During these convulsive weeks the deputies of the Right had almost all ceased attendance at the Assembly; after August 10 only 285 remained of the original 745 members. This rump legislature now voted to replace the King and his advisers with a provisional Executive Council; an overwhelming vote chose Georges Danton to head the Council as minister of justice, Roland to be minister of the interior, Joseph Servan to be minister of war. The choice of Danton was in part an attempt to quiet the Parisians, with whom he was very popular; besides, he was at that time the ablest and strongest character in the revolutionary movement.
He was thirty-three years old, and would die at thirty-five; revolution is a prerogative of youth. Born at Arcis-sur-Aube, in Champagne, he followed his father into law; he prospered as an attorney in Paris, but he chose to live in the same building with his friend Camille Desmoulins, in the Cordeliers working-class district; soon they became prominent in the Cordeliers Club. His lips and nose had been disfigured by a childhood accident, and his skin was potted with smallpox; but few remembered this when they confronted his tall figure and massive head, or felt the force of his perceptive and decisive thought, or heard his violent—often profane—speech rolling like thunder over a revolutionary assembly, a Jacobin club, or a proletarian crowd.
His character was not as brutal or domineering as his face or his voice. He could be rude and apparently unfeeling in his judgment—as in approving the September Massacres—but he had some tenderness latent in him, and no venom; he was ready to give and quick to forgive. Oftentimes his aides were surprised to find him countermanding his own Draconian orders, or protecting victims of his severe instructions; soon he was to lose his life because he dared to suggest that the Terror had gone too far, and that a time for mercy had come. Unlike the sober Robespierre, he relished Rabelaisian humor, worldly pleasures, gambling, beautiful women. He made and borrowed money; bought a fine home in Arcis, and large parcels of church property. People wondered how he had come upon the necessary sums; many suspected him of having taken bribes to protect the King. The evidence against him is overwhelming;23 yet he committed himself to the most advanced measures of the Revolution, and seems never to have betrayed any of its vital interests. He took the King’s money and worked for the proletariat. Even so, he knew that a proletarian dictatorship is a contradiction in terms, and can be only a moment in political time.
He had too much education to be a utopian. His library (to which he hoped soon to retire) included 571 volumes in French, seventy-two in English, fifty-two in Italian; he could read English and Italian well. He had ninety-one volumes of Voltaire, sixteen of Rousseau, all of Diderot’s Encyclopédie.24 He was an atheist, but he had some sympathy for the considerations that religion offered to the poor. Hear him in 1790, sounding like Musset a generation later:25
For my part I admit I have known but one God—the God of all the world and of justice…. The man in the fields adds to this conception … because his youth, his manhood, and his old age owe to the priest their little moments of happiness…. Leave him his illusions. Teach him if you will, … but do not let the poor fear that they may lose the one thing that binds them to life.26
As a leader he sacrificed everything to the end of preserving the Revolution from foreign attack and internal chaos. For these purposes he was willing to cooperate with anyone—with Robespierre, Marat, the King, the Girondins; but Robespierre envied him, Marat denounced him, the King distrusted him, the Girondins were alarmed by his face and his voice, and shivered under his scorn. None of them could make him out: he organized war and negotiated for peace; he roared like a lion and talked of mercy; he fought for the Revolution and helped some royalists to escape from France.27
As minister of justice he labored to unite all revolutionary ranks in throwing back the invaders. He took responsibility for the uprising of the populace on August 10; the war needed the support of those wild spirits; they would make ardent soldiers. But he discouraged the premature attempts to support revolutions against foreign kings; this would unite all monarchs in hostility to France. He fought against the proposal of the Girondins to withdraw the government and the Assembly behind the Loire; such a retreat would shatter the morale of the people. The time had gone for discussion; it had come for action, for building new armies and fortifying them with spirit and confidence. On September 2, 1792, in a passionate speech, he uttered a phrase that roused France and rang through a tumultuous century. The Prussian-Austrian forces had entered France and were winning victory after victory. Paris hovered between resolute response and a demoralizing fear. Danton, speaking for the Executive Council, went before the Assembly to rouse them and the nation to courage and action:
It is a satisfaction for the minister of a free state to announce to them that their country is saved. All are stirred, all are enthusiastic, all burn to enter the contest…. One part of our people will guard our frontiers, another will dig and arm the entrenchments, the third, with pikes, will defend the interior of our cities…. We ask that anyone refusing to give personal service, or to furnish arms, shall meet the punishment of death….
The tocsin we shall sound is not the alarm signal of danger; it orders the charge on the enemies of France. To conquer we have to dare, to dare again, always to dare—and France is saved! [De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours l’audace—et la France est sauvée!]
It was a powerful historic speech, but on that same day the most tragic episode of the Revolution began.