coins of the month - OCTOBER 2023
The Double Image of Danton
Most of the protagonists in the French Revolution have received contradictory historical treatment over time. One reason for this is that the titanic circumstances in which they acted during an ever moving Revolution made it impossible to stick to the same political positions for long, as everything changed around them, and under pressure from growing popular radicalization, insurrection, war and food shortages. The other reason is that the opposing political viewpoints from which these figures were re-examined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sometimes made the same character a villain on the right and a hero on the left and vice versa.
Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794) came to a spectacularly catastrophic end and received a divisive re-examination in the following centuries, because of the obvious contradictions of the man and his larger-than-life role in 1792-1794. The epic fight that ended his life -- with the parliamentary committees governing France, the Comité de Salut Public and the Comité de Sureté générale, both incorrectly identified almost exclusively with Robespierre -- has remained to this day one of the most powerful memories of the French Revolution.
We will use two sculptures representing him to briefly recall the opposing views of his action and the political struggle around his reputation during the third French Republic (1870-1940). One of the two reflects his image as an energetic founder of the Republic and heroic voice of French patriotic resistance to foreign invasion, while the other espouses the vision of a corrupt opportunist, enriching himself thanks to his explosive if usually inconsequential eloquence, while covertly supporting the monarchy (Bourbon or Orleans) and betraying the Republic and its institutions.
Danton during the French Revolution
Danton was a provincial lawyer who acquired a growing role in the Parisian political scene through the presidency of the Club des Cordeliers, a radical association born in 1790 on the Rive gauche in order to control the activity of authorities and defend human rights (the initial name was the Club des droits de l’homme and its foundation followed the closure of the section des cordeliers). Among its membership, the club included Fabre d’Églantine, Camille Desmoulins, Louis Legendre, Guillaume Brune, and Jean-François Lacroix, and also the most extreme figures such as Jean-Paul Marat and those who would later form the extreme left group of Jacques-René Hebert, including Charles Philippe Ronsin, Antoine-François Momoro, and François-Nicolas Vincent.
Until 1791 Danton’s role was that of a local agitator, not comparable to that of the leaders of the Assemblée constituante (1789-91) or the Assemblée legislative (1791-92). His profile was increased by his role as co-author of the petition against Louis XVI, following the latter’s Flight to Varenne, which caused a bloody repression of the petitioners by the National Guard under the orders of the constitutional monarchists La Fayette and the Major of Paris, Bailly, on 16 July 1791 (fusillade du Champ de Mars).
On 20 April 1792, the course of the Revolution was accelerated again, when the Girondins (the Parliamentary group of moderate Republicans led by Brissot) launched a war against Austria and Prussia, with the consent of Louis XVI, who was hoping to profit from the situation to re-establish his authority. The military situation rapidly turned against the French army. It was underequipped, too small, and was losing its aristocratic officers to political emigration. A foreign invasion of France began, by the armies of Austria, Prussia, Hesse and French monarchist emigrés. The Manifesto of the Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Prussian army, promised to burn Paris to the ground and execute summarily under military laws all authorities, judges and militants if any violence were committed against the French Royal family. The Manifesto backfired and strengthened the determination of the sans-culottes and the Parisian sections to take control of the National Guard and depose the Monarchy with a new field day of insurrection (Journée).
During the uprising of 10 August 1792, the people of Paris overwhelmed the Swiss mercenary troops and the Monarchist volunteers defending Louis XVI at the Palace of the Tuileries at the centre of Paris. The King and his family escaped to the Legislative Assembly to be protected, but the success of the insurrection forced the Assembly to suspend and detain the King and call new elections to form a National Convention. In the ensuing government Danton was appointed Justice Minister and interim leader of the government (President of the Provisional executive council) even if he was the lone left-wing Montagnard, surrounded by centrist Girondins, in the absence of a Prime Minister or head of State.
