determined enemies, or by the lips of one who was paid for his work and who ignored the art of political oratory. The unique conditions of the French Revolution made such a scene possible, perhaps for the only time in history.


The day, early as was the season, was warm, the windows of the court, that looked upon the Seine, were open, and through the wide doors pressed the head of a great crowd. This crowd stretched out along the corridor, along the quays, across the Pont Neuf, and even to the other side of the river. Every sentence that told was repeated from mouth to mouth, and the murmurs of the crowd proved how closely the great tribune was followed. In the attitude which had commanded the attention of his opponents when he presented the first deputation from Paris three years before, and that had made him so striking a figure during the stormy months of 1793, he launched the phrases that were destined for Paris and not for his judges. His loud voice (the thing appears incredible, but it is true) vibrating through the hall and lifted to the tones that had made him the orator of the open spaces, rang out and was heard beyond the river.


“You say that I have been paid, but I tell you that men made as I am cannot be paid. And I put against your accusation—of which you cannot furnish a proof nor the hint of a proof, nor the shadow nor the beginning of a witness—the whole of my revolutionary career. It was I who from the Jacobins kept Mirabeau at Paris. I have served long enough, and my life is a burden to me, but I will defend myself by telling you what I have done. It was I who made the pikes rise suddenly on the 20th of June and prevented the King’s voyage to St. Cloud. The day after the massacre of the Champ de Mars a warrant was out for my arrest. Men were sent to kill me at Arcis, but my people came and defended me. I had to fly to London, and I came back, as you all know, the moment Garran was elected. Do you not remember me at the Jacobins, and how I asked for the Republic? It was I who knew that the court was eager for war. It was I, among others, who denounced the policy of the war.”


Here a sentence was heard: “What did you do against the Brissotins?”


Now Danton had, as we know, done all in his power to save the men who hated him, but whom he admired. It was no time for him to defend himself by an explanation of this in the ears of the people who had never understood, as he had, the height of the men who followed Vergnaud; but he said what was quite true: “I told them that they were going to the scaffold. When I was a minister I said it to Brissot before the whole cabinet.”


He might have added that he had said to Guadet in the November woods on the night before he left for the army, “You are headstrong, and it will be your doom.”  


Then he went back again to the list of his services. “It was I who prepared the 10th of August. You say I went to Arcis. I admit it, and I am proud of it. I went there to pass three days, to say good-bye to my mother, and to arrange my affairs, because I was shortly to be in peril. I hardly slept that night. It was I that had Mandat killed, because he had given the order to fire on the people. . . . You are reproaching me with the friendship of Fabre D’Eglantine. He is still my friend, and I still say that he is a good citizen as he sits here with me. You have told me that my defence has been too violent, you have recalled to me the revolutionary names, and you have told me that Marat when he appeared before the tribunal might have served as my model. Well, with regard to those names who were once my friends, I will tell you this: Marat had a character on fire and unstable; Robespierre I have known as a man, above all, tenacious; but I—I have served in my own fashion, and I would embrace my worst enemy for the sake of the country, and I will give her my body if she needs the sacrifice.”


This short and violent speech, which I have attempted to reproduce from the short, disjointed, ill-spelt notes of Lebrun, hit the mark The crowd, the unstable crowd, which he contemned as he passed to the guillotine, moved like water under a strong wind; and his second object also was reached, for the tribunal grew afraid. These phrases would soon be repeated in the Convention, and no means had been taken to silence that terrible voice. The President of the court said to him that it was the part of an accused man to defend himself with proofs and not with rhetoric. He parried that also with remarkable skill, saying in a much quieter tone which all his friends (they were now growing in number) immediately noted: “That a man should be violent is wrong in him I know, unless it is for the public good, and such a violence has often been mine. If I exceeded now, it was because I found myself accused with such intolerable injustice.” He raised his voice somewhat again with the words, “But as for you, St. Just, you will have to answer to posterity,” and then was silent.


When the unhappy man who had taken upon his shoulders the vile duty of the political work that day, when Herman was himself upon his trial, he said, “Remember that this affair was out of the ordinary, and was a political trial,” when a voice rose from the court, “There are no political trials under a Republic.” He would have done well, obscure as he is before history, to have saved his own soul by refusing a task which he knew to involve injustice from beginning to end.


