Georges Jacques Danton.

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Carl Becker



g^m^tian gi^totial §mnv

VOLS. XXVI., No. 4, and XXVll., NO. i

OCTOBER, i()2i


Reprinted from The American Historical Review, Vol. XXVII, No. i, Oct., 1921.


Among the papers of the late Andrew D. White, Professor
George L. Burr 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 Ci-devt Reine de France a la Con-
ciergerie a Paris Citoyenne vuus mettrez sur votre porta ces mots —
Unite indivisibilite de la Repub'ique liberte egalite fraternite ou la
mort Signe Danton.

Marie Antoinette was confined in the Conciergerie from Au-
gust 2 to October 16, 1793. The words "4 aout ", written by an-
other hand in the margin, give 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 Con-
ciergerie meant that the Convention had decided to bring her to
trial, which in turn meant that her execution within a short time
was practically a foregone conclusion. Under these 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 ruin-
ing him? What, in any case, became of the letter? Did the queen
receive it? Was it used against Danton at his trial? Is the orig-
mal still in existence? Is it well known to collectors and historians?


It may be said at once that the letter was practically unknown
to contemporaries of the Revolution. It was apparently unknown
to modern historians until 1891, when Eugene Welvert printed it
in his La Saisie des Papiers du Conventionnel Courtois. Since then
only three writers, so far as I can find, have quoted the letter, all
of them taking it from Welvert. All four of these printed repro-
ductions of the letter are inaccurate. The history of the letter is
interesting, therefore, because it 'will show why so little is known
about it, besides furnishing some preliminary data for its further

Danton to Marie Antoinette 25

The letter was a single small sheet, folded and sealed, and appar-
ently sent by post. It bears three circular red stamps. One is com-
posed of the letters P. B. G., a second of the letters P. D., and the
third of the number 4. Upon the stamp P. D. is superimposed a
black triangular stamp P. The organization of the Post Office at
that time included a Bureau General, and several subordinate bu-
reaus, one of which was the "' Bureau pour la Distribution des
Lettres Chargees, Adressees a Paris "} Gallois, discussing the or-
ganization of the Post Office at an earlier date, says that " letters
were stamped with a printed stamp peculiar to each bureau from
which they were sent. Each of these bureaus was designated by a
letter of the alphabet represented on the special stamp which it
used."^ It seems reasonable to conclude that the P. B. G. stood for
" Poste : Bureau General ", the P. D. for " Pour Distribution ", and
the superimposed P. for " Paris ". The number 4 probably indicates
the charge, which was four sous for simple letters of one quarter-
ounce or less, within the limits of a single department.^ A fifth
stamp on the letter, somewhat illegible, appears to be " 6" ""=." Six-
ieme Levee suggests itself ; but, unfortunately for this reading, there
were at most only three collections daily at the time.*

Although it seems evident, from these marks, that the letter went
through the Post Office, this very fact, if it be one, raises a signifi-
cant question. If the letter was a forgery, intended to ruin Danton,
one can well understand that it should have been sent by post. But
if the letter is genuine, if Danton wrote the letter and wished to
convey it to the queen, one asks why he should have intrusted it to
the post. Marie Antoinette was carefully guarded at the Concier-
gerie; so much so that in September a note smuggled in, concealed
in a bouquet of flowers, was nevertheless discovered by the guards.'
It might seemingly be taken for granted by anyone, certainly by
Danton, that all letters sent through the Post Office addressed to the

^Almanac National (1793), P- 483-

2 La Poste et les Moyens de Communication (Paris, 1894), p. 120.

3 Decree of August, 1791. Collection Generate des Lois, etc. (Paris, 179.2'',
V. 934. " Seront taxees comme lettres simples celles sans enveloppes et dont le
poids n'excedera un quart d'once." Decree of July 23, 1793. Collection Gen-
erate des Lois, etc. (Paris, An II.), XV. iSo.

i Almanac Royal (1792), p. 631. Of the two words at the top of the second
half of the sheet, one, which I take to be inique, seems to be in the hand of
Fouquier; the other may be perfide, or, what seems to me more likely, the first
four letters of the signature of L. Lecointre.

5 The incident was known as " La Conspiration de I'Oeillet ". Revue des
Questions Historiques, XXXIX. 54S ; Campardon, Marie Antoinette a la Con-
ciergerie, p. 3; Tuetey, Sources de I'Histoire de Paris, vol. IX. p. 393, no. 1303.

2 6 Carl Becker

queen would as a matter of course be intercepted and turned over
to the government."

