Born at Arcis-sur-Aube, in France, his family was respectable, though not wealthy. They managed to give him a good education, and he was launched in the career of an advocate at the Paris bar. He first appears in the Revolution as president of the popular club or assembly of the district in which he lived. This was the famous club of the Cordeliers, so called because its meetings were held in the old convent of the order of the Cordeliers. The Cordeliers were from the first the centre of the popular principle in the French Revolution carried to its extreme point; they were the earliest to suspect the court of being irreconcilably hostile to freedom; and it was they who most vehemently proclaimed the need for radical action.
Danton was not involved in the two early insurrections of 1789 - the fall of the Bastille and the forcible removal of the court from Versailles to the Tuileries. In the spring of 1790 he urged the people to prevent the arrest of Jean-Paul Marat. In the autumn he was chosen to be the commander of the battalion of the national guard of his district. In the beginning of 1791 he was elected to the post of administrator of the département of Paris.
In June of 1791 the King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette made a disastrous attempt to flee from the capital and the people. They were forced to return to the Tuileries, which from then on was effectively their prison. The popular exasperation was intense, and the constitutional leaders, of whom the foremost was Lafayette, became alarmed. The bloody dispersion of a popular gathering, known afterwards as the massacre of the Champs-de-Mars (July 1791), kindled a flame of resentment against the court and the constitutional party.
The National Constituent Assembly completed its work in September 1791. When elections took place to its successor, the short-lived Legislative Assembly, Danton was not elected to it, and his party was at this time only strong enough to procure for him a very subordinate post in the government of the Parisian municipality.
In April of 1792, war was declared against Austria, and to the confusion and distraction caused by the immense civil and political changes of the past two years was now added the ferment and agitation of war with an enemy on the frontier. The distrust felt by Paris for the court and its loyalty at length broke out in insurrection. On August 10, 1792 the king and queen took refuge with the Legislative Assembly from the violence of the popular forces who were marching on the Tuileries. Danton's role in this uprising is unclear. He may have been at its head; apart from documents, this view is supported by the fact that on the morning after the fall of the monarchy Danton became minister of justice. This sudden rise from the subordinate office which he had held in the commune is a proof of his power within the insurrectionary party.
Danton stands out as a master of commanding phrase. One of his fierce sayings has become a proverb. Against the Duke of Brunswick and the invaders, "il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" - "we must dare, and again dare, and forever dare." The tones of his voice were loud and vibrant. "Jove the Thunderer", the "rebel Satan", a "Titan" and "Sardanapalus" were names that friends or enemies borrowed to describe him. He was called the " Mirabeau of the sansculottes, and "Mirabeau of the markets".
In the executive government that was formed on the king's dethronement in 1792, Danton found himself the colleague of Jean Marie Roland and other members of the Girondist movement. Their strength was soon put to a the test. The alarming successes of the enemy on the frontier, and the surrender of two important fortresses,had caused panic in the capital; hundreds of captives were murdered in the prisons. At the time, Danton was accused of directing the massacres, but modern scholarship has failed to prove that he was responsible. He did insist that his colleagues should remain firm at their posts.
The elections to the National Convention took place in September 1792, when the Legislative Assembly surrendered its authority. The Convention ruled France until October 1795. Danton was a member; resigning the ministry of justice, he took a prominent part in the deliberations and proceedings of the Convention, until his execution in April 1794.
He took his seat in the high and remote benches which gave the name of "the Mountain" to the revolutionists who sat there. He found himself side by side with Marat, whose exaggerations he never countenanced; with Maximilien Robespierre, whom he did not regard very highly, but whose immediate aims were in many respects his own; with Camille Desmoulins and Phélippeaux, who were his close friends and constant partisans. The foes of the Mountain were the Girondists, who were too obsessed with party politics to recognise the nature of the crisis. The Girondins dreaded the people who had sent Danton to the Convention, and accused him of the September massacres. Yet Danton saw the need to moderate the insurrectionary spirit after it had done the work of removing the monarchy. He saw that the control of Paris could only be maintained by men who sympathised with the vehemence and energy of the streets, and understood that this was the only force to which the National Convention could look in resisting the Germans on the north-east frontier, and the reactionaries in the interior. "Paris," he said, "is the natural and constituted centre of free France. It is the centre of light. When Paris shall perish there will no longer be a republic."
Danton was among those who voted for the death of the king (January 1793). He had a conspicuous share in the creation of the famous Revolutionary Tribunal, his aim being to take the weapons away from that disorderly popular vengeance which had done such terrible work in September 1792. When all executive power was conferred upon a Committee of Public Safety (6 April 1793), Danton had been one of the nine members of whom that body was originally composed. He was despatched on frequent missions from the Convention to the republican armies in Belgium, and wherever he went he infused new energy into the work of national liberation. He pressed the formation of a system of national education, and he was one of the legislative committee charged with the construction of a new system of government. He vainly tried to compose the furious dissensions between Girondins and Jacobins. The Girondins were irreconcilable, and made Danton the object of deadly attack.
By the middle of May 1793 Danton had made up his mind that the political suppression of the Girondins had become indispensable. The position of the country was most alarming. Charles François Dumouriez, the senior commander of the Battles of Valmy and Jemappes, had deserted. The French armies were suffering a series of checks and reverses. A royalist rebellion was gaining formidable dimensions in the west. Yet the Convention was wasting time and force in vindictive factional recriminations.