It was at the close of that day that three short notes passed between Herman and the public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville. Herman wrote, “In half an hour I shall stop Danton’s defence. You must spin out some of the rest in detail.” Tinville answered, “I have something more to say to Danton about Belgium;” and Herman replied, “Do not bring it in with regard to any of the others.” This little proof of villany, which has survived by so curious an accident (it is in the Archives to-day),[16] closed the proceedings of that hearing.


The next day, the 15th of Germinal (4th April), Danton himself said little. It was given over mainly to the examination of Desmoulins; and as with Danton it had been rumours or opinions, so with Desmoulins only the vague sense of things he had written were brought in to serve as evidence in this tragic farce.


Fouquier, the distant cousin of Camille, to whom he owed the post in which he was earning his bread by crime,[17] tried to put something of complaint against the nation and of hatred to the Republic into his reading of the Old Cordelier. Even in his thin unpleasant voice there was only heard the noble phrase of Tacitus, and—it is a singular example of what the tribunal had become—they dared not continue the quotation because every word roused the people in the court. But Camille, so great with the pen, had nothing of the majesty or the strength of Danton. His defence was a weak, disconnected excuse, and, like all men who are insufficient to themselves, he was inconsistent.


Hérault made on that same day a far finer reply. Noble by birth, holding by his traditions and memories to that society which he himself had helped to destroy, and of which Talleyrand has said, “Those who have not known it have not lived;” accustomed from his very first youth to prominence in his profession and to the favour of the court, he remained to the last full of contempt for so much squalor, and he veiled his eyes with pride.


“I understand nothing of this topsy-turvydom. I was a diplomat, and I made the neutrality of Switzerland, so saving 60,000 men to the Republic. As for the priest you talk about, who was guillotined in my absence at Troyes, I knew him well. He was a Canon, if I remember, and by no means a reactionary. You are probably joking about it. It is true he had not taken the oath, but he was a good man; he helped me, and I am not ashamed of my friendship. I will tell you something more. On the 14th of July two men were killed, one on either side of me.” He might have added, “I was the second man to scale the Towers.”


It was not until the day’s proceedings had been drawn out for a considerable time that a sentence was spoken, the full import of which was not understood at the time, but which was, as a fact, the first step in those four months of irresponsibility and crime which are associated with the name of Robespierre, and which hang like a weight around the neck of the French nation. Lacroix had just said with a touch of legal phraseology, “I must insist that the witnesses whom I have demanded should be subpoenaed, and if there is any difficulty about this, I formally demand that the Convention shall be consulted in the matter;” when the public prosecutor answered, “It is high time that this part of the trial, which has become a mere struggle, and which is a public scandal, should cease. I am about to write to the Convention to hear what it has to say, and its advice shall be exactly followed.”


Both the public prosecutor and the judge signed the letter. The first draft which Fouquier had drawn up was thought too strong, and it appears that Herman revised it.[18] “Citoyens Représentants, —There has been a storm in the hall since this day’s proceedings began. The accused are calling for witnesses who are among your deputies. . . . They are appealing to the people, saying that they will be refused. In spite of the firmness of the president and of all the tribunal, they continue to protest that they will not be silent until their witnesses are heard, unless by your passing a special decree.” [This was false, and was the only part of the letter calculated to impress the Parliament.] “We wish to hear your orders as to what we shall do in the face of this demand; the procedure gives us no way by which we can refuse them.”


But note the way in which the letter was presented to a Parliament in which there yet remained so much sympathy for the accused, and the way in which it was received. St. Just appeared in the tribune with the letter in his hands, and, instead of reading it, held it up before them and made this speech:—


“The public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal has sent to tell you that the prisoners are in full revolt, and have interrupted the hearing, saying they will not allow it to continue until the Convention has taken measures. You have barely escaped from the greatest danger which has yet menaced our new liberty, and this revolt in the very seat of justice, of men panic-stricken by the law, shows what is in their minds. Their despair and their fury are a plain proof of the hypocrisy which they showed in keeping a good face before you. Innocent men do not revolt. Dillon, who ordered his army to march on Paris, has told us that Desmoulins’s wife received money to help the plot. Our thanks are due to you for having put us in the difficult and dangerous post that we occupy. Your Committees will answer you by the most careful watching,” and so forth. When the Convention had had laid before them every argument and every flattery which could falsify their point of view, he proposed the decree that any prisoner who should attempt to interrupt the course of justice by threats or revolt should be outlawed.