Such in fact seems to have been the fate of this letter. In the
first place there is no evidence that the queen ever received it.
There are several contemporary accounts of the queen's life at the
Conciergerie written by people whose duty it was to guard or serve
her,, and the subject has been minutely investigated by historians
since. ^ None of these accounts, contemporary or secondary, men-
tions this letter, or any letter which might have been this one, as
having been either received by the queen or later discovered among
her effects. In the second place, evidence that the letter was turned
over to the government is contained in the letter itself ; for across
the face of the letter we find the personal signatures of five men:
A. Q. Fouquier, Massieu, Legot, Gufifroy, L. Lecointre. The sig-
nature of Fouquier indicates that the letter was turned over to the
Revolutionary TribunalT) Besides, the last letter written by Marie
Antoinette, the famous " testament " addressed to her sister Madame
Elizabeth, which also bears the signature of Fouquier, we know to
have been turned over to the Tribunal.^ This letter the queen
entrusted to Bault, the concierge, to deliver. That evening Bault
said to his wife : " Your poor Queen has written ; she gave me her
letter, but I cannot send it to its address. It is necessary to carry
it to Fouquier."" It thus seems to have been an understood thing
that letters written by the c^ueen were to be carried to Fouquier.
The presumption is that it was equally understood that all letters
written to her were to be disposed of in the same way.

Fouquier-Tinville thus came. into possession of the letter, in all
probability before the trial of Danton, since the death of Marie
Antoinette fell on October i6, 1793, and the trial of Danton was
not until April 2-5, 1794. If this may be assumed, it is difficult to

6 A decree of May g, 1793, provided for the examination by agents of the
Commune of all letters at the Post Office addressed to persons whose names
appeared on the list of emigres. This list included most suspects, whether they
had actually emigrated or not. Collection Generate des Lois, etc. (Paris, An II.),
XV. 307.

^ Cf. contemporary narratives given by Lenotre, La Captivite et la Mort de
Marie Antoinette , pp. 215 ff ; and the documents used by Carapardon in his care-
ful study, Marie Antoinette a la Conciergerie. For the bibliography of works deal-
ing with Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie, see Tourneux. Bibliographie de
I'Histoire de Paris, vol. IV., nos. 21209-21254.

8 Dunoyer, Fouquier-Tinville, p. 4 ; Lenotre, La Captivite et la Mort de
Marie Antoinette, pp. 386, 387.

9 Recit Exact des Derniers Moniens de . . . la Reine . . . par la Dame Bault
(Paris, 1817), p. 15. Printed in full in Lenotre, La Captivite, etc., pp. 277, 290.
Quoted in Pallet, Lo Conciergerie, p. 196.

Danton to Marie Antoinette 27

suppose that he did not make use of it as evidence against Danton.
It was no easy matter to bring the jury to the point of convicting
Danton; and in the absence of definite evidence of guilt, this letter
would have been precisely suited to the purpose of convincing the
jury. The trial of Danton has been exhaustively studied by his-
torians having access to all the available evidence ;'^° but no one has
thus far found in the sources any explicit reference to the Danton
letter. In fact, of all those who have written about the trial of
Danton, no one except Mathiez appears to be aware that such a
letter is, or ever was, in existence. Mathiez quotes the letter, al-
though inaccurately, and says it was " perhaps " one of the " secret
documents " which were shown to the jury on the last day of the
trial. ^^ Our knowledge of these " secret documents " rests upon the
statement of one of the clerks of the Tribunal, N. J. Paris, who
afterwards, at the trial of Fouquier-Tinville, deposed that on the
last day of Danton's trial one of the jurors, Topino-Lebrun, " me
dit qu'Herman et Fouquier les avaient engages a declarer qu'ils
etaient suffisamment instruits et que, pour les determiner, ils avaient
peint les accuses comme des scelerats, des conspirateurs, et leur
avaient presente une lettre qu'ils disaient venir de letranger et
qu'etait adressee a Danton "}- Such a letter as this has never been
discovered; and it may be that the letter which Herman and Fou-
quier showed to the jury was this one of Danton to Marie Antoi-
nette, which Paris later, at the trial of Fouquier, remembered as
having been, or as having been reported to him as being (there is
no evidence that Paris saw the letter, whatever it was), a letter from
" abroad addressed to Danton ".

