Laurence Gronlund.

Ça ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study online

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birth to so many celebrated Frenchmen. He belonged
by birth to the middle dasses. His father died soon after his
birth, and his mother a few years afterwards married one
Ricordain, a small manufacturer, who proved himself an
excellent stepfather.

Danton got a fair classical education in various schools at
Troyes, the chief city of Champagne. There are only two
incidents worth noting fronj. his sclmol-days. One is the
crowning of the young king *Louis-''XVI. at Rheims, a city
distant twenty-eight miles from Troyes, in the year 1774.
The young lad, then fifteen years old, "svho was destined one
day to unmake that very king, determined to go and see how
he was made. He goes on foot, sees every thing, returns,
and gets some slight punishment for absenting himself widi-
out leave. What seems to have impressed him most, besides
the King's taking the oath, was the numerous birds which
they had let loose inside the church. " Nice liberty ! " he
used to say to his schoolfellows, " to fly within four walls,
with nothing to eat." Quite a suggestive remark.

The other incident was when a schoolmate, a big lad
named Pare, who afteiwards occupied high positions, was to
be corporally punished for some slight offence. Danton
boldly stepped forward, and protested against the bodily
l)unishment of so large a boy as a shame, and against the
tlignity of the whole class ; and he succeeded in ha\-ing the
l)unishment altered.

This last incident already shows Danton's principa:l char-
acteristics, which clung to him during life, — affectionateness
and boldness. He loved dearly his mother, his stepfather,
and afterwards his first and second wife. He made perfect
confidants of his mother, and later of his wives. As a boy,
he was belovetl l)y his teachers and fellow-scholars, in spite
of his face being undeniably a very ugly one. His natural

1789. 1 DANTOX'S YOUTH. 27

ugliness liad l)ocn much increased by his very boldness.
When a boy, he had fights with almost all kinds of pug-
nacious animals, and they generally left their marks on him.
Once his upper lip was cut, then his nose was broken, and
lastly he took a fever from bathing, which ended in. small-
pox, that marked him for life. But he was of a frank, com-
municative disposition ; that ugly face of his, nevertheless,
was radiant with intelligence and good humor; and his
turbulent character was calmed by the least caress of his

Later on he frequently alluded to his looks in his addresses :
" My Medusa-head, which causes all aristocrats to tremble."
At the Jacobin Club he once boasted of having " those features
which characterize the face of a freeman." In his hour of
trial, turning to the jurors of the revolutionary tribunal, he
proudly asks, "Have I the face of a hypocrite? " And in
his supreme moment on the scaffold, he says to the execu-
tioners, '• Show my head to the people : it is good to look

In 17S0 he comes to Paris to enter the office of a notary,
as pupil. Being asked to give a sample of his handwriting, he
frankly answers, " I have not come here to be a copyist," and
the notary rather seems to like this self-esteem in his pupil.
A story is told of him, dating from this period : Once, when
bathing in the Seine, and seeing tlie towers of the Bastille
looming up a little way off, he cried out in angry tones,
"When will these walls come down? Oh, how I should
like to contribute a good stroke with a pickaxe ! "

In 1787, when twenty-five years of age, he becomes an
advocate. Three years thereafter he marries Mademoiselle
Charpentier, the daughter of a controller of revenue-col-
lectors, received with her a dowry of forty thousand francs,
with which sum, and about a similar amount in addition which
he had inherited from his deceased father, he buys the post


of a king's counsellor, for previous to the Revolution all places
of advocature and magistracy were bought and sold.

This is the position we find him in, and his age thirty,
when the Revolution breaks out. He lives in rigid economy,
but decently, in small apartments near his father-in-law, in
the Cour de Commerce, a narrow street on the south side
of the Seine, in that district of the Cordehers which is to be
so well known later on in the Revolution. He has but a
few, but very intimate friends, among members of the bar
and literary men, who visit each other very much. He is a
most excellent family-man, and loves his wife dearly, who in
return loves him, finds him not at all ugly, and has a firm
belief in his powers and future when no one else has.