As the foreign armies approached Paris, a mob of sans-culottes invaded the prisons of Paris and massacred prisoners (nobles, former Swiss guards, priests refusing to swear allegiance to the Constitution, and many others unrelated), in order to eliminate possible supporters of the monarchy and of the invading forces. Danton did not try to stop the wave, which would have been impossible without losing the popular support that had brought him to power. He was repeatedly accused thereafter by the Girondins of having been responsible for the massacre of several thousand prisoners, but he also saved a number of prominent Girondins from arrest and execution, confronting Robespierre and Marat and cancelling orders of arrest issued by the sections.
Danton devoted his greatest efforts to gathering the energies needed to block the invasion and mobilise the nation against the Austro-Prussians in September 1792. With the French victory of Valmy (20 September 1792) the invasion was repelled and foreign armies withdrew. Immediately after, Danton decided to leave the government in October 1792 to occupy his seat at the newly elected Convention.
Danton also acquired a growing influence in the Club des Jacobins, and after 1792, as the leading voice of the Convention, where he represented the centrist wing of the Montagnards, always attempting mediation with the Girondins, despite their continuous attacks against him.
Danton was also the initiator of the early forms of revolutionary government. After the defeat of the French army in Belgium and the betrayal of General Dumouriez, who in March 1793 tried to march on Paris and install Philippe d'Orléans as King, Danton called for the creation of the Comité de Salut Public.The Committee was initially intended to control Ministers, but rapidly turned into a direct government of Parliament. Danton became its first member, from April to July 1793, directing French foreign policy and attempting secret negotiations for peace.
Danton also promoted the creation of the Revolutionary tribunal in March 1793, arguing that “we must be terrible to spare the people from being so”, « Soyons terribles pour dispenser le peuple de l’être. »1490, Danton, Discours, Convention, 9 mars 1793. Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860 (1901), Assemblée nationale. in order to prevent the repetition of the September massacres by the crowds of sans-culottes. Danton’s tribunal, however, was not initially the mass killing machine it later became under the “Grand Comité de Salut Public”, after his departure in July 1793, when he was replaced by Robespierre. The paroxysm of the Grande Terreur (June-July 1794) followed the death of Danton. Robespierre and Couthon at that time obtained the law of prairial, which politicized further the process of accusation, and eliminated the recourse to preliminary interrogation of suspects and to testimony, while limiting the possible sentences to death or freedom.
After a period of withdrawal from politics, after July 1793, when he was replaced by Robespierre, Danton returned to Paris in November 1793. He fought the extremist group of Hébert and argued, together with Fabre d’Églantine and Desmoulins, for an end to Terror, for clemency (indulgence) and peace. Robespierre sought the support of Danton and Desmoulins to fight the Hébertistes and the de-christianization movement, but wanted an end of the campaign for clemency, which he considered premature, given that the war was still raging and counter-revolutionaries were still at work.
When the corruption of Fabre d’Églantine in falsifying a decree for the liquidation of the Compagnie des Indes became evident and the Danton group refused to stop its campaign for clemency, Robespierre turned on Danton, despite multiple direct talks between the two. Robespierre acceded to the pressure by Billaud-Varenne and Saint-Just to incriminate Danton and his group of moderates, in order to counterbalance the execution of the extreme left of the Hébertistes a few days earlier, in March 1794. The issue was not only the corruption of the Dantonist group and personal enmities but also the fear that the end of the Terror without final victory, together with the search for peace, could only end with the fall of the Republic and the restoration of the Monarchy, maybe through the Orleans dynasty. The leader of the Comité de sureté générale, Vadier, supported by other members such as the painter David, also wanted the fall of Danton, promising that “we will gut that fat stuffed turbot”.
On the night of 30 March 1794, a joint meeting of the Comité de Salut Public and the Comité de sureté générale decided on the arrest of Danton, Desmoulins, Philippeaux and Lacroix; all of them were to be tried together with Fabre and Hérault de Séchelles, already arrested, as well as others accused of corruption, as different charges were unified in a single accusation. The parlamentarians were sent to the Revolutionary tribunal without letting them respond in front of the Assembly, for fear of Danton’s overwhelming oratorical power. During the meeting of the joint committees only Robert Lindet refused to sign the arrest warrant, declaring that he had been appointed to feed the citizens, not to kill patriots. Lindet sent advance warning to Danton to escape, but Danton refused to run, declaring that “you can’t carry your homeland under the sole of your shoes”. “On n’emporte pas sa patrie sous la semelle de ses souliers”.
