Danton, A Study


An historian of just pre-eminence in his university and college, in a little work which should be more widely known, has summed up the two principal characters of the Revolution in the following phrases: “the cold and ferocious Robespierre, the blatant Danton.”[1] The judgment is precipitate and is tinged with a certain bias.


An authority of still greater position prefaces his notebook on the Revolution by telling us that he is going to describe the beast.[2] The learned sectarian does not conceal from his readers the fact that a profound analysis had led to a very pronounced conviction. So certain is he of his ground, that he treats with equal consideration the evidence of printed documents, of autograph letters, and of a chance stranger speaking in a country inn of a thing that had happened forty years before.


The greatest of French novelists and a principal poet has given us in “Quatre-vingt-treize” a picture moving and living. Yet even in that work much is admitted, for the sake of contrast and colour, which no contemporary saw. The dialogue between Danton and Marat, with its picturesque untruths, is an example.[3]


If facts so conflicting be stated as true by men of such various calibre, it would seem a very difficult task to write history at all. Yet there is a method which neither excludes personal conviction, nor necessitates the art of deceit, nor presupposes a primitive ignorance.


It is to ascertain what is positively known and can be proved, and with the facts so gathered—only with these—to paint a picture as vivid as may be; on a series of truths—with research it grows to respectable proportions—to base a conviction, general, wide, and capable of constant application, as to the character of a period or of a man.


Such was the method of Fustel de Coulanges, and on his model there has arisen from the minute, the sometimes pedantic accuracy of French scholars, a school which is the strongest in Europe.


The method I have been describing has also this advantage, that the least learned may enter upon such a path without confusion and may progress, and that a book of no pretensions can yet, by following these rules, at least avoid untruth. With inferior tools, and on an over-rough plan, I shall yet attempt in this life of Danton to follow the example.


The motto which is printed at the head of this book, and which is borrowed from the most just of biographers, must give a note to the whole of my description. What was the movement which founded our modern society? what were its motives, its causes of action, its material surroundings? And what was the man who, above all others, represented that spirit at its most critical moment?


To find a right answer to such questions it is necessary to do two things.


First, we must make the sequence of cause and effect reasonable. In giving an explanation or in supposing a motive, we must present that which rational men, unbiassed, will admit. To put in the same character irreconcilable extremes is to leave no picture. To state a number of facts so that no thread connects them, so that they surprise by contrast but leave only confusion in the mind, is a kind of falsehood. It is the method most adopted by partisans; they frame a theory upon the lines of which such and such facts will lie, but they omit, or only mention as anomalies, facts which are equally true, but which would vitiate their conclusions. We must (to use a mathematical metaphor) integrate the differentials of history; make a complete and harmonious whole of a hundred aspects; strike a curve which shall unite in a regular fashion what has appeared as a number of scattered points. Till we can say, “This man—seeing all his character and innumerable known acts—could not have acted as such and such a report would have us believe;” or again, till we can say, “This epoch, with its convictions, its environment, its literature, could not have felt the emotions which such and such an historian lends it,”—till we can say this, we do not understand a personality or a period.


In the second place, we must recognise in all repeated and common expressions of conviction, and in all the motives of a time of action, some really existing ideal. There was a conviction common to many thousands of Parliamentarians in the earlier stages of the English Civil War. There was a genuine creed in the breasts of the well-paid Ironsides of its later period. There was a real loyalty and an explicable theory of kingship in the camp of Charles the First.


So in the period of which we deal there was a clear doctrine of political right, held by probably the strongest intellects, and defended by certainly the most sustained and enthusiastic courage that ever adorned a European nation. We must recognise the soul of a time. For were there not a real necessity for sympathy with a period which we study, were it possible for us to see entirely from without, with no attempt to apprehend from within, then of many stupendous passages in history we should have to assert that all those who led were scoundrels, that all their lives were (every moment of them) a continuous piece of consummate acting; that our enemies, in fine, were something greater and more wicked than men. We should have to premise that all the vigour belonged to the bad, and all the ineptitude to the good, and separate humanity into two groups, one of righteous imbeciles, and the other of genius sold to hell No one would wish, or would be sincerely able to place himself in either category.


