Danton, Georges-Jacques

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DANTON, GEORGES-JACQUES (1759–1794), French lawyer and revolutionary.

An unknown and thoroughly respectable young lawyer in Paris at the outset of the French Revolution, Georges-Jacques Danton quickly achieved celebrity as a neighborhood militant spearheading a grass-roots challenge to the constitutional monarchists who had come to power in July 1789. Having thereby acquired his revolutionary bona fides as a tribune of the Parisian popular movement, he rode a powerful wave of revolutionary radicalization to a position of ever-increasing prominence on the national political stage until emerging as the most influential member of the provisional government established after the fall of the monarchy on 10 August 1792. Over the next year, as a leading figure in the National Convention (which proclaimed the First French Republic on 20 September 1792) and a key member of that body's first Committee of Public Safety, a pragmatic and conciliatory strain within his temperament came to the fore as he grappled with the responsibilities of power and sought to moderate and defuse an increasingly venomous struggle between the factions known to history as "Jacobins" and "Girondins." After the June 1793 purge of the Girondins, however, revolutionary power gravitated toward the more consistently radical and more ostentatiously virtuous Maximilien-Francois-Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758–1794), and Danton passed into the ranks of the political opposition. Targeted by Robespierre and his allies on the second Committee of Public Safety as the leader of a faction of "Indulgents" who aimed to dismantle the Reign of Terror then raging, Danton was arrested on 31 March 1794. After a perfunctory trial over which the governing Committee exerted almost total control, he was guillotined on 5 April 1794.

Immortalized in statue form at the Odéon Métro stop entrance in Paris, Danton is universally regarded as one of the "giants of the French Revolution," a status which largely rests on the central role that he played in rallying French resistance to Prussian invaders who, in September 1792, seemed to be on the verge of crushing the Revolution. Indeed, as a figure that calls up associations to the patriotic fervor that accompanied the Revolution and to its efforts to forge a new sense of national unity, Danton can be seen as a worthy candidate for such immortalization. As a revolutionary politician, however, Danton's approach to politics was oddly antithetical to what might be thought of as the "spirit of the Revolution." For in contrast to the insistence of any number of historians that the fundamental driving force of the French Revolution was an attempt to remake the world according to a preconceived ideological blueprint, Danton, unlike his nemesis Robespierre, made his mark in history as more of a political wheeler and dealer than an ideological visionary, as more of a working democratic politician than an embodiment of abstract democratic values.

First attracting attention as the leader of the Cordeliers district on Paris's Left Bank, the affable and gregarious Danton owed his early political clout to the building of what amounted to a highly effective urban political machine through which favors were dispensed to and loyalty secured from a tight network of friends and associates, a number of whom (most notably Camille Desmoulins [1760–1794] and Philippe-Francois-Nazaire Fabre d'Eglantine [1750–1794]) stayed with him until the day they mounted the scaffold together. Moreover, further demonstrating his intuitive grasp of the way working democratic politicians tend to operate, Danton quickly developed what historian Norman Hampson calls the "habit of conforming to revolutionary extremism in public while pursuing limited and realistic objectives in private" (p. 30). Thus, while continuing to employ radical rhetoric to sustain his revolutionary credibility, even as he ascended to the corridors of power, his approach to the art of governing seemed to revolve around a deeply ingrained inclination to accommodate and conciliate as wide a spectrum of political opinion as possible.

But however viable such an approach might be for a politician seeking to govern under normal political conditions, one wonders just how realistic it may actually have been in the boiling caldron that was the French Revolution. In any event, Danton was unable to sustain the delicate balancing act through which he sought to rein in the Revolution while simultaneously attempting to retain the support of "advanced patriots." More specifically, with respect to the attempt to reassure moderate and conservative elements, his attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the invading Prussians and Austrians ended in failure and his schemes to save Louis XVI (1754–1793) and Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) all came to naught. At the same time, however ferocious a tone he may have sounded in his legendary oratory, he was always subject to being "outbid" by the new waves of revolutionary militancy that were continually emerging in the neighborhoods of the capital. Like a series of other would-be guides of the Revolution (Jacques Necker [1732–1804], Marie Joseph Paul Lafayette

[1757–1834], comte de Mirabeau [1749–1791], Antione-Pierre-Joseph-Marie Barnave [1761–1793], and Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville [1754–1793]) whose revolutionary credentials were ground to dust through their efforts to construct some kind of broad governing coalition, Danton, too, found that he could not "ride the revolutionary tiger." Indeed, it can be said that the Dantonist phase of the French Revolution came to an end on 10 July 1793, when the Convention, rendering what amounted to a parliamentary vote of no confidence, removed him from the Committee of Public Safety; a new government was put in place two weeks later when Robespierre was added to the Committee.

