Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Georges-Jacques Danton

It was exciting for me to see at least the vicinity of the home in which Danton lived with his first wife, Gabrielle.  Even though Baron Haussman's work would've rendered the neighborhood completely unrecognizable to even Danton and his neighbors, I hoped I'd feel their spirits and maybe they'd contact me.  I don't know why they'd finally contact me there when no spirit has ever contacted me, ever, anywhere,  but still I hope!

Georges-Jacques Danton was a rough hewn, aggressive, violent, financial opportunist, orator, revolutionary, friend of the people.  He's portrayed positively and negatively and not much in-between.  I like the positive version, probably because of Stanley Loomis' sympathetic (sympathetic, meaning he put as positive a spin as possible on a guy like Danton - Danton wasn't the kind of person that invited sympathy.  He would've probably scorned sympathy.) portrayal of him in Paris in the Terror made him the first (Desmoulins being the second) Revolutionary that I felt affectionately toward.

Here are the first things that come to mind when I think of Danton:

     He loved his first wife, Gabrielle, with whom he had children.  Robespierre kept a private notebook which was discovered among his papers when he died.  In it, he hinted at his jealousy and resentment of Danton's virility and masculinity by quoting Danton as forcefully responding, when he (Robespierre) mentioned Virtue, that Virtue was "what he did to his wife every night" or, as the notebook was quoted elsewhere, "the best kind of virtue is the virtue I do to my wife every night." Robespierre had a certain prissiness about him, not to mention a celibacy, and took offense to that.  Gabrielle, a devout Catholic, shamed by her husband's disavowal of religion and his role in the September Massacres, died suddenly, while he was out of town.  He hurriedly returned to Paris and insisted that she be disinterred (a week after she died), held her and wept at her graveside.  I just gotta love a guy like that.  (I hope it was winter, but think it may have been summer, which makes that story considerably less appealing.)  True love not-with-standing, mere months after his beloved's death, he married a fifteen-year-old.

Moving on...

     A couple of years ago, I found a scholarly article online that I've never read referenced anywhere.  It raises some questions.  Here is its preface.:


AMONG the papers of the late Andrew D. White, Professor George L. Burr was found a photographic reproduction of a letter, which seems to be in the hand of Danton, addressed to Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie. This brief and curious letter reads as follows:

"A la citoyenne Marie Antoinette Cei-devt Reine de France a la Conciergerie a Paris Citoyenne vous mettrez sur votre porte ces mots- Unite indivisibilité de la Republique liberte egalite fraternite ou la mort Signe Danton."

Marie Antoinette was confined in the Conciergerie from August 2 to October I6, 1793. The words "4 aout ", written by another hand in the margin, gives the probable approximate date of the letter. At that time, Danton was president of the Convention; and the recent transfer of the queen from the Temple to the Conciergerie meant that the Convention had decided to bring her to trial, which in turn mean that her execution within a short time was practically a foregone conclusion. Under the circumstances, why should Danton write to Marie Antoinette? Why should he wish her to place this symbol of the Republic on her door? Were these words on the door intended to serve in some conspiracy to rescue the queen? Were they intended to serve as a protection against outrage or assassination at the hands of the mob? Was the  letter forged by the enemies of Danton for the purpose of ruining him? What, in any case, became of the letter? Did the queen receive it? Was it used against Danton at his trial? Is the original still in existence? Is it well known to collectors and historians?"


In the next 24 pages, the article proposes detailed (speculative) answers to the questions it poses in the preface.  Danton was known to vigorously oppose the Queen's trial, so I'd like to think his instruction to her, in the letter,  to place the words "… Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death" above her cell door was intended as some sort of protection.

     Danton had an unexplained source of money that he spent freely, buying, for one thing, a farm in the country.  He loved the soil, physical labor, fishing.  He was accused of embezzling, stealing from the East India Company, being in the pay of the King.  Large amounts of Revolutionary money went through his hands for which he gave no accounting, except to say that it was for bribes and other expenses.  

     The handmaiden/spy/Girl Friday that worked for the Princesse de Lamballe and Marie Antoinette while they were held at the Tuileries and who edited and published the Princesse de Lamballe's journal after the Revolution, recounts an incident in which Danton, unaware of her identity, appeared at her elbow and saves her from the mob, as she is going to the Tuileries to see the Princesse and Marie Antoinette.  The royal ladies watched, in horror, from a window as she and one of their staunchest enemies approached the palace.

  At his trial, at the Palais de Justice, during a thunderstorm, Danton's booming voice could be heard by his many supporters in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice.  And, he was quotable. He said all sorts of clever things. Supposedly his last words were to his executioner.  He suggested that he show the people his head, because "It was worth it."  He said of his impending execution, that his only regret was that he went before "that rat, Robespierre."  Another favorite quote, quoted in several versions... "Audacity, more Audacity, always Audacity."  The other versions substitute "Boldness" and "Daring" for Audacity probably due to translation preferences, but I think Audacity has a nice ring to it.

     Danton reconciled with the Catholic Church before his death.  

     He voted for the death of Louis XVI even though he said beforehand that he didn't think the King should be executed, but would vote however the majority leaned, because it was in his best interest.

     There are many things not to like about Danton, but the one that bothers me the most is that he was so careless and didn't take seriously enough the threat that was Maximilien Robespierre.  Until it was too late.  Because of his popularity with the people, among other reasons, he was almost able to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and come out a winner.  Had he been more of a political tactician,  maybe he would have.  Maybe, he was just tired of the whole mess.  Had he been able to   repel Robespierre's efforts, Desmoulins and his wife, Lucile, may have made it through alive.  As it was, Robespierre took them down, too, even though he had been their close friend and godfather to their baby son, Horace.

Well, even more than the fact that he was unsuccessful in maneuvering around Robespierre, I dislike the fact that he was at least partially responsible for the September Massacres…  

There's a movie, "Danton," in which every person is portrayed absolutely, exactly, as I pictured them.  Gérard Depardieu is well cast as Danton.

So, seeing where Danton lived, next to his close friend, Desmoulins and very close to Marat, and the Cordeliers Club, was pretty amazing to me.  Many times, I thought it was good that no one else was there to be bored to death as I tried to find the place and imagine him there.

* Article Reference:
Author(s): Carl Becker
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Oct., 1921), pp. 24-46 Published by:
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1836918

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