However that may be (I shall return to this point presently), it
is certain that Fouquier had the letter before or after the trial of
Danton, since it bears his signature. It will be remembered that
there are four other signatures on the letter : Massieu, Legot, Guf-

1" Cf. the careful study of Robinet, Le Proces des Dantonistes (Paris, 1879),
based upon the documents, most of which are printed in the appendix; Beesley.
Life of Danton (L-ondon, 1899) ; Belloc, Danton (London, 1S99) ; Madelin, Dan-
ton (Paris, 1914) ; Qaretie, Camille Desmoulins, Lucile DesmouHns, £.tude sur
les Dantonistes (Paris, 1875); Mathiez, Danton et la Paix (Paris, 1919). For
the literature of the Danton trial, see Tuetey, Sources, vol. XI., p. 126, nos.

11 Danton et la Paix, p. 247.

12 " Declaration de Nicolas-Joseph Paris, dit Fabricius, au Proces de Fou-
quier-Tinville." Printed in full in Dunoyer, Fouquier-Tinville, pp. 322, 330 ; and
also, with slight verbal differences, in Robinet, Proces des Dantonistes, pp. 590,
593. See especially, on this matter, Joseph Reinach, " La Piece Secrete du Proces
Danton ", in his Essais de Politique et d'Histoire, p. 333.

2 8 Carl Becker

.■ froy, L. Lecointre. These four men were members of the Conven-
V tion ; andjthree of them were appointed, 23 Thermidor, members of
a commission to examine the " papiers de Robespierre, Saint- Just,
Lebas . . . et autre comphces . . . et en f aire un rapport a la Con-
vention Nationale"." Fouquier-Tinvilfe was arrested on the 14
Thermidor, at which time his papers were placed under seals ;^* and
it is probable that the commission appointed on the 23d to examine
the papers of Robespierre " et autre complices " took over those of
Fouquier also. Thus the Danton letter, found among the papers
either of Robespierre or of Fouquier, passed into the hands of the
commission. Of this commission, the secretary or recorder was
E. B. Courtois, to whom the commission turned over the papers that
came into its possession, in order that he might prepare a report to
the Convention. Courtois spent some months in preparing his re-
port, which was finally presented January 5, i795-^° The report
quotes at length from the papers in Courtois's possession, but it does
not mention the Danton letter. The reason is obvious. Courtois
was a friend of Danton, and the purpose of the report was to make

IS Monite^tr, 24 Thermidor, An II., no. 324, vol. X., p. 1323. The full com-
mission appointed on the 23d was made up of L. Lecointre, Bourdon de I'Oise,
Charlier, Guffroy, Cales, Beaupre, Perrin des Vosges, Massieu, Clausel, Gauthier,
Ch. Duval, Audonin. The name of Legot, one of the four whose names are on
the Danton letter, is not in the list ; but it is probable that some changes in the
personnel of the commission were made. E. B. Courtois, the secretary of the
commission, said in 1S16 that " apres la mort de Robespierre, il y eut succes-
sivement deux Commissions de nommes. ... La premiere, n'ayant pas, par esprit
de parti, repondu a la confiance de I'Assemblee il en fut nomme une seconde
dont je fis partie." Lenotre, La Captivite et la Mort de Marie Antoinette, p. 391 ;
Welvert, Lendemains Revolutionnaires , p. 282. I have not found any record of
the appointment of two commissions ; but that there were changes in personnel
is confirmed by the pamphlet. Discours Prononce par Robespierre a la Con-
vention dans la Seance du 8 Thermidor. In this pamphlet it is stated that the
manuscript was found among the papers of Robespierre, by the commission, and
that it was ordered printed by the commission. This statement is signed : Guffroy,
president ; Lecointre, Clausel, Cales, Massieu, J. Espert. The last name, Espert,
like that of Legot on the Danton letter, is not among the list of commissioners
appointed on the 23d. That Legot became a member of the commission some time
after its original creation is evident enough, since his signature appears not
only on the Danton letter, but also on a number of other documents found
among the papers of Robespierre or Fouquier. Cf. Lenotre, op. cit., p. 384-

14 Dunoyer, op. cit., pp. 149, IS5- Moniteur, 15 Thermidor, An II. (Aug.
2, 1794), no- .3IS.

'i-^ Moniteur, An III., no. 108, The report is printed in nos. 150-152, 154-162.
It was also printed separately as a pamphlet: Rapport fait au Norn de la Com-
mission chargee de VExamen des Papiers trouv^s cites Robespierre et^ses Com-
plices, par E. B. Courtois (Paris, Nivose, An III.) ; printed also as the introduc-
tion to Papiers Inedits trouves chez Robespierre, etc. (Paris, 1828, 3 vols.).

