This process of republican housecleaning through judicial murder was continued by selecting other key figures who represented the impure past. Sadly for the Revolutionary Tribunal, a number of the most obvious candidates for expiatory retribution were beyond their reach: Dumouriez in exile, Lafayette in an Austrian prison, Mirabeau in the Panthéon (though not for long). Barnave and Bailly would have to do instead, and duly paid for their respective attempts at revolutionary containment. On November 7, Philippe-Egalité, the Duc d’Orléans, also went to his death, in the company of a locksmith condemned for insulting the republican colors. Reportedly he made a public statement of regret for his responsibility for shedding the blood of an innocent, presumably his cousin.
Purity became a political fetish. Following a proposal by Merlin de Thionville, the Jacobins initiated a laborious self-scrutiny in which each member answered the questions “How much were you worth in 1789; how much are you worth now and if you are worth more how did you come by it?” In late November, when this scrutinépuratoire got under way, it seemed that the chief beneficiaries of this relentless process of self-reduction would be Hébert and his allies. He himself served on the purging committee of the club. Bouchotte and Vincent commanded enormous resources of patronage at the Ministry of War; Ronsin was firmly entrenched as the commander in chief of the armées révolutionnaires. In Paris, the partnership of Hanriot, the commandant of the National Guard; Chaumette, the procureur of the Commune; and Pache, the mayor (who had gone, successively, from Girondin to Montagnard to Hébertiste) seemed to provide, for this group, the possibility of turning popular violence on and off as they chose.
“Hébertisme,” then, had men, money and authority at its disposal and was beginning to use them to powerful effect. As minister of war, Bouchotte had appropriated large sums to distribute the Père Duchesne gratis throughout the army. Just what these men stood for beyond a brutal accusatory style was less certain, since they defined themselves more in terms of what and whom they were against than what they were for. They were against the “fanatics” of Christianity; against any mercy for the defeated “brigands” and “monsters” of federalism and counterrevolution; against the rich and the beaux esprits – the intellectuals who presumed to talk down to the People. Insofar as they were for anything, it was an anarchic notion of popular government, always armed to impose the will of the people on its mandatories. They also favored the extension of state power into the economy. In number 273 of the Père Duchesne, Hébert had argued that “the earth has been made for all living creatures, and from the ant to the haughty insect called man, each of them must find his subsistence from the production of this common mother… the merchant must live from his industry, to be sure, but he must not fatten himself on the blood of the poor. Property is [simply] existence and one must eat, at whatever price.” In keeping with this concept of the state as a protector of minimum subsistence (a view more or less shared by Robespierre and Saint-Just), Hébert wanted a more aggressive policy of requisitions to meet local crises. To ensure adequate supply and low prices, as a temporary expedient the entire product of wine and cereal harvests should be compulsorily bought up by the state (while compensating the producers). In a speech to the Commune on October 14 Chaumette even proposed that the state repossess workshops and manufactures closed or deserted by émigré entrepreneurs (a scheme that would be taken seriously eighty years later by the Paris Commune of 1871).
Above all, though, the Hébertistes were for unrelenting surveillance, denunciation, indictment, humiliation and death. Père Duchesne’s image of the Republic was of a kind of locker-room egalitarianism, where bons bougres would have nothing to hide from each other and would embrace in muscular fraternity. The “homme pur,” Hébert was much given to saying, “always says frankly what he thinks, and calls a cat a cat, he never manipulates people, and if in his anger he strikes some brave bugger by mistake, then he asks his pardon and redresses the wrong by taking him off to the nearest wine-shop to knock back a few.” (The French is much better: “to smother half a dozen choirboys” – étouffer une demi-douzaine d’ enfants de choeur.)
The Hébertiste ascendancy did not, however, go unresisted. For all the appearance of capitulation to popular intervention, the Jacobin control of the journée of September 5 implied a determination by the Mountain not to be at the mercy of the Commune. Hence a majority of the Committee of Public Safety, especially after Saint-Just’s declaration on October 10 that the government was to be “revolutionary [that is, dictatorial] until the peace,” were determined to use state power to neutralize the threat of insurrection. Through November and December, however, the Mountain was itself divided. A number of important figures, including Robespierre and Couthon, were hostile to dechristianization and were ready to listen to complaints about punitive excesses committed by such militant représentants-en-mission as Javogues, Carrier and Fouché. On the other hand, they remained obsessed by the holy grail of republican purity. Since it would, by definition, remain forever out of reach, its paladins would constantly see themselves confronted by impure soldiers of darkness and crime who stood between them and their prize and who had to be cut down if the Reign of Virtue were ever to be realized.
