A Collins Comparison:
The Georges Danton – Michael Collins Connection Explored
At left, a sketch of Danton by artist Jacques-Louis David and at right, a newspaper sketch of Collins after his death.
Several authors, historians, and biographers have chosen to draw a comparison between Georges Jacques Danton and Michael Collins (and, as we will see later, there is another comparison of Eamon DeValera and Maximilien Robespierre). Is there something to this association or have these academics taken leave of their senses? In the end, readers will have to decide for themselves, but I believe there is indeed more than a passing similarity between the career paths of Danton and Collins. In order to understand this relationship, we must first turn our attention to the life and times of Danton.
Student, Lawyer, Revolutionary, Scapegoat
Georges Danton was born on October 26, 1759 (though some sources record his birth date as October 28) in Arcis-sur-Aube, which is in the northeast of France. Danton's father had become part of the French middle class and Danton received a traditional education. As a child, it is said that Danton did not particularly enjoy school and he much preferred swimming in the Aube River instead. Unfortunately, little else is known about Danton's life before he became a revolutionary and author J. M. Thompson contends that the information available does little to illuminate Danton's character.
"For though Danton's father had moved from the family cottage at Plancy to a town house in Arcis, and had become a 'bourgeois,' though Danton himself could boast a classical education, and looked for a career to Paris and the Bar; though he kept a good library, and could quote his Horace and Virgil; yet he remained all his life a countryman, with simple and rather coarse country tastes, and was always glad to get away from the noise and rush of the capital to the quiet garden and snug fireside of his family home. Nor is it fanciful to see in this background of his political life the source both of his weakness and of his strength—of his inability to throw himself continuously or whole-heartedly into politics, on the one hand; and on the other, of that impression of simplicity and great-heartedness which, in spite of all his failings, and almost alone among the revolutionary leaders, he seems to convey. Details of his childhood—his dislike of school, his love of bathing in the neighbouring Aube, the encounters with farmyard animals which cost him a scarred lip and a broken nose, or his playing truant from College to see Louis XVI crowned king at Rheims—these things do not add much to the picture. ... Little is known of Danton's pre-revolutionary career in Paris. He learnt the law...by attendance in chambers and at the Courts. He was called to the Bar at Rheims, where the needful certificates could be cheaply obtained. He drank and played dominoes at the Café du Parnasse, and married the proprietor's handsome and well-endowed daughter. He invested his capital in the purchase of a legal post which returned an adequate income, and settled down to a happy family life in a lodging-house on the south bank of the Seine. But what he thought of life, or how he came to be a revolutionist, we do not know" (Thompson, Leaders of the French Revolution).
It is regrettable that we do not know how Danton journeyed from lawyer to revolutionary. But we can know more about his personality and beliefs by examining his interesting career during the French Revolution.
Danton made his debut as a revolutionary on July 13, 1789 in Paris. He was speaking to an audience in the convent of Cordeliers and was delivering his fiery oration on top of a table. Spectators recalled that he had "a voice of frenzy" and seemed to be a "madman." He was encouraging citizens to take arms against "15,000 brigands mobilized at Montmartre" and "an army of 30,000 which was ready to pour into Paris, loot it, and massacre its inhabitants." A few months later, Danton was back at the convent directing a meeting. A boy in the audience recollected that Danton had "pock-marked features," a "rough, loud voice," a tendency to use "dramatic gestures," and "great height" with an "athletic build."
"The big rectory of the disused Franciscan monastery where these scenes took place had become a meeting-place and debating-hall for the politicians and patriots of that part of Paris. It was Danton's quarter, inhabited chiefly by lawyers, publishers, booksellers, literary men, and theatrical folk. ... All kinds of grievances are muttered in this quarter, every sort of political theory aired, after dinner, over coffee and dominoes, at the Café Procope. And there, where once sat Diderot and Voltaire, sits Danton, the spokesman of the most revolutionary district in Paris... The Jacobin Club across the river—the 'Friends of the Constitution,' as its members call themselves—may have more famous names on its books, and a more direct influence over the Assembly (French legislative body of the time)—Danton belongs to it too—but this 'Society of the Friends of the Rights of Men and Citizens' that meets at the Cordeliers, is no Government club, with a subscription beyond the means of poor men, but a rallying-point of the working classes, giving, at the price of a penny a moth, protection against official injustice, and a part to play in every patriotic demonstration. This was Danton's club, Danton's kingdom" (Thompson).
