Danton

Danton

Danton

Danton

Excerpt

The French Revolution had scarcely begun before people began writing its history. In the nature of things, contemporaries such as Rabaut Saint-Etienne, Lacretelle and the 'Two Friends of Liberty' could not aspire to more than journalism. After such early efforts France was plunged into the long night of Napoleonic censorship, when the printed word was suspect and the expression of any opinions that departed from official orthodoxy was a crime. It was not until the Restoration that anyone could hope to write - and publish - a serious account of the events that had transformed French government and society. The available sources were still very scanty: newspapers, pamphlets and a growing flood of memoirs and reminiscences, often ghost-written or inflated by enterprising editors from what the veterans thought they could recall (and they recalled a good deal more than they could actually have remembered) from a past that was already a generation old.

The first real historians of the Revolution, Thiers and Mignet, whose accounts appeared in 1823 and 1824, were the prisoners both of their limited sources and of a classical tradition of historical writing. Each aspired to provide an authoritative narrative of how and why things had happened, punctuated by the kind of character studies of the main participants that they had read in Tacitus or Sallust. At least they enjoyed the privileges of the pioneer: they were neither the champions nor the challengers of any particular school and they approached their evidence with a common sense that many of their successors were to lack. Both regarded the Revolution as an inevitable process that was, on the whole, to be welcomed. They identified themselves with none of the revolutionary factions and they considered Danton to have been something of a Catiline, an adventurer of talent, concerned mainly with his own career.

Danton was, according to Mignet,

a gigantic revolutionary; he thought no means blameworthy so long as they were useful and believed that men could do as much as they dared ... Ardent, overwhelmed with debts and . . .

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