The day after, during a dramatic session at the Convention, Legendre announced “Legendre annonce que quatre membres de l’assemblée ont étés arrêtés dans la nuit. Danton est du nombre ; il le croit aussi pur que lui. (Murmures) il rappelle qu’il fit lever la France entière en 1792; il craint que les haines particulières et les passions individuelles n’arrachent à la liberté des hommes qui lui ont rendu le plus grands, les plus utiles services, et demande qu’avant que d’entendre aucun rapport, les détenus soient entendus à la barre. » Révolution française ou analyse complette et impartiale du Moniteur, tome second, Paris, chez Girardin, 1801, n. 192, du 12 germinal (1 avril), an II de la République (1794), p. 405. the arrest of Danton and defended his innocence, recalling how Danton had saved France in 1792; as Legendre put it, he was attacked out of envy and had the right to defend himself in front of the Convention before a vote against him. Robespierre responded with an implicit threat that the Convention had the choice between breaking the rotten idol of Danton or being overthrown. Whoever feared acting was demonstrating his own culpability. « Nous verrons dans ce jour si la Convention saura briser une prétendue idole pourrie depuis longtemps, ou si, dans sa chute elle écrasera la Convention et le peuple français. » « Je dis que quiconque tremble en ce moment, est coupable ; car jamais l’innocence ne redoute la surveillance publique » Révolution française ou analyse complète et impartiale du Moniteur, tome second, Paris, chez Girardin, 1801, n. 192, du 12 germinal (1 avril), an II de la République (1794), p. 405. Effectively threatened with the guillotine if he persisted, Legendre withdrew his support for Danton and submitted.
As he had already done a week earlier in relation to the accusation against the Hébertistes, Saint-Just had put together a report to the Convention, largely based on Robespierre’s previously prepared notes and hardened further by the Incorruptible. The harshness of the reproaches accumulated over three years by Robespierre suggest that his previous alliance with Danton was a matter of temporary opportunity for him rather than a shared vision.
Saint-Just presented his report to a totally silent and intimidated assembly. Danton was accused of having been corrupted by Mirabeau on behalf of Louis XVI, having acted on behalf of the pretender Philippe d’Orléans, in agreement with the traitors Brissot and Dumouriez, and of ultimately seeking a restoration of the monarchy (in the liberal form that it ultimately took after the Revolution of 1830 under Louis Philippe d’Orléans).
Saint-Just accused Danton of multiple political, financial and moral crimes, reinterpreting his role over five years of Revolution as a great deception, in that Danton had always meant the opposite of what he had said and done. Danton’s hesitations, his radicalism turning into moderation, and his adaptability to an ever changing political situation and obstacles were systematically presented as an endless series of conspiracies, revealing Saint-Just’s mixture of inflexible fanaticism and neurosis. Saint-Just addressed Danton as if he were present, as though the young orator had wished to humiliate his enemy face to face: “Your speeches at the tribune began as thunder and ended up mixing truth and lies.” “Tu te déclarais pour les principes modérés, et tes formes robustes semblaient déguiser la faiblesse de tes conseils ; tu disais que des maximes sévères feraient trop d’ennemis à la République. Conciliateur banal, tous tes exordes à la tribune commençaient comme le tonnerre et finissaient par faire transiger la vérité et le mensonge. » “Il y a donc une conjuration tramée depuis plusieurs années pour absorber la révolution française dans un changement de dynastie. Les factions de Mirabeau, des Lameth, de Lafayette, de Brissot, de d’Orléans, de Dumouriez, de Carra, d’Hébert ; les factions de Chabot, de Fabre, de Danton, ont concouru progressivement à ce but par tous les moyens qui pouvaient empêcher la République de s’établir, et son gouvernement de s’affermir. » “Ceux qui depuis quatre ans ont conspiré sous le voile du patriotisme, aujourd’hui que la justice les menaces, répètent de mot de Vergnaud : La révolution est comme Saturne ; elle dévorera tous ses enfants. Hébert répétait ce mot pendant son procès ; il est répété par tous ceux qui tremblent et qui se voient démasqués. Non la Révolution ne dévorera pas ses enfants, mais ses ennemis, de quelque masque impénétrable qu’ils se soient couverts ! » « Soyez donc inflexibles : c’est l’indulgence qui est féroce, puisqu’elle menace la Patrie. » « Quand les restes de la faction d’Orléans, dévoués aujourd’hui à tous les attentats contre la patrie, n’existeront plus, vous n’aurez plus d’exemple à donner vous serez paisibles. » « Ceux que j’ai dénoncés n’ont jamais connu de patrie ; il se sont enrichis par des forfaits, ce n’est point leur faute si vous existez. Il n’est point de crime qu’ils n’aient protégé, point de traitre qu’ils n’aient excusé : avares, égoistes, apologistes des vices, rhéteurs, et non pas amis de la liberté, la république est incompatible avec eux, ils ont besoin des jouissances qui s’acquièrent aux dépens de l’égalité ; ils sont insatiables d’influence. » Convention nationale. Rapport fait à la Convention nationale, au nom des Comités de Sûreté Générale e de Salut Public, sur la conjuration ourdie depuis plusieurs années par les factions criminelles, pour absorber la Révolution Française dans un changement de dynastie ; et contre Fabre-d’Églantine, Danton, Philippeaux, Lacroix et Camille-Desmoulins, prévenus de complicité dans ces Factions, et d’autres délits personnels contre la Liberté ; Par St.-Just ; Imprimé par ordre de la Convention nationale. Séance du 11 Germinal. A’ Paris, de l’imprimerie nationale exécutive du Louvre. An II.e de la République. He claimed that “there are no criminals they [Danton and his friends] have not protected, no traitor they have not excused : greedy, selfish, apologists of vice, rhetorical speakers but not friends of liberty, the Republic is incompatible with them, they need the pleasures that are acquired at the expense of equality, they are insatiable of influence.”
The Convention lamely voted in favour of the trial and for the publication of Saint-Just’s rhetorical efforts.
Danton’s defence was developed during the trial, but was cut short and not recorded officially. The official reporting of the first day of the trial limited Danton’s words to “interrogated on his name and place of residence, he responded: my residence will soon be in annihilation whereas you will find my name in the pantheon of History.” «Interrogé sur son nom et sa demeure, a répondu : ma demeure sera bientôt dans le néant, quant [à] mon nom, vous le trouverez dans le panthéon de l’histoire. » Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, n. 195. Quintidi, 15 Germinal, l’an 2 de la République Française une et indivisible (v. 4 avril 1794, vieux style.), p. 4. The section entitled Tribunal criminel révolutionnaire, indicated that they were “accusés de complicité avec d’Orléans, Dumourier [sic], et d’autres ennemis de la République, d’avoir trempé dans la conspiration tendante à rétablir la monarchie, détruire la représentation nationale, le gouvernement républicain. »
In the notes of one of the jurors of the trial more elements of substance emerge, despite the censorship otherwise decided by the tribunal following the orders of the Comités; the selection of dependable jurors against Danton had been so difficult that only seven were found, instead of the twelve required by law. Sccording to these notes, Danton exploded: “Me, corrupt? Men of my temper are beyond price”, challenging the tribunal to provide any proof, semi-proof, or indications of his venality. “Danton: Moi vendu? Un homme da ma trempe est impayable! La preuve ! …Que l’Accusateur, qui m’accuse d’après la Convention, administre la preuve, les semi-preuves, les indices de ma vénalité ! » Notes de Topino-Lebrun Juré au Tribunal Révolutionnaire de Paris sur le procès de Danton et su Fouquier-Tinville. Publiés par J. F.E : Cherdoillet, Paris, Jules Baudet Libraire-éditeur, 1875.
Danton alternated thundering speeches, grandstanding, reminders of his central role in key passages of the Revolution and moments of resignation (“I have served too much. Life owes me!”) “J’ai trop servi. La vie m’est à charge”, Louis Madelin, Danton, Paris, Hachette, 1914, p. 300. . The interpretation of Danton by Gerard Depardieu in Andrzej Wajda’s film of 1980, based on the theatrical piece L'affaire Danton, provides an epic, tragic and grandiose representation of the struggle.