He is described at that time as a Hercules in build, needing
a well-turned-down collar in which to move his bull-neck ;
his bodily figure stately as well as massive, and himself more
careful in his dress than has been generally thought. His
voice is powerful, and his gestures are bold. He is hot-
tempered, easily moved to anger, terrible to an adversary,
but easy also to conciliate.

It is shameful, that, on the word of a woman like Madame
Roland, the notion should have got currency that Danton
was illiterate ! he whom we have seen as a king's coun-
sellor ; he whom we now know to have been counsel to a
secretary of justice, M. Barentin, who thought so well of
him that he twice offered him the position of secretary
of seals, which offer he twice refused, and who repeatedly
consulted him on most important public measures, aiid once
re(]uested of him and obtained from him a memorandum as
to the most urgent reforms to be laid before the king !

And we have further evidence. On the death of Danton's
first wife, in February, 1793, an inventory was, according
to i'Vench law, taken of his possessions. This inventory
shows, that, while he then had a lot of silvcr-i)late valued at

1789.1 DANTO.Y'S YOUTH. 29

twelve hundretl and two francs, he possessed, on the otlier
hand, a library composed of more than one hundred works,
many composed of several volumes, valued at sixteen hun-
dred francs more than the silver-plate. Among the books
we find the works of Plutarch in English, of Montesquieu,
of Montaigne, of Voltaire, of Rabelais, of Buffon, of Dr.
Johnson in Englisli, of Rousseau, Robertson's History of
America in English, the whole Encyclopccdia, Adam Smith's
WcaltJi of Nations in English, etc.

From this we can see that Danton read English, and,
indeed, preferred English translations of the classics. We
know he read Italian works in the original ; we know that
when, a second time, he had caught a fever from bathing,
he, wliile convalescing, read all the volumes of the Ency-
clopccdia through ; we know he studied Montesquieu par-
ticularly, from whose " Spirit of Laws " he often quoted ;
he read all the works of Rousseau, of course, as everybody
did ; Beccaria's Crimes and Punishments, which appeared
just before the Revolution, and which was soon to reform
the criminal legislation of the civilized world, he studied
with care.

At the age of thirty, Danton then really stood at the sum-
mit of the knowledge of his age. He had drunk deeply
tlie lessons from the revolutionary books of his age. The
Revolution had matured in his brain, as in the brains of the
reading portion of his contemporaries, and it was now ready
to be born. That Danton was aware of this, seems evident
from the answer he gave to M. Barentin, when offering him
office for the second time : " I thank you, but the state of
])olitics has changed entirely. We are no longer in the
period of modest reforms ; they who refused these, refused
their own salvation. Notv we are at the daivn of a revolu-
tion r

But that he was going to be such an important actor was


hiddcii from everybody's eyes, and so it was, indeed, with
all the other revolutionary actors. Sieyes, Mirabeau, Ver-
gniaud, Guadet, Roland, Robespierre, Carnot, Danton, were
hidden in a night of obscurity, and that, perhaps, saved
them for their days of action.

* * *

Do not let us forget, however, that the middle classes
were ready too, — the rich middle classes that are to be
the bearers of the new ideas and rulers of the new, ^ era,
because they are the only part of the masses as yet suf-
ficiently developed. They had become rich, proud, and
powerful, compared to the " lower classes," from the time
Colbert had, under Louis XIV., worked for them sixteen
hours a day during twenty-two years, with his tariffs, his
custom-house regulations, and his commercial negotiations.
But just as powerful as they were in regard to the masses,
just as impotent were they in regard to nobles and clergy,
who openly and on every occasion insulted them.

An attempt had already been made to effect the Revolu-
tion from above. Turgot became minister shorUy after
Louis' accession. It was the philosophers, the economists,
come to power, convinced that now their ideas were to
receive a brilliant application. Turgot, with the assistance
of Malesherbes, immediately attempted to give the middle
classes freer movement by a decisive blow : the principle
of free competition was to govern in industry and commerce.
The Paris " Parliament " — the magistracy was so called in
France — was compelled to register a decree for the free
circulation of grain, and also an edict abolishing all cor-
porations and guilds. That was on the 12th of March,
1776, the year of publication of the Wealth of Nations.
On that day, Louis Blanc tells us, the workmen of Paris left
their masters in crowds, and celebrated their emancipation
by processions through the streets, and bancjucts in the


evening. Ah, the time came when they were undeceived, and
learned that " free competition " did not at all mean freedom
for them ! But their masters were not yet to be emanci-
pated either, for there immediately was a re-action. Turgot
fell from power, and the guilds and all other restrictions
were left as before. Now we can see how short-sighted
the ruling powers were ; how much better it would have
been for them and France if the Revolution could have been
carried out from above. But then, how much more

short-sighted are not our ruling classes, who scorn even to
listen to suggestions made in our days for inaugurating the
Coming Revolution from above !

