Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
death of the budding asparagus
Or, the shouty bloody murder-times of Georges Danton.
First, a quick note: over the past couple weeks, I’ve received a sharp uptick in people reaching out to suggest dirtbags I should cover in future editions of the newsletter. To that, can I just say, yes, thank you, and keep that shit coming. It’s fantastic. I will be featuring as many of them as I possibly can. It makes my day every time.
This time, though, is a self-sourced suggestion of a guy who unequivocally sucked, but with panache. You may have heard of him before. At the very least, you’ve heard of the thing he’s responsible for: a little scuffle called the French Revolution.
That’s right, this week’s dirtbag is…
Georges Danton, A Man Who Was The Problem Every Day of His Life
I was a French major in college and also a child of the 1990s, so I know exactly enough about this period to have one-word associations with each of the leaders of the French Revolution as if they were members of the Spice Girls, as follows:
Maximilien Robespierre: Fanatic Spice
Jean-Paul Marat: Grandpa Spice
Louis de Saint-Just: Posh Spice
Camille Desmoulins: Bisexual Spice
Georges Danton: Murder Spice
All this to say, actual French people and/or scholars of French history will probably frown on how I’m oversimplifying things, but you all know my style by now. Aux armes, citoyens, etc.
Feral Hog O’Clock
Georges Danton was born in 1759 in a small town in northeastern France. His life started out with a real bang, in that he contracted smallpox, got stampeded by a herd of pigs, and then was kicked in the face by a bull. This demonstrates that parents of small children have been facing the same trials and tribulations since the beginning of time.
Danton was left with visible facial injuries that lasted the rest of his life, a thing he overcompensated for by murdering thousands of people. But we’ll get to that.
As Danton grew up, he became increasingly charismatic and persuasive. At first, he used these powers to study the law, and in 1780 he moved to Paris and found work as a lawyer. He settled down, married, and had three kids. But this calm life as a simple Parisian lawyer was not to last, due to the fact that our show today is brought to you by the number “1789” and the letters “THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.”
Liberté, Égalité, Audacité
(yes Mme. Ross from high school I know it translates as “l’audace” but that doesn’t fit the rhythm of the joke now does it)
On July 14, 1789, Danton saw the people of Paris storm the Bastille and said “oh, dope! Something violent I can make significantly worse!” He got involved in local politics and quickly made himself a fixture in the Jacobin club alongside such political luminaries as Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre (see Figure A above). The Jacobins, you may recall, were a political party that rose to prominence during the French Revolution whose platform basically boiled down to “kill the king and also anyone who looks like they might have enjoyed the monarchy.”
It will probably not surprise you to learn that Danton, as a person, was a lot. His motto was “audacity, more audacity, always more audacity!” I’m aware that sounds like a thing I would make up as an excuse to use this meme:
but it is in fact a true historical statement. What I’m saying is, the French Revolution was very much the ideal place for a person like this to be.
As the 1790s got underway, Danton would spend his time at the Club des Cordeliers, home of the Jacobins, where he would give fiery speeches, shouting and thundering and slamming his fist on things. People loved him because he was loud and spent lots of money and “said what the people were thinking,” a phenomenon modern people are completely unable to relate to.
The Murders All Run Together After a While TBH
On August 10, 1792, the revolutionaries stormed the king’s palace at the Tuileries and took the royal family hostage, marking the formal end of the French monarchy. Historians sometimes call this the “Second Revolution” (storming the Bastille being the first), and they generally agree that it wasn’t not Danton’s fault. In the chaos that followed this event, Danton got himself appointed Minister of Justice in the revolutionary government.
If you’re whispering “yikes” quietly to yourself, you’re paying attention.
As Minister of Justice, Danton’s job was mostly to a) make sure France went to war with Prussia, and b) imprison and execute as many French citizens as possible. His speeches harped on the difference between loyal revolutionary citizens and anti-revolutionary traitors, whipping the city into a frenzy.
This all led to the September Massacres of 1792, a period of state-sanctioned violence against alleged counter-revolutionaries that you know was bad because the French basically named it “that month when we murdered 1,600 people for no reason.”
Maybe Danton felt a little bad about this. Maybe he realized that killing five figures’ worth of people was bound to make you a few enemies. Either way, in late 1792, Danton decided now was a good time to take a trip to the countryside and stay away until the people of Paris forgot he was rapidly escalating into a dictator. During this time, his wife died. I like to think she did this on purpose to avoid having to be with him anymore, which I would understand.
This impromptu vacation sort of achieved its goal, though, minus the wife-dying part. Danton came back to Paris in early 1793 and, by March, was installed on the Committee of Public Safety, a governing body that has to be in the running for the Most Ironic Name in History award.
The Committee of Public Safety had a few responsibilities:
Going to war.
Squashing rebellions of people who didn’t want to go to war.
Hyping up the revolution.
