Saturday 13 April 2024

"Even unto death" - Robespierre's letter to Danton

In March of last year an iconic piece of Revolutionary history went under the hammer when the Versailles auction house Osenat offered for sale the original manuscript of Robespierre's famous letter of 5th February 1793 to Danton.  Heavy with the resonances of betrayal to come, Robespierre offers his condolences for the death of Danton's wife and expresses his friendship and love "even unto death".

5 February 1793. If, in the troubles that can shake a soul like yours, the certainty of having a tender and devoted friend can offer you some consolation, I offer you this. I love you more than ever and unto death. In this moment, I am yourself. Do not close your heart to the accents of friendship that feel all your pain. Let us cry over our friends together, and let us soon show the effects of our deep sorrow to the tyrants who are the originators of our public misfortunes and our private misfortunes. My friend, I have sent you this letter from my heart to Belgium; I would have come to see you, if I had not respected the first moments of your just affliction. Embrace your friend.  Robespierre
ROBESPIERRE (Maximilien de). Autograph letter... - Lot 18 - Osenat

Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.III-1, p.160.

On 12th March the letter, which came onto the market following the closure of the Musée des manuscrits de Paris, sold to a private buyer for  €218,750. This was in line with the high end of the estimate of between €100,000 and €200,000.  There was a belated flurry of surprise when the French government declined to exercise its right of pre-emption.  Le Monde published a joint protest by an impressive roll-call of  historians, politicians and other public figures:  "The preservation of the only letter from Robespierre to Danton is a national cause" it stated, and characterised the letter as "a slice of the history of the birth of the Republic" .  All to no avail: on 11th April of this year the French Minister of Culture issued a formal statement defending the State's decision on the basis that the letter was not perceived to "possess enough unique historical importance to justify the expense"(!) 

Are they saving up for more chairs, perhaps?

To the outside observer, all this smacks of political manoeuvring.  It is true that the content of the letter has long been known to scholars but everyone concerned is well aware of the letter's symbolic value, given the cultural weight of the duel between Robespierre and Danton.  In a Radio France interview in 2023 the historian Loris Chavanette, author of Danton et Robespierre: le choc de la Révolution (2021) expressed his surprise that no-one had come forward prior to the sale. There had been no response from the academic community, in particular the Société des Études Robespierristes, which had campaigned so energetically in 2015 for the retention of the Le Bas manuscripts;  the letter could well have featured in the new museum proposed for the Maison Robespierre in Arras.  In Chavanette's opinion,  the silence reflected a  "sort of embarrassment" in left-wing circles over Robespierre's fraternal tone and fulsome sentiments:  "academics perhaps find that this letter accuses Robespierre, who says "I love you" to Danton, when only a few weeks later he will send him to the scaffold".


"La préservation de l’unique lettre de Robespierre à Danton est une cause nationale", Le Monde, 21.03. 2023

Phillip Barcio, "Minister responds to Robespierre controversy", Art Media Agency, 12.04.2024.

Loris Chavanette, "«Je t'aime plus que jamais et jusqu'à la mort»: la lettre de Robespierre à Danton raconte une part de l'histoire de France"  FigaroVox, 10.03.2023.

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