Georges-Jacques Danton was another of those middle-class Frenchmen, trained as a lawyer like Robespierre, who flourished in what we are supposed to believe was a rising of the masses against regal and parliamentary authority at the end of the eighteenth century. It wasn’t of course: a small group of educated, in some cases moneyed radicals used the masses to promulgate and expand their radical ideas. More members of the rural and urban under-classes died during the Revolution than any other social group.
Danton left the law for politics during the summer of 1789, after the Revolution had exploded in France. Paris quickly grabbed him as a clever municipal official. He founded a further political club to add to the Girondins and the Jacobins, and called it The Cordeliers Club. Here he worked with Marat and Desmoulins, and all three rapidly acquired a good reputation with the leaders.
He was a big, rough man with a powerful voice, well able to rise above the usual chattering and shrieking of the townspeople; he was not as radical as some would have liked. He preferred fence-sitting to risk. It was his practice to wait until he could see which side was winning before committing himself.
By 1891 his actual honesty was being questioned, as he was living like an aristocrat and receiving money from suspicious characters such as the King’s cousin the Duke of Órleans, but it was Danton who was implicated in the plan to attack the Tuileries in August 1792. The success of this brought about the downfall of the monarchy, and Danton found himself, much to his delight, promoted to head the Ministry of Justice.
In this position he raised volunteers for the Revolutionary Army and greatly speeded up the arrest and subsequent ‘trial’ and execution of suspects. This was made easier by the notion that anyone not actually a member of the current political clubs was automatically suspect.
In September the massacres began across France, and Danton claimed he had organised them. He was then elected to the Convention, but people pointed out that he could not be a Minister and a Deputy at the same time, so he resigned and moved instead on to the Committee of Public Safety (q.v.). Unfortunately for him he was unpopular within the dreaded Committee because he now wanted to put a stop to the killing, bringing the Terror to an end. He saw this as necessary if dissension within the revolutionary movement was to be excised. Members of the Committee saw that Danton had a large following in the Convention and were convinced that his new policy of Peace would invite a return to the Monarchy. He was also found to have spent over 400,000 livres (which he did not have – how very like today’s politicians!) while he was Minister of Justice. He was accused of plotting with foreign powers, a dreaded accusation already used against Hebert (q.v.).
No allowance was made by the Committee for self-defence, and Danton, still shouting, went to the guillotine accompanied by many of his followers on 5 April, 1794.