Killing everyone who wasn’t hype about the revolution.
The picture above shows Robespierre, Danton, and Marat at about the time the Committee of Public Safety came into its own, and it epitomizes the three of them so perfectly, I’m obsessed with it.
Robespierre (left, sniffily, reaching for a handkerchief): “ugh, you both are so dirty, don’t touch me.”
Danton (center, already drunk): “Max I swear to god shut up or I will put a brick directly through your stupid face.”
Marat (right, fully off the rails): “I’M THE TRASH MAN. I LIVE IN THE TRASH.”
Anyway, as you can see, the goals of the Committee for Public Safety fit pretty naturally with Danton’s skill set. All it asked of him was that he gave loud speeches and killed people. So you’d be forgiven for expecting Danton to settle in for a long and successful career of shouting and arresting.
But it was not to be! In October 1793, Danton left the Committee and then quit politics altogether. He headed off to the country with his new wife, a woman who—and I cannot emphasize this enough—was 16 years old. Another yikes in a story full of yikes.
Enter: An Unhinged Historical Hottie
So what happened to Danton? Depends on who you ask. Some speculate that he didn’t like the way the Committee of Public Safety was operating and was worried it would soon become too violent. Personally, that doesn’t sound much like the “Mr. Audacity Worldwide” we’ve come to know. My speculation is that he knew Fanatic Spice Robespierre wanted him killed before he got too powerful and popular, and now seemed like a good time to get out of town with his head attached.
If this was the plan, though, it didn’t work. The remaining Jacobins turned on Danton, calling him a counter-revolutionary whose unwillingness to stab enough people was proof that he was on the side of the monarchy all along. In Danton’s absence, leadership of the Jacobins was split between Robespierre and a new kid called Louis de Saint-Just.
Quick note on Saint-Just. History remembers him primarily for two things: a) being unnecessarily handsome and b) being a real puritanical weirdo who enjoyed state-sanctioned murder and hated anything that smelled like fun.
Hot Saint-Just led a bunch of the anti-Danton speeches in the French National Convention, arguing that Danton was trying to subvert the revolution because—and I shit you not—he ate too much in public, which he said was a real decadent and monarchist thing to do.
One thing I feel like French history doesn’t discuss enough is the weird Gwyneth Paltrow detox-juicing vibes of most of the Jacobins. History does not record Danton’s response to this speech, but I hope he took out a whole renaissance faire-style turkey leg and chomped it loudly in Robespierre’s face, just to show them.
Sidebar: My Favorite Weird Thing About the French Revolution
From this point forward in the story, the events are pretty predictable. I bet you all can guess what’s gonna happen next.
So I feel justified taking a little left turn into something else fucking weird that’s going on in late 1793 into early 1794, and which you’ll see if you look at anything written about this period: the French Republican Calendar.
The revolutionary government has its hands full at this moment, obviously. There are citizens to murder. There’s a Prussia to go to war with. Everything is either covered in blood or about to be covered in blood. So the government, naturally, decides that their top priority is going to be renaming all of the months.
As you do.
Every month is named after a weather type or a general vibe. Every day of the year is named after a plant or vegetable. I am drafting this newsletter on March 23, which in the Republican Calendar would be 3 Germinal, which corresponds to “The Day of the Budding Asparagus.”
Why are we not constantly talking about this.
Anyway, this newsletter is scheduled to go out on 14 Germinal, or “The Day of the Adolescent Beech Tree,” so happy &c to all those who celebrate.
Enough Asparagus. Back to the Story.
Danton could clearly see that things were not going his way in the Convention. Unfortunately, instead of getting the fuck out of town, he wasted his time moping, writing political essays, and exhuming the body of his dead first wife so he could see her one last time. As one does.
In March 1794, Danton stood up in the Convention and gave a dramatic speech declaring that the period of Robespierre-led Terror was over, and that the revolution would go back to its peaceful and high-minded ideals. In response, Robespierre had him arrested and put on trial for treason and what I think was tax fraud. (I refuse to learn about the financial crimes Danton was convicted of because, as with military history, I read three words about finances and suddenly I am already asleep.)
Surprising no one, Georges Danton was convicted at the conclusion of his show trial and sentenced to death by guillotine.
Danton was executed alongside a handful of other “counter-revolutionary” revolutionaries on April 5, 1794. His last words to the executioner are reported to have been “Show the people my head. It’s worth looking at.”
Which, I think we can all agree, is objectively the most badass thing a person could say. They’re my favorite last words in history. Take that, 30-50 feral hogs. Behold my face.
Anyway. That’s our foray into the French Revolution for the month. I feel like this one was more unhinged than usual, but you tell me.
Until next time, be well, and if you have other groups of historical figures you mentally identify with 1990s pop groups, please alert me because I got distracted thinking about which member of *NSYNC corresponds to each wife of Henry VIII and am convinced on my life that Lance Bass is Anne of Cleves,