At twilight this date in 1794, the most magnetic and perhaps most statesmanlike politician of the French Revolution mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution in the revolution — as described by the poet Arnault:
In the dying light of day the great leader seemed to be rising out of his tomb as much as preparing to descend into it. Never was anything more bold than that great athlete’s countenance, never anything more formidable than the look of that profile which seemed to defy the knife. That great head, even as it was about to fall, appeared to be in the act of dictating laws.
The famously ugly revolutionary had been the moving spirit overthrowing the monarchy of Louis XVI in 1792; as the firmest public minister holding up against the ensuing military collapse he was for a few weeks something close to the head of the government.
Some credit him with saving Paris from military rout or internal anarchy during this time; some implicate him in the horrific September Massacres — and it may well be that neither view is mistaken.
He was destroyed by his sometime ally Robespierre — Danton had returned from semi-retirement on his farm late in 1793 to engage this losing power struggle — and the two are easily, albeit simplistically, read as yin and yang in the Revolution.
Danton’s earthy, all-too-human joie de vivre — his carnality, profanity, arrogance, venality — opposed to cold-blooded, sexless Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”; Danton’s (arguable) far-seeing vision of Revolutionary France’s place in the wider world opposed to Robespierre’s bloodthirsty peccadilloes of “virtue”. For most observers, though by no means all, the comparison profits Danton. (Just see if France ever names a warship for Robespierre.)
“We must dare, and again dare, and forever dare.”
Like many before him, most especially the Girondins who had (fatally to both parties) scorned an alliance with the Dantonists, Danton sought to arrest the revolution where he stood. The confrontation that finished him was precipitated by Danton’s attempt — with the assistance of his longtime confederate Camille Desmoulins, the most notable of the other men to lose their heads this day — to apply the brake to the excesses of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, that lethal organ he himself established as a pillar of order for a time of peril now abated. With the worst of the very real dangers to the Revolution checked, Danton in the Convention and Desmoulins in his fiery journalistic writings proposed to rein in the bloodbath and overturn the power of the sans-culottes.
The time was not yet ripe for the former, although the far-left Hebertist party preceded Danton to the guillotine by a few weeks. In this clip from the 1983 film Danton (review | another | still another (pdf)), Robespierre — who had long resisted denouncing Danton, but did it with characteristic gusto once he committed to the course — turns the terrified Convention against the title character:
Danton’s action in those last days seems vacillating, uncertain; fate devours him. For Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death (here it is free in the original German), he’s paralyzed by the contradictions and uncertainties of an unknown new world in its birth pangs, despairing as all his good-natured philosophies drench themselves in gore.
He roused himself one last time for a ferocious and hopeless defense before the Revolutionary Tribunal, coming near enough to swinging the mob in his favor that the Convention felt obliged to vote a measure to gag him.*
He went to his death this day in full character, making the most of his last turn on that stage — strutting, jesting,** boastful to the very end, prophesying (accurately) Robespierre’s imminent demise. He was the last to lose his head, having seen Desmoulins and his fellows die before him, “with such coolness as does not belong to man,” the headsman Sanson recalled. His last words were an instruction to the executioner: “Show my head to the people. It will be worth it.”
* Later codified into a regulation preventing any prisoner mounting a defense, the law would boomerang against its authors when Robespierre’s cadre was hailed before the Tribunal and condemned without a hearing.
** Another in the doomed party, Fabre d’Eglantine, was a writer who on the day of the execution complained of the loss of his verses, vers, a French word also meaning “worms.” Danton observed that he’d soon be making plenty more vers.