Danton, like his co-defendants, were silenced on the third day of the trial by a decree of the Convention, using as a pretext an invented plot in the prisons to save them, supposedly organised and funded by the wife of Desmoulins. Danton furiously shouted, «Moi conspirateur! Mon nom est accosté à toutes les institutions révolutionnaires : levée, armée révolutionnaire, comités révolutionnaires, Comité de salut Public, Tribunal révolutionnaire, : c’est moi qui me suis donné la mort, et je suis un modéré!». Louis Madelin, Danton, Paris, Hachette, 1914, pp. 309-310. “Me a conspirator! My name is associated with all revolutionary institutions: call to arms, revolutionary army, revolutionary committees, Comité de salut Public, revolutionary Tribunal: it is I who have given myself death, and I am a moderate!”
Danton’s death was theoretically not inevitable, as Marat had shown by defeating his enemies when put under trial in 1793. However, the determination of the Comités to have him executed and the political selection of the jurors did not leave much hope. Danton never had any real expectation of winning and fought for his historical reputation with the energy of his best moments. The defendants were all sentenced to death on 5 April 1794 and immediately executed at the Place de la Révolution (today Place de la Concorde).
Danton foretold during the trial that Robespierre and the Comités would not survive him by three months and would end like him on the guillotine. When Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were indeed sent to the guillotine on 28 July 1794 (10 Thérmidor an II), the executions had been moved to the Barrière du trône, because of the complaints Colin Jones, The Fall of Robespierre, 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021 about the stench of the blood which was falling so copiously from the scaffold that it was impossible to clear it entirely. The temporary commander-in-chief of the Guarde Nationale, appointed by the Convention for the arrest of the Robespierrists and their execution, Barras, ordered the president of the Revolutionary tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, to reinstate temporarily the original location of the executions, The executions had been moved from the Place de la Revolution to the Barrière du Trone. Barras ordered Fouquier-Tinville “Qu’on y retourne, lui répondis-je avec un geste déterminé : la route est de passer devant la maison de Robespierre : il faut que la prédiction s’accomplisse ! –Pauvre Danton ! dit Fouquier–Tinville d’un air tout attendri : était-ce là un patriote ! » croyant, le fourbe autant que cruel Fouquier, faire oublier par cette démonstration piteuse que lui Fouquier avait été le premier égorgeur de Danton ! La prédiction de Danton dont je veux parler est celle que j’ai raconté plus haut à l’instant du supplice de ce patriote si énergique, de ce véritable géant révolutionnaire, lorsque passant devant la maison de Robespierre placée sur la route du supplice, Danton lança la terrible imprécation prophétique : « Tu nous suivra ». Mémoires de Barras, membre du Directoire, publiées par Georges Duruy, 3 vols., Paris, Hachette, 1895, vol. I, p. 199-200. because the prophecy of Danton had to materialise. During the trial Danton had said, “whatever they say, our glory is certain; we will mount the scaffolds, but the people will tear to pieces our enemies when we will be no more”. Danton said, « Quoi qu’on dise, notre gloire est certaine; nous irons à l’échafaud, mai le people déchirera nos ennemis par lambeaux quand nous ne serons plus.» Later he repeated the message « Le peuple déchirera mes ennemis avant trois mois. » Madelin, Danton, pp. 301 and p. 304.
The Sculpture of Danton as the heroic leader of the Republic
After a negative judgement on Danton by many early nineteenth-century authors, some of these professional historians (such as Thiers) but mostly romantic writers who ventured into history (Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Louis Blanc), the Third Republic (1870-1940) saw a favourable re-evaluation of Danton as a revolutionary figure, in particular by Alphonse Aulard, a professional historian, and the first professor of history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne in Paris.
