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This is a narrative that situates a boisterous, sensual, influential politician at the center of revolutionary activity, beheaded at the apogee of disorder under Robespierre. As the author admits in the intro, much is unknown about the biographical details of Danton, so he filled in the gaps with a mix of common-sense speculation and yes, high drama. The book reads like the script for a biopic, which I do not intend as a criticism so much as a description of his biographical method. It is lively, very fun to read, and beautifully written.

A provincial from Champagne, Danton moved to Paris to apprentice as a lawyer. With a natural eloquence (he hated to write but loved to speak), he rose quickly, securing a beloved wife and purchasing a valuable position within the King's legal service. Because the king Louis XVI had essentially bankrupted the state - by a combination of loans vital to the US revolutionaries and a series of catastrophic harvests - the country was in serious revolutionary ferment. In spite of his royal position, Danton rose to become one of the most popular leaders of the Cordeliers, one of the earliest and most populist revolutionary factions. In a sense, his voice enabled him to embody the revolution for his quarter of Paris, which conferred a loose kind of political power onto him for a time. Opposition came from the more moderate Girondists and the increasingly radical Jacobins.

Lawday portrays Danton as a force for justice and moderation, opposing the murderous tendencies of Marat, Robespierre, and Saint-Just, who were calling for blood to maintain the purity of the revolution. My reading of him is that he was a demagogue with little base in political theory and hence out of his depth, in spite of his ability to make detailed references to the Roman Republic. In effect he passed the legislation that created the "green room" revolutionary courts, which eventually enabled Robespierre to murder at will, leading directly to his own downfall.

Unfortunately, the book does not offer enough detail on what the various revolutionary factions stood for. The book is also unclear on how political decisions were made, how exactly it degenerated into anarchic purges, and why it led to dictatorship - I would have liked more political science. While this is a failing in my reading, the book is nonetheless so stimulating that I will seek that info elsewhere, with a feeling for Danton, his milieu, and his many colleagues and adversaries. As such, it is a very good introduction to the French revolution.

Recommended with these caveats.
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on 1 January 2013
It was thanks to David Lawday's wonderful book on Talleyrand that I decided to read his DANTON (2009). This naturally led to Ruth Scurr's equally marvelous book on Robespierre, FATAL PURITY (2006). Robespierre was a pale Ichabod Crane with the asceticism of a monk; Danton, hideously ugly, had the animal needs of what Americans might call a red-blooded fullback. What strikes one is the total devotion of both men to republican ideals and their unswerving belief in the virtue of the people, upon whom all power should conferred, sentiments which should normally have placed both men among the greatest humanists the world has known. Next I was struck by the hatred the Conventioneers had for the nobility and the clergy, one of whom quoted Diderot's words, `'The people will never be happy until the last monarch is strangled with the guts of the last priest.'' Striking too was the fact that the first constitution laid the foundation of a constitutional monarchy, giving Louis the right to veto any bill, and that this constitution was renewed even after the king had tried to flee from France. Only massacres perpetrated by the people led to Louis' eventual beheading, and even then he was condemned by a single vote, 361 out of 721. Marie Antoinette was separated from her son after being accused of incest, and on the day of her beheading the Commune offered the boy a toy guillotine. Due to the massacres perpetrated mobs, Danton called for the Terror in hopes of restoring order by diverting the attention of the people, thereby assuaging their thirst for bloodbaths. He deeply regretted his decision when he found himself at the foot of the guillotine. Robespierre soon followed him, dying in such a manner that his death leaves one feeling sick, a tribute to Scurr's art. Two deaths out of the thousands of innocents who suffered, among them 43 orphans, children guilty of nothing, massacred during the Terror by the mob. And all for what? A few years later the same mob would be shouting Vive l'Empereur, followed by Vive le Roi, (with the advent of Louis XVIII), then came another emperor, then other kings and still another emperor. Some may shed a tear for Danton; most would applaud the extermination of Robespierre, a reaction that would have left him totally indifferent. DANTON and FATAL PURITY are incredibly powerful books about incredibly powerful times. My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.
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on 1 January 2013
It was thanks to David Lawday's wonderful book on Talleyrand that I decided to read his DANTON (2009). This naturally led to Ruth Scurr's equally marvelous book on Robespierre, FATAL PURITY (2006). Robespierre was a pale Ichabod Crane with the asceticism of a monk; Danton, hideously ugly, had the animal needs of what Americans might call a red-blooded fullback. What strikes one is the total devotion of both men to republican ideals and their unswerving belief in the virtue of the people, upon whom all power should conferred, sentiments which should normally have placed both men among the greatest humanists the world has known. Next I was struck by the hatred the Conventioneers had for the nobility and the clergy, one of whom quoted Diderot's words, `'The people will never be happy until the last monarch is strangled with the guts of the last priest.'' Striking too was the fact that the first constitution laid the foundation of a constitutional monarchy, giving Louis the right to veto any bill, and that this constitution was renewed even after the king had tried to flee from France. Only massacres perpetrated by the people led to Louis' eventual beheading, and even then he was condemned by a single vote, 361 out of 721. Marie Antoinette was separated from her son after being accused of incest, and on the day of her beheading the Commune offered the boy a toy guillotine. Due to the massacres perpetrated mobs, Danton called for the Terror in hopes of restoring order by diverting the attention of the people, thereby assuaging their thirst for bloodbaths. He deeply regretted his decision when he found himself at the foot of the guillotine. Robespierre soon followed him, dying in such a manner that his death leaves one feeling sick, a tribute to Scurr's art. Two deaths out of the thousands of innocents who suffered, among them 43 orphans, children guilty of nothing, massacred during the Terror by the mob. And all for what? A few years later the same mob would be shouting Vive l'Empereur, followed by Vive le Roi, (with the advent of Louis XVIII), then came another emperor, then other kings and still another emperor. Some may shed a tear for Danton; most would applaud the extermination of Robespierre, a reaction that would have left him totally indifferent. DANTON and FATAL PURITY are incredibly powerful books about incredibly powerful times. My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.
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on 26 February 2016
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