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October 26: Georges Danton

Georges Danton (1759)

Georges Danton

It was on this date, October 26, 1759, that French revolutionist Georges Jacques Danton was born in Arcis-sur-Aube. Though not from a wealthy family, he got a good education and became a lawyer before deciding the legal structure of France was inimical to freedom. He abandoned the law for revolutionary activities and, when the monarchy fell, became minister of justice.

A powerful, vibrant speaker, Danton could incite crowds. "Danton's height was colossal," according to an account in the Biographie Moderne (printed about 1800 but suppressed until 1814), "his make athletic, his features strongly marked, coarse, and displeasing; his voice shook the domes of the halls." Against the Duke of Brunswick and the Prussian invaders he railed, "il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" – "we must dare, and again dare, and forever dare." He was variously called "Jove the Thunderer", the "rebel Satan", a "Titan" and "Sardanapalus" by friends and enemies.

During the Revolution, when he believed France was gravely threatened, Danton approved of violent measures, but the excesses sobered him. He opposed the use of the guillotine, but his moderation fell out of fashion and the extremists rallied to Robespierre. He was arrested, but before the revolutionary tribunal Danton displayed such rhetorical vehemence that to keep him from winning the crowd's favour, his enemies passed a resolution condemning Danton for failing to show respect for the tribunal.

Popular writers admit Danton's good character, but often pass over his outspoken Atheism. It was Robespierre who had him arrested and executed, on 5 April 1794: one of the charges Robespierre used against Danton was his Atheism. "I leave it all in a frightful welter," Georges Danton said on his way to the guillotine, "not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!" His prediction about Robespierre was correct.

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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August 3: Étienne Dolet

Étienne Dolet (1509) It was on this date, August 3, 1546, that the French scholar and printer of books critical of religion, Étienne Dolet, was burned alive for his opinions. Dolet was born in Orléans in 1509, possibly also on 3 August, and possibly into a family of wealth and rank. Dolet studied in Paris […]

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