The major challenge to the Hébertistes, then, had to come from a different group of Jacobins who were more concerned with the pragmatic stabilization of France than with its devotion to the Ideal Republic. Danton was the all-important figure in this group. Joseph Garat, who had been his successor at the Ministry of Justice and, until August, minister of the interior, later wrote that towards the end of 1793 Danton had sounded him out in several private conversations. Garat was himself under suspicion of being too closely linked to the Girondins, so it was natural for Danton to confess to him his chagrin: by rebuffing his offers of a truce, Brissot and his friends had left the Republic at the mercy of Hébert and the most fanatical Terrorists. Ironically, it had been Danton himself who had coined the ringing slogan “Terror is the order of the day” on September 5 when pulling the Convention’s irons from the fire. But revolutionary government in his mind was contingent on military desperation, and the victories of Hondschoote and Wattignies had removed those Terrorist imperatives. He confided to Garat a strategy to correct the course. A press campaign would be mounted for clemency and against the Hébertiste Commune. Robespierre, whose trust he still had, and Barère, whom he judged also to be, at heart, a pragmatist, would be courted inside the Committee, the result being the isolation of militants like Collot and Billaud-Varennes and, eventually, a wholesale change in personnel. The economic Terror would be dismantled and France would open negotiations for a peace with the Coalition while remaining fully mobilized lest diplomacy fail.
The plan was but another attempt to return the revolutionary genie to the bottle of state power. Intrinsic to its realization was the cynical use of conspiracy paranoia against those who were its habitual practitioners. It seems likely that Danton approved of Fabre d’Eglantine’s revelation of a “foreign plot” in mid-October, in which friends and supporters of Hébert were said to be implicated in a scheme to suborn the Convention and overthrow the committees. In other words, those who purported to be most truculently patriotic were in fact foreign agents. For a while the tactic seemed to pay off. Stanislas Maillard, Anacharsis Cloots (to whose “Prussian” birth the Dantonistes repeatedly drew attention) and the Belgian van den Ijver were indeed arrested. To beat the patriotic drum Fabre went even further, demanding that any British subjects remaining in France be arrested and their property confiscated. He extended the net of the “foreign network” to two more of Hébert’s colleagues, Desfieux and Dubuisson, to the ex-capucinChabot, who had married into a family of Moravian Jewish bankers, the Belgian democrats Proly and Walckiers, and even to Hérault de Séchelles, who was accused of somehow protecting foreign banking interests in the Committee of Public Safety.
The denunciation was crazy enough to be credible to Robespierre, especially because it linked together men on the right (relatively speaking) like Hérault, whose aristocratic birth and intellectual manner rendered him suspect, with lunatics and thugs on the left like Maillard and Cloots, whom he found simply disgusting. As in a conspiratorial circle, les extrêmes se touchent. It all made sense. On October 16 Saint-Just denounced not only the corrupt but “men impatient for offices,” a remark obviously directed at the Commune, and Robespierre, in one of his university lectures pretending to be a political speech, offered a new geography of counter-revolutionary intrigue. There was, apparently, the “Anglo-Prussian” branch associated with Brissot’s yearnings to put either the Duke of York or the Duke of Brunswick on the throne. And then there was the “Austrian” branch, which extended from the Vienna government (one of the accused, Proly, was said to be a bastard son of Chancellor Kaunitz) to the Belgian bankers and war contractors with whom Dumouriez had been thick, and to their minions and agents at large in Paris and even within the Convention itself.
So far, so good. But in mid-November, a disaster suddenly loomed. On the tenth of that month Chabot and his friend Claude Basire, very much under suspicion, had argued in the Convention for the limitation of the committees’ powers of arresting deputies. Before any deputy could be sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal, the accused should be given a right of defense before the whole body of the Convention. This echoed the kind of “Indulgent” position taken by Danton himself. And predictably the measure, though passed into law, was opposed by militant Terrorists both in the Convention and on the Committee of Public Safety, among them Billaud-Varennes, who insisted, “No, we will not step backward, our zeal will only be smothered in the tomb; either the revolution will triumph or we will all die.” Barère was even more critical on the grounds that such a law made invidious distinctions between deputies and other citizens. The law, enacted just a day before, was overturned.