So the middle classes of France were still waiting, but

The American war gave a mighty push to events. Curi-
ously enough, it is the " Parliaments " that first demand tlie
assembling of the States- General ; then everybody demands
them. Only " Anglomania " can explain this universal cry
for them ; for though the " States-General " had met several
times before in French history, and at crises too, the last
time they assembled had been a hundred and seventy-five
years before, and they never had possessed a trace of
political significance. Saint-Simon — not the reformer, but
tlie historian of Louis XIV. — contemptuously says, " The
States-General are never seriously effective ; verba, voces !
(words, voices !), nothing more. But they are an expedient
for canonizing bankruptcy, at once innocent, agreeable, and

There is, by the way, a letter from Mirabeau, written to
a friend at Strasbourg about this time, which has not been
long known, in which he says, " Let us not undertake too
much. Let us insist on our consent to all taxes and loans,
civil liberty, and periodical assemblies, as the three capital
points. The rest will come in its own good time. And


now I shall give my private thoughts to you in confulcnce :
War to all privileges and privileged parties, — that is my
motto. That is why I am personally in favor of monarchy.
That would be a nice republic we should have, composed
of all the powerful and rich who now are on top of us !
Why, it would be the most acute tyranny ! The members
should be numerous. Eight hundred members are easier
to lead than three hundred, and there laill always be some
dexterous persons to lead the herd, however large it is.".

At last the King calls the States-General together. Rep-
resentatives of the three orders. Nobility, Clergy, and Com-
mons, are to meet at Versailles in May, 1789. By an
additional decree it is ordered that the Third Estate, the
Commons, are to have twice as many representatives as
the other orders ; they are to be elected by what is virtually
universal suffrage. This additional decree is published
New Year's Day, 1 789, and the Parisians illuminate their
houses in consequence, as after a victory. It was the first
time in history that a large nation, with twenty-five million
people, had tried such an experiment. No wonder that
the next months witnessed a great deal of excitement in

But is it not remarkable to observe how, in spite of all
excitement, the assemblies of the Third Estate seem every-
where to be of one mind and one heart? Everywhere the
same proceedings : cahiers, or " ))latforms " as we call them
in America, are drawn up, and these eahiers are all of
the same tenor ; all re-eeho the demands of the revolutionary
7uriters mentioned above : —

"The sovereignty resides in the peoj)le, and sliould be
exercised only by the nation's representatives, in accord
with the King.

" We demand a constitution and laws, to be made and
adojjted by the States-General, who also should have the


exclusive liijlil to vole tlie taxes anil control the national

" The agents of the executive power must be made

" The privileges of nobility and clergy should be abolished.

" Serfdom should be abolished.

" All citizens to be eligible to all public employments.

" 'I'he procedure of courts of justice should be reformed,
the purchase and sale of all law-offices abolished, and justice
to be gratuitous ; also exceptional jurisdictions abolished.

" The press should be free, and each left to practise what-
ever religion he pleases.

*^ Industry and commerce should be entirely free .'^

These were the propositions that the revolutionary writers
had made the middle classes believe, and believe in like a
veritable gospel ; they had made them the convictions of the
middle classes, for which these were ready to sacrifice every
thing and everybody, themselves included, if need be.

The States-General met the 5th of May, 1789. All his-
torians start the French Revolution from that date. There
is not the slightest reason for this. That meeting was merely
an incident in the course of events, like so many other inci-
dents. The Revolution came about, was born, in a moment
— which is soon approaching ; but if we are to say when
its preparation commenced, then the year 1748 is the date.