There is no positive evidence that Danton directly instigated the insurrection of May 31, 1793 and June 2, 1793, which ended in the purge of the Convention and the proscription of the Girondins. He afterwards spoke of himself as in some sense the author of this revolution, because a little while before, stung by some trait of factious perversity in the Girondins, he had openly cried out in the midst of the Convention, that if he could only find a hundred men, they would resist the oppressive authority of the Girondin commission of twelve. At any rate, he certainly acquiesced in the violence of the commune, and he publicly gloried in the expulsion of the men who stood obstinately in the way of a vigorous and concentrated exertion of national power.
Danton, unlike the Girondins, accepted the fury of popular passion as an inevitable incident in the work of deliverance. Unlike Billaud Varenne or Jacques René Hébert, or any other of the Terrorist party, he had no wish to use this two-edged weapon more than was necessary. His object was to reconcile France with herself; to restore a society that, while emancipated and renewed in every part, should yet be stable; and above all to secure the independence of his country, both by a resolute defence against the invader, and by such a mixture of vigour with humanity as should reconcile the offended opinion of the rest of Europe.
The position of the Mountain had completely changed. In the Constituent Assembly its members did not number more than 30 out of the 578 of the third estate. In the Legislative Assembly they had not been numerous, and none of their chiefs held a seat. In the Convention for the first nine months they had an incessant struggle for their very lives against the Girondins. In June 1793, for the first time, they found themselves in possession of absolute power. It was not easy, however, for men who had for many months been nourished on the ideas and stirred to the methods of opposition, all at once to develop the instincts of government. Actual power was in the hands of the two committees — that of public safety and of general security. Both were chosen out of the body of the Convention. The drama of the nine months between the expulsion of the Girondins and the execution of Danton turns upon the struggle of the committee to retain power - first, against the insurrectionary commune of Paris, and second, against the Convention, from which the committees derived an authority that was regularly renewed on the expiry of each short term.
Danton, immediately after the fall of the Girondins (28 July 1793), had thrown himself with extraordinary energy into the work to be done. The first task in a great city so agitated by anarchical ferment had been to set up a strong central authority. In this genuinely political task he was prominent. He was not a member of the committee of public safety when that body was renewed in the shape that speedily made its name so redoubtable all over the world. It was he who proposed that the powers of the committee should be those of a dictator, and that it should have copious funds at its disposal. In order to keep himself clear of any personal suspicion, he announced his resolution not to belong to the body which he had thus done his best to make supreme in the state. His position during the autumn of 1793 was that of a powerful supporter and inspirer, from without, of the government which he had been foremost in setting up.
The commune of Paris was now composed of men like Hébert and Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, to whom the restoration of any sort of political order was for the time indifferent. They wished to push destruction to limits which even the most ardent sympathisers with the Revolution condemn, and which Danton condemned then, as extravagant and senseless. Those men were not politicians, they were fanatics.
The committee watched Hébert and his followers uneasily for many weeks, less perhaps from disapproval of their excesses than from apprehensions of their hostility to the committee's own power. At length the party of the commune proposed to revolt against the Convention and the committees. Then the blow was struck, and the Hébertists were swiftly flung into prison, and thence under the knife of the guillotine (March 24, 1794). The execution of the Hébertists was the first victory of the revolutionary government over the extreme insurrectionary party. But the committees had no intention to concede anything to their enemies on the other side. If they refused to follow the lead of the anarchists of the commune, they were none the more inclined to give way to the Dantonian policy of clemency. Indeed, such a course would have led to their own instant and utter ruin.
The Reign of Terror was not a policy that could be easily transformed. A new policy would have to be carried out by new men, and this meant the resumption of power by the Convention, and the death of the Terrorists. In Thermidor 1794 such a revolution did take place, with those very results. But in Germinal feeling was not ripe. The committees were still too strong to be overthrown. And Danton seems to have shown a singular heedlessness. Instead of striking with vigour in the Convention, he waited to be struck. In these later days a certain discouragement seems to have come over his spirit. His wife had died during his absence on one of his expeditions to the armies; he had now married again, and the rumour went that he was allowing domestic happiness to tempt him from the vigilance proper to the politician in such a crisis.
When the Jacobin club was "purified" in the winter, Danton's name would have been struck out as a moderate if Robespierre had not defended him. The committees deliberated on his arrest soon afterwards, and again it was Robespierre who resisted the proposal. Yet though he had been warned of the lightning that was thus playing round his head, Danton did not move. Either he felt himself powerless, or he rashly despised his enemies. At last Billaud Varenne, the most prominent spirit of the committee after Robespierre, succeeded in gaining Robespierre over to his designs against Danton. Robespierre was probably enticed by the motives of selfish policy which soon proved the greatest blunder of his life. The Convention, aided by Robespierre and the authority of the committee, assented with ignoble unanimity.
On March 30, Danton, Desmoulins and others of the party were suddenly arrested. Danton displayed such vehemence before the revolutionary tribunal, that his enemies feared he would gain the crowd's favour. The Convention, in one of its worst fits of cowardice, assented to a proposal made by St. Just that, if a prisoner showed want of respect for justice, the tribunal might pronounce sentence without further delay. Danton was at once condemned, and led, in company with fourteen others, including Camille Desmoulins, to the guillotine. "I leave it all in a frightful welter," he said; "not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!"
Events went as Danton foresaw. The committees presently came to quarrel with the pretensions of Robespierre. Three months after Danton, Robespierre fell. His assent to the execution of Danton had deprived him of the single great force that might have supported him against the committee.