This, however, was not the root of the matter. As the sponsors of the measure, Chabot and Basire were not exactly disinterested. They had been abusing their position as the appointed liquidators of the colonial trading monopoly, the Company of the Indies, to speculate outrageously in its stock, secretly extorted from its directors as the price of official leniency. This squalid exercise in asset-stripping had meant large-scale bribery and the falsification of accounts and of the official decree of liquidation. It was all the more scandalous since Chabot and Basire, together with two other colleagues in the Convention, Delaunay and Julien de Toulouse, had posed in the summer as the most implacable scourges of corrupt capitalism. By denouncing banks, speculators on the Bourse, and the merchant monopolists, they had secured for themselves the perfect strategic positions from which to maximize their plunder while remaining safe from official investigations.
None of this would have necessarily imperiled Danton’s offensive against Hébert had it not been for the entanglement of Fabre d’Eglantine. While Fabre had not been the instigator of the fraud, he had been handsomely bribed to collude in it, and it was his own signature that was on the crooked act of liquidation. This, however, had not stopped him from including Chabot in his “foreign plot” so as to throw Robespierre and the Jacobins off his own track. Besides, Chabot’s marriage to Léo-poldine Frey, the daughter and sister of a family that had also called itself, successively, Dobrusška and von Schoönfeld, was perfect material for the “foreign plot” designed to show him off as a super-patriot. Chabot could hardly issue a counter-denunciation without incriminating himself.
All this, however, began to unravel in mid-November. It brought Danton hurrying back to Paris from his little estate at Arcis-sur-Aube where, for a month, he had been happily playing country gentleman and enjoying domestic pleasures with his second wife. Following the defeat of their measure, Chabot and Basire had been relentlessly hounded by the Père Duchesne and zealots in the Jacobins and the Cordeliers. Believing he was about to be exposed, Chabot tried to cut his losses by a preemptive denunciation. He went to Robespierre on the morning of November 14 and got him out of bed to enlighten him concerning a shocking plot, evidently the work of the counter-revolution, to pillage the Nation of its sorely needed funds. He named Delaunay and Julien but assured Robespierre that while he himself had gone along with some of the conspiracy, it had been in the nature of a patriotic infiltration, the better to catch all the criminals involved. He had with him, he said, material evidence in the shape of a hundred-thousand-livre bribe, which he would give to the Committee of General Security along with the names of the conspirators, provided he could have some assurance that he would not himself be implicated. Taken aback by the news, Robespierre encouraged him to proceed on that basis. But within a few days the arrests were made, of both the denouncer and the denounced.
Somehow Fabre himself had escaped scrutiny and actually succeeded in putting further distance between himself and the peculators by more denunciations of Chabot. Betrayal begat betrayal. Just as Chabot had fingered Delaunay and Julien to save his neck, Fabre now sold Chabot to save his. For a while this tactic worked. Robespierre seemed to have enough faith in Fabre to give him a part in the official investigation, in which, of course, he managed to “cook” more evidence and attempt to implicate leading Hébertistes, including Chaumette.
Danton, however, was no fool, and he was no virgin himself when it came to imaginatively acquired money. Fabre was an old friend from the Cordeliers of 1789, his protégé in the club and the district assembly. Danton liked his wit and he pretended to like his plays, but he was under no illusions about Fabre’s virtue. In any case, Danton disliked the moral self-righteousness of the Mountain and the posturing of the Hébertistes and thought the whole issue of corruption much less urgent than virtually every other problem facing the Republic. He himself had on occasion been known to dip his fingers into the sticky pot, almost certainly agreeing with Mirabeau that sweeteners were routinely necessary to make government work. His philosophy in this respect might best be characterized as “late Ottoman.” Given the Jacobin obsession with probity, and Robespierre’s own addiction to spotless, indeed transparent politics, the unthreading of the plot threatened to backfire disastrously on Danton’s campaign to end the Terror.