Danton to Marie Antoinette 29

a strong case against Robespierre and his associates, whereas the
Danton letter would rather have been a point in Robespierre's favor.
In fact, after the death of Robespierre, all of those who are known
to have seen the Danton letter, with the one exception of Fouquier-
Tinville,^" had sufficient reasons for saying nothing about it, with
the result that there seems to be no mention of the letter in all the
contemporary literature of the Revolution.

Not until 1816 do I find any mention of it. On January 25 of
that year, E. B. Courtois, finding himself, as one of the regicides,
in imminent danger of exile, wrote to Councillor of State Becquey
a letter in which he tried to make his peace with the restored Bour-

16 Why Fouquier did not call for the Danton letter in his own defense is
an interesting question. One of ^he chief charges against him at his trial was
that of having forced the condemnation of Danton without evidence. One would
expect him to make some reference to the Danton letter. Perhaps he had for-
gotten it. In general, his defense consisted mainly in saying that he had obeyed
orders, and was not responsible. For a full account of Fouquier's trial, see
Dunoyer, Fonqitier-Tinville. Other men whose interest it was to make known
the Danton letter were Barere, CoUot d'Herbois, and Billaud-Vairenne. In their
long and losing fight after the fall of Robespierre, particularly in connection with
the denunciation of Lecointre, and the subsequent rehabilitation of Lecointre's
charges by the Commission of Twenty-One, they had need of every fact
which would help to justify the execution of Danton, which was a capital point
in the charges against the members of the old committee. All three men de-
fended themselves repeatedly, both in the Convention and in printed pamphlets.
Their defense, in respect to the execution of Danton, was essentially that Danton
was a traitor. "If the execution of Danton is a crime", said Billaud, "I accuse
myself of it; for I was. the first to denounce him. I saw that if this man existed,
liberty would perish. If he were alive he would be the rallying point for all the
counter-revolutionists." Les Crimes de Sept Membres des Anciens Conntes,
p. 25. Here was the obvious opportunity to refer to the Danton letter, if Billaud
knew of its existence. He does not refer to it. nor do any of the others, so far
as I can find. For the Lecointre denunciation and debate, see Moniteur, 14-15
Fructidor, An II. (Aug. 29-30, 1794), nos. 344, 345. The Commission of Twenty-
One was appointed Dec. 27, 1794, to examine the conduct of Billaud, Collot,
Barere, and Vadier. Id., 9 Nivose, An III. Saladin reported for the com-
mission on the 12 Ventose (Mar. 2, 1795). Id., 14 Ventose, An III., no. 164.
The charges were discussed in the Convention on 4-8 Germinal. Id., 7-12
Germinal, An III., nos. 1S7-192. There is also considerable pamphlet literature
on this matter: Rapport an nom de la Commission des Vingt-un (Paris, 28 Ven-
tose, An III.) : Reponse des Membres des Deux Anciens Comites aux Pieces com-
muniqnees par la Commission des Vingt-un ; Reponse de J. N. Billaud a Laurent
Lecointre; J. M. Collot a ses Collegues, Reflexions rapides sur I'Imprime Publie
par Lecointre centre Sept Membres des Anciens Comites; Defense de I. M. Col-
lot Reprcsentant du Peuple; Seconde Suite aux Sclaircissemens Necessaires,
donnes par J. M. Collot; Discours fait a la Convention Nationale par J. M.
Collot . . . 4 Germinal, An III. ; Discours prononce par Robert Lindet . . . sur
les Denonciations portees contre I'Ancient ComitS de Salut Public et le Rapport
de la Commission des 21.

3° Carl Becker

bon government. In this letter he asserted that he had in his pos-
session certain documents and articles of peculiar interest to the
royal family; documents which, he says, he extracted from the
Robespierre papers in his possession in 1794, and which he had
secretly and carefully kept ever since with the intention, at the
proper time, of restoring them to the Bourbon family. These docu-
ments and articles, of which there were ten, he enumerated and
described in his letter to Becquey. The first and most important
was the famous last letter of Marie Antoinette to her sister Madame
Elizabeth. The last one, number 10, Courtois describes as " une
petite lettre, avec la pretendue signature de Danton, adressee a la
Reine, ainsi congue: ' Citoyenne, Mettez sur voire parte ces mots:
Unite, indivisibilite de la Republique, liberte, egalite, fraternite ou
la mart. Signe Danton.' "^' Courtois did not have the letter before
him when he wrote. He quoted the Danton letter from memory,
or from a copy ; and it is important to note that he quoted it incor-
rectly: he makes it read mettez sur voire parte, instead of vous
metirez sur votre parte.

