Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

Arrest of Danton

We have seen the Girondins, those true children of the Revolution, thrust out of the Convention, and then put under arrest; we have seen some of them flying disguised over France, and others, who could not escape, brought before the judgment-seat of Fouquier Tinville, and sentenced to a speedy death. It is strange to think that Barbaroux, the handsome and eloquent Republican, who sent for the six hundred Marseillese, had at last to shoot himself to avoid falling, as he feared, into the hands of the pitiless Jacobins. It is also strange to think that Petion, once the almost adored Mayor of Paris, should have to fly from the more advanced Republicans, and should die in a cornfield and be found half eaten by dogs. But so it was. The Girondins helped to raise a spirit which neither they nor anyone else could control. They gave life to a power which turned upon them and rent them in pieces. As one of them said: "The Revolution, like Saturn, devoured its own children."

But the devouring appetite of the Revolution did not stop at the Girondins. Far from it. The Committee of Public Safety, formed of nine leading members, was soon supreme; and as it had men in it like Robespierre and the cruel Billaud (who looked on with satisfaction at the September massacres), we are not surprised to see men dragged down to the axe who ought to have been safe enough,—men such as Danton and Camille Desmoulins, who had, more than any others, helped on the Revolution from the very first. It was Danton himself who proposed that all power should be given to the Committee of Public Safety, and that it should have a very large sum of money at its command. But Danton would not sit in the Committee himself, though they requested him to do so many times. He grumbled loudly at the shameful way the people went on in the churches, for he felt it would bring the Revolution into discredit, as no doubt it did. Other things, too, did not please Danton. He saw that the members of the Convention were becoming afraid, many of them at least, to speak their minds. One of them, named Chabot, talked of forming an opposition, and in another week he was in prison. For any member could get on his legs and propose the impeachment of any other member; and if the proposition was carried, the accused member was swiftly arrested, brought before Tinville and his jurymen, and carted off to the guillotine. It was a fearful time, especially for those who meddled with government; and it was well called the "Reign of Terror," for nobody seems to have known whether or not his head would remain on his shoulders from one week's end to another.

The generals, too, of the Revolutionary armies had no very pleasant time of it. If a general did not win a victory, he was sent for, and had to stand a searching examination. One general, named Houchard, was guillotined because he stood behind a hedge during a battle. Every officer felt that he must go forward and storm the enemy's position; for if he did not do his best, and more than his best, he knew he would have to lose his head at Paris. It was now that several famous men started up from the ranks and led French armies to victory. We may mention Jourdan, Pichegru, and Hoche, among others. There were not less than fourteen armies who kept the numerous enemies at bay; and those armies were made up of clever French lads, who were soon drilled into the finest soldiers ever seen. France has never shown herself greater or so great as when at this time she rose up, one nation against many, and hurled back her enemies on every side. That, at least, was a sublime sight; and however much we may mourn over the sorrow and terror caused by the Revolution, we can not help admiring; the dauntless bravery of those boys who, often without shoes and almost always in rags, swept away the pipe-clayed soldiers of Prussia with their shouts of Ca ira!

We might fill page after page with the horrors which were perpetrated in the unhappy country districts of France. We might tell our readers more about the headsman at Nantes, who was worn out with guillotine work; of ninety priests sunk at one time in a flat-bottomed boat in the Loire; of women and children, by the five hundred, shot down in La Vendee; of men and women tied together and flung into the river, which tying together was called in jest a "republican marriage." It was a fine time for the ravens and wolves: they had many a feast on human flesh. Mothers had sometimes to stand by the guillotine and see their children executed, and the innocents were often thrown into the cold, dark river after their mothers; and when the murderers were asked to spare the little ones, they answered, "These children are wolflings, who will grow, if they live, to be wolves."

The Committee of Public Safety consisted, as we have said, of nine members; and, by Danton's decree, it was made all powerful,—yea, powerful enough to drag him down, though he was the giant of the Revolution.

On the 15th of March, 1794, a batch of the most advanced men were suddenly arrested and brought to trial. Among them was the church-robber Chaumette, and others whom the stronger party suspected. Everyone was now suspected in turn, and it was a question. Who could eat the other? Danton was not a bloodthirsty man like some of them, nor a selfish man. He had often been heard to say, "Let Danton's name be blighted, so long as France is free." And he had also said, when he saw the quarrels and disputes among the Revolutionary leaders, "Peace! oh, peace with one another! Are we not alone against the world,—a little band of brothers?"



In the same March Danton left Paris for a few days. He was, perhaps, unwise to do so. He visited his birthplace, Arcis-on-the-Aube, and enjoyed, as far as he could, a few peaceful days; but he was soon sent for, and had to return from the sweet murmur of the stream and the fresh green fields to measure his strength with Robespierre, and to fail in the attempt.

When he returned to his place in the Convention, he said, "We ought to put down the Royalists, but we should not confound the innocent with the guilty."

"And who told you," said Robespierre, "that one innocent person ever has perished?"

"Not one innocent person?" replied Danton; "what do you say, friend Paris?" Here he turned to a man who, as a juryman, had had much to do with the trials and condemnations. What friend Paris answered we do not know, but he must have felt qualms of conscience.

Danton was advised to get into the Tribune and crush Robespierre, as he easily might have done. He was warned that if he did not put down that man, that man would put him down. But he was not of a suspicious temper, and he thought, as he had done so very much for the Revolution, his life would be safe. When his friends advised him to fly, he said he would not. "If I am cast out from France," said he, "there is nothing for me in other lands but a prison. I would rather stay where I am." Even on the night of March 30, when his friend Paris came in and told him that his arrest had been made out in the Committee of Public Safety, he would not stir. "They dare not arrest me," he said; and he went to bed as if nothing had happened.

Early next morning it was rumored over Paris that Danton and several others had been arrested. "Who, then," asked every one, "is safe?" Danton, when he heard it, said that he had a year ago created that same Committee of Public Safety, and had armed it with supreme power; but he now saw his mistake, and asked God and man to pardon him for what he had done. "They are all brothers Cain," said he, "and not one of them understands anything about government."

When he was brought before Tinville, and asked what was his name he answered, "My name is Danton, a name tolerably well known in the Revolution; and my abode will soon be annihilation." The trial of Danton was the hardest task Tinville had ever had, and unless the Committee of Public Safety had passed a new decree he would never have been condemned; but the decree was passed, and Danton, by law, was condemned to die. He died, as he had lived, a true man! His courage was nearly giving way, as he thought of his dear wife left weeping behind; but he soon remembered who he was, and he encouraged himself to die bravely, by saying, "Danton, no weakness!"

Just before he died he said to Samson the executioner, "Show my head to the people; it is worth showing." With him died several other leading men, including Camille Desmoulins, the editor; and we can but say here, as we said once before, that the Revolution was now, like Saturn, eating her own children.