Why are we so fascinated by Danton? Perhaps because we know so little about him. We know he was a powerful orator, and popular on the streets of revolutionary Paris. We know that, with the enemy at the gates, he made stirring speeches urging the French to save their revolution by being tirelessly bold. We know, above all, that in the spring of 1794 he questioned whether a policy of Terror was doing more harm than good, and paid the price by being guillotined himself. He thus died a martyr to humanity, struck down by his polar opposite, the frigid and inflexible Robespierre. These are the elements of a legend that began in the 1830s with Georg Büchner’s play Danton’s Death, and was taken up by historians, particularly those writing in English, from Thomas Carlyle onwards. If only he had prevailed, the bloody climax of the Terror might have been avoided! Lesser and meaner men brought him down. In France, too, Danton had his fervent liberal advocates, but in the twentieth century the admirers of Robespierre gained the upper hand in the historical profession. They largely accepted the accusations great and small thrown at Danton at his show trial: he was venal, greedy, immoral, a political trimmer, a closet royalist and even perhaps a traitor. Much of the historical evidence comes down sooner or later to what historians think of these accusations, themselves scraped hastily together by Robespierre once he decided that Danton had to go. Corroborative evidence is remarkably scanty and almost always ambiguous. Danton seldom wrote anything down, least of all his famous speeches, and at crucial moments he had a habit of disappearing. Most of the secondary information comes from an increasingly intimidated revolutionary press, or later recollections by third parties with their own records to protect.

more from William Doyle at Literary Review here.