By 1792, two rival factions had emerged: the Jacobins and the Girondists. Louis XVI had already been deposed by this time so there was nothing left to stop these parties from struggling against each other for power. The Jacobin party was formed in 1789 and its members chose to call themselves "the Society of Friends of the Constitution." The name Jacobin is a nickname of sorts. The party frequently met in a monastery of Dominican order and, because Jacobin was a French name for that order, the moniker stuck. The Jacobin party later split over several issues and a group of radicals from within the party came together. This group called for a separation of church and state, a system of public education, and voting rights for all men. They are sometimes referred to as the Mountain group because they sat in raised seats at the National Convention (this was the convention at which France was declared a republic). Leaders within this party included Maximilien Robespierre, Louis de Saint-Just, Jean-Paul Marat, and Danton. After the Girondin party fell into decline (circa the middle of 1793), the Jacobins became the most prominent party. Unfortunately, under the control of Robespierre, the Reign of Terror began. Robespierre used his power to punish anyone against the revolution as well as anyone else, former ally or not, who dared to disagree with him. As a reaction to counter Robespierre, those who sympathized with Danton's way of thinking formed a group bearing his name (the Dantonists). Robespierre was ousted from power on July 27, 1794 and the Jacobins fell with him.
The Girondists tended to represent the views of the French middle class. Two of this party's major leaders were Pierre Vergniaud and Charles Dumouriez. The Girondists supported a constitutional government and they had hoped to prevent the trial and later the execution of Louis XVI. The Girondists lost a good deal of public support by encouraging a war with Austria. On June 2, 1793, twenty-nine Girondins were arrested. Shortly thereafter, a number of Girondin leaders were executed and it became clear the political groups comprising the Mountain would possess total domination.
What role did Danton play within the Jacobin party? After the new French republic was established, Danton became Minister for Justice and a key leader of the Provisional Executive Council (the governmental body that replaced Louis XVI). As Minister of Justice, Danton wanted to make the public aware that possibility of foreign invasion was greater than it realized. He gave an impassioned speech (as was generally his way) and inspired a wave of hyper-patriotic, nationalist sentiment. Literally the day after Danton's speech, the September Massacres began. The September Massacres took place from the 2nd to the 7th and in the LaForce, Conciergerie, and Abbaye Saint Germain prisons, over 1,000 people were killed, including priests, monks, soldiers, and women. France would remember this incident and hold it against Danton. In July of 1793, when Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety was formed, Danton was not given a post within it. He chose to briefly leave Paris. He returned that winter when several of his friends and colleagues were implicated in financial mishaps and he hoped to save them from the guillotine. (This was, after all, during the time in which the Reign of Terror was well-advanced.) Danton called for reforms and charged the Committee with acting as a dictatorship. Naturally, these actions did not win Danton many allies in the current government. Robespierre first set about purging France of its strongest extremists (Jacques René Hébert fell into this category) and next turned his attention to moderates like Danton. On March 30, 1794, Danton was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, a cardinal sin if ever there was one.
"But as the destruction of the King had led to the fall of the Girondins, so now the destruction of the Girondins became Danton's death-warrant. By the fatal logic of revolution he inherited the imputations under which they had fallen. He was now held responsible for the September massacres; it was he who would have saved the King and Queen, had he dared; he who was implicated with Dumouriez (a Girondist who became army commander and was later charged with treason). It is he whose fraudulent friends make money out of army contracts, and speculate in assignats (currency used during the revolution); and it is he who would intervene to stop the Terror before it has done its work, and so ruin Robespierre's plan for a reign of virtue under the patronage of the Supreme Being. These charges were never proved. But Danton laid himself open to them by his carelessness in money matters, his irresponsible way of talking about serious things, and his liking for more or less disreputable company. He was too easy going to care how his life appeared to strait-laced people like Robespierre; he was too idle for the routine of politics, and too indifferent to save his own reputation. ... On March 19 he made his last speech in the House. On the 22nd he met Robespierre for the last time. It was at a dinner with some friends. It is said that he urged Robespierre, as he had done before, to disown the intrigues in which several members of the Committee were engaged against him. 'Let us forget our private resentment,' he pleaded, 'and think only of the country, its needs, and its dangers.' Robespierre listened in chilly silence; then asked sarcastically, 'I suppose a man of your moral principles would not think that anyone deserved punishment?' 'I suppose you would be annoyed,' retorted Danton, 'if none did!' 'Liberty,' said Robespierre angrily, 'cannot be secured unless criminals lose their heads.' According to one version of the scene, Danton's eyes filled with tears. According to another, a few minutes later, he was embracing Robespierre, amidst a scene of general emotion, in which Robespierre alone did not join, remaining 'as cold as a block of marble.' And that very evening Danton's name was added to the list of the proscribed. A week later, on the evening of the 10th, the warrant of arrest was signed, and within a few hours Danton and his friends were in prison" (Thompson).
