Reconstructing the Great Speeches – Danton:  “Dare, Dare Again, Always Dare”

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George Jacques Danton born October 26, 1759 wanted to dare and dare he did.  He dared so much; he lost his head to a guillotine on the 5th of April 1794.  Danton was one of the prime movers during the French Revolution of 1789.  For those of you whose history is limited, the French Revolution was quite a remarkable event.  Here is some background before we look at Danton’s famous speech.  For more detailed history, go to Wikipedia or the library.

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The French Revolution (1789-1799)

What makes the French Revolution confusing is that there was actually two of them.  We are discussing the background of the first one.  The second one was in 1830.  The first one is noteworthy for two major reasons.  1)  It set a precedent for overthrowing the rule of divine right by kings.  You have to keep in mind, that with the major exception of the United States of America, the world was ruled by Kings and Queens.  Many of these rulers professed a “divine right” to rule.  In other words, they believed that they were ordained by God him/herself to rule over the lesser beings on the planet whom they regarded as subjects.  As “subjects” the people under the rulers were “subject” to all forms of abuse and intimidation.  In many countries, people had little or no rights except by the grace of their rulers.

256px-TroisordresThe Catholic Church in France was a major power.  The Catholic hierarchy managed to continue to exert influence in France long after it lost power in other countries.  The Catholic Church kept its power by a political collusion with the French monarchy which helped the Church fight off the Protestant religion that had swept so much of Europe.  From the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the Church in France along with the Monarchy had persecuted, exiled, and killed thousands of Protestants.  Thus, there were many in France who hated the Catholic leaders as much as they hated their King and Queen, who by the way also lost their heads during the French Revolution.

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Needless to say, the rest of Europe was not too happy at seeing the servants and peasants overthrow the royalty in France.  This idea that the royalty was not so special might just infiltrate the minds of subjects in other countries.  Which of course is just what happened.  Over time, most of Europe eventually marginalized the role of their monarchies and established a variety of democratic institutions.  These later institutions would rule by laws set by the people and not by “divine right.”

Three of the most important democratic concepts to come out of the first French Revolution is epitomized by the motto “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” which became the national motto of France.  Liberty is the right to express one’s ideas without fear of repercussions.  Equality expressed the idea that all social classes were citizens of France and would have equal rights.  The monarchy and the Catholic Church would no longer be privileged.  Fraternity meant that we are all brothers and would share in a common unity of humanity and respect.  In 1789, The leaders of the Revolution drafted a document called the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” which outlined a set of enlightened principles about governing and government which bore some resemblance to the Bill of Rights in the USA.  Of course, women were still among the unprivileged.  Which leads us to the second major reason that the first French Revolution is noteworthy.

This second reason is the devolution into chaos and anarchy that happened.  Faced with a great deal of opposition both in and outside France to these new enlightened ideas, the leaders of the revolution became increasingly paranoid.  They were beyond cautious about who their enemies might be and what they needed to do to protect the emerging values of the French Revolution.  This led them to adopt a rather expedient method of protecting the Revolution.  The guillotine was developed as a very effective instrument for cutting off the heads of anyone whom they suspected might be either an enemy of the Revolution or even those who did not fully support the Revolution.  During, what has become known as “The Reign of Terror” (June 1793 to July 1794) about 17,000 people were guillotined.  Many more people were shot or otherwise murdered during the French Revolution.

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Looking back, it seems bizarre to think that a revolution founded on the democratic ideas of the American Revolution and such theorists as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu could have led to the slaughter of so many people.  A slaughter that sadly is now one of the major things we remember about the First French Revolution.  Furthermore, the Revolution eventually led into an outright dictatorship by Napoleon Bonaparte.  Human nature was no more consistent or predictable in the 18th Century than it is today.  We wonder today how so many people in the USA would seem to reject the principles that it was founded upon.  Everywhere you look, we find those who reject the concepts of democracy and the rule of law.

Danton (1759 – 1794)

Some say Danton was the prime mover behind the French Revolution (1789 – 1799).  Before the Revolution, Danton was a lawyer of no particular noteworthiness.  He came into his own as one of the major leaders of the French Revolution.  He held a number of significant offices as the leaders struggled to form a government that would uphold the new values driving the Revolution.  Danton was perhaps as bloodthirsty or paranoid as some other leaders, notably Robespierre and Saint-Just.  Danton’s trial before his execution tended to be highly political and he was found guilty of a number of charges including bribery, financial corruption, and leniency towards the enemies of the Revolution   These charges were founded more on the fears of his political opponents than any real evidence.

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Dare, Dare Again, Always Dare (1792)

Danton’s most famous speech was not given at his trial.  Due to his noted oratory, the leaders at his trial decided not to allow him to speak.  They were afraid that if anyone listened to him, he would convince them of his innocence and perhaps even regain power over his accusers.  This speech was given in the face of threats by enemies attacking France from within the country and outside the country.  Danton as a key leader of the Revolution would have been marked for death should the Revolution be overthrown.  Ironically, he was executed by his former comrades.

“It is gratifying to the ministers of a free people to have to announce to them that their country will be saved.  All are stirred, all are excited, all burn to fight.  You know that Verdun is not yet in the power of our enemies. You know that its garrison swears to immolate the first who breathes a proposition of surrender.”             

France was being attacked by Germany then known as Prussia.  Verdun actually surrendered the same day that Danton’s speech was given.  Danton is lauding the efforts of the French people to fight for the principles of the Revolution.  The monarchies in the surrounding countries want to put down the Revolution for fear it could lead to the people in their countries also revolting.  Thus, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Russia all fought to help overthrow the French Revolution.

“One portion of our people will proceed to the frontiers, another will throw up entrenchments, and the third with pikes will defend the hearts of our cities.  Paris will second these great efforts. The commissioners of the Commune will solemnly proclaim to the citizens the invitation to arm and march to the defense of the country.”

In this speech, you can see a resemblance to the famous French National Anthem, the Marseillaise.”  The song was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria.  One of the refrains from the song is:

  • Grab your weapons, citizens!
  • Form your battalions!
  • Let us march! Let us march!
  • May impure blood
  • Water our fields!

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“We ask that anyone refusing to give personal service or to furnish arms shall be punished with death.  We ask that a set of instructions be drawn up for the citizens to direct their movements. We ask that couriers be sent to all the departments to notify them of the decrees that you proclaim here.  The tocsin we are about to ring is not an alarm signal; it sounds the charge on the enemies of our country.  To conquer them we must dare, dare again, always dare, and France is saved!”

Danton wanted to impose harsh punishments for anyone refusing service to France.  France initially suffered a series of defeats by other countries.  Eventually, by rallying together, France went on the offensive and achieved many victories.  By defeating their enemies, they solidified the gains of the Revolution.  However, these victories also allowed Napoleon to gain power and become Emperor.  Not much difference really between and an Emperor and a King.   France might have gone two steps forward but they also went two steps back.

Danton’s concluding line was an exhortation to boldness and audacity.  “Dare, Dare and Always Dare!”  I have always admired these words and have tried to use them in my own life.  Consider what it means, if you will, when you try to apply them.  What are areas of your life where you have fears?  What areas where you need to be braver or bolder?  Where do you think you need to speak out more?  Where do you need to stand up for yourself more?  If you find many areas where you lack bravery, think of Danton’s speech.

Remember the line from the play Julius Caesar “Cowards die many times before their death, heroes only once.”  The following is a short one minute video I found online that captures the spirit of Danton’s lines.

 

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

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