As they were about to vote, Billaud Varennes added his word, “I beg the Convention to listen to a letter which the Committees have received from the police concerning the conspirators, and their connection with the prisoners.” The letter is not genuine. Even if it were, it depends entirely upon the word of one obscure and untrustworthy man (Laflotte), but it did the work. The Committees, as we know, were names to conjure with. Their secret debates, their evident success, the fact that their members had been chosen for the very purpose of guarding the interests of the Republic, all fatally told against the prisoners. The decree passed without a vote. Robespierre asked that the letter might be read in full court, and his demand was granted. It was from that letter, from this obscure and uncertain origin, that there dated the legend of the “conspiracy in the prisons” which was to cost the lives of so many hundreds.


It was at the very close of this day, the 4th of April, that the decree of the Convention was brought back to the tribunal. Amar brought it and gave it to Fouquier, saying, “Here is what you wanted.” Fouquier smiled and said, “We were in great need of it.” It was read in the tribunal. When Camille heard the name of his wife mentioned in connection with St. Just’s demand he cried out, “Will they kill her too?” and David, who was sitting behind the judges, said, “We hold them at last."[19]


The fourth day, the 16th Germinal (5th April), the court met at half-past eight in the morning, instead of at the ordinary hour of ten. Almost at once, before the accused had time to begin their tactics of the day before, the decree was read. The judge, relying on the law which had already been in operation against others, and which gave the jury the right to say after three days whether they were satisfied, turned to them, and they asked leave to deliberate.


Before the prisoners had passed into the prison Desmoulins had found time to tear the defence which he had written into small pieces, and to throw them at the feet of the judge. Danton cried out, and checked himself in the middle of his sentence. All save poor Camille had kept their self-control. He, however, clung to the dock, determined on making some appeal to the people, or to the judges, or to posterity. Danton, who calmed him a few hours later at the foot of the scaffold, could do nothing with him then, and it was in the midst of a terrible violence that the fifteen disappeared.


The prisoners were taken back to the Conciergerie, but in their absence occurred a scene which is among the most instructive of the close of the Revolution. One of the jury could not bring himself to declare the guilt of men whom he knew to be innocent. Another said to him, “This is not a trial; it is a sacrifice. Danton and Robespierre cannot exist together; which do you think most necessary to the Republic?” The unhappy man, full of the infatuation of the time, stammered out, “Why, Robespierre is necessary, of course, but—”  “It is enough; in saying that you have passed judgment.” And it came about in this way that the unanimous verdict condemned the Indulgents. Lhuillier alone was acquitted.


Of what passed in the prison we only know from the lips of an enemy,[20] but I can see Danton talking still courageously of a thousand things; sitting in his chair of green damask and drinking his bottle of Burgundy opposite the silver and the traps of D’Eglantine.[21] They were not taken back to hear their sentence; it was read to them, as a matter of form, in the Conciergerie itself. Ducray read it to them one by one as they were brought into his office. Danton refused to hear it in patience; he hated the technicality and the form, and he knew that he was condemned long ago. He committed himself to a last burst of passion before summoning his strength to meet the ordeal of the streets, and followed his anger by the insults which for days he had levelled at death. Then for a few hours they kept a silence not undignified, save only Camille, unfitted for such trials, and moaning to himself in a corner of the room, whom Danton continually tried to console, a task in which at the very end of their sad journey he succeeded. It was part of his broad mind to understand even a writer and an artist, he who had never written and had only done.


