The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

Danton, No weakness.

Danton, meanwhile, has been pressingly sent for from Arcis: he must return instantly, cried Camille, cried Phelippeaux and Friends, who scented danger in the wind. Danger enough! A Danton, a Robespierre, chief-products of a victorious Revolution, are now arrived in immediate front of one another; must ascertain how they will live together, rule together. One conceives easily the deep mutual incompatibility that divided these two: with what terror of feminine hatred the poor seagreen Formula looked at the monstrous colossal Reality, and grew greener to behold him; — the Reality, again, struggling to think no ill of a chief-product of the Revolution; yet feeling at bottom that such chief-product was little other than a chief wind-bag, blown large by Popular air; not a man with the heart of a man, but a poor spasmodic incorruptible pedant, with a logic-formula instead of heart; of Jesuit or Methodist–Parson nature; full of sincere-cant, incorruptibility, of virulence, poltroonery; barren as the east-wind! Two such chief-products are too much for one Revolution.

Friends, trembling at the results of a quarrel on their part, brought them to meet. “It is right,” said Danton, swallowing much indignation, “to repress the Royalists: but we should not strike except where it is useful to the Republic; we should not confound the innocent and the guilty.” — “And who told you,” replied Robespierre with a poisonous look, “that one innocent person had perished?” — “Quoi,” said Danton, turning round to Friend Paris self-named Fabricius, Juryman in the Revolutionary Tribunal: “Quoi, not one innocent? What sayest thou of it, Fabricius!” (Biographie de Ministres, para Danton.) — Friends, Westermann, this Paris and others urged him to shew himself, to ascend the Tribune and act. The man Danton was not prone to shew himself; to act, or uproar for his own safety. A man of careless, large, hoping nature; a large nature that could rest: he would sit whole hours, they say, hearing Camille talk, and liked nothing so well. Friends urged him to fly; his Wife urged him: “Whither fly?” answered he: “If freed France cast me out, there are only dungeons for me elsewhere. One carries not his country with him at the sole of his shoe!” The man Danton sat still. Not even the arrestment of Friend Herault, a member of Salut, yet arrested by Salut, can rouse Danton. — On the night of the 30th of March, Juryman Paris came rushing in; haste looking through his eyes: A clerk of the Salut Committee had told him Danton’s warrant was made out, he is to be arrested this very night! Entreaties there are and trepidation, of poor Wife, of Paris and Friends: Danton sat silent for a while; then answered, “Ils n’oseraient, They dare not;” and would take no measures. Murmuring “They dare not,” he goes to sleep as usual.

And yet, on the morrow morning, strange rumour spreads over Paris City: Danton, Camille, Phelippeaux, Lacroix have been arrested overnight! It is verily so: the corridors of the Luxembourg were all crowded, Prisoners crowding forth to see this giant of the Revolution among them. “Messieurs,” said Danton politely, “I hoped soon to have got you all out of this: but here I am myself; and one sees not where it will end.” — Rumour may spread over Paris: the Convention clusters itself into groups; wide-eyed, whispering, “Danton arrested!” Who then is safe? Legendre, mounting the Tribune, utters, at his own peril, a feeble word for him; moving that he be heard at that Bar before indictment; but Robespierre frowns him down: “Did you hear Chabot, or Bazire? Would you have two weights and measures?” Legendre cowers low; Danton, like the others, must take his doom.

Danton’s Prison-thoughts were curious to have; but are not given in any quantity: indeed few such remarkable men have been left so obscure to us as this Titan of the Revolution. He was heard to ejaculate: “This time twelvemonth, I was moving the creation of that same Revolutionary Tribunal. I crave pardon for it of God and man. They are all Brothers Cain: Brissot would have had me guillotined as Robespierre now will. I leave the whole business in a frightful welter (gachis epouvantable): not one of them understands anything of government. Robespierre will follow me; I drag down Robespierre. O, it were better to be a poor fisherman than to meddle with governing of men.” — Camille’s young beautiful Wife, who had made him rich not in money alone, hovers round the Luxembourg, like a disembodied spirit, day and night. Camille’s stolen letters to her still exist; stained with the mark of his tears. (Apercus sur Camille Desmoulins in Vieux Cordelier, Paris, 1825, pp. 1–29.) “I carry my head like a Saint–Sacrament?” so Saint–Just was heard to mutter: “Perhaps he will carry his like a Saint–Dennis.”

Unhappy Danton, thou still unhappier light Camille, once light Procureur de la Lanterne, ye also have arrived, then, at the Bourne of Creation, where, like Ulysses Polytlas at the limit and utmost Gades of his voyage, gazing into that dim Waste beyond Creation, a man does see the Shade of his Mother, pale, ineffectual; — and days when his Mother nursed and wrapped him are all-too sternly contrasted with this day! Danton, Camille, Herault, Westermann, and the others, very strangely massed up with Bazires, Swindler Chabots, Fabre d’Eglantines, Banker Freys, a most motley Batch, ‘Fournee’ as such things will be called, stand ranked at the Bar of Tinville. It is the 2d of April 1794. Danton has had but three days to lie in Prison; for the time presses.

