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[I]n January 1891, Victorien Sardou premiered his Thermidor at the Comédie Français. The play tells the story of a clerk working for the fearsome Committee for Public Safety who tries to save its victims from the Terror by misplacing their paperwork. The play’s title alludes to the day, 9 Thermidor, when the Committee’s sanguinary chairman, Maximilien Robespierre, was overthrown.

Thermidor’s first night was a great success. Nevertheless, when word circulated that Robespierre was portrayed as the play’s villain, everything changed. The second night’s audience was so abusive that the police were called. Faced with the possibility that more performances would be disrupted (but more likely for political reasons), the Carnot government promptly banned Thermidor. The matter did not end there, however. A few days later, two deputies questioned the government’s action during a session of the National Assembly, arguing that Thermidor’s treatment of the Revolution’s evil aspects did not justify banning. What started as a debate about artistic freedom, however, quickly changed direction when Georges Clemenceau rose to defend the Terror by calling it inseparable from the Revolution. “Gentlemen,” he said, “whether we want or not, whether it pleases us or shocks us, the French Revolution is a bloc . . . from which we can separate nothing.”
A wild & dangerous effervescence (James F. Penrose, March 2020, New Criterion)
It's somewhat awkward to be critical of a book you've found valuable enough to read three times, but that's the case with Mr. Lawday's bio of Danton. Here a deeply flawed theme/thesis detracts from a life study that manages to make the events of the French Revolution comprehensible. And the trouble begins early, as the Prologue starts from an assumption that France required a revolution and posits that Danton was the central figure in what followed, but should be excused of responsibility for the Terror that he brought about. This has been all too familiar a response to Danton for the past two centuries.

It is worthwhile to look at this phenomenon through the lens of the more recently departed Soviet Union. I think it was David Remnick--in Lenin's Tomb--who wrote about how Gorbachev believed that in allowing Glasnost the Communist Party could safely free intellectuals to vent their anger at Stalin. Instead, they turned their fire on Lenin and delegitimized the entire Revolutionary project. The desire to rescue Danton, and indict only Robespierre, flows from the same impulse to redeem a revolution that ended in human holocaust.

The metaphor that Mr. Lawday returns to repeatedly is of Danton as being carried along as if floating on a river. But this can not be squared with simultaneously trying to portray him as a giant of the Revolution with an outsize influence on the course of history. The Danton of the early portions of the book is, indeed, a likable figure, a moderate who wanted nothing more than a constitutional monarchy. Had he exercised his power to achieve this end, he would be well worthy of that giant designation and of all our high regard. Instead, after the King fled for his life, Danton took up violence in the cause of abolishing the monarchy. It seems untenable to try to excuse Danton when he gave this blood-chilling call to arms:
Let us do now what the Legislative Assembly did not do. Let us create terror to save the people from doing so. Let us organize a tribunal--it cannot be a perfect one, that is impossible, but the least bad we can make it--and put the sword of justice to the heads of our enemies.
Eventually, inevitably, he was a victim of that violence. [Hilary Mantel offers a fine precis of all the events in her review.]

Defenders of Danton can, of course, argue that he did the best he could under the circumstances and that no one could have forseen where his actions and inactions would lead. But several asides--not surprisingly involving contrast with the Anglosphere--prove the falsity of this position. Mr. Lawday includes an oddly dismissive discussion of Edmund Burke and his argument with Charles Fox about the Revolution:
The present state of France was ten times worse than the tyranny of its past. "The French will go from tyranny to tyranny, oppression to oppression until this system crumbles with the ruin and destruction of their unhappy, errant empire." Those in England who supported such a thing, Burke concluded, were not simply mistaken, they were bad men.
There is also an episode where Danton visits London and is counseled towards moderation, not for the last time, by Thomas Paine:
Paine expounded to Danton how he thought France must proceed to a republic: the king must not be manhandled or physically harmed, for that would dishonour the Revolution's glorious achievements. What Paine most wanted, Danton understood, was a serene process that would ease the spread of republicanism to England.
Likewise, we are offered this observation:
Rather as Pitt envisioned it, life for the people of Paris grew more fearful by the day as spring turned to summer in 1793. The population seemed haunted. As a resident in the heart of the capital, Danton watched the mood darken. He wondered what part of the blame he carried.
And this encounter:
Before him stood Alexandre de Lameth, one of the high-born pair of brothers who had helped organise the revolutionary parliament's affairs until the monarchy came crashing down on 10 August. Danton himself had personally helped both brothers, Charles and Alexandre, escape abroad in the shadow of the September massacres. This Lameth who came calling was a good fellow who believed in liberty, a cavalry captain who had fought in America for the American colonies' independence. He was an active Jacobin from the club's early days who had managed to compromise himself, however, by sticking to his goal of a constitutional monarchy when the republic was already a certainty. Danton stared at him in disbelief.
Just as Mr. Lawday is too honest a historian to hide the violence that Danton unleashed and directly implemented, so too does he forthrightly present these warnings from the English-speaking world about where it was obvious the Revolution was heading. But this candor on;ly makes the tension between the truth of his narrative and the falsity of his defense of Danton all the more discordant. He can no more save Danton and the French Revolution by making Robespierre the bad guy than could Gorby save Lenin and the Russian Revolution by blaming Stalin.

As I said though, I've now read this book three times. That's not just because it is written so gracefully but because in charting Danton's course through the complexities of the time, the author grants us a perspective that clarifies what went on around him (and because of him.) For that reason, if you could read only one book about the French Revolution I'd recommend this one: unlike its subject, its strengths redeem its flaws.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

David Lawday Links:

    -ENTRY: Lawday, David 1938– (
    -BOOK SITE: The Giant of the French Revolution: Danton, A Life by David Lawday (Grove Atlantic)
    -PROFILE: Ex-Reuterians offer French history in French to the French (tHE bARON, 13 DECEMBER 2013)
-ESSAY: Hidden Colors: The rubble on one of the few remaining gray blocks near the old Checkpoint Charlie reveals much about what Berlin is losing, and losing fast. (DAVID LAWDAY, MAY 1997, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Blair versus Brown, a la francaise: In France, rivalry is growing between PM and finance minister. (David Lawday, 9/11/2000, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Gentle Regrets: thoughts from a life by Roger Scruton (DANIEL JOHNSON AND DAVID LAWDAY, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Danton: The Gentle Giant Of Terror by David Lawday (Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (David Coward, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (Sasha Simic, Socialist Review)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (SIOFRA PIERSE, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (William Doyle, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Danton (Dr. Miguel Faria, Hacienda Publishing)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand By David Lawday (SUDHIR HAZAREESINGH, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon's Master (Henrik Bering, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon’s Master (William Olejniczak, H-France)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon’s Master (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon’s Master (Ruth Scurr, Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon’s Master (Adam Zamoyski, Telegraph)

Book-related and General Links:

-REVIEW: of Robespierre by Marcel Gauchet (Daniel J. Mahoney, Law & Liberty