Saturday 5 April 2014

The Execution of Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins

Georges Danton (Georges Jacques Danton; Arcis-sur-Aube, France, 26th October 1759 - Paris, France, 5th April 1794)

Camille Desmoulins (Lucie Simplice Camille Benoît Desmoulins; Guise, France, 2nd March 1760 – Paris, France, 5th April 1794)

Une Exécution Capitale, Place de la Révolution by Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1793
Une Exécution Capitale, Place de la Révolution by Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1793

It feels like a while since we travelled to Paris and today I had intended to tell the tale of the death of Camille Desmoulins, who makes a cameo appearance in my own yarn, The Star of Marseilles. However, those very same final moments were shared with Georges Danton and the comrades died within minutes of one another so today, both share centre stage here in the salon.

Desmoulins and Danton were vital to the success of the French Revolutionary cause; both were shrewd strategists and moved at the highest levels of the Revolutionary government, though their favoured positions were not to last forever. As the Terror took hold, Danton distanced himself from the Girondins and withdrew from public life, leaving the Convention in late Autumn of 1793 to retire to the country. However, Danton did not stay away long and he soon returned to Paris and resumed his political manoeuvrings, speaking out against extremism in government.

Georges-Jacques Danton by Caron after painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1841
Georges-Jacques Danton by Caron after painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1841

In December 1793, as Danton re-established himself in Paris, Desmoulins published the journal, Le Vieux Cordelier. The journal presented an alternative to radicalism and the first issue was dedicated to Danton and our old friend, Robespierre, a man whom later issues of Le Vieux Cordelier would go on to challenge. Although Robespierre initially encouraged the journal, as the publication began to grow critical of the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, Robespierre's opinion of his friend turned darker. When Desmoulins publicly spoke out against the controversial Law of Suspects, the Jacobins reached the end of their tether and moved to expel the journalist from the Club.

Even now Robespierre attempted to warn Desmoulins of the possible implications of publishing such critical pieces, but the journalist's refusal to moderate the content of Le Vieux Cordelier meant that Robespierre could not afford to be seen to be indulging him. Once Danton's own reputation was thrown into doubt after his secretary, Fabre d'Églantine, was involved in a fraud case, Robespierre joined the voices asking for Desmoulins to be removed from the Jacobin Club. The stage was set for trouble and Desmoulins and Danton were arrested in the last days of March, along with 13 others.

Camille Desmoulins by Joseph Boze, 1791
Camille Desmoulins by Joseph Boze, 1791

A chaotic trial began on 3rd April and Danton spoke furiously and passionately in his own defence. In fact, so concerned were his prosecutors that he might swing the verdict that they introduced a new measure that forbade defendants from addressing the jury or calling witnesses and even went so far as to remove the men from the courtroom. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that all of the accused were found guilty and their executions were scheduled to take place on 5th April.

The reactions of Desmoulins and Danton to their impending deaths could not have been more different. On the appointed date they were taken from the Luxembourg Palace to the tumbrel that would carry them to Place de la Révolution and whilst Danton maintained his composure, Desmoulins was flung into a panic at the news that his wife, Lucile, had also been arrested. It took a dozen men to drag him to the tumbrel and he struggled all the way to the scaffold, tearing his clothes and pleading hysterically and fruitlessly for mercy for Lucile. Scheduled to be the first of the Dantonists to die that die, Danton maintained his grim humour to the end. As he went to the guillotine he commented, “Show my head to the people; it is worth seeing.”


Mary Seymour said...

And was his wife, Lucille, executed as well ? One does like to know the end of the story!

Catherine Curzon said...

She was indeed, on 13th April. Thank you for visiting!

Stephen Barker said...

Have you seen the film 'Danton' which covers these events?

Catherine Curzon said...

I have and we actually rewatched it again very recently. It's an immensely powerful film, I recommend it heartily to anyone who hasn't seen it!

Alencarnovomundo said...

Georges Danton não calou-se ao extremismo do governo.

marianne said...

is the film Danton in English..or at least englsh subtitles...?

Catherine Curzon said...

It's subtitled, so enjoy!

modernbricabrac said...

Have you read Mantel's book. She left me with an abiding image of Camille with a stutter. The other memory of reading the book is that Danton's second wife (not long married) and young was relieved to be released from her great big husband. Not sure how true this is. Certainly a fascinating time.

Catherine Curzon said...

I have read it, but not for a long time - perhaps it's time for a reread!

Joanna St. John said...

I wrote a play about Mary Shelley and her post-revolution visit to France with her lover Percy and her stepsister, Claire. Little did I know how far down the rabbit hole I'd go with this.
After exhausting my Shelley research, I turned to the French Revolution and read "A Greater Place of Safety," by the late Hillary Mantel. I can't recommend it highly enough. It totally engrossed me, placed me at the center of the fast moving, brilliant and terrifying revolution and all of its brilliant and terrifying main participants. Camille DesMoulins, particularly caught my attention. He was passionate, commited to the Republic, he chose Robespierre to be godfather to his son and then was sent to the Guillotine not long after for daring to put into print the sentiments of so many French people; that the terror had gone too far and was now nothing but a bloodbath. He was only 34. Amazing story, fantastic cross currents of history, inevitable endings and those who fought against that inevitability. One of the most important events in Western civilization.