The Giant of the French Revolution
Danton, A Lifeby David Lawday
The Giant of the French Revolution tells the story of George-Jacques Danton—visionary leader and tragic hero—in a work The Economist called “a gripping story, beautifully told.”
One of the Western world’s most epic uprisings, the French Revolution brought an end to an absolute monarchy that had ruled for almost a thousand years. And George-Jacques Danton was a driving force behind it. In the first biography of Danton in over forty years, the historian David Lawday reveals the tragic, larger-than-life figure who joined the fray at the storming of the Bastille in 1789 at age twenty-nine and was dead five years later.
Danton’s booming voice was a perpetual roll of thunder that excited bourgeois reformers and the mobs alike; his impassioned speeches, often hours long, drove the sansculottes to action and kept the revolution alive at the critical moment when it stumbled and risked collapse. But as the newly appointed minister of justice, Danton struggled to steer the increasingly divided revolutionary government. Working tirelessly to halt the bloodshed of Robespierre’s Terror, he ultimately lost his grip, becoming one of its victims. True to form, Danton did not go easily to the guillotine; at his trial, he defended himself with such vehemence that the tribunal hastily approved a gag motion and convicted him before he could rally the crowd in his favor.
In vivid, almost novelistic prose worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, Lawday leads us from Danton’s humble roots deep in France profonde to the streets of revolutionary Paris, where this political legend acted on the operatic stage of the revolution that altered Western civilization.
“Lawday . . . provides a gripping story, beautifully told.” —The Economist
“The author ably assembles a convincing portrait of a man of giant stature, appetite, ability and ego’a clear account of one man’s failure to recognize the fanged creatures that swim in waves of passion and popularity.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This engaging biography of Danton finally does justice to one of the most fascinating characters of the French Revolution. Through skilled use of meager archival resources, Lawday creates a graphic portrait of a complex man at the epicenter of turbulent events that changed the course of history . . . This is the best biography of Danton to be written since Hilaire Bolloc’s over 100 years ago.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Lawday creates some great set pieces and striking turning points. . . . He is able to capture the atmosphere of the early Revolution: its inflammable mix of devilment and righteousness . . . he celebrates [Danton], ‘large heart and violent impulses in irresolvable conflict.’” —Hilary Mantel, The London Review of Books
“The Giant of the French Revolution sweeps one along in a gathering floodtide of rich description, brilliant characterization, subtle political analysis and breathless suspense. David Lawday has written a masterful, spine-tingling thriller—except that every word in this compulsively readable book is true.” —Mark Danner, author, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War
“Lawday presents an absorbing portrait of a celebrated victim . . . he viscerally recreates the look and smell of the fevered Paris Danton moved about, setting the mood for the climax to Danton’s call for moderation: his execution in 1794. A page-turned for history readers, guaranteed.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“Lawday gives us not only a fine biography but a moving description of revolutionary tragedy as well . . . An exciting history, gracefully written and well researched.” —Publishers Weekly
“Immensely readable . . . Lawday’s book is meticulously researched.” —Siofra Pierse, The Irish Times
“Lawday . . . has brought Danton into full view in an audacious piece of historical writing . . . there is not a better portrait of Danton.” —Hugh MacDonald, The Herald (U.K.)
“A compelling, highly readable, and very timely account of a paradoxical champion of humanity pitted against ideological fanaticism.” —David Coward, The Independent (U.K.)
“The Giant of the French Revolution sweeps one along in a gathering flood-tide of rich description, brilliant characterization, subtle political analysis, and breathless suspense. David Lawday has written a masterful, spine-tingling fictional thriller—except every word in this compulsively readable book is true.” —Mark Danner, author of Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War
“World-historical in his ambitions, monumental in his passions, tragic in his final demise, Danton was a figure larger than life—a figure made for the theater. With both empathy and critical understanding, Lawday sets his dramatis persona on the stage of the French Revolution, providing an informed and readable account that deserves a broad audience.” —Darrin M. McMahon, Ben Weider Professor of History, Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, Florida State University
Paris: 15 July 1789
Yesterday the Bastille fell. Today, an hour past sundown, a giant of a man with a wrestler’s chest bursting from a blue military tunic stands at the entrance to the smouldering prison, banging at its breached gate with a sword. From the gloss of the uniform it looks as though he is wearing it for the first time. Behind him stand a score of men armed with rifles and pikes, shouting for the officer in charge of the fallen fortress to give them entry. Cautiously the acting governor shows himself, waving written orders. He looks petrified: not twenty-four hours before he watched the severed head of his predecessor dancing through the streets of Paris on the end of a stonemason’s pike.