The Third Republic initially rested on an uncertain basis, with a monarchist Parliamentary majority supported by the conservatism of provincial France. By 1881 the Radical Republican Party had obtained the majority alone in the Paris City Council and launched a didactic republican programme through the creation of statues in the streets and squares of the French capital, in which programme the 100 years of Parisian revolutions played a large role. Jacques Lanfranchi, Les statues des héros à Paris. Le Lumières dans la ville, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2013. The radicals identified in Danton and Desmoulins the most progressive representatives of the values of 1789 and 1792, untainted by the association with the bloodbath of the Terreur. In 1887 the City of Paris decided to launch a competition to produce a statue of Danton to be inaugurated in 1889 for the centenary of the beginning of the French Revolution, on Boulevard Saint Germain, where Danton’s house, later demolished, had beenlocated. The celebration in 1889 was a popular success and produced an enormous outflow of memorabilia, but the statue was actually inaugurated « Paris un musée à ciel ouvert » : la Révolution - Ville de Paris, https://www.paris.fr/pages/l-histoire-au-coin-de-la-rue-la-revolution-16749#danton only in 1891, as great public works are naturally concluded late in all historical periods. The winning entry by the sculptor Auguste Paris celebrated Danton as a calm, authoritative, decisive wartime leader, inspiring in 1792 a younger generation to fight successfully a German-speaking invader. The reference was obviously to the Revanche, a common desire after the rout of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
The statue we examine here https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monument_%C3%A0_Danton_(Tarbes) arrived second out of 66 entries in the Parisian competition, but was acquired by the city of Tarbes (in southern France, a short distance from Lourdes) in 1901 and installed in 1903. It was sculpted by Edmond Desca (1855-1918). During WWII the statue was dismounted in the framework of Vichy’s programme to purge the monumental memory of the Republic with the excuse of recycling precious metals in support of the war effort of the Nazi occupants. It was, however, saved because it was hidden by the firm in charge of recycling it, and was returned to its pedestal after the Liberation.
Desca’s Danton in Tarbes is less classically elegant in its gestures and calmly authoritative than his Parisian counterpart. It has however a more nervous and realistic energy in the movement of the tribune while he imposes his discourse of national mobilisation and audacity on the audience. It is a less idealized representation of the tension of the moment, with the strained muscles of the “athlete of the revolution”, as Danton nicknamed himself, referring to his imposing and strong figure, and rough face, scarred in childhood by smallpox and the effects of being run over by a bull and pigs. The famous speech referred to in the Parisian statue was pronounced on 2 September 1792, when the Austro-Prussian troops were less than 200 km from Paris and the Girondin Ministers suggested evacuating the capital to escape imminent occupation. Danton instead remobilized the government and the people with a famous speech containing the rousing sentence "To conquer them we must dare, dare again, always dare, and France is saved!". On a less glorified level, apparently the locals in Tarbes argued that the gesture of Danton’s statue served to indicate the way to follow to reach the café in the square.
Meanwhile, even if the right wing of the Parisian City Council criticized the choice to erect a statue to celebrate the man responsible for the massacres of September 1792 and the creation of the Revolutionary tribunal in 1793, an even more stinging criticism came from the left.
The Sculpture of Danton as a lascivious, corrupt opportunist
A student of Aulard, the Robespierrist Albert Mathiez challenged from the left the rehabilitation of Danton with a series of publications analysing the growth of his wealth through the revolution, with the repayment of previous debts and multiple purchases of houses and land.