Courtois did not succeed in saving himself from exile ; and mean-
time his residence was raided by the police, who carried off all his
papers, a great mass of documents which he had used in 1794 for
preparing his report to the Convention, including the ten pieces he
had enumerated in his communication to the Councillor Becquey.
These ten pieces, all relating to Marie Antoinette, were turned over
to Louis XVIII. The king at once made known the discovery of
the last letter of Marie Antoinette to her sister, which was ordered
read in all the churches, and of which engraved copies were made
and presented to the members of the Chamber of Peers.^^ But the
Danton letter was not published or made known. No member of
the Bourbon family would wish to have it known that Marie Antoi-
nette had been, or might be supposed to have been, under obligation
to Danton. The letter was a curiosity, no doubt, and one which
might well be given, as such, to some friend who cared for that
kind of thing ; and in fact it seems that the king gave the letter to
one of the peers, in whose family archives it remained until it was

17 This letter from Courtois to Becquey remained in the archives, appar-
ently unknown to historians, until printed in 1891 by Eugene Welvert in his
book La Saisie des Papiers du Conventionnel Courtois, p. 17. It is given in full
by Lenotre, who took it from Welvert, m his La CapHvite et la Mart de Marie
Antoinette, p. 384 ; and in Welvert, Lendemains Revolutionnaires, p. 268.

18 Welvert, La Saisie des Papiers du Conventionnel Courtois, pp. 21, 27;
Lenotre, op. cit., p. 393; Campardon, op. cit., p. 251. The Cornell University
Library has the letter in a printed broadside of 1816, and also one of the en-
straved copies of the original.

Danton to Marie Antoinette 31

purchased for an American collector, the late John Boyd Thacher.
As part of the Thacher Collection it was exhibited in 1905 at the
Lenox branch of the New York Public Library, and is described
and accurately quoted in the printed catalogue of that exhibition.^"
It vfras Mr. Thacher who had the photographic reproduction made
which Professor Burr found among the papers of Mr. White. The
original is now in Washington, the Thacher Collection having been
presented recently to the Library of Congress.

Under these circumstances it is not astonishing that the Danton
letter should have long remained practically unknown. So far as
I can learn few historians have seen the original. Apparently,
no French historian knew of the existence of such a letter until
1891, when Eugene Welvert printed the inaccurate copy of it which
Courtois made in 1816 in his letter to the Councillor of State Bec-
qygy 20 Since then the letter has been quoted by three different
historians, Lenotre,^^ Blottiere,^^ and Albert Mathiez.-^ Blottiere
assures his readers that the original still exists and that facsimiles
of it have been circulated. Mathiez says that he has seen a fac-
simile. However that may be, all three writers, including Mathiez,
have evidently taken the letter from Welvert, for they quote it in
part only, without the address ; they quote it inaccurately, making it
read mettes instead of vous mettres; and they quote it with certain
punctuation-marks although the original is without punctuation :
that is to say, they all quote the letter exactly as they found it given
in Welvert, who in turn gave it as he found it in the Courtois letter
of 1816.


Such briefly is the history of the Danton letter. What was its
purpose? Was Danton involved in some plot to rescue the Queen

is Otdlines of the French Revohition told in Autographs exhibited at the
Lenox Branch of the New York Public Library, March 20, 1905. No. 2S0.
The Danton letter, according to the description here given, " came into the pres-
ent collection from a Ducal house in France, the first Duke receiving it from
the hands of Louis XVIII. in 1816 ". Mrs. Thacher does not remember any-
thing more than is related above about the circumstances under which her
husband came into possession of the letter. To Mr. W. G. Leiand, who has
compared the photographic reproduction with the original, and read the proofs of
this article, I am under obligations for many valuable suggestions.

20 La Saisie des Papiers du Conventionnel Courtois (Paris, 1891), p. 17.
Welvert printed the letter of Courtois again in 1907, in his Lendemains Revolu-
tionnaires, p. 268.

21 La Captivite et la Mart de Marie Antoinette (Paris, 1897), p. 3S4.

'22 In an article on " Courtois et la Duchesse de Choiseul ", Annales Revolu-

'^^ Danton et la Paix (Paris, 1919), p. 247.

32 Carl Becker

from the Conciergerie ? Or was his purpose merely to guard, her
against anticipated assassination at the hands of the mob? Let us
consider the first of these suppositions.

That there were royaHst plots to rescue the queen is well known.
In July, 1793, there was a carefully worked-out plot known to have

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Online LibraryGeorges Jacques DantonA letter from Danton to Marie Antoinette → online text (page 1 of 3)