The best defense, then, was a spirited offense. Fabre had made a start by throwing suspicion on precisely those people positioning themselves to pounce: the Hébertistes. But the real attack was to be launched by someone who had Robespierre’s affection and who had been completely uncompromised: Camille Desmoulins. When Desmoulins launched the Vieux Cordelier at the beginning of December, Danton could not possibly have known what an extraordinary effect it would have, nor indeed how Desmoulins would rise so brilliantly to meet the crisis. The title of the paper, which appeared every five days, should have given him some clue, for it was a deliberate attempt to distinguish the “veterans” of freedom, the men who had been democrats in 1789, fromarrivistedemagogues like Hébert.
In every conceivable way, Desmoulins’ paper turned the tables on the Père Duchesne. It had become habitual, in the militant press, to review the history of the Revolution as evolving ever forward from impurity and tainted compromise towards higher stages of purity and popular democracy. Desmoulins had the courage to break that prescribed momentum, by romanticizing the virtues of the founding revolution, at least as it was fought in the streets and districts in 1789. He liked to review (many times) his own famous part in triggering the Parisian insurrection of July 12 and contrasted it invidiously with Hébert’s career at that time as a ticket taker at the Variétés Theater. The “new Cordeliers” were thus attacked for usurping a title that had been precious to the old revolutionary hands, without whom they would have had no career and no liberty to print their filthy calumnies. (He took care to remind people of the heroic role of Loustalot in creating a truly popular journalism.) Desmoulins also poured withering scorn on Heábert’s pretensions to be “of the people.” His choice of language for this counter-attack was deliberate. He reverted to a lucid, elegant, ironic manner, without Marat’s rant, the better to contrast the integrity of his own personality with Hébert’s imposture as one of the lads. The way I write is truly the way I am, his style implied. Hébert gives you the “language of the charnel house,” as if the virtue and candor of his prose could be measured by the number of foutres and bougres in a single paragraph. To Hébert’s accusation that he, Camille, had married a rich girl, he responded with an act of candor designed to win Robespierre’s applause, declaring that this “fortune” his wife brought him consisted precisely of four thousand livres. His enemy, who pretended poverty, had in fact used his connection with Bouchotte and Vincent to secure 120,000 livres for the distribution of his own rag, as if it were the official journal of the army! Desmoulins even appended his version of Hébert’s bill of accounting, claiming to show how much old Père Duchesne had pocketed for himself.
Hébert, however, was not Desmoulins’ only target. He was concerned with warding off attacks on Danton from the Terrorists who felt themselves threatened by the Indulgent program. And in fact he did a better job of defending his hero than Danton himself had on December 1 at the Jacobins. Desmoulins went directly for the jugular by celebrating the attack on Danton as William Pitt’s finest hour (“O Pitt, I render homage to your genius!”), thus feeding Robespierre’s own conviction that the ultras were really a branch of the counter-revolution. In subsequent numbers Desmoulins went on to attack another favorite bugbear of both Danton and Robespierre: the dechristianizers. “Liberty,” Desmoulins reminded his readers, “is not a nymph from the Opéra, it is not a bonnet rouge, or a dirty shirt… liberty is happiness, reason and equality.” From this he went on to confront the institutions of the Terror itself, starting with the law of suspects. If the government asked that he spill his blood for liberty, it should honor its commitment to that principle by opening the prisons and liberating two hundred thousand people “that you call suspects, since in the Declaration of the Rights there are no ‘houses of suspicion.”’ Such a measure would be “the most revolutionary one that you have ever taken.” What, after all, was the alternative?
Do you want to exterminate all your enemies by the guillotine? But this would be the greatest folly. Can you destroy even one on the scaffold without making ten enemies from among his family and friends? Do you really believe that it is women, old men, the feeble, the “egoists” who are dangerous? Of your true enemies only the cowards and the sick are left, and those, like the rentiers and shopkeepers currently filling the prisons, are hardly worth all the anger spent on them.
In number 4, Desmoulins suggested an immediate specific reform: a “committee of clemency” operating independently of the Committees of General Security and Public Safety, one that could review cases of questionable accusation or conviction. It would be, of course, a direct challenge to the Commune-dominated Revolutionary Tribunal. It could act as a safeguard against malicious denunciation and correct such glaring travesties of justice as the arrest of a friend of Desmoulins who had been accused of having given dinner to someone later deemed to be a political undesirable. In a revolution one had to be careful, wrote Desmoulins, not fearing to quote Mirabeau (though in terms less earthy than the orator): “Liberty is a bitch who likes to be bedded on a mattress of cadavers.”