The big man snatches the paper from his hand. “What’s this rag?” he roars.
“We’ll see about this!” He takes the officer by the collar and marches him off in the direction of City Hall on the banks of the Seine, surrounded by his rowdy companions. As the spectacle progresses, people gather in the summer night to watch, spitting insults at the prisoner, flailing at him here and there with pikestaffs.
The miracle that only yesterday lifted Parisian hearts to the heavens seems to have left the street tonight.
Though the jeering onlookers have no idea who the prisoner is, some can put a name to his hulking captor. He is Georges-Jacques Danton, a man destined to bring a violent end to an absolute monarchy that has ruled for almost a thousand years. The comic-opera restorming of the Bastille has its crackpot side, and indeed there is much of the scallywag in Danton. It also suggests an impulsive lust for action that will serve him and the insurrection well. He is twenty-nine years old, robust, high-living and impetuous, the kind of man who can and will overstep the mark. Such taste for action distinguishes him from the liberal theorists, tortured ideologues and genuine crackpots whom he joins in bringing about the most abrupt change in human society the world has known. His physique in particular sets him apart. He stands a good head above his companions, with a massive frame to match. And an alarming face. Gorgon! Gargoyle! Cyclops! Tartar chief! He knows what they call him and he employs his monstrous demeanour to full effect.
Danton is no military man. The uniform he wears in putting his own evening-after stamp on the fall of the Bastille is that of a captain in a new national guard created to keep a measure of order in the free-for-all of popular revolt. Each district of Paris has formed its own militia, loosely attached to the guard, so Danton feels entitled to style himself a guard captain. He leads a populous Left Bank district hard across the Seine from the Île de la Cité, the most radical ward in the capital, and his Bastille escapade is more than anything a letting-off of steam. Why does he do it? For the hell of it. Building a reputation as a champion of the violent Paris street crowds demands derring-do of the kind that the people will notice and remember.
The acting governor of the Bastille will emerge unharmed from his ordeal. Moderate souls at City Hall who have taken charge of the capital in these first days of popular revolt return the frightened stand-in to his post, with an apology. Danton protests, but lightly. He is satisfied with his show.
Like most people alive at the start of the twenty-first century I have come to regard terror as part of life, regrettable but present. For this book I thought of giving Danton the subtitle Gentle Giant of Terror. To be sure, it fits him and it about sums him up. Only there can be no associating him with the Bin Ladens of late or with the frightening responses of their mighty targets. Nor with grandmasters of terror such as Stalin. So I unburden him of that dubious honour here.
Danton is no killer by nature. All the same he throws himself into action in an age when people at all levels of society live in fear for their lives; they cannot know when danger will strike and they are uncomfortably aware that no authority is able to prevent it. This is the classic climate in which terrorism thrives. At the height of his career Danton operates within it and thus has his part in the barbarous bloodletting of the French Revolution aptly named the Terror.
His fate is to take charge of the Revolution at a critical moment, when it stumbles and risks collapsing, so that France, the largest nation in Europe by far, faces a return to the failed old order from which passionate reformers and an angry populace have torn it free. He is not the instigator of terror; he resigns himself to it. There is no force on earth, he tells himself, that can stop a revolution from having its dose of blood. Until such time as law and order reassert themselves, men of good will can do no more than stop the dose from becoming a torrent. Such is Danton’s intent—and also his weakness: his pity for the guillotine’s guiltless victims lays bare his own bull neck.
Throughout history exponents of terrorism have acted from a host of motives, united only by the urge to kill blindly. They range from frustrated nationalists, secessionists and pure avengers to those misled by faith or visited with an obsessive grudge against humanity itself. Leaders of the French Revolution are none of these. There are psychopaths among them, but very few. Mostly they let dogged principle and fear run away with their senses. Danton sees the danger of revolutionary terrorism, but is equally aware of the dangers of letting the Revolution run aground. Its failure is unthinkable. What awful vengeance would royalists then wreak? What could prevent all-out civil war? What hope would remain if liberty, once won, were abandoned? Behind his bluster Danton is a practical man and his actions assume an overriding purpose: to save the new France from foreign invaders—Austria and Prussia, joined by England—who resolve to undo 1789.