The three orders go each to its different hall of assembling,
but tlie Third Estate, the Commons, refuse to do any business
at all ; they even refuse to open letters addressed to " the
Third Estate." They merely say, " We are waiting to have
the two other orders come to us, in order that we may form
one assembly ; " and they repeatedly notify Nobility and
Clergy to that effect. But these will not come. The Com-
mons remain doggedly obstinate. The Paris electors have
been very dilatory in electing their repfesentatives ; at last it


is (lone, anil on tlie 251]: of May tlie twenty Parisian deputies,
headed by Bailly and Sieyes, enter the hall of the Commons.
The Commons still wait; but finally, on June 10, their pa-
tience is at an end. Then, among an immense concourse
of spectators, and in the midst of a profound silence, rises
Abbd Sieyes, of the Parisian delegation, to become the
accoucheur of tlie Revolution. He makes the motion that
final summons be addressed to the other orders to the effect
that the calling of the bailiwicks will commence in ap hour.
Adopted. After the lapse of the hour the Commons com-
mence the verification of their powers \ and in this business
they are engaged the following days, during which several
of the lower clergy enter to take their place among them.
Finally, on June ly, Sieyes, again, proposes fhat they constitute
themselves the national assembly, and that decisive step is
adopted by 491 against 90. They then elect Bailly president,
and immediately thereafter proceed to an act of sovereignty,
by decreeing that no taxes be valid in the future without
their consent.

Now THE Revolution is born.

It has been the fashion of historians to call Mirabeau the
" father," the " maker," of the French Revolution. In truth
no individual was its father ; but if anybody, it was cer-
tainly not iVIirabeau, but Sieyes. Mirabeau opposed himself
to the title of " National Assembly," precisely because the
two other orders were not present ; he wanted the Commons
to call themselves, instead, the " Representatives of the
French People." It would be interesting to know if he was
among the ninety who voted " no," but I have not been
able to ascertain this. But this we know, — that on his death-
bed Mirabeau said to the Genevese Dumont : "O my friend !
how right we were when we endeavored, from the first, to
prevent the Commons from declaring themselves the Na-

1789.] "CA IRA.r' 35

tioiial Assembly ! It is lliis that }ias been /he source of all
our evils. From the moment they carried that victory, tliey
liave never ceased to show themselves unworthy of it."

The court tries all manner of means to frighten the
National Assembly back from the stand they have taken, —
excludes them from their own hall, and compels them to
take refuge first in a tennis-court (where they take their
celebrated oath to stick together), then in the Church of St.
Louis ; and finally the King, in royal session, on June 23,
commands them to recede. But all in vain.

It is at this royal session that an incident occurs that has
thrown a good deal of false glamour around Mirabeau. The
King has left ; so have the nobles and most of the clergy ; the
Commons, " the National Assembly," remain, — when enters
the King's usher, who reminds them of the King's command.
Then Mirabeau haughtily replies, " We are here by the peo-
ple's will, and nothing but bayonets shall make us leave."
The fact is, no one thought of leaving ; and Bailly, the presi-
dent, was just on the point of saying so.

Two days after the clergy give in ; and on June 2 7 the
nobility, by command of the King, likewise join the As-

* * *

Now the middle classes of France, being in a clear ma-
jority of the National Assembly, are in supreme power, and
they know its value. They know — and they have left it to
us as an important lesson — that a revolutionary body vnist
^i^el hold of political poiuer as an instrument, or else they
will get into collision with it as an obstacle.

The people cried, " The Revolution is finished ; it is the
work of the philoso])hers, and it has not cost a drop of
blootl." Our historians have pitied these people

their near-sightedness. Yet it is the historians that are near-
sighted. Tlie people were right.


The Revolution accojnpUshcii, and not a blow had
been struck, not a particle of violence committed, so faz".
The middle classes were in political power, and tliey knew
that the rest would follow as a matter of course.

It did follow very soon after, as a matter of course.

And the people shouted for joy. They even called out
the Queen, whom they hated ; she appeared on the balcony,
and showed them the dauphin.

The middle classes can now commence singing /// revo-
lutionary song : —

" Ah, 9a ira, 9a ira, 9a ira I
La liberty s'etablira
Malgre les tyrans; tout reussira."