What was supposed to be Danton's trial was really a sham. Judges and juries would often make assumptions of guilt based on a person's physical appearance and the trial, rather than being a place where solid evidence is weighed, would become a debate over whose rhetoric sounded more clever. Being a shrewd fellow, Danton had no shortage of witty replies. When asked his address, Danton comments, "My address will soon be nothingness." When asked his name, Danton replies, "As for my name, you will find it in the Pantheon of history." Danton's defense was said to be passionate and heated although he was not permitted to finish saying all the he wanted. The jury deliberated only for a few minutes; their verdict was "guilty."
"Early the next afternoon—it was a beautiful spring day (April 5, 1794), and the lilacs were already blossoming in the Tuileries garden—they (Danton and the other accused) were taken in three red-painted carts from the prison to the scaffold—past the café where Danton had met his first wife; past his treacherous friend David (Jacques-Louis David, the famous artist of the time who'd worked under Louis XVI and the leaders of the French Revolution and who would later be First Painter for Napoleon), who was sketching his portrait as he went to his death; past the drawn blinds of the house where Robespierre lodged; and through the crowded streets to where, at the foot of a great plaster statue of Liberty, stood the guillotine. Hérault (a friend and colleague of Danton's who was also accused of treason), who was one of the first to die, tried to kiss Danton as he passed; the executioner pulled him away. 'You fool!' said Danton, 'you can't prevent our heads [from] kissing in the basket.' He himself came last. 'You must show my head to the people,' he said to the executioner; 'It is worth [seeing].' And so he died" (Thompson).
Student, Lawyer, Revolutionary, Scapegoat
Student, Businessman, Revolutionary, Martyr
Like Danton, Michael Collins fell into revolutionary work. Also like Danton, Collins discovered early on that he was good at it. The major points of comparison come from Collins' choice of words and the predicament Collins found himself after the Treaty split Ireland into two factions.
"Collins has been aptly likened to Danton. L’audace et toujours l’audace is the shout of youth. Collins was a young man leading young men. Few of his fellow-leaders in Dáil or Army were many years older" (Margery Forester, Michael Collins: The Lost Leader).
Literally, L’audace et toujours l’audace means, "The audacity and always the audacity." But, it refers to a speech given by Danton in which he said, "De l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace." One translation reads this as, "Boldness, again boldness, and ever boldness." Another translation reads it as, "Of the audacity, still of the audacity, and always of the audacity." Danton spoke these words in 1792 to the Legislative Parliament to galvanize support and boost morale. An invading army from Austria was on the heels of the French and Danton was, as the quote suggests, encouraging bravery in the face of war. This he probably borrowed from Edmund Spenser who wrote, "Be bolde, be bolde, and everywhere."
"There is one name associated with French history which immediately suggests itself whenever Collins is discussed: the name is that of Danton, the French revolutionary leader. One may go even further and say that yet another comparison is suggested whenever the Irish fight for freedom and the French Revolution is discussed, for even as Collins and Danton have certain resemblances, so, too, has the character of Eamon de Valera with that of Robespierre, another leader of the French Revolution. There are many comparisons between the characters of Collins and Danton: in their phrasing of words, for example. [Rex Taylor] is indebted to a J. M. Hone (Yeats’ biographer) for the use of a letter written to him in 1942 by the late Mrs. Llewelyn Davies [which] points out that Collins could well be called the Danton of the Irish revolution. 'The myth of de Valera as the Incompatible is now so firmly established that it will take as long to put Collins in his rightful place as it took to put Danton in his. Without knowing it, Collins used phrases almost identical with Danton. Compare "Since there must be a scapegoat, then let it be me…" [on the occasion of de Valera’s refusal to go to London for the Treaty discussions] with Danton’s "Que mon nom soi fletri," when the Girondais would not give him [the] complete control necessary to stop the September massacres, and he decided to take the responsibility for them rather than let them be blamed on the whole nation. De Valera was weak, stupid, and treacherous and since that time he can do no good in my eyes and never will'" (Rex Taylor, Michael Collins).
