Wednesday 17 April 2024

The Robespierre-Danton duel reconsidered

How do modern historians view relationship between Danton and Robespierre?  

Here is a translation/ summary of Hervé Leuwers's article, "Danton et Robespierre: le duel réinventé", published in Biard & Leuwers (ed): Danton: le mythe et l'Histoire (2016).  A close reading of the evidence suggests that there was no profound conflict between the two men and that Robespierre moved against Danton only reluctantly, when he felt that the  elimination of factions was "necessary to the Revolution."

Hervé Leuwers - like Colin Jones in his recent The Fall of Robespierre (2021) - moves away from the idea of Robespierre as the victim of personal neurosis or emotional pressure.  Instead  we see the dedicated Revolutionary who was both an idealist and a skilful and calculating political player.  This Robespierre is more human, but perhaps all the more formidible. 


"Before the Spring of 1794, there was no Danton-Robespierre duel"

The image of two irreconcilable figures arose only after the death of the two protagonists. In reality relations between Robespierre and Danton were complex. They were not without disagreements and rivalry but they were never enemies.  Following the September Massacres, Danton, Marat and Robespierre were elected for the capital.  On 25th September when the representative Lasource launched the first offensive against the "despotism of Paris", they stood together and answered in turn in the name of the Mountain.


The two Revolutionaries engaged in common struggles,  particularly against Lafayette in 1791 and 1792:

On 21st June 1791 Danton improvised a diatribe against Lafayette in the Jacobins.  He condemned his support for a bicameral legislature, his hostility towards the clubs, his hindrance of freedom of the press, his failure to prevent the King's attempt at flight. [Aulard, Société des Jacobins, vol.2 (1891) p.534-36. Internet Archive]

The hostility toward Lafayette increased after the "massacre of the Champ-de-Mars" (17th July 1791) and culminated in the Spring of 1792.  On 18th June 1792 Danton denounced him as a traitor in the Jacobins. [Aulard, vol. 4 (1892) p.11-12. Internet Archive]

 Robespierre reacted in the same way. Lafayette represented all he detested - personal ambition; a man who ordered his men to fire on the crowd; an enemy of the patriots in the Assembly and the clubs.  Like Danton, Robespierre demanded his arrest.  

"Disagreements might separate them, but never placed them in real conflict"

They disagreed on certain subjects - during the Legislative over support for Brissot and the advisability of war - but there was never any fundamental opposition.   On the contrary, they often supported one another.  When Robespierre was weakened by his unsuccessful opposition to war, Danton defended him.  On 10th May 1792, he assured the Jacobins that "M. Robespierre has only ever exercised here the despotism of reason."  His was "a virtue consecrated by the whole Revolution"; his opponents have sometimes resented his stubbornness and asperity, but never had cause to malign  him, as do his present enemies. [Aulard, vol.3 (1892) p.576 Internet Archive]

During the winter of 1793-94 the Paris population generally equated the two Revolutionaries rather than contrasted them.  They were both "columns of the Revolution" or "columns of liberty". [Ref. Leuwers, Robespierre (2014)  p.325-6.]

"The two men stood side by side and appreciated each other" 


At the beginning of the Convention, then, the two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder politically. They also respected each other personally. Although they did not live in the same quarter or see each other socially, their mutual regard is testified by two letters.  The first is written by Danton as minister shortly after 10th August. He invites Robespierre to participate in the conseil de justice which he intends to constitute. He assures him it will not be too great a time commitment. This invitation is a mark of confidence. (In the event, Robespierre declined as he has already committed himself to serve the Commune of Paris) 
[Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.III-2, p.36-37]

The other letter is that of 5th February 1793,  in which Robespierre expresses his condolences  to Danton on the  death of his wife.  The letter attests to their personal relationship. 
[Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.III-1, p.160. Internet Archive]

 According to Hervé Leuwers,  "These words are more than marks of esteem; they are marks of friendship... But a measured friendship, conscious of the differences which separated the two men" (p.144).

"Before he accused Danton, the Conventionnel Robespierre supported him for a long time, even defended him"

On his return from Belgium, in the Spring of 1793, Danton found himself under attack from the Brissotins, and tainted by his association with the traitor Dumouriez.   He defended himself only with difficulty. On 1st April 1793 Robespierre recentred the debate in the Jacobins  on Dumouriez and his accomplices, whilst praising Danton: "You know the superiority with which this patriot has crushed his enemies.  You know  with what energy he  has inspired every spirit". [Aulardvol.5 (1895), p.120-21. Internet Archive]

 Later, after the fall of the Girondins and  his entry into the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre found in Danton a  precious ally in the fight against dechristianisation.  [Leuwers Robespierre (2014), p.305-310]

At the Jacobins on 3rd December 1793 (13 Frimaire II), Robespierre again successfully defended Danton against attack when his probity was questioned.