What is your name? place of abode? and the like, Fouquier asks; according to formality. “My name is Danton,” answers he; “a name tolerably known in the Revolution: my abode will soon be Annihilation (dans le Neant); but I shall live in the Pantheon of History.” A man will endeavour to say something forcible, be it by nature or not! Herault mentions epigrammatically that he “sat in this Hall, and was detested of Parlementeers.” Camille makes answer, “My age is that of the bon Sansculotte Jesus; an age fatal to Revolutionists.” O Camille, Camille! And yet in that Divine Transaction, let us say, there did lie, among other things, the fatallest Reproof ever uttered here below to Worldly Right-honourableness; ‘the highest Fact,’ so devout Novalis calls it, ‘in the Rights of Man.’ Camille’s real age, it would seem, is thirty-four. Danton is one year older.

Some five months ago, the Trial of the Twenty-two Girondins was the greatest that Fouquier had then done. But here is a still greater to do; a thing which tasks the whole faculty of Fouquier; which makes the very heart of him waver. For it is the voice of Danton that reverberates now from these domes; in passionate words, piercing with their wild sincerity, winged with wrath. Your best Witnesses he shivers into ruin at one stroke. He demands that the Committee-men themselves come as Witnesses, as Accusers; he “will cover them with ignominy.” He raises his huge stature, he shakes his huge black head, fire flashes from the eyes of him, — piercing to all Republican hearts: so that the very Galleries, though we filled them by ticket, murmur sympathy; and are like to burst down, and raise the People, and deliver him! He complains loudly that he is classed with Chabots, with swindling Stockjobbers; that his Indictment is a list of platitudes and horrors. “Danton hidden on the Tenth of August?” reverberates he, with the roar of a lion in the toils: “Where are the men that had to press Danton to shew himself, that day? Where are these high-gifted souls of whom he borrowed energy? Let them appear, these Accusers of mine: I have all the clearness of my self-possession when I demand them. I will unmask the three shallow scoundrels,” les trois plats coquins, Saint–Just, Couthon, Lebas, “who fawn on Robespierre, and lead him towards his destruction. Let them produce themselves here; I will plunge them into Nothingness, out of which they ought never to have risen.” The agitated President agitates his bell; enjoins calmness, in a vehement manner: “What is it to thee how I defend myself?” cries the other: “the right of dooming me is thine always. The voice of a man speaking for his honour and his life may well drown the jingling of thy bell!” Thus Danton, higher and higher; till the lion voice of him ‘dies away in his throat:’ speech will not utter what is in that man. The Galleries murmur ominously; the first day’s Session is over.

O Tinville, President Herman, what will ye do? They have two days more of it, by strictest Revolutionary Law. The Galleries already murmur. If this Danton were to burst your mesh-work! — Very curious indeed to consider. It turns on a hair: and what a Hoitytoity were there, Justice and Culprit changing places; and the whole History of France running changed! For in France there is this Danton only that could still try to govern France. He only, the wild amorphous Titan; — and perhaps that other olive-complexioned individual, the Artillery Officer at Toulon, whom we left pushing his fortune in the South?

On the evening of the second day, matters looking not better but worse and worse, Fouquier and Herman, distraction in their aspect, rush over to Salut Public. What is to be done? Salut Public rapidly concocts a new Decree; whereby if men ‘insult Justice,’ they may be ‘thrown out of the Debates.’ For indeed, withal, is there not ‘a Plot in the Luxembourg Prison?’ Ci-devant General Dillon, and others of the Suspect, plotting with Camille’s Wife to distribute assignats; to force the Prisons, overset the Republic? Citizen Laflotte, himself Suspect but desiring enfranchisement, has reported said Plot for us:— a report that may bear fruit! Enough, on the morrow morning, an obedient Convention passes this Decree. Salut rushes off with it to the aid of Tinville, reduced now almost to extremities. And so, Hors des Debats, Out of the Debates, ye insolents! Policemen do your duty! In such manner, with a deadlift effort, Salut, Tinville Herman, Leroi Dix–Aout, and all stanch jurymen setting heart and shoulder to it, the Jury becomes ‘sufficiently instructed;’ Sentence is passed, is sent by an Official, and torn and trampled on: Death this day. It is the 5th of April, 1794. Camille’s poor Wife may cease hovering about this Prison. Nay let her kiss her poor children; and prepare to enter it, and to follow! —

Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsy-turvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable, and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: “Calm my friend,” said Danton; “heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).” At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: “O my Wife, my well-beloved, I shall never see thee more then!” — but, interrupting himself: “Danton, no weakness!” He said to Herault–Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: “Our heads will meet there,” in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: “Thou wilt shew my head to the people; it is worth shewing.”

So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection and wild revolutionary manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer-people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself. He saved France from Brunswick; he walked straight his own wild road, whither it led him. He may live for some generations in the memory of men.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30