1789 . . . what a year. The historian Jules Michelet, a great romancer of the French Revolution born in Paris a decade after the event, pictures the whole world watching its progress “with uneasy sympathy, conscious that France at her own risk and peril is acting for the entire human race.” One scarcely has to share Michelet’s full rapture, or even to be French, to feel the pulse quicken. At the same time it is hard even today not to feel something sharper than Michelet’s unease—to feel dread, in fact. My own interest in Danton goes back to English classroom recollections of a gang of revolutionary fanatics who are outsmarted—hurrah!—by the ingenious Scarlet Pimpernel as he saves hapless French aristocrats from the guillotine. Baroness Orczy’s “damned, elusive” Pimpernel is a wonderful story, right down to the taunting notes her mysterious English hero spirits into the pockets of the masters of the Terror—signed with a little red English hedgerow flower—to inform them of his latest successful venture.
The Hungarian-born baroness rather misses the significance, though, of what her English hero is trying to stop. How to catch its full force? What occurred in France in 1789 and in the five extraordinary years that followed is rated by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, a connoisseur of revolution, as a phenomenon as awesome and irreversible as the first nuclear explosion, producing an energy that sweeps away a benighted old Europe in a mushroom cloud, while England’s Industrial Revolution, under way at more or less the same time, intensifies the blast. Karl Marx is equally struck: for him, Danton and company stormed the heavens.
Nuclear imagery gives an idea of the enormous rough house that 1789 produced: harrowing events succeed each other in anarchic confusion, most often soaked in blood. Within two years of the Bastille’s fall, suspicion and fear rule: everyone involved is afraid for their skin, or ought to be. Hunger for liberty is in violent collision with the absolutism of France’s Bourbon monarchy, yet the conflict has so many sides that the picture grows perilously blurred. Friends kill friends. They send each other to the guillotine no longer knowing why, for what belief, what doctrine, what logic. Blind violence takes over.
The American Revolution which precedes it by a dozen years or so—and likewise launches a republic—is, in terms of social change, a sideshow by comparison, a local happening that permits Americans to continue leading their lives virtually unchanged while the rest of the world also carries on very much as before. The reckless French ride from monarchy to republic, on the other hand, is a mass social revolution that upends Europe’s largest state—a country populated by one in five of all Europeans at the time. The upheaval is so uniquely radical in spirit that English liberal firebrands who hurry across to France to demonstrate their support find themselves looking on a little disconsolately, too tame to make a mark. And then comes Lenin, whose Bolsheviks idolise the men of 1789 and like to borrow from them. Lenin stands back in awe at Danton’s actions, singling him out as “the greatest master of revolutionary tactics yet known.”
What manner of man makes such stupendous things happen? And what manner of man allows terror to achieve his ends?
Revolution’s record for devouring its own children starts with Danton. He is the tragic hero incarnate. I write of him after first plunging into the French Revolution for another reason—and discovering that there is simply no avoiding Danton whichever way the currents pull. That other reason was a life I was writing of France’s incomparable statesman, Prince Talleyrand, the ace of diplomats, who owes his reputation as the greatest survivor of the revolutionary age—perhaps of all time—to his own guile, certainly, but more directly to Danton. For it is Danton, boisterous, alarming, yet essentially practical, who saves Talleyrand’s precious neck. At his own peril, Danton helps him escape the guillotine, together with others of Talleyrand’s old-world stamp, because he deems it a folly to lose for ever the services of such talents.
The vaudeville swordsman at the gates of the Bastille is, then, by physique alone, a giant figure for his times. His family background and the profession he enters boost his revolutionary credentials. He is born into the rural bourgeoisie in the flat, thinly populated southern rim of the Champagne region, beyond the reach of the province’s fabled vines—a land where wheatfields pierced by rare village spires spread either side of the looping river Aube, a minor tributary of the Seine. This is France profonde. Its greatest chronicler, Honoré de Balzac, awards Danton’s birthplace, Arcis-sur-Aube, the badge of pure authenticity: “Nothing better explains provincial life than the deep silence in which this little town slumbers.”