Danton had criticised the popular society of Le Havre's request to the Committee of Public Safety for an official meeting place: in his view, citizens had a natural right of assembly and had no need to refer to any external authority.  He warned against those who sought to impose "ultra-revolutionary measures" on the people. The fact that the petitioners  had also demanded a detachment of the Revolutionary Army and a portable guillotine, seemed to place a question mark over Danton's allegiance.  He complained that he found himself under suspicion and demanded that the accusations against him be made public.

There followed an intervention by Robespierre, which has been the subject of widely different interpretations.  In Hervé Leuwers's view,  he was clearly speaking in support of Danton.  He set out the charges against Danton - beginning with the idea that he intended to emigrate to Switzerland, or that he wanted to become regent - but only immediately to contradict them.  His "only reproaches" against Danton concerned his misplaced loyalty to Dumouriez and his hesitations over the Brissotins.  

Robespierre went on to praise Danton's courage and fidelity; despite their disagreements, he had always found him a true patriot.  With characteristic hyperbole, he demanded to share his fate:

"The difference between us is only one of temperament, of our manner of seeing and judging; we both share the same goal, that of saving the patrie.  If you have judged him, I demand that you judge me also - as though there can be any doubt that I am the enemy of tyrants and  have fought all my life for liberty.  Let me be persecuted by those who believe themselves worthy to judge us;  who today can show themselves to be more patriotic than us"?

Merlin de Thionville, then Momoro, then spoke in turn in favour of Danton, and the president Fourcroy accorded him a "fraternal accolade".
[Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.X, p.219-225. Internet Archive
Aulard Société des Jacobins (1895) vol.V, p.541-45. Internet Archive]


At first Robespierre did not want to abandon Danton and Desmoulins, an irresolution accentuated by his illness of plûviose-ventôse.

In the first weeks of 1794 Robespierre refrained from associating Danton with  the "factions" which he now began to denounce as a threat to the Assembly.  On 7th January at the Jacobins, he tried to bring Desmoulins to heel by leading an attack against Issue 4 of the Vieux Cordelier, which was seen as a diatribe against the Revolutionary government.  Danton, however, intervened to argue for the preservation of the liberty of the press.  The following day Robespierre attacked Desmoulins more strongly, though he still opposed his exclusion from the club.  He maintained that both extreme and moderate factions had followers of good faith, among whom, for the moment,  he ranged both Desmoulins and Danton, and also Hébert.
[Aulard Société des Jacobins (1895) vol.V, p.595-604. Internet Archive
Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.X, p.306-317. Internet Archive]

For a long time Robespierre refused for to confront Danton directly, whether because he feared his popularity, or simply because he did not consider it necessary.  However, the conflict between "citras" and "ultras" intensified around him and began to invade the Committee of Public Safety.  The crisis was far from resolved when he fell ill in February 1794.  He did not return to political life for a whole month and, when he reappeared, the context had changed:  Hébert and the Cordeliers now directly attacked the Committees for pursuing too timid a policy.

The move against the Factions suggests "a degree of improvisation".

The Committee of Public Safety probably did not have a concerted plan of action.  Its members opposed the leadership of the Cordeliers who now held over them the threat of popular insurrection.  In the end a campaign that lasted three weeks, culminating, at the last moment, in the fall of Danton, took observers by surprise, suggesting a degree of improvisation.  Robespierre finished by taking a stance against Danton, but others led this move.

There were three phases in the fall of the Factions:

  • The arrest and execution of the Hébertists in Ventôse
  • The denunciation by Amar of the Committee of General Security of "the foreign faction", followed by the arrest of  Chabot, Basire, Delaunay d’Angers, Jullien de Toulouse et Fabre d’Églantine
  • Finally, the arrest of Danton, Philippeaux, Delacroix and Desmoulins in the night of 30th/31st March 1794.

The first developments took place on 13th March 1794 (23 Ventôse), the day of Robespierre's return to public life.  The Committee had waited for his recovery, also that of Couthon, and for the end of Billaud-Varenne's spell on mission.  Saint-Just presented to the Convention a report on "the conspiracy being laid abroad".  He invited the Revolutionary Tribunal to arrest and judge "the authors and accomplices of the plot against the French people and its liberty".  That night the leaders of the Cordeliers, Hébert, Momoro, Vincent and Ronsin, were arrested.  The Sections and popular opinion reacted with disbelief but rallied to the Revolutionary government.  Ten days later, the accused were sent to the scaffold.

The day after the arrest of the Cordeliers, Robespierre launched an appeal for unity in the Convention; all factions must now perish.  It is not clear whether he was directing this at Danton.  He may rather have had in mind the "foreign plot" denounced by Amar the following day (16th March/ 26 Ventôse). 