For Mathiez the question of the final judgement of history on Danton had become urgent because the statues dedicated to him marked an unjust rehabilitation and unfair condemnation of the great republicans who had convicted him. When speaking in 1927 to a vast array of audiences, first the free masons, then the popular university of Saint-Denis (a bastion of the French Communist party and of the memory of the Commune de Paris) and to the general assembly of the teachers’ trade union, Mathiez was trying to restore the Robespierrist orthodoxy on the left. His speech « De quoi s’agit-il? Il s’agit de savoir si les politiques et les publicistes qui, en 1887 et en 1891, ont élevé une statue à Danton à Arcis-sur-Aube, son pays, d’abord, à Paris ensuite, si ces hommes qui ont prétendu réhabiliter le grand corrompu, un siècle après son supplice, ont eu raison contre la Convention nationale unanime, contre le tribunal révolutionnaire unanime, contre les contemporains unanimes, contre tous les Républicains de la première moitié du XIX siècle unanimes. » « Ce n’est pas une raison parce que Danton, qui fut le suprême espoir et le protecteur constant de tous les Royalistes et de tous les fripons de son temps, fait partie aujourd’hui du mobilier culturel de notre troisième République, ce n’est pas une raison que nous devions nous incliner devant sa statue en jetant de la boue sur les grands républicains qui ont eu le courage de châtier ses vilenies et ses trahisons ». “Danton. L’histoire et la légende”, in Albert Mathiez, Girondins et Montagnards, Paris, Firmin Didot, 1930, pp. 260-263. opened in this way: “What is this about? It is about establishing whether politicians and publicists who, in 1887 and 1891, have raised a statue to Danton, first in his hometown Arcis-sur-Aube, and then in Paris, if these men who have pretended to rehabilitate the great corrupt, a century after his execution, have been right against a unanimous National Convention, against the unanimous revolutionary tribunal, against the unanimous contemporaries, against all the Republicans of the first half of the nineteenth century.” Mathiez continued arguing, in perfect continuity with Robespierre and Saint-Just, that Danton “had been the supreme hope and constant protector of all the Royalists and all the mischief-makers of his time”, that he had been “venal, corrupt, in league with the enemies of the Revolution, internal and external, to destroy the Republic, make peace, provoke a restoration.” All the arguments against Danton were accepted, and all the achievements acknowledged by his contemporaries were denied, in a totally unbalanced manner.
The most convincing piece of argument about Danton’s corruption by Mathiez was the correspondence between the parliamentary leader of the early Revolution, Mirabeau, and others who had organized for him a secret political police in defence of the monarchy with an extensive program to bribe revolutionary figures to purchase support for the King. Mirabeau complained with his accomplice that the 30.000 livres paid to Danton had been useless, as the latter immediately published an attack against Mirabeau himself.
Mathiez accumulated whatever rumours or political attacks had been produced against Danton to give credit to his critique. But the general picture of a supporter, alternately, of Louis XVI, of Philippe d’Orléans, Mirabeau, Dumouriez or of whichever possible corrupted figure was available, is not credible, in that it was at odds with the overall results of the actions of Danton. It would have taken an incredible level of incompetence, stupidity and confusion to have created a Republic while wanting a Monarchy, to have roused a national defence while wanting shameful surrender, and to have created Revolutionary institutions while wanting a Restoration.
An anonymous terracotta sculpture of Danton, conceived as an unpainted tobacco pot, probably from the late nineteenth century, embodies very well the Mathiez view. Danton is shown kneeling in fear of the retribution awaiting him, holding a coin tightly in his hands, a symbol of the price for his corruption. His athletic features have been transformed into obesity. His wig has an even more old-style appearance than usual, probably to suggest his links with the pretender Philippe d’Orléans. The pot can be opened by beheading Danton, suggesting his fate on the guillotine. Other similar tobacco pots of the period could be opened by lifting the waist of the sculpture, but were devoid of this ferocious satirical intent, so this appears like a deliberate choice.
Danton was considered for a long time too revolutionary for conservatives and liberals and too moderate for socialists and communists, so he was the icon of moderate centre-left republican radical-socialists. The dramatic opposition between the divided Dioscuri of the Revolution, Danton and Robespierre, in character, lifestyle, rhetorical style, and political choices made the subsequent supporters of the historical role of the latter also the enemies of the former and vice versa.
Today’s historical judgement tends to recognize that it is highly probable that Danton accepted a number of bribes yet that this did not substantially affect either his personal behaviour or the course of the Revolution (as Mirabeau’s disappointment in 1791 revealed). Danton never believed in Virtue as a founding component of the Republic, unlike Robespierre, and supported Terror only for a limited time. He had the political gifts of energy, timing and oratorical prowess, without the principles, consistency and honesty expected of a great leader. His great contribution to the advancement of the Revolution, and to the transformation of France and Europe that came from its development in 1789-99, are sufficiently important to confirm his place in history and on the pedestals of French cities, despite his great personal defects.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics