Danton was born at Arcis-sur-Aube in northeastern France, to a respectable though not wealthy family. He was given a good education, and he was launched in the career of an advocate at the Paris bar.
Read Discours Civiques de Danton by Georges Jacques Danton, free from Project Gutenberg.
Danton's first appearance in the Revolution was as president of the Cordeliers club, whose name derived from the former convent of the Order of Cordeliers, where it met. One of many clubs important in the early phases of the Revolution, the Cordeliers were a centre for the "popular principle", that France was to be a country of its people under popular sovereignty; they were the earliest to accuse the royal court of being irreconcilably hostile to freedom; and they most vehemently proclaimed the need for radical action.
Danton was not involved in the storming of the Bastille or the forcible removal of the court from Versailles to the Tuileries. In spring of 1790 he opposed the arrest of Jean-Paul Marat. That autumn he was selected as commander of his district battalion of the National Guard. In the beginning of 1791 he was elected administrator of the département of Paris.
In June 1791, the King and Queen made a disastrous attempt to flee from the capital. They were forced to return to the Tuileries Palace, which effectively became their prison. The popular reaction was intense, and those who favored a constitutional monarchy, of whom the leader was Lafayette, became alarmed. A bloody dispersion of a popular gathering, known as the massacre of the Champ de Mars (July 1791), kindled resentment against the court and the constitutional party.
The National Constituent Assembly completed its work in September 1791. Danton was not elected to its successor, the short-lived Legislative Assembly, and his party was only able to procure for him a subordinate post in the Paris Commune.
In April 1792, the Girondist government—still functioning as a constitutional monarchy—declared war against Austria. A country in turmoil from the immense civil and political changes of the past two years now faced war with an enemy on its eastern frontier. Parisian distrust for the court turned to open insurrection. On August 10, 1792, the popular forces marched on the Tuileries; the king and queen took refuge with the Legislative Assembly. Danton's role in this uprising is unclear. He may have been at its head; this view is supported because on the morning after the effective fall of the monarchy, Danton became minister of justice. This sudden rise from the subordinate office which he held in the commune is a demonstration of his power within the insurrectionary party.
In the provisional executive government that was formed between the king's dethronement and the opening of the National Assembly (the formal end of the monarchy), Danton found himself allied with Jean Marie Roland and other members of the Girondist movement. Their strength was soon put to the test. The alarming successes of the Austrians and the surrender of two important fortresses caused panic in the capital; over a thousand prisoners were murdered. At that time, Danton was accused of directing these September Massacres, but modern scholarship has failed to show this. He did insist that his colleagues should remain firm at their posts.
The election to the National Convention took place in September 1792; after which the remnant of the Legislative Assembly formally surrendered its authority. The Convention ruled France until October 1795. Danton was a member; resigning as minister of justice, he took a prominent part in the deliberations and proceedings of the Convention.
In the Convention, according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, "He took his seat in the high and remote benches which gave the name of "the Mountain" to the revolutionists who sat there. He found himself side by side with Marat, whose exaggerations he never countenanced; with Maximilien Robespierre, whom he did not regard very highly, but whose immediate aims were in many respects his own; with Camille Desmoulins and Phélippeaux, who were his close friends and constant partisans." As for his foes, the Girondists, they were "eloquent, dazzling, patriotic, but unable to apprehend the fearful nature of the crisis, too full of vanity and exclusive party-spirit, and too fastidious to strike hands with the vigorous and stormy Danton." Dreading the people who had elected Danton, and holding Danton responsible for the September Massacres, they failed to see that his sympathy with the vehemence and energy of the streets positioned him uniquely to harness on behalf of the defense of France that insurrectionary spirit that had removed the monarchy. Danton saw radical Paris as the only force to which the National Convention could look in resisting Austria and its allies on the north-east frontier, and the reactionaries in the interior. "Paris," he said, "is the natural and constituted centre of free France. It is the centre of light. When Paris shall perish there will no longer be a republic."
Danton voted for the death of the King Louis XVI (January 1793). He had a conspicuous share in the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, which on the one hand took the weapons away from the disorderly popular vengeance of the September Massacres, but which would become the instrument of the institutionalized Terror. When all executive power was conferred upon a Committee of Public Safety (6 April 1793), Danton had been one of the nine original members of that body. He was dispatched on frequent missions from the Convention to the republican armies in Belgium, and wherever he went he infused new energy into the army. He pressed forward the new national system of education, and he was one of the legislative committee charged with the construction of a new system of government. He tried and failed to bridge the hostilities between Girondists and Jacobins. The Girondists were irreconcilable, and the fury of their attacks on Danton and the Mountain was unremitting.
Although he was—again in the words of the 1911 Britannica — "far too robust in character to lose himself in merely personal enmities: By the middle of May 1793 Danton had made up his mind that the Girondists must be politically suppressed. The Convention was wasting time and force in vindictive factional recriminations, while the country was in crisis. Charles François Dumouriez, the senior commander of the Battles of Valmy and Jemappes, had deserted. The French armies were suffering a series of checks and reverses. A royalist rebellion was gaining formidable dimensions in the west. The Girondists were clamoring for the heads of Danton and his colleagues in the Mountain, but they would lose this struggle to the death.
There is no positive evidence that Danton directly instigated the insurrection of May 31, 1793 and June 2, 1793, which ended in the purge of the Convention and the proscription of the Girondists. He afterwards spoke of himself as in some sense the author of this revolution, because a little while before, stung by some trait of factious perversity in the Girondists, he had openly cried out in the midst of the Convention, that if he could only find a hundred men, they would resist the oppressive authority of the Girondist commission of twelve. At any rate, he certainly acquiesced in the violence of the commune, and he publicly gloried in the expulsion of the men who stood obstinately in the way of a vigorous and concentrated exertion of national power.
Danton, unlike the Girondists, "accepted the fury of popular passion as an inevitable incident in the work of deliverance." (1911 Britannica) He was not an enthusiast of the Reign of Terror like Billaud Varenne or Jacques René Hébert; he saw it as a two-edged weapon to be used as little as necessary. The authors of the 1911 Britannica see him at this time as wishing "to reconcile France with herself; to restore a society that, while emancipated and renewed in every part, should yet be stable; and above all to secure the independence of his country, both by a resolute defence against the invader, and by such a mixture of vigour with humanity as should reconcile the offended opinion of the rest of Europe."
The position of the Mountain had completely changed. In the Constituent Assembly its members had been a mere 30 out of the 578 of the third estate. In the Legislative Assembly they had not been numerous, and none of their chiefs held a seat. In the first nine months of the Convention they were struggling for their very lives against the Girondists. In June 1793, for the first time, they found themselves in possession of absolute power. Men who had for many months been "nourished on the ideas and stirred to the methods of opposition" [1911 Britannica] suddenly had the responsibility of government. Actual power was in the hands of the two Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security. Both were chosen out of the body of the Convention. The drama of the nine months between the expulsion of the Girondins and the execution of Danton turns upon the struggle of the committees (especially the former, which would gain ascendancy) to retain power: first, against the insurrectionary municipal government of Paris, the commune; and second, against the Convention, from which the committees derived an authority that was regularly renewed on the expiry of each short term.
Danton, immediately after the fall of the Girondists (28 July 1793), had thrown himself with extraordinary energy into the work to be done. He was prominent in the task of setting up a strong central authority, taming the anarchical ferment of Paris. It was he who proposed that the Committee of Public Safety be granted dictatorial powers, and that it should have copious funds at its disposal. He was not a member of the resulting committee: in order to keep himself clear of any personal suspicion, he announced his resolution not to belong to the body which he had thus done his best to make supreme in the state. His position during the autumn of 1793 was that of a powerful supporter and inspirer, from without, of the government which he had been foremost in setting up.
The commune of Paris was now composed of men like Hébert and Pierre Gaspard Chaumette. They had no concern for the near-term restoration of any sort of political order. These enragés "wished," writes the 1911 Britannica, "to push destruction to limits which even the most ardent sympathizers with the Revolution condemn now, and which Danton condemned then, as extravagant and senseless."
The committee watched Hébert and his followers uneasily for many weeks; we are not privy to their actual views of the Hébertist's excesses, but there is no doubt of their apprehensions of their threat to their own power. When, at length, the party of the commune proposed to revolt against the Convention and the committees, the blow was struck. The Hébertists were swiftly flung into prison, and thence under the knife of the guillotine (March 24, 1794). The execution of the Hébertists was not the first time that forces within the revolution turned violently against their own extreme elements: that had happened as early as the July 1791 massacre of the Champ de Mars. But in the previous cases these events had only stimulated greater revolutionary ferment. This time, the most extreme faction were destroyed. But the committees had no intention to concede anything to their enemies on the other side. If they refused to follow the lead of the enragé anarchists of the commune, they saw Danton's policy of clemency as a course would have led to their own instant and utter ruin.
The Reign of Terror was not a policy that could be easily transformed. Indeed, it would eventually end with the Thermidorian Reaction (July 1794), when the Convention would rise against the Committee, execute its leaders, and place power in the hands of new men with a new policy. But in Germinal—that is, in March 1794—feeling was not ripe. The committees were still too strong to be overthrown, and Danton, heedless, instead of striking with vigor in the Convention, waited to be struck. "In these later days," writes the 1911 Britannica, "a certain discouragement seems to have come over his spirit". His wife had died during his absence on one of his expeditions to the armies; he had her body exhumed so as to see her again. Despite genuine grief, Danton quickly married again, and, the Britannica continues, "the rumour went that he was allowing domestic happiness to tempt him from the keen incessant vigilance proper to the politician in such a crisis."
When the Jacobin Club was "purified" in the winter, Danton's name would have been struck out as a moderate if Robespierre had not defended him. The committees deliberated on his arrest soon afterwards, and again Robespierre resisted the proposal. Yet though he had been warned of the lightning that was thus playing round his head, Danton did not move. Either he felt himself powerless, or he rashly despised his enemies. At last Billaud Varenne, the most prominent spirit of the committee after Robespierre, succeeded in gaining Robespierre over to his designs against Danton. Robespierre, probably enticed "by the motives of selfish policy" (1911 Britannica) made what proved the greatest blunder of his life. The Convention, aided by Robespierre and the authority of the committee, assented with "ignoble unanimity." (1911 Britannica)
On March 30, Danton, Desmoulins and others of the indulgent party were suddenly arrested. Danton displayed such vehemence before the revolutionary tribunal that his enemies feared he would gain the crowd's favour. The Convention, in one of its "worst fits of cowardice" (1911 Britannica), assented to a proposal made by Saint-Just that, if a prisoner showed want of respect for justice, the tribunal might pronounce sentence without further delay. Danton was at once condemned, and led, in company with fourteen others, including Camille Desmoulins, to the guillotine. "I leave it all in a frightful welter," he said; "not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!" Danton's last words were addressed to his executioner. He said to him "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's well worth seeing."
Events went as Danton foresaw. The committees presently came to quarrel with the pretensions of Robespierre. Three months after Danton, Robespierre fell. His assent to the execution of Danton had deprived him of the single great force that might have supported him against the committee.
The 1911 Britannica wrote that Danton stands out as a master of commanding phrase. One of his fierce sayings has become a proverb. Against the Duke of Brunswick and the invaders, "il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" - "we must dare, and again dare, and forever dare." The tones of his voice were loud and vibrant. "Jove the Thunderer", the "rebel Satan", a "Titan", and "Sardanapalus" were names that friends or enemies borrowed to describe him. He was called the "Mirabeau of the sansculottes, and "Mirabeau of the markets".