Would it have been possible for the Convention to call a halt at this point?  On 20th March (30 Ventôse) Robespierre dismissed this possibility: the destruction of one faction would only rebounds to the advantage of another.  Couthon then promised that the Committee of Public Safety would name the moderates who sought to profit from the current situation.  At the Jacobins next day, Robespierre confirmed the continued existence of a "faction" and claimed the identity of its members would soon be revealed.


"There is every indication that Robespierre hesitated for a long time before moving against Danton, but also against Desmoulins, his old schoolfriend".

  For the next three weeks, Robespierre did not speak again, though he continued to attend meetings of the Committee of Public Safety.  For Robespierre periods of silence often presaged major reports or difficult decisions.

 Danton's most ardent opponents in the Committee of Public Safety were Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois.   At the session of 9 Thermidor, Billaud was to accuse Robespierre of having stalled over Danton's arrest: "The first time that I denounced Danton to the Committee, Robespierre rose in fury, saying that he saw my intention was to destroy the best patriots."
[Réimpression du Moniteur universel, no.311 (1794), p.3272.

He finally agreed for the sake of preserving the unity of the Committee.
Once he had taken the decision, Robespierre associated himself with the prosecution of Danton and supported Saint-Just, who was charged with the denunciation 

He annotated his younger colleague's report and proposed substantial additions.

The report did not just concern the Dantonists but also those condemned earlier  - Momoro and Hébert,  also Fabre d'Églantine and Chabot; for Robespierre they all represented manifestations of the same "plot".  However, in Robespierre's writing, it is Danton who takes first place.  The picture which he paints breaks sharply with his earlier pronouncements.  He leans on his personal memories to sketch the tribune's suspect political history: his long fidelity during the Constituent Assembly to Barnave and the Lameths; his support for the election of Philippe Égalité to the Convention; his reluctance to vote for the death of Louis XVI; his indulgence towards the Brissotins; his reticence during the uprising of 31st May-2nd June.  
Danton has shown himself guilty of a self-serving inconsistency:
"We see him, in the first days of the Revolution, showing a menacing face to the Court and talking with vehemence in the Cordelier Club; but he soon allied himself with the Lameths and did deals with them; he allowed himself to be seduced by Mirabeau and showed himself to the eyes of observers as the enemy of severe principles". 
He is irresponsible, a turncoat and a coward, ready to return to Arcis-sur-Aube when danger threatens.  His reputation is undeserved.  He is without civic virtue or moral sense.  "The word virtue made Danton laugh"; wrote Robespierre famously: "He jested that he had no more solid virtue,  than the one he employed every night with his wife".  A little further on he noted: "Another maxim of Danton's was that one must make use of rascals".  How could one trust such a man? 
Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.XI, p.419-449.
 [The manuscript of Robespierre's reflections came into the possession of  Victorien Sardou, who published it in 1841;  Albert Mathiez subsequently produced a critical edition ,with commentary.
Text available on Project Gutenberg:  English translation by RBZPR.]

In the night of 30th-31st March (10 - 11 Germinal) Danton, Philippeaux, Delacroix and Desmoulins were arrested.  The next day Legendre expressed his surprise and demanded that the accused be heard at the bar of the Assembly.  Robespierre swiftly closed the discussion, seconded by Barère; Saint-Just read his report, and the decree of accusation was carried against the four representatives and also Hérault-Séchelles.

"In the case of Danton the Revolutionary Tribunal acted exceptionally swiftly"
In the trial of the Girondins, Robespierre had encouraged the jurors to bring the hearing to a close after three days. Now the accused were prevented from speaking, no doubt for fear of Danton's famous oratorical prowess.  On 5th April 1794 (16 Germinal) they were sent to the scaffold. 

Did Robespierre personally regret the fall of Danton?
Hervé Leuwers cites the famous opening scene from the play by Romain Rolland which depicts Robespierre at the Duplays' house, prostrate with grief and fear, as the tumbril bearing Danton passes along the rue Honoré.  We have no evidence that this was really his state of mind: indeed "everything points against it"(p.152).  Robespierre assumed his responsibility.  On the night of the execution, he appeared at the Jacobins, calm and in control, to speak of the need for continued  vigilance.  In the days which followed he regularly attended the Jacobins and  the Convention." Clearly he believed he could move on from the fight against the "factions".  After 19th April he withdrew for three weeks in order to prepare the Speech of 18 Floréal, set to mark a new phase of Revolutionary regeneration.  

Had Robespierre successfully destroyed one "column of liberty" without threatening the entire Revolutionary edifice?  Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety thought so at the time.  It was only after  9 Thermidor that this verdict was questioned, and the Danton-Robespierre duel came to seem a defining confrontation.


Hervé Leuwers, "Danton et Robespierre: le duel réinventé", in Biard & Leuwers (ed): Danton: le mythe et l'Histoire  (2016), p.1411-153 
Available on Academia.
Review by Bruno Decriem, ARBR-Les Amis de Robespierre, 22.03.2017

No comments:

Post a Comment

Print Friendly and PDF