(" It goes ! It gets on splendidly !
Liberty will be established
In spite of tyrants ; all will succeed.")



June 37, 1789, to Sept. 30, 1791.

" Von, flutocrats ! ivcre apfiointed to guard against gluts, appointed to preside
over the distrihuiion and apportionment of wages /or work done, that our
human laws be emblems of God's laws." — Carlyle.

The Counter-Revolution. — Aug. 4. — The Constitution OF'91.—
Danton the First Republican. — The Doings of the French

BUT what about the violence, the massacres, the Terror?
Ah ! they do not belong to the Revolution ; they,
indeed, are diametrically opposed to the Revolution, how-
ever much historians persist in including them, and in even
making the French Revolution principally consist in them.
As a matter of fact, these horrors were the natural outcome
of the frantic efforts of the old powers to overthrow the new
regime, and bring back the old regime, — of the coiiiiter-
Revolution to undo the Revolution. Historians are right in
insisting upon that something failed, but it was the counter-
Revolution that miserably failed at every step it took.

Just here comes in a notable difference between England
and France. Charles, undoubtedly, fought personally till
the very last ditch, and paid the penalty for his stubborn-
ness ; but the nobility gave way as soon as the danger-jmint
was reached, and ever since have done so. This, indeed,
has become such a characteristic of the British aristocracy,
that it is constantly relied upon by the people ; and woe if
this reliance shall ever prove false !



Ill the I'higlish Revolution the nobility gave way, and allied
themselves with the new-comers in a joint empire. The
aristocracy said, in effect, to the rich manufacturers and
merchants, " We will divide our power with you ; " and so
they became, jointly, pretty severe taskmasters to the toiling
masses. This prudent conduct on the part of the British
nobility is the reason why to-day we find tlie anomaly in
(ireat Britain of the lands in the hands of the few, and of
the survival of so many other feudal features.

Such was the beginning of the political power of the rich
middle classes of England. They have gone on consolidat-
ing all the groups of well-to-do people of former periods, —
of people of property, such as country squires, big farmers,
capitalists, shopkeepers, and professional men, — and made
them all so conscious of their interdependence, that they
very naturally have come to look upon those with whom
they have no social intercourse as " the lower classes," who
seem to be there only to be used as instruments for their
own well-being.

These same classes have, on the other hand, now acquired
such complete dominion, that (since large bodies always
attract and absorb smaller ones) they have absolutely swal-
lowed up the upper classes, and matle them mere adjuncts
to themselves.

The nobility in England is now a part of the middle classes ;
is, like them, engaged in " business," one way or another,
and would be of no importance without such business. This
transition has been effected so much the more easily, as the
English aristocracy never formed a class apart, as in France ;
that is to say, the heads alone of the noble families have
political privileges, while all their other members are simple
" commoners."

I have no doubt that this slow, i)caccful way of i)assing
from feudal times over into our motlern era, this slow way of


making what is, in truth, the Ihitish Constitution, has, on
the whole, been a great blessing to the British people.

But in France it was quite otherwise. Its Revolution was
so dramatic, precisely because its ruling powers had not sense
or inclination to abdicate or divide their power when the
time came for it. It had to be wrenched from them.

Yet I am not sure that they ought to be very much blamed
for it. This disposition of theirs was certainly a very unfor-
tunate one for themselves and for France ; but it should be
borne in mind that they merely obeyed an hereditary instinct
in trying to save the Catholic feudal system, which, though at
the time anti-social, was in their eyes the only anchor of
safety for their cherished principles, interests, and institu-
tions. They were simply in\'eterate bigots ; for bigotry is in
essence an incapacity to understand the law of development,
ami a disposition to kick against it.

But this furnishes a ready answer to those who think that
the Revolution was wicked and sinful. AVhy, if any thing was
7vickcd and " sinful," it was certainly the counter- Revolution,
and not the Revolution. The latter may have possessed some
ignoljle features. They who led it and tliey who prepared it
may, many of them, have been very unlovely characters, —
tluit I do not deny. The plutocrats certainly contributed to

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Online LibraryLaurence GronlundÇa ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study → online text (page 3 of 21)