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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Reconstructing the Great Speeches

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One of my hobbies over the years has been listening to, reading, and collecting the great speeches of history.  From Socrates’s speech at his trial to Pericles’s Funeral Oration speech to Napoleon’s speech to his Old Guard to Martin Luther King’s Dream speech, I have always been fascinated by oratory that mesmerizes, galvanizes and exhorts people to goals and endeavors that they would never have believed possible.  The list of great speeches is exhaustive.  It would take an encyclopedia to catalog all the wonderful speeches of history.  I am sure that there are blogs dedicated to this effort.  For the next few weeks, I am going to present my humble attempt to look at a few of these magnificent oratorical achievements.  Few things in life are more beautiful that a well worded speech.

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One of the most interesting things about a great speech is that you can find yourself being moved by it even when you disagree with the arguments or premises of the speaker.  For instance, General Douglas MacArthur delivered his “farewell speech” to a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951.  This speech is sometimes referred to by its most famous line “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”  MacArthur spoke to defend his militaristic war policy in Asia after being rebuked by President Truman for his resistance to Truman’s position.

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I have listened to MacArthur’s speech dozens of time.  I disagree with everything he says in his speech.  Nevertheless, I find myself oddly moved and thinking “Right On!  Let’s go in and blast those guys.”  I catch myself getting ready to sign up with the Marines and remember that MacArthur would probably have started WW III if not for Truman.  But great speeches are like that.  They move us, they hypnotize us, they motivate us to efforts that were not for the speech, we would never have thought possible.

I have this habit in my blog of doing things or writing about ideas and issues in groups of seven.  I think this is the limit to my attention span on any one topic or issue.  Thus, I wrote about capitalism, medicine, immigration, education, prophets, and several other issues in groups of seven or sometimes less when my focus ran out even sooner than seven.  In respect to talking about great speeches, I could write about one great speech each day and not live enough lives to cover all the great speeches of history.  Thus, in keeping with my limited attention to seven of any particular subject, I will spend the next seven blogs “reconstructing” some of my (perhaps not the greatest) favorite speeches.

Now, I carefully chose the word “reconstruct.”  If I had said that I was going to “deconstruct” several great speeches, then these next blogs would be quite a bit different.  To deconstruct can be defined as:

“A method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.” —Dictionary.Com. 

I have no desire or the skill level to “deconstruct” historic speeches.  Instead, I would like to “reconstruct” several of these speeches by reinterpreting what the original speakers wanted to achieve.  To understand this, we must understand the relationship of the speech to the context that the speech was given in.  Too often you hear a speech, but the context of the speech is often left out of the speech.  This is a major failing of listening to any speech since the context in which the speech occurs is essential to fully understanding and appreciating the speech.  I will also try to reconstruct the meaning that these speakers had by updating and rephrasing some of their vocabulary for a modern audience.  This will probably horrify some purists out there who believe that things once said should never be rephrased.

Let me give you an example from one of Napoleon’s famous speeches.  First, though we need to establish the context for his speech.

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History teaches us today that either Napoleon was a great military leader or that he was a megalomaniac bent on world domination.  If we journey back to the times right after the French Revolution (1789- 1794) we find Europe in turmoil.  The French people have not only overthrown their King and Queen, they have beheaded them.  Monarchies all over Europe are still in power.  Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and others all have their reigning rulers ordained by God.  Imagine their horror at seeing the French get rid of their royalty.  Imagine, if we suddenly took all our politicians and drowned them in the Potomac.  Or what if instead of storming the Bastille as the French Peasants did, we would storm Hollywood and throw out all the actors and actresses.  “Off with their lovely gorgeous heads!”

9781640306547_p0_v1_s550x406France is in chaos.  Heads are rolling faster than you can say “jack rabbit.”  No one knows whose head will be on the guillotine next.  In the middle of this pandemonium, the Monarchs surrounding France decide to put a stop to the changes going on in France.  They plan to reestablish the French royalty and bring things back to where they were.  European royalty marshal their armies to attack France.  In steps Napoleon.  A young French solider with extraordinary military skills.  Napoleon galvanizes the French People and singing the Marseillaise they fight back and defeat all of the opposing enemies.  The Following is an excerpt from a speech given by Napoleon to his army in Italy delivered on May 15, 1796:

“SOLDIERS! You have precipitated yourselves like a torrent from the Apennines. You have overwhelmed or swept before you all that opposed your march.  Piedmont, delivered from Austrian oppression, has returned to her natural sentiments of peace and friendship toward France.  Milan is yours, and over all Lombardy floats the flag of the Republic.

Basically, Napoleon is congratulating his army on their spectacular victories over the combined armies that attacked France: “You guys did great.  You really rocked. You kicked some real butt out there today.” 

But, and this is a big BUTT, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Napoleon’s victories and the rewards from these victories soon went to his head.  It was not enough to simply defend France; Napoleon then decides that there are more wars to win and more power to obtain.  He plans to establish a Grande Paix Française, wherein France will rule most of Europe with himself as emperor.  From the same speech in Italy:

“Yes, soldiers, you have done much; but much still remains for you to do.  Shall it be said of us that we knew how to conquer, but not to profit by victory?  Shall posterity reproach us with having found a Capfia in Lombardy?  Nay, fellow soldiers!  I see you already eager to cry ‘To arms!’  Inaction fatigues you! and days lost to glory are to you days lost to happiness.”

“Okay Guys, we kicked butt.  Wasn’t it fun?  But look, we can kick more butt and have more fun.  I guarantee glory and fame awaits us.  As we sing the Marseillaise:

To arms, citizens!

Form your battalions,

Let us march, let us march!

That their impure blood

Should water our fields.

Sacred love of the fatherland,

Guide and support our vengeful arms.

Liberty, beloved liberty.

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Over the course of my next seven blogs, with interludes as needed, I will “reconstruct” seven of my favorites speeches.  The speeches that I want to look at will include the following:

  • The Defense Speech – Socrates
  • Here I stand – Martin Luther
  • Dare, Dare Again, Always Dare – Danton
  • If There is No Struggle, there is No Progress – Frederick Douglas
  • I Am an Anarchist – Lucy Parsons
  • Give Me Blood and I Will Give You Freedom – Subhas Chandra Bose
  • Police Brutality Speech – Malcolm X

There are thousands of great speeches and dozens of “The Greatest Speeches in History” lists.  For my reconstructions, I wanted to take some of my favorite speeches that are less well known, and which were very controversial at the time.  It is one thing to get up and say something that everyone will agree with (Trump Speech), it is another thing entirely to give a speech that threatens the status quo and which may leave the audience hating you.  Each one of the above speeches is challenging and provocative.  The speakers were not afraid to generate animosity and hostility towards themselves.  I think this fearlessness in the face of adversity is truly one of the characteristics of a great speech.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” — Aristotle

 

 

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