"Que mon nom soit fletri, que la France soit libre" means "Let my name be blighted, let France be free." This is, as Mrs. Davies noted, very much like Collins' comments before and after the Treaty about Ireland needing a scapegoat. In his book The French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle offered an account of the Friday Danton uttered these words:
"...Danton the Titan rises in this hour, as always in the hour of need. Great is his voice, reverberating from the domes:--Citizen- Representatives, shall we not, in such crisis of Fate, lay aside discords? Reputation: O what is the reputation of this man or of that? Que mon nom soit fletri, que la France soit libre, Let my name be blighted; let France be free! It is necessary now again that France rise, in swift vengeance, with her million right-hands, with her heart as of one man. Instantaneous recruitment in Paris; let every Section of Paris furnish its thousands; every section of France! Ninety-six Commissioners of us, two for each Section of the Forty-eight, they must go forthwith, and tell Paris what the Country needs of her. Let Eighty more of us be sent, post-haste, over France; to spread the fire-cross, to call forth the might of men. Let the Eighty also be on the road, before this sitting rise. Let them go, and think what their errand is. Speedy Camp of Fifty thousand between Paris and the North Frontier; for Paris will pour forth her volunteers! Shoulder to shoulder; one strong universal death-defiant rising and rushing; we shall hurl back these Sons of Night yet again; and France, in spite of the world, be free!--So sounds the Titan's voice: into all Section-houses; into all French hearts. Sections sit in Permanence, for recruitment, enrolment, that very night. Convention Commissioners, on swift wheels, are carrying the fire-cross from Town to Town, till all France blaze."
You may notice that this description bears a striking resemblance to the Treaty debates in the Dáil. Neil Jordan stylishly harkens to this in Michael Collins as Liam Neeson stands before the assembly just after Cathal Brugha (played by Gerard McSorley) has hurled a line of insults at him:
"I would plead with every person here—make me a scapegoat if you will, call me a traitor if you will but please, let’s save the country. The alternative to this Treaty is a war which nobody in this gathering can even contemplate. If the price of freedom, the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it. Thank you."
At left, a sketch of Maximilien Robespierre and at right, a picture of Eamon DeValera.
Another aspect of this Danton - Collins comparison has little to do with Danton and pertains more to Maximilien Robespierre. There is also, arguably, a resemblance between Eamon DeValera and Robespierre, as is evidenced by the above statement of Rex Taylor: "so, too, has the character of Eamon de Valera with that of Robespierre, another leader of the French Revolution." I will not go into nearly as much detail on this matter because this is, after all, a biographical site devoted to Collins. But I will, however, point out the similarities seen by some historians. Robespierre was an intelligent, passionate, and calculating man. The same things can easily be said of DeValera. Also like DeValera, much of his education came from the Catholic Church.
"At school he (Robespierre) had been poor, clever, and diligent; had made a few acquaintances rather than friendships... had come to respect his Jesuit teachers, so that in later days he never became anti-clerical... and had acquired habits of hard work and correct behavior which moulded his whole life" (Thompson).
Again, the same aspects are present in the life of DeValera. Perhaps the single most striking semblance is that both can be characterized as men who held high standards and men who clung to political idealism. Where Danton was more of a moderate, Robespierre was the firebrand crying out with great ardor; where Collins was the rough-and-tumble political realist, DeValera was the polished political idealist. And so the big picture of history comes together.
In much the way that there is now an increasing interest in the life of Michael Collins, there is a desire to set Danton in his proper historical place. Also like Collins, some of Danton's supporters have inadvertently diminished his reputation rather than strengthening it.
"Danton's reputation has suffered less from his enemies than from his friends. At the time of his death no attempt was made to save him; and in the Thermidorian (the French Revolution had its own calendar and the month of Thermidor was created from part of July and part of August and literally means the "month of heat") reaction, when so many victims of the Terror were rehabilitated, no voice was raised in favour of Danton. The moment when he had been great, in August, 1792, was forgotten. He was remembered only as the enemy of the Girondins, and the friend of traitors and profiteers: he was 'well-known,' says Lord Holland, 'to have been an unprincipled, corrupt, and dauntless man.' But fifty years after his death, in the reaction against Girondin-worship, and during the anti-clerical movement under the Second Empire, when Robespierre was regarded (rather oddly) as the representative of the Church, a determined attempt was made to reinstate Danton as a national hero. ... If one ignores special pleading on either side, and reads Danton's own speeches, one's first impression is that of a bluff, honest, big-hearted patriot; but one's second feeling is that, under stress, this attitude has no principles and not enough moral courage to support it, and it becomes a pose. Danton was a man whose lack of resentment, and liking for low company, passed too easily into a criminal indulgence; whose talk of national unity too often divided attention from the irregularities of his friends; whose want of political principles and statesmanship made him too easy a prey for cleverer men; and who was deservedly caught in the toils that he spread for others. Not a great man, not a good man, certainly no hero; but a man with great, good, and heroic moments. His own saying sums him up best: Périsse mon reputation plutôt que ma patrie; he valued Danton's honour less highly than that of France" (Thompson).
Some would say the same about Michael.