The French statesman Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794) was a leader during the French Revolution. Called the "orator of the streets," he was the most prominent early defender of popular liberties and the republican spirit.
Born in Arcis-sur-Aube in Champagne on Oct. 26, 1759, Georges Jacques Danton was the son of a lawyer and minor court official. He was educated by the Oratorians at Troyes and in 1785 earned a degree in law at the University of Reims. He was employed in the office of public prosecutor in Paris and in 1787 purchased the office of advocate to the King's Council.
Danton's massive stature, ready wit (which did much to overcome his physical ugliness), stentorious voice, and impromptu and fiery speeches made the public accept him as its champion of liberty. Danton was a pragmatist who believed that the Revolution could only succeed if it limited its program to the possible, which meant upholding the rights of property, ending the war as quickly as possible by negotiation, and restoring order through a strong central government.
Danton had tendencies toward laziness and the dissolute life, which often blunted the force of his actions and made him appear capricious and unreliable to many of his contemporaries. There seems to be little doubt that he was implicated in financial corruption, but this appears more the result of thoughtlessness than a deliberate attempt to profit from the Revolution. At heart Danton appears to have been less a radical than an energetic and undisciplined individualist whose personality and the force of circumstances enabled him to become a great popular leader.
Danton's part in founding the Cordeliers Club, which became the advance guard of popular revolutionary activity, suggests that from the beginning of the Revolution he inclined toward the "people's cause." He was involved in the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and was the most outspoken critic of the commune and the Marquis de Lafayette. Following King Louis XVI's unsuccessful flight in June 1791, Danton was among those who called for the creation of a republic, and his speeches were considered responsible for the popular agitation that culminated in the massacre of the Champ de Mars.
In December 1791 Danton was elected first deputy prosecutor of the Paris Commune. Following the invasion of the Tuileries on June 20, 1792, he was elected president of the Théâtre Française Electoral District. He spoke out against the distinction between active and passive citizens and thus became one of the first to espouse the modern conception of the legal equality of all citizens. At the same time he began to play the primary role in the conspiracy that led to the overthrow of the monarchy on Aug. 10, 1792. He had become convinced, as had others, that as long as the monarchy continued to exist the Revolution would be endangered.
Danton was subsequently named minister of justice and became the predominant member of the Executive Committee. In this capacity he rallied the nation against the invading Prussians. It appears that he could have done little to prevent the September Massacres (1792), but his silent complicity in them deepened the split between himself and the Rolandists, which did much to force the trial of the King. Although Danton opposed this trial since it would make a negotiated peace impossible, he eventually voted in favor of execution of the King.
During this period Danton delivered his famous speech to the National Convention, which stated that to protect the Revolution it was necessary for France to secure its natural boundaries, although this might mean a perpetuation of the war. On April 6, 1793, he was elected to the newly established Committee of Public Safety and to the Revolutionary Tribunal; he was thus enabled to act as an emergency dictator. Although Danton believed that it was necessary to destroy internal dissent, his diplomatic policies continued to be moderate. He thus alienated the Commune, which began to look to Robespierre and more radical Jacobins for leadership. Setbacks in the Vandée and his attempted protection of the Girondists, even after their exclusion from the National Convention, resulted in Danton's not being reelected to the Committee on July 10, 1793. The leadership of the Revolution passed to Robespierre.
In October Danton retired to his home in Arcis; he returned to Paris the following month at the insistence of his friends, who feared Robespierre's terrorist policies. The increasingly radical demands of the Hébertists, however, were more frightening to Danton, and he lent his support to Robespierre. After the Hébertists had been suppressed, Robespierre moved against Danton, who had called for an end to the Terror. Danton and his followers were arrested and tried for antirevolutionary activity. On April 5, 1794, Danton went to the guillotine, which he had vowed to either pull down or die beneath.
Danton has been the subject of a controversial literature. His great supporter was Alphonse Aulard, who unfortunately never wrote a biography of his hero. However, Aulard's The French Revolution: A Political History, 1789-1804 (1901; trans., 4 vols., 1910) clearly indicates his admiration for Danton as the greatest example of revolutionary spirit. Louis Madelin, Danton (1914; trans. 1921), and his vignette of Danton in Figures of the Revolution (1928; trans. 1929) offer a more moderate but still favorable interpretation in which Danton's realism is praised. On the other side of the ledger are the works of Albert Mathiez, which condemn Danton as corrupt, vacillating in his diplomacy, insensitive to popular needs, and the tool of Orléans. Unfortunately, none of these works is in translation. Something of Mathiez's approach permeates Robert Christophe, Danton: A Biography (trans. 1967). Probably the best biography is Hermann Wendel, Danton (1930; trans. 1935), which provides an even and thoughtful approach.
Hampson, Norman, Danton, Oxford, UK; New York, NY, USA:B. Blackwell, 1988, 1978.