Danton’s family has not long climbed out of the peasant class and its roots continue to tug. All the same he receives a thoroughly middle-class education, one liberally dosed with the Enlightenment thinking that is gripping France and making the rest of Europe sit up and listen. With this behind him he trains for the law. Bourgeois upbringing, liberal ideas, the law . . . what better credentials, as the world will learn, for joining a revolution still ten years off?
The right credentials may indeed place him near the controls of revolution, but to grasp the controls he needs something more, some singular asset that sets him apart. The weapon of revolt that distinguishes Danton is his voice—a perpetual roll of thunder which spurs fellow men to action without his always quite knowing where he intends to drive them. His immense lungs work to no script, expelling rich, earthy phrases that somehow fall into a purposeful pattern to excite bourgeois reformers and street crowds alike. To hear Danton is to hear the heartbeat of revolution.
Peer into the 1789 volcano and amid the flame and fury two principal actors, two complete opposites in style and psyche, soon take focus. One is Danton, the other the puritanical Robespierre. This book only sketches in Robespierre; it is not his life. It is hard, though, not to side with the all-too-human Danton, for the death-struggle in which the pair become locked sounds a powerful warning against letting utopian zealotry take charge of men’s affairs. Robespierre calls adversaries who disagree with him “monsters”; Danton calls his opponents “rascals.” There’s a smile in the word “rascal”, a smile that shows understanding for human frailty. Danton cannot hate. He is not the most brilliant actor in the Revolution; he is not the most thoughtful, nor always the most convincing in his impulses. Theory and dogma are not his strong suit. But his heart and his voice drive the common people to action, and this is what keeps the Revolution alive when it is on the brink of going under.
There is a further striking side to Danton—the pent-up brevity of his existence. He wades for all he is worth into revolution at the age of twenty-nine and is dead at thirty-four. So much of him, so reckless and thankless a life, such exertion—all concentrated into barely five years. A short life has the nerve and elan that a long life spread over decades of achievement cannot match. A short life collects no dust; it is somehow touched by martyrdom. Its great mystery is where it might have led.
Perhaps it is better not to know Danton at sixty-four. Better not to know his contemporaries in revolution—friends or enemies—when their hair has turned white. He is far from alone, in fact, in coming to a terrible and premature end. The poignancy of what befalls the hot-blooded Danton somehow embraces them all, including those with ice in their veins. Robespierre goes to the guillotine at the age of thirty-six, having fed it heads by the thousand; Saint-Just, his brilliant scaffold-hand, loses his at twenty-six. And it may be worth remembering that as these scalded sons of Icarus tumble, an ambitious soldier, aged twenty-four, is battling his way towards power of a kind unseen since Julius Caesar. Napoleon Bonaparte already holds a military command.
A curious problem in writing a life of Danton is that he himself hated putting pen to paper. He scarcely wrote a private letter. Not one has surfaced in which he even begins to lay himself bare. There is surely a psychological block here. Even if he had lived beyond the age of thirty-four and had led a full political life thereafter it is unlikely that he would have started writing out his extraordinary speeches in advance, let alone penned private letters. His hand is near unreadable, as a shocked barrister who first takes him under training as a lawyer and examines his copy testifies (“Good God, man. What an atrocious fist!”). Against that, he has a photographic memory for text and recites Cicero and the classical orators by the yard. A prodigious memory encourages Danton to demonstrate mastery of the word with his tireless tongue alone.
All the same I’ve found myself cursing him for not leaving behind at least some personal reminiscences. It would have been nice to know how his brash bravura in speech translated to paper. His personal indifference to pen and ink is bizarre in one so educated. This was an age of letter writing: the educated sent notes in the morning to friends and lovers they intended to see in the afternoon. It is true that Danton can rely on others to compensate, which may be a factor. His trusty lieutenant Camille Desmoulins is a professional writer who makes full use of his own gifts and is usually at Danton’s side, pen cocked. As Robespierre observes: “Desmoulins writes, Danton roars.” They are all members of the radical Jacobin club, the Right Bank brain centre of the Revolution in Paris, and Danton and Desmoulins double as leading lights of the Cordelier club, its Left Bank boiler house. Leadership of the Cordeliers makes Danton political master of his riotous Paris district, later to be known as the Latin Quarter.
There exists, to be sure, a written record of many of the Danton speeches that so arouse Jacobins, Cordeliers and the nation. The trouble is that they are truncated versions, lacking the booming richness and classical range of the original, since they are printed from notes taken by clerks who cannot be expected to capture Danton’s rhetoric, or worse, by notetakers commissioned to sabotage it. The speeches appear, mutilated, in the semi-official government gazette (which continues to publish right through the alarms of the Revolution) and in minutes of meetings held by the Jacobins and Cordeliers. As such, they may seem somewhat shaky justification for his reputation as the hardiest orator of the turbulent age—a voice more resonant than that of the great Mirabeau, another tribune with a remarkably unpretty face. Nonetheless, even the disjointed excerpts of Danton’s speeches that come through suggest that the absence of faithful, unabridged texts is a great loss to public oratory.
For all of these reasons it requires a fair degree of intuition and deduction to reach Danton. The record of his childhood and adolescence is sparse and some of it, which I have tried to weed out, is probably pure fancy anyway. So I present this life, yes, as authentic history—page notes doubling as a bibliography appear at the end—but also in some instances as romanced history, for to find Danton you need to imagine him and thus to an extent invent him.
That said, Danton in manhood is probed and skilleted, admired and reviled in a multitude of memoirs written by contemporaries who love him, loathe him or simply stand and watch as the Danton tempest roars past. Fortunately, the revolutionary age is inhabited by numerous perceptive chroniclers—men and women of high and middle society, survivors and victims—who scarcely put their quills down in their desire to bequeath a telling memoir. The new republic’s high priestess, the beautiful Manon Roland, who nurses a curiously complex hatred for Danton, is busy at her memoirs until the very moment her executioners rope her into a tumbrel bound for the guillotine. At Danton’s trial, luck also takes a hand: the official transcript is so painfully one-sided as to reveal precious little of what really occurred, but a juror breaks the court rules and makes notes, subsequently published, that provide the hellish flavour of Danton’s ordeal.
Just as it is hard for anyone with an interest in history’s human dimensions to avoid taking sides between the Revolution’s two principal actors, it seems downright impossible for professional historians to avoid fighting over Danton’s character. He tries academic nerves. He excites extreme views. Corrupt demagogue! Lionhearted saint! Few figures in history present quite so stark a contrast, a sure sign that extreme verdicts do not get him right. The ultimate struggle is between two late-nineteenth-century French historians, Alphonse Aulard (1849-1928) and Albert Mathiez (1874-1932). Once Aulard’s student, Mathiez is a passionate critic of Danton, nailing him for every sin under the sun; his indignation causes him a nervous breakdown, but not before he has scuttled Danton in the eyes of generations of French left-wing purists, who applaud Robespierre to this day and view the Terror as the harsh but vital tool of republican principle. Aulard, an august liberal and holder of the famous history chair at the Sorbonne, which Mathiez covets for himself and fails to wrest from his rival, is strongly partisan on Danton’s behalf, though a calmer observer—which only maddens Mathiez the more.
Danton’s biographers are in fact rather few in number, perhaps due to the unusual dearth of personal archive material. In the English language a youthful Hilaire Belloc produced what I find the most readable life of Danton. It was published in 1899. The biographical penury may have a further explanation. Danton is a figure made for the theatre. Playwrights indeed have a strong nose for him. Shakespeare would have loved him. He has all the stuff of tragedy—the vigour, the rise to power, regicide, hubris, vulnerability, the spiralling fall. Plus the poignant irony: the wild man of 1789 who starts out as an enemy of moderation ends up losing his life in horrendous fashion for insisting on it.
A good dozen dramatists—from Germany, Italy and the old Habsburg lands, as well as from France—have been moved by the dramatic force of his short life. Of their plays the most popular is Dantons Tod by Georg Büchner, a German political dramatist born as Napoleon reaches his military peak. Astonishingly, Büchner was only twenty-one years old (he died of typhoid at twenty-three) when he peered with such empathy into the heart of Danton, and it may be a premonition of his own youth cut short that inspired him. Even as the centuries move on, Büchner’s Danton lives; his play continues to be widely performed.
Still, the theatre aims to capture a salient part of its subject, a part that holds an eyeglass to the whole. My aim in this book is to show the whole: to enter the life of a man who stands up, warts and all, for humanity against ideological fanaticism, who reveals how dark are the paths down which patriotism that asks no questions leads. These are conflicts that are always with us.
Let the curtain rise.