The Vieux Cordelier was a sensation, much the most powerful weapon in the armory of the Indulgents. Its calculated tone meant that it was deliberately addressed to the revolutionary elite, not just those in the Convention but those in the western and central sections of Paris who were tired of being bullied by the Commune and who applauded Desmoulins’ rhetorical question: “Is there anything more disgusting and more execrable [ordurier] than the Père Duchesne?” And even more specifically it was aimed at the one person on whom, as Danton and Desmoulins knew, the success or failure of their campaign turned: Maximilien Robespierre. In number 4 Desmoulins had even invoked the fact of their having been schoolfellows together at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in an explicit appeal for Robespierre to consider the virtues of humanity as consistent with patriotism.
Robespierre was, in fact, extremely receptive to the appeal. He had had quite enough of the dechristianizers, who on November 11 had gone so far as to bring cartloads of sacerdotal objects to the Convention and dump them unceremoniously on the assembly floor. Engravings show sans-culotte guards wearing bishops’ mitres and cassocks. He had also intervened personally to prevent the arrest of the seventy-three members of the Convention who in June had signed a petition against the expulsion of the Girondins. More surprisingly, in view of what was to unfold three months later, he was still firmly devoted to Danton and defended him fiercely against critics in the Jacobins on December 3. He even implied that merely to impugn Danton’s patriotism was to do the dirty work of William Pitt, who would like nothing better than to set good patriots at each other’s throats.
With Robespierre apparently leaning towards the Indulgents, they pressed home their attack. Another of Danton’s allies in the Convention, Philippeaux, delivered a scathing report on the brutality and corruption he said had been perpetrated by Ronsin and thearmées révolutionnaires in Lyon. As a result, Ronsin and Vincent were both arrested and Desmoulins’ proposed clemency committee was actually established. It looked for a moment as though the Terror might begin to be dismantled. Even the famous law of 14 Frimaire (December 4), often misleadingly called “the constitution of the Terror,” was in fact aimed against all those who had exacted the most brutal retribution in the name of republican orthodoxy. While it subordinated “all constituted authorities” to the Committee of Public Safety, it ended the anarchic process by which zealots could take the law into their own hands. Local revolutionary committees were now required to make a report every ten days to the district administration; no public official (including thereprésentants-en-mission) was permitted to expand or augment laws enacted by the Convention or impose forced loans or improvised taxes. Much, of course, turned on the temper of the Committee of Public Safety itself. But when news came of both the recapture of Toulon on December 15 (thanks to General Bonaparte) and, a week later, the final decisive battle at Savenay against the Vendéans, there was reason for the Indulgents to hope that a brighter military outlook would reinforce the case for a more relaxed government.
They were to be sharply disabused. On December 21 Collot d’Herbois, freshly returned from Lyon, made an appearance at the Jacobins. There he attacked those (especially Fabre) responsible for Ronsin’s imprisonment and upbraided the members for their creeping pusillanimity. Speaking with the spurious authority of a man who has been fighting at the front and has returned to find the home guard gone soft, Collot declared, “Two months ago when I left you, you were burning with the thirst for vengeance against the infamous conspirators of the city of Lyon. Today I hardly recognize public opinion; if I had arrived two days later I would perhaps have been put under indictment myself.” He concluded rhetorically by asking, “Who are these men who reserve theirsensibilité for counter-revolutionaries, who evoke so mournfully the shades of the assassins of our own brothers, who have so many tears to shed over the cadavers of the enemies of liberty while the heart of the Patrie is ripped apart…?”
