Danton, Georges Jacques (1759—1794)
A French revolutionist, Danton was one of the chief organizers of the Republic once Louis XVI could no longer be king. Carlyle called him the Tital of the Revolution and certainly its greatest figure after Mirabeau.
In the alarm caused by the invasion, he urged a bold and resolute policy. Danton was a member of the Convention and of the Committee of Public Safety. At the crisis of the struggle with Robespierre, who charged him with atheism, Danton declined to strike the first blow and disdained to flee. With all his faults, said Carlyle, “he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.” Some of his phrases were like pyramids, standing sublime above the drifting sand of human speech. It was he who advised “daring, and still daring, and ever daring.” It was he who cried, “The coalesced kings of Europe threaten us, and as our gage of battle we fling before them the head of a king.” It was he who exclaimed, in a rapture of patriotism, “Let my name be blighted, so that France be free.” “They dare not” arrest him, he said; but he was soon a prisoner in the Luxembourg. “What is your name and abode?” they asked him at the tribunal. “My name is Danton,” he answered, “a name tolerably known in the Revolution: my abode will soon be Annihilation; but I shall live in the Pantheon of History.” Replying to his infamous indictment, his magnificent voice “reverberated with the roar of a lion in the toils.” The President rang his bell, enjoining calmness, said Carlyle, in a vehement manner, “What is it to thee how I defend myself?” cried Danton; “the right of dooming me is thine always. The voice of a man speaking for his honor and life may well drown the jingling of thy bell!”
G. W. Foote describes how, on the way to the guillotine, Danton bore himself proudly. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
- Poor Camille Desmoulins struggled and writhed in the cart, which was surrounded by a howling mob. “Calm, my friend,” said Danton, “heed not that vile canaille.” Herault de Sechelles, whose turn it was to die first, tried to embrace his friend, but the executioners prevented him. “Fools,” said Danton, “you cannot prevent our heads from meeting in the basket.” At the foot of the scaffold the thought of home flashed through his mind. “O my wife,” he exclaimed, “my well-beloved, I shall never see thee more then.” But recovering himself, he said, “Danton, no, weakness!” Looking the executioner in the face, he cried with his great voice, “You will show my head to the crowd; it is worth showing; you don’t see the like in these days.” The next minute that head, the one that might have guided France best, wrote Foote, was severed from his body by the knife of the guillotine. “What a man this Danton was! With his Herculean form, his huge black head, his mighty voice, his passionate nature, his fiery courage, his poignant wit, his geniality, and his freedom from cant, he was a splendid and unique figure.”
An atheist, Foote continued, “he perished in trying to arrest bloodshed. Robespierre, the Deist, continued the bloodshed till it drowned him. The two men were as diverse in nature as in creed, and Danton killed by Robespierre, as Courtois said, was Pyrrhus killed by a woman!”