This Week in History

The Founding of Danton’s Dictator:

April 5, 1793

Georges Danton addressing the French National Convention

Danton had not been in Paris when the National Convention declared war on Great Britain. Instead, he had gone on another mission to the army in Belgium, and what he saw there was not encouraging. Returning to Paris on February 15, 1793, he described the poor state of the army to the Convention deputies. The soldiers were ill equipped and, being volunteers, many were returning to their homes, he said. With Great Britain, Holland, and now Spain joined in a coalition against France, more troops — many more troops — were needed, said Danton.

So it was that, on February 23, the Convention voted to increase the size of the army to 500,000 men. To do this, it decreed that the departments had to provide 300,000 men, by conscription if necessary. Such numbers would soon be needed, for Dumouriez had invaded Holland.

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Jean-Paul Marat

But providing more troops to the army was not Danton’s only concern. He wanted to bring peace to the Convention. His attempts to bridge the split between the Girondins and the Mountain had again failed. The Girondin leaders would have nothing to do with the rough Danton, and even the Left did not unite behind him. On the Mountain were men like Robespierre and other Jacobins who, though despising the Girondins, might still be willing to come to a reasonable agreement with them. But then there were fanatics, like the Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat, who not only wanted to force the Girondins out of the Convention but to bathe their own hands in Girondin blood. Such men only disgusted the high-toned Girondin leaders and made reconciliation between the factions even harder.

Danton knew the Girondins were in great peril. Their enemy, the Jacobins, had grown very strong. In addition to their clubs all over France, the Jacobins had been able to gain control of Paris’s city government, the commune, which controlled the National Guard. This gave the Jacobins a military force they could rely on. Marat was a powerful force among members of the working class of Paris, called the sans-culottes. And the Girondins had more extreme enemies even than Marat — the Enragés (madmen), who were provoking the sans-culottes in Paris to riot.

A sans-culottes (left). The word means “those without knee breeches,” because a sans-culotte’s trousers legs were long, not cut off at the knee like those worn by the bourgeoisie.

The working class of Paris was easily pushed to violence, for it was suffering terribly. The paper money issued by the French government was daily becoming more and more worthless, and the price of food, fuel, and clothing was continually increasing. Merchants were hoarding food and other necessaries and were apparently making large profits on what they did sell. Leaders of the Enragés, like the priest Jacques Roux, denounced the bourgeois merchants for growing rich off the sufferings of the people and called on the Convention to force merchants to sell their hoarded goods at prices the common workman could afford. Before the revolution, the king’s government had placed such regulations on merchants; but the Liberal revolutionaries, following laissez-faire theories, had removed the regulations. Roux and other Enragés especially hated the Girondins because they defended the “right” of merchants to sell their goods at whatever price they wished.

Because of all this unrest and the continuing threat of the war, Danton thought the government needed greater power to force its will on the people. On March 10, a day after the Enragés had attempted to start a revolt in Paris, Danton convinced the Convention to establish a new court that would be entirely under its control. Called the Revolutionary Tribunal, the court had the authority to try and to convict anyone suspected of conspiring against the revolution.

Events in March helped Danton’s attempts to centralize the government.

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Charles-François Dumouriez

On March 18, the Austrian army had defeated the French at Neerwinden in Holland, and Dumouriez retreated into Belgium. Five days later, Dumouriez abandoned the Belgian capital of Brussels and retreated toward the French border.

All this was bad news, but worse was to follow.

In early April, the Convention learned that Dumouriez had turned traitor. Hoping to restore the constitutional monarchy under a member of the Bourbon family, he had tried to convince his army to join the enemy, march on Paris, and overthrow the Convention. But the troops remained faithful to the republic, and Dumouriez fled to the Austrians.

The news of Dumouriez’s treason gave Danton the opportunity he had been waiting for. On the night of April 4, 1793, the Girondin leader Maximin Isnard offered to the Convention a plan that was basically Danton’s own — the creation of a committee that would have the power of a dictator over all of France. Called the Committee of Public Safety, the committee would have nine members (later 12) who could meet in secret and would have complete control over the armies and the courts. What the Committee decided would be final, and no one (not even the Convention) could question it or overturn its decisions.

The Committee of Public Safety would have even more power than the French kings had possessed. It would use agents, called representatives in mission, and send them throughout France with absolute power to arrest anyone suspected of treason against the state. Giving the government such power was, of course, against the revolution’s ideal of individual freedom, but it was seen as necessary given the grave dangers France faced. The Convention approved the Committee of Public Safety on April 5 and, the following day, appointed its members. Among them was Georges Danton.

 

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