It was one of the best performances of Collot the actor, and it marked the exact point at which the Indulgent campaign started to go on the defensive. To Collot’s question, Hébert was only too happy to supply names – Desmoulins, Fabre, Philippeaux, Bourdon de L’Oise. Though the secret of his collusion in the Company of the Indies fraud was not yet out in the open, Fabre was the object of increasingly pointed attacks, not least in a petition to the Convention from the Cordeliers Club. The decisive shift occurred, however, in the Committee of Public Safety itself. Collot had a dependable ally in Billaud-Varennes, and Saint-Just, still on mission, could probably be counted on in a crisis. The Committee of General Security was even less warmly disposed towards theIndulgents. One of its most enthusiastic Terrorists, Vadier, had commented that he meant to “gut that fat turbot Danton,” to which Danton is said to have crisply responded that if he dared to lay a finger on him, he would eat Vadier’s brains and shit in his skull.
For Robespierre, it was the “orderly” institution of revolutionary government as set out in the law of 14 Frimaire which was at stake. The cohesion of the Committee of Public Safety could not afford a serious schism, pulled apart by competing influences from the Dantonistes and Hébertistes. It was essential for its executive authority that it be seen to rise above “faction,” indeed be seen to strike impartially at it. Moreover, at some point in late January, or perhaps in early February, he had clear and shattering evidence of Fabre’s criminality: perhaps the signature itself. There was nothing Robespierre hated more than crime disguised as patriotism. Nor did he much like being made to look like an idiot. He was already being twitted by Billaud-Varennes for having agreed to the committee of clemency and had to protest rather feebly that he had had no part in its membership. Now it was glaringly obvious that Fabre had led him by the nose to the point, even, of permitting Fabre to investigate a fraud to which Fabre himself had been a party! In this light, Robespierre was inclined to write off the entire Indulgent campaign as an appalling exercise in hypocrisy designed merely to cover the tracks of criminals and of Fabre in particular. He believed and still wanted to believe that Danton himself was not implicated and, learning of his wife’s death in early February, wrote a touching letter to him in the warmest terms, appealing to their old friendship. What he was asking of Danton, in fact, was that he desert his corrupt friends and adhere to the fiat of the Committee. In practice, of course, this meant that at some point Danton would be asked to incriminate Fabre and perhaps even Desmoulins, and this he steadfastly refused to do. Perhaps it was this unconscionable devotion to friends even when they had been exposed as crooks, rather than to the “objective” sacrifices needed to be made for the patrie, that in the last analysis Robespierre found so unforgivable. If Danton could not act Brutus, then he deserved to perish like Brutus’ sons.
On the other hand, Robespierre also had no intention of allowing the prosecution of the Indulgents to become a victory for the ultras. He still had not forgiven Hébert for dechristianization, even though the latter had tactically decided to soft-pedal the cause for a while. The last thing Robespierre wanted was a renewal of the Commune’s insurrectionary politics against the committees, and the release of Ronsin and Vincent amidst scenes of sans-culotte jubilation seemed to make that more likely. Acknowledging that the economic Terror had generated more hardship and inflation rather than less (exactly as Barbaroux had predicted), the Committee was also considering modifying the maximum to allow for transport costs, thus at least giving some sort of incentive for producers to move their goods from the place of origin. To preempt the inevitable protests that this was once again to overlook the government’s duty to the poor, Saint-Just came forward with the radical decrees of Ventôse (February 26 and March 3). These provided for the distribution to the needy of property confiscated from émigrés. But it also presupposed that the needy would declare themselves to be such at a time when others in the Convention were proposing to transport vagrants to Madagascar. In any event, the decrees remained a dead letter partly because so few of the Committee seem to have been party to them (Robespierre having been ill since early February) and partly because much more urgent political decisions intervened.
A day after the presentation of Saint-Just’s second decree, Hébert and Carrier (back from drowning priests at Nantes) veiled the bust of Liberty at the Cordeliers: the ritual which signified a call for insurrection. But as they fatally discovered, the machinery of popular mobilization had been effectively sabotaged by government control since 14 Frimaire. The revolutionary committees were riddled with government spies who knew the movement of the “insurrection” better than its leaders did. The Commune, now more anxious to please the committees than Hébert, refused to call out its troops and the rising fizzled out. Five days later Saint-Just delivered a blistering attack on faction as an “enemy of sovereignty” and thus a tool of the counter-revolution, and in the days that followed virtually all of Hébert’s principal supporters were arrested, including those originally named by Fabre in the “foreign plot.” Among them was the bizarre Anacharsis Cloots, the self-designated “Orator of the Human Race,” who had tried to exonerate himself by confessing in print, pathetically, that “if I have sinned it is by too much candor and naiveté. Marat used to tell me ‘Cloots, tu es une foutue bête.’” There, at least, the Friend of the People had not erred.