We must postulate, then, of the Revolution that which Taine ridiculed, that for which Michelet lived, and that which Carlyle never grasped—the Revolutionary idea. And we must read into the lives of all the actors in that drama, and especially of the subject of this book, some general motive which is connected with the creed of the time. We must make his actions show as a consonant whole—as a man’s—and then, if possible, determine his place in what was not an anarchic explosion, but a regular, though a vigorous and exceedingly rapid development.


A hundred difficulties are at once apparent in undertaking a work of this nature. It is not possible to give a detailed history of the Revolution, and yet many facts of secondary importance must be alluded to. It is necessary to tell the story of a man whose action and interest, nay, whose whole life, so far as we know it, lies in less than five years.


Danton’s earlier life is but a fragmentary record, collected by several historians with extreme care, and only collected that it may supplement our knowledge of his mature career. The most laborious efforts of his biographers have found but a meagre handful of the facts for which they searched; nor does any personal inquiry at his birthplace, from what is left of his family or in his papers, augment the materials: the research has been thoroughly and finally made before this date, and its results, such as they are, I have put together in the second chapter of this book.


He does not even, as do Robespierre, Mirabeau, and others, occupy the stage of the Revolution from the first.


Till the nation is attacked, his rôle is of secondary importance. We have glimpses more numerous indeed, and more important, of his action after than before 1789, But it is only in the saving of France, when the men of action were needed, that he leaps to the front. Then, suddenly, the whole nation and its story becomes filled with his name. For thirteen months, from that 10th of August 1792, which he made, to the early autumn of the following year, Danton, his spirit, his energy, his practical grasp of things as they were, formed the strength of France. While the theorists, from whom he so profoundly differed, were wasting themselves in a kind of political introspection, he raised the armies. When the orators could only find great phrases to lead the rage against Dumouriez’ treason, he formed the Committee to be a dictator for a falling nation. All that was useful in the Terror was his work; and if we trace to their very roots the actions that swept the field and left it ready for rapid organisation and defence, then at the roots we nearly always find his masterful and sure guidance.


There are in the Revolution two features, one of which is almost peculiar to itself, the other of which is in common with all other great crises in history.


The first of these is that it used new men and young men, and comparatively unknown men, to do its best work If ever a nation called out men as they were, apart from family, from tradition, from wealth, and from known environment, it was France in the Revolution. The national need appears at that time like a captain in front of his men in a conscript army. He knows them each by their powers, character, and conduct. But they are in uniform; he cares nothing for their family or their youth; he makes them do that for which each is best fitted This feature makes the period unique, and it is due to this feature that so many of the Revolutionary men have no history for us before the Revolution, It is this feature which makes their biographies a vividly concentrated account of action in months rather than in years. They come out of obscurity, they pass through the intense zone of a search-light; they are suddenly eclipsed upon its further side.


The second of these features is common to all moments of crisis. Months in the Revolution count as years, and this furnishes our excuse for giving as a biography so short a space in a man’s life. But it is just so to do. In every history a group of years at the most, sometimes a year alone, is the time to be studied day by day. In comparison with the intense purpose of a moment whole centuries are sometimes colourless.


Thus in the political history of the English thirteenth century, the little space from the Provisions of Oxford to the battle of Evesham is everything; in the study of England’s breach with the Continental tradition, the period between the Ridolphi plot and the Armada; in the formation of the English oligarchy, the crisis of April to December 1688.


This second feature, the necessity for concentration, would excuse a special insistence on the two years of Danton’s prominence, even if his youth were better known. The two conditions combined make imperative such a treatment as I have attempted to follow.


As to authorities, three men claim my especial gratitude, for the work in this book is merely a rearrangement of the materials they have collected. They are Dr. Bougeart, who is dead (and his clear Republicanism brought upon him exile and persecution); M. Aulard, the greatest of our living writers on the Revolutionary period; and Dr. Robinet, to whose personal kindness, interest, and fruitful suggestion I largely owe this book. The keeper of the Carnavalet has been throughout his long and laborious life the patient biographer of Danton, and little can now be added to the research which has been the constant occupation of a just and eminent career.


We must hope, in spite of his great age, to have from his hands some further work; for he is one of those many men who have given to the modern historical school of France, amid all our modern verbiage and compromise, the strength of a voice that speaks the simple truth.


[1] C. W. Oman, “History of England,” p. 581,


[2] Taine “La Evolution,” preface.


[3] Victor Hugo, “Quatre-vingt-treize.” Illustrated edition of 1877, Paris, pp. 136-150.