Apparently subject throughout the years of the Revolution to severe mood swings, which might today be diagnosed as a form of bipolar disorder, Danton largely withdrew from political life in the months following this reorganization of the Committee of Public Safety. Claiming illness, he received permission from the Convention in early October 1793 to retire to his native town of Arcis-sur-Aube in Champagne. In mid-November, however, he returned to the fray and, though operating largely behind the scenes, seems to have been deeply involved in maneuvers to overturn the Robespierrist Committee. In any event, whatever actual role he and his fellow Indulgents might have played in attempting, through their campaign against the Terror, to undermine the rule of the Committee, it is clear that the Committee regarded Danton as, at the very least, a serious potential threat to its continued dominance. In the lethal atmosphere of 1793–1794, there was, in fact, no space for legitimate opposition; no middle ground, that is, between providing unwavering support for the government and being seen as conspiring against it.

Temperamentally inclined toward compromise and flexibility and also rather easygoing when it came to standards of personal probity (put bluntly, he was apparently not at all adverse to having his palms greased), the pleasure-loving Danton served for generations in many Marxist and Jacobin histories of the French Revolution as a corrupt foil to the austere and ideologically pure Robespierre. In the late twentieth century, with the advent of global "neo-liberalism" in the post–Cold War world, the same constellation of traits won him praise for personifying a heroic resistance to alleged Robespierrist proto-totalitarianism. Yet, however valid it may be to think of Danton as either, in abstract terms, a corrupt or heroic embodiment of "anti-Robespierrism" or "anti-Jacobinism," it should also be recalled that Danton and Robespierre worked in tandem through the early years of the Revolution and that Danton played a significant role in establishing the Jacobin institutions that he would later turn against. In particular, it should be noted that, in his efforts to appease the Parisian popular movement ("let us," he said, "be terrible to dispense the people from the need to be terrible themselves"), it was Danton who spearheaded the Convention's creation of the infamous Revolutionary Tribunal on 10 March 1793.

With this in mind, it might be worth looking more closely at one especially crucial moment in Danton's short life: his decision to return to the political fray in November 1793. Surely this astute political player knew that he would be putting himself in harm's way, that he would have a far better chance of avoiding being engulfed by the dynamics of revolutionary repression that had already overtaken the constitutional monarchists and the Girondins if he quietly remained in Champagne. As something of an adventurer and a gambler, Danton may possibly have had an exaggerated idea of his own ability to influence events and may even have thought that he had a decent chance of regaining power. Or it may be that he was partially impelled by a strong sense of loyalty to friends and associates still politically active in Paris. One wonders, however, whether some sense of responsibility and/or guilt for his own role in nurturing the dynamics of repression may have had something to do with his decision to return: whether, that is, his participation in the campaign for indulgence was to at least some degree motivated by a desire to undo some of the damage that he himself had done. In any event, whatever factors may have led him to this choice, the return to Paris was a return to what Danton knew was a deadly political game, a game from which there would be no further opportunities for escape.

See alsoCommittee of Public Safety; French Revolution; Girondins; Jacobins; Reign of Terror.


Primary Sources

Danton, Georges-Jacques. Discours de Danton. Edited by André Fribourg. Paris, 1910.

Secondary Sources

Hampson, Norman. Danton. New York, 1978.

Howell, Michael W. "Danton and the First Republic." Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1982.

Mathiez, Albert. Autour de Danton. Paris, 1926.

Mirkine-Guetzévitch, Boris. "Le parlementarisme sous la Convention nationale." Revue du droit public et de la science politique en France et à l'étranger (1935): 671–700.

Ozouf, Mona. "Danton." In A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, 213–223. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Barry M. Shapiro

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