On the twenty-fourth of March, Hébert and nineteen of his friends went to “hold the hot hand”; “look through the republican window”; be “shaved by the national razor” (among other comical euphemisms favored by Père Duchesne). There was a strong emotion of Schadenfreude among the crowd, who plainly enjoyed seeing the man who had so celebrated the guillotine quail visibly at the prospect of his own destruction. Huge, noisy crowds, cheering and jeering, greeted the progress of the Hébertistes to the place de la Révolution. “They died like cowards without balls,” said one man overheard by a government agent. “We thought that Hébert would have more courage but he died like a Jean-Foutre,” said another, suggesting a keen sense of poetic justice.
A week later Danton and some of his closest friends, including Desmoulins, Lacroix, Philippeaux and, on a different day, Hérault de Séchelles, were arrested in their turn. The killing of the Hébertistes had always, of course, implied the end of the Indulgents, since to have attacked the one without the other would have been to fatally alienate the hard-core Terrorists on both committees. On the twenty-ninth of March there had been one last meeting between the two giants. Danton tried to persuade Robespierre that their friendship had been deliberately broken by Collot and Billaud, who had sown discord between them to exonerate themselves from Terrorist excesses. But Robespierre was not listening. He in his turn demanded that Danton sacrifice the self-evidentlycorrupt as the price of his own self-preservation. It was a dialogue of the deaf. A persuasive version of the night of the arrest has Marat’s sister, Albertine, actually warning Danton and urging him to go directly to the Convention to denounce the Committee. At first he was reluctant to consider this, as it meant calling for the proscription of Robespierre, but persuaded he had no alternative he eventually went. On entering the assembly, Danton saw Maximilien in such apparently friendly conversation with Camille Desmoulins that he relaxed his guard and went home. He was picked up later that night.
Everyone concerned in the hunt knew that closing for the kill would not be easy. In Hébert they had slain a weasel (albeit one with sharp teeth). In Danton they had a wounded lion to dispatch and one whose belligerent roars could resound around Paris. On the evening of the thirty-first of March, the two committees had met in joint session to consider tactics. Saint-Just brought along the indictment, of which he was unjustifiably proud, and said he would read it in the Convention the following day, after which they could arrest Danton and his friends. Vadier and Amar looked at him as though he were off his head. First, they insisted, arrest Danton, then denounce all you like. Any other way would invite disaster. At this slight to his persuasive powers, not to say his manhood set against Danton’s, Saint-Just became uncharacteristically angry. But the policemen from General Security had their way.
The indictment against Danton, corrected in its final form by Robespierre, was, even by the standards of the Revolutionary Tribunal, an incredibly feeble document. The charges against Hérault de Séchelles were even more specious. Accused of being an aristocrat, he invoked the memory of his best friend, Michel Lepeletier, a ci-devant of even more illustrious breeding. Danton, however, was accused of every kind of perfidy, from plotting to put the Duc d’Orléans on the throne to rescuing people, including Brissot, from the September massacres, to laughing whenever the word vertu was mentioned. He was, in short, a bad lot. Obviously the Committee hoped that by surrounding Danton and Desmoulins with the crooks of the Company of the Indies fraud, including a whole variety act of assorted foreigners – the brothers Frey, the Spaniard Guzmán, the Dane Friedrichsen, the Belgian Simon – the blame for the swindle would rub off on their major adversary, even though they had no evidence to show he was in any way connected.
An enormous crowd crammed into the courtroom on April 2, for Danton’s following was still formidable. Fouquier-Tinville had tried to contain popular interest as much as possible by waiting until the last minute before announcing the trial, but he was still in danger of being swamped by a rowdy court. This deeply offended his sense of orderly procedure. Even the number of the accused seemed to go awry when, during the course of the proceedings, Danton’s old comrade Westermann insisted on being indicted with his friend. When the president of the Tribunal assured him that that was “only a formality,” Danton commented, “Our whole presence here is just a formality.” Disruption followed disruption, revealing Danton’s frighteningly accomplished sense of public theater. Failing to cut short one of Danton’s booming tirades, the president, Herman, asked, “Didn’t you hear the bell?” Danton replied, “The voice of a man who has to defend both his life and honor must vanquish the sound of your little bell.” He was, in fact, fully determined to exploit the advantage in volume he had over his judges, knowing that a great, deep voice not only made its interrogators sound ridiculous but seemed to testify to resources of virile power that republican culture associated with virtue. To thunder was to be patriotic. The next day, at the beginning of the defense, addressing the public rather than the judges or the jury, he declared, “People, you will judge me when you have heard me; my voice will not only be heard by you but throughout all of France.”