It was between half-past four and five o’clock in the evening of the same day, the 5th of April 1794, that the prisoners reappeared. Two carts were waiting for them at the great gate in the court of the Palais—the gate which is the inner entrance to the Conciergerie to-day.[22] About the carts were a numerous escort mounted and with drawn swords, but the victims took their seats as they chose, and of the fifteen the Dantonists remained together. Hérault, Camille, Lacroix, Westermann, Fabre, Danton went up the last into the second cart, and the procession moved out of the courtyard and turned to the left under the shadow of the Palais, and then to the left again round the Tour de l’Horloge, and so on to the quay. They passed the window of the tribunal, the window from which Danton’s loud voice had been heard across the river; they went creaking slowly past the old Maine, past the rooms that had been Roland’s lodgings, till they came to the corner of the Pont Neuf; and as the carts turned from the trees of the Place Dauphine on to the open bridge, they left the shade and passed into the full blaze of the westering sun within an hour of its setting.


Early as was the season, the air was warm and pleasant, the leaves and the buds were out on the few trees, the sky was unclouded. All that fatal spring was summerlike, and this day was the calmest and most beautiful that it had known. The light, already tinged with evening, came flooding the houses of the north bank till their glass shone in the eyes. There it caught the Café de l’École where Danton had sat a young lawyer seven years before, and had seen the beauty of his first wife in her father’s house , to the right the corner of the old Hotel de Ville caught the glow, to the left the Louvre flamed with a hundred windows.


Where the light poured up the river and came reflected from the Seine on to the bridge, it marked out the terrible column that was moving ponderously forward to death. A great crowd, foolish, unstable, varied, of whom some sang, some ran to catch a near sight of the “Indulgents,” some pitied, and a few understood and despaired of the Republic—all these surging and jostling as a crowd will that is forced to a slow pace and confined by the narrowness of an old thoroughfare, stretched from one end of the bridge to the other, and you would have seen them in the sunlight, brilliant in the colours that men wore in those days, while here and there a red cap of liberty marked the line of heads.


But in the centre of this crowd and showing above it, could be seen the group of men who were about to die. The carts hidden by the people, the horses’ heads just showing above the mob, surrounded by the sharp gleams that only come from swords, there rose distinguished the figures of the Dantonists. There stood Hérault de Séchelles upright, his face contemptuous, his colour high, “as though he had just risen from a feast” There on the far side of the cart sat Fabre D’Eglantine, bound, ill, collapsed, his head resting on his chest, muttering and complaining. There on the left side, opposite Fabre, is Camille, bound but still frenzied, calling loudly to the people, raving, “Peuple, pauvre Peuple!” He still kept in his poet’s head the dream of the People! They had been deceived, but they were just, they would save him.


He wrestled with his ropes and tore his shirt open at the bosom, clenching his bound hands—clutched in his fingers through all the struggle shone the bright hair of Lucille. Danton stood up immense and quiet between them. One of those broad shoulders touched D’Eglantine, the other Desmoulins; their souls leant upon his body. And such comfort as there was or control in the central group came out like warmth from the chief of these friends.


He had been their leader and their strength for five years; they were round him now like younger brothers orphaned. The weakness of one, the vices of another, came leaning for support on the great rock of his form. For these were not the Girondins, the admirable stoics, of whom each was a sufficient strength to his own soul: they were the Dantonists, who had been moulded and framed by the strength and genius of one man. He did not fail them a moment in the journey, and he died last to give them courage.


As they passed on and left the river, they lost the light again and plunged into shadow; the cool air was about them in the deep narrow streets. They could see the light far above them only, as they turned into the gulf of the Rue St. Honoré, down which the lives of men poured like a stream to be lost and wasted in the Place de la Revolution. Up its steep sides echoed and re-echoed the noise of the mob like waves. They could see as they rolled slowly along the people at the windows, the men sitting in the cafés or standing up to watch them go by. One especially Danton saw suddenly and for a moment. He was standing with a drawing-book in his hand and sketching rapidly with short interrupted glances. It was David, an enemy.


Then there appeared upon their left another sight; it was the only one in that long hour which drove Danton out of his control: it was the house of Duplay. There, hidden somewhere behind the close shutters, was Robespierre. They all turned to it loudly, and the sentence was pronounced which some say God has executed—that it should disappear and not be known again, and be hidden by high walls and destroyed.


The house was silent, shut, blockaded. It was like a thing which is besieged and which turns its least sentient outer part to its enemies. It was beleaguered by the silent and unseen forces which we feel pressing everywhere upon the living. For it contained the man who had sent that cartload of his friends to death. Their fault had been to preach the permanent sentiments of mankind, to talk of mercy, and to recall in 1794 the great emotions of the early Revolution—the desire for the Republic where every kind of man could sit and laugh at the same table, the Republic of the Commensales. They were the true heirs of the spirit of the Federations, and it was for this that they were condemned. Even at this last moment there radiated from them the warmth of heart that proceeds from a group of friends and lovers till it blesses the whole of a nation with an equal affection. Theirs had been the instinct of and the faith in the happy life of the world. It was for this that the Puritan had struck them down; and yet it is the one spirit that runs through any enduring reform, the only spirit that can lead us at last to the Republic.


In a remote room, where the noise of the wheels could not reach him, sat the man who, by some fatal natural lack or some sin of ambition unrepented, had become the Inquisitor—the mad, narrow enemy of mercy and of all good things.


For a moment he and his error had the power to condemn, repeating a tragedy of which the world is never weary—the mean thing was killing the great.


Nevertheless, if you will consider the men in the tumbril, you will find them not to be pitied except for two things, that they were loved by women whom they could not see, and that they were dying in the best and latest time of their powerful youth. All these young men were loved, and in other things they should be counted fortunate. They had with their own persons already transformed the world. Here the writer knew that his talent, the words he had so carefully chosen and with such delight in his power, had not been wasted upon praise or fortune, but had achieved the very object. There the orator knew and could remember how his great voice had called up the armies and thrown back the kings.


But if the scene was a tragedy, it was a tragedy of the real that refused to follow the unities. All nature was at work, crowded into the Revolutionary time, and the element that Shakespeare knew came in of itself—the eternal comedy that seems to us, according to our mood, the irony, the madness, or the cruelty of things, was fatally present to make the day complete; and the grotesque, like a discordant note, contrasted with and emphasised the terrible.


Fabre, who had best known how omnipresent is this complexity—Fabre, who had said, “Between the giving and taking of snuff there is a comedy”—furnished the example now. Danton hearing so much weakness and so many groans from the sick man said, “What is your complaint?” He answered, “I have written a play called ‘The Maltese Orange,’ and I fear the police have taken it, and that some one will steal it and get the fame.” Poor Fabre! It is lost, and no one has the ridicule of his little folly. Danton answered him with a phrase to turn the blood: “Tais toi ! Dans une semaine tu feras assez de vers,” and imposed silence. Nor did this satisfy Fate; there were other points in the framework of the incongruous which she loves to throw round terror. A play was running in the opera called the “10th of August;” in this the Dantonists were represented on the stage. When the Dantonists were hardly buried it was played again that very night, and actors made up for Hérault and the rest passed before a public that ignored or had forgotten what the afternoon had seen. More than this, there was already set in type a verse which the street-hawkers cried and sold that very night. For the sake of its coincidence I will take the liberty of translating it into rhymed heroics: —


“When Danton, Desmoulins, and D’Eglantine

Were ferried over to the world unseen,

Charon, that equitable citizen,

 Handed their change to these distinguished men,

‘Pray keep the change,’ they cried; ‘we pay the fare

 For Couthon, and St. Just, and Robespierre.’”[23]


Danton spared only Camille, and as he did not stop appealing to the people, told him gently to cease. “Leave the rabble there,” he said, “leave them alone.” But for himself he kept on throwing angry jests at death. “May I sing?” he said to the executioner. Sanson thought he might, for all he knew. Then Danton said to him, “I have made some verses, and I will sing them.” He sang loudly a verse of the fall of Robespierre, and then laughed as though he had been at the old café with his friends.


There was a man (Arnault of the Academy) who lived afterwards to a great age, and who happened to be crossing the Rue St. Honoré as the carts went past. In a Paris that had all its business to do, many such men came and went, almost forgetting that politics existed even then. But this batch of prisoners haunted him. He had seen Danton standing singing with laughter, he hurried on to the Rue de la Monnaie, had his say with Michael, who was awaiting him, and then, fall of the scene, ran back across the Tuilleries gardens, and pressing his face to the railings looked over the great Place de la Revolution. The convoy had arrived, the carts stood at the foot of the guillotine, and his memory of the scene is the basis of its history.


It was close on six, and the sun was nearly set behind the trees of the Étoile; it reddened the great plaster statue of Liberty which stood in the middle of the Place, where the obelisk is now, and to which Madame Roland delivered her last phrase. It sent a level beam upon the vast crowd that filled the square, and cast long shadows, sending behind the guillotine a dark lane over the people. The day had remained serene and beautiful to the last, the sky was stainless, and the west shone like a forge. Against it, one by one, appeared the figures of the condemned. Hérault de Séchelles, straight and generous in his bearing, first showed against the light, standing on the high scaffold conspicuous. He looked at the Garde Meuble, and from one of its high windows a woman’s hand found it possible to wave a farewell. Lacroix next, equally alone; Camille, grown easy and self-controlled, was the third. One by one they came up the few steps, stood clearly for a moment in the fierce light, black or framed in scarlet, and went down.


Danton was the last. He had stood unmoved at the foot of the steps as his friends died. Trying to embrace Hérault before he went up, roughly rebuking the executioner who tore them asunder, waiting his turn without passion, he heard the repeated fall of the knife in the silence of the crowd. His great figure, more majestic than in the days of his triumph, came against the sunset. The man who watched it from the Tuilleries gate grew half afraid, and tells us that he understood for a moment what, kind of things Dante himself had seen. By an accident he had to wait some seconds longer than the rest; the executioner heard him muttering, “I shall never see her again . . . no weakness,” but his only movement was to gaze over the crowd. They say that a face met his, and that a sacramental hand was raised in absolution.[24]


He stood thus conspicuous for a moment over the people whom he had so often swayed. In that attitude he remains for history. When death suddenly strikes a friend, the picture which we carry of him in our minds is that of vigorous life. His last laughter, his last tones of health, his rapid step, or his animated gesture reproduce his image for ever. So it is with Danton; there is no mask of Danton dead, nor can you complete his story with the sense of repose. We cannot see his face in the calm either of triumph or of sleep—the brows grown level, the lips satisfied, the eyelids closed. He will stand through whatever centuries the story of the Revolution may be told as he stood on the scaffold looking westward and transfigured by the red sun, still courageous, still powerful in his words, and still instinct with that peculiar energy, self-forming, self-governing, and whole. He has in his final moment the bearing of the tribune, the glance that had mastered the danger in Belgium, the force that had nailed Roland, to his post in September, and that had commanded the first Committee. The Republic that he desired, and that will come, was proved in his carriage, and passed from him into the crowd.


When Sanson put a hand upon his shoulder the ghost of Mirabeau stood by his side and inspired him with the pride that had brightened the death-chamber of three years before. He said, “Show my head to the people; it is well worth the while.” Then they did what “ they had to do, and without any kind of fear, his great soul went down the turning in the road.


They showed his head to the people, and the sun set. There rose at once the confused noise of a thousand voices that rejoiced, or questioned, or despaired, and in the gathering darkness the Parisians returned through the narrow streets eastward to their homes.


[1] Paine’s ignorance of French was such that his speech on Louis’s exile was translated for him.


[2] La Roche du Maine.


[3] Levasseur tells ns that Delmas spoke first, and that his remarks took the form of a definite motion for the appearance of the Committees to account for their action. Legendre is mentioned here because he alone is agreed upon by all the eye-witnesses (and by the Moniteur) as being the principal defender of Danton We must not underestimate his courage; it was he who with a very small force shut the club of the Jacobins on the night of the 9th Thermidor, and so turned the flank of the Robespierrian faction.


[4]Quand les restes de la faction . . . ne seront plus . . . vous n'aurez plus d'exemples à dormer . . . ils ne restera que le peuple et vous, et le gouvernement dont vous êtes le centre inviolable.”


[5]Mauvais citoyen, tu as conspiré; faux ami, tu disais, il y a deux jours, du mal de Desmoulins que tu as perdu; méchant homme, tu as comparé l’opinion publique à une femme de mauvaise vie, tu as dit que l'honneur était ridicule . . . si Fabre est innocent, si D'Orléans, si Dumouriez furent innocents tu l’est sans doute. J'en ai trop dit—tu repondras à la Justice.”


[6] Robespierre’s notes for St. Just’s report were published by M. France in 1841 among the “Papiers trouve’s chez Robespierre.”


[7]La Convention Nation ale après avoir entendu les rapports des Comités de Sureté générale et du Salut Public, dérète d'accusation Camille Desmoulins, Héault, Danton, Phillippeaux Lacroix . . . en conséquence elle declare leur mise en jugement.” These were the last words of St. Just’s speech, and formed his substantive motion.

"Ce décret est adopté à l’unanimité et au milieu des plus vifs applaudssements."—Moniteur, April 2, 1794 (13th (Germinal, year II.).



[8] Couthon was a cripple. Once (later) in the Convention it was called out to him “Triumvir,” and he glanced at his legs and said, “How could I be a triumvir?” The logical connection between good legs and triumvirates was more apparent to himself than to those whom he caused to be guillotined.


[9] We have the fragments of this “No. VII.,” which was not published. See M. Claretie’s C. Desmoulins, p. 274 of Mrs. Cashel Hoey’s translation,


[10] Danton would have been thirty-five in October, Desmoulins had been thirty-four in March—not thirty-three, as he said at the trial. I give this on the authority of M. Claretie, who in his book quotes the birth-certificate, which he himself had seen (March 2, 1760).


[11] March 10, 1793. Exception has been taken to the whole sentiment by Dr. Robinet, but great, or rather unique, as is his authority, I cannot believe that an appeal—especially an exclamatory appeal of this nature—was foreign to his impetuous and merciful temper.


[12] Wallon, Tribinal Révolutionnaire, vol. iii. p. 156.


[13] It is known that Fleuriot and Fouquier were alone when the jury were “chosen by lot.” This appeared at the trial of Fouquier. For the notes of Lebrun, see Appendix X.


[14] Wallon, Tribunal Révolutionnaire, vol. iii. p. 155.


[15] See Appendix X. The speeches which I have written here are reconstructed from these notes, and I must beg the reader to check the consecutive sentences of the text by reference to the disjointed notes printed in the Appendix.


[16] Wallon, Tribunal Révolutionnaire, iii, 169, quotes Archives, V. 342, Dossier 641, 1st Part, No. 34.


[17] Fouquier had written a letter to his distant relative Desmoulins, begging for some employment, on August 20, 1792, just after the success of Danton' s party, in which Desmoulins had of course shared. It is by no means dignified and almost servile. See Claretie, Desmoulins, English edition, p. 318.


[18] This is M. Wallon’s opinion, who gives both versions, and from whom I take so much of this description. See Tribunal Révolutionnaire, iii. 177.


[19] All this appears in the trial of Fouquier.


[20] They are given in Clarétie’s Desmoulins in the Appendix.


[21] See the list of the prisoner’s effects in Clarétie’s Desmoulins.


[22] This gate may be seen to-day just to the right of the great staircase in the court of the Palais de Justice. It has an iron grating before it.


[23] The original of this I take from Ciarétie, who quotes P. A. Lecomte, Memorial sur la Révolution Française.

"Lorsqu'arrive’s au bords du Phlégéton

Camille Desmoulins, D’Eglantine et Danton,

Payment pour passer ce fleuve redouatble

Le nautonnier Charon (citoyen équitable)

A nos trois passagers voulait remettre en mains

L'excédant de la taxe imposé aux humains.

'Garde,’ lui dit Danton, la somme toute entière;

Je paye pour Couthon, St. Just et Robespierre.”



[24] It was Madame Gély who told this to Despoi’s grandfather. Clarétie has mentioned it. But Michelet must have heard from the family about this same priest (Kerénavant le Breton), for according to Madame Gé1y it was he who married Danton for the second time.