That, indeed, was just what the Tribunal was afraid of. They had no intention of allowing Danton to run the trial his own way and scorned as outrageous his demand to call a long list of witnesses, including such members of the Committee of Public Safety as Robespierre himself and Robert Lindet, who alone among Danton’s colleagues had refused to sign the arrest warrant. Though no complete record of the proceedings survives, it nonetheless seems that Danton spoke nearly the whole day and with stupendous effect, brushing off the charges against him like insects crawling up his clothes. “Will the cowards who are slandering me dare to attack me to my face?” he demanded, and in a more stoical-Romantic vein, “My domicile will soon be in oblivion and my name in the Panthéon… Here is my head to answer for everything.” At the end Danton seemed to want to lift the moral squalor of the occasion up to the level of tragic rhetoric, making of his own end something as weighty and as memorable as that of a Homeric hero, a patriot from the annals of Rome.
During the past two days the court has got to know Danton. Tomorrow he hopes to sleep in the bosom of glory. He has never asked for pardon and you will see him fly to the scaffold with his usual serenity and the calm of a clear conscience.
During their detention and trial the Dantonistes were incarcerated in the Luxembourg. It was perhaps the least wretched of all the prisons of the Terror, and those who saw them there remember Danton and Philippeaux affecting a kind of forced gaiety. Danton, in particular, seemed resigned to parting from his second wife, Louise, a girl of just sixteen. Camille Desmoulins, however, was uncharacteristically thrown into the deepest dejection at having to separate from Lucile, with whom he remained passionately in love. Whenever she could, she came to see him, standing at the permitted distance, something that gave her husband both intense pleasure and dreadful emotional torment. In his last letter written before his execution, he told his wife that at the sight of her and her mother he had thrown himself against the bars in grief. The letter is astonishing, the outpouring of a man completely undone by sorrow and regret, thrown into the depths of a kind of Romantic phantasmagoria, someone who wants to renounce his whole public life for the possibility of private peace.
My Lucile, ma poule, despite my torment I believe there is a God, my blood will efface my faults, I will see you again one day O my Lucile… is the death which will deliver me from the spectacle of so many crimes such a misfortune? Adieu Loulou, adieu my life, my soul, my divinity on earth… I feel the river banks of life receding before me, I see you again Lucile, I see my arms locked about you, my tied hands embracing you, my severed head resting on you. I am going to die…
Still fighting, Danton continued to demand the right to call witnesses. His insistence was so adamant and the public so supportive that, fearing the entire process might collapse, Saint-Just went to the Convention and told them that the prisoners were fomenting insurrection against the court and that Desmoulins’ wife was involved in a plot to murder members of the Committee of Public Safety. Preposterous as all this was, it gave the Committee enough authority to return to the court and have Fouquier proceed to his usual shortcut of “asking” the jury if they had been sufficiently “enlightened.” They had. Knowing he had lost in a final court of appeal, Danton became resigned. In prison, according to Riouffe, who said he heard him through the walls, he voiced regret that he was leaving the Republic in such miserable condition, run by men who had no clue about government. “If only I could leave my balls to Robespierre and my legs to Couthon the Committee might live a little longer.”
On the fifth of April, Danton, Hérault, Desmoulins and the rest went to their death. Watched by a vast and mostly silent crowd, they conducted themselves with great dignity and composure. Danton was determined to show affection and friendship. He and Hérault de Séchelles, the prodigy of the Parlement turned regicide Jacobin, tried to embrace but were roughly separated by the executioner Sanson. “They will not prevent our heads from meeting in the basket,” Danton is reported to have said. But his last remark was better still. As he stood before the plank, his shirt splattered with the blood of his best friends, Danton told Sanson, “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It is well worth the trouble.”