French historians demand return to public domain of unique letter from Robespierre to Danton

Before sending his friend to the guillotine, he wrote: ‘I love you more than ever and until death’. The historical missive between two key figures of the French Revolution has been sold to a private collector

French Revolution
Georges-Jacques Danton (left) and Maximilien Robespierre.

In the middle of the French Revolution, a time of extreme upheaval and political turbulence, Maximilien Robespierre wrote a letter to his friend and unconditional comrade-in-arms, Georges Jacques Danton. “I love you more than ever and until death,” the statesman professed, a year before sending Danton to the guillotine. In the missive, dated February 15, 1793 in Paris, the revolutionary leader expressed his support for him after the death of Danton’s wife and son. At the same time, Robespierre urged his friend not to abandon the revolutionary struggle. The letter, the only surviving correspondence between the revolutionary leaders, was auctioned to a private collector for €218,750 on March 12. A group of historians, writers and politicians are now calling for it to be returned to the public domain.

The letter is only a few lines in length but it illustrates the friendship between two emblematic figures of the French Revolution, before their relationship descended into acrimony. Just a few weeks before Robespierre penned the missive, the last monarch of France, Louis XVI, had been executed on the scaffold in the Place de la Révolution in Paris, which today is called Place de la Concorde. France had entered the Reign of Terror, which was designed to defend the fledgling nation from any external or internal enemy. The entire country was immersed in bloodletting, political and social transformation.

In his letter, Robespierre tells Danton: “I love you more than ever and until death. In this moment I am you. Do not close your heart to the tones of a friendship that feels all your pain.” At the beginning of 1973, Danton was in Belgium when he received news that his wife, Antoinette, had died during childbirth, as did his fourth child, an unnamed stillborn boy. “If in the only misfortunes that can shake a soul such as yours, the certainty of having a tender and devoted friend can offer you some consolation, I present it to you,” Robespierre continued, before adding: “Let us soon make the effects of our deep sorrow felt by the tyrants who are the authors of our public misfortunes and our private misfortunes.”

Robespierre's handwritten letter to Danton.
Robespierre's handwritten letter to Danton.

A fragment of French history

During this era Danton and Robespierre, both laywers, had been elected as deputies in the National Convention, the main political institution of the First Republic, playing a key role in the new political order. Their friendship, however, soon fractured. In April 1794, Robespierre sent Danton to the scaffold for his opposition the policy of Terror, which he himself had contributed to establishing. The emblematic duo would inspire many 19th-century authors, among them Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

“The letter can be interpreted as evidence of Robespierre’s sensitivity, a sign that he was by no means a tyrant and a monster as he has been portrayed,” says historian Loris Chavanette, the author of a book on the two revolutionary leaders and others on the Revolution who published an article in Le Figaro warning against the sale of the document. “But at the same time, it is proof that he had taken the bloodbath to the point of eliminating his own friends,” he tells EL PAÍS.

The letter was sold by the Osenat auction house on March 12 to a private collector. In its description of the lot, the auctioneers underline it is the only surviving letter written to Danton by Robespierre.

Chavanette believes the letter should be exhibited in a museum or preserved in the National Archives, publishing a column in Le Monde to that effect signed by over 20 public figures. Until 2015, the document was part of the collection of the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris. “The preservation of Robespierre’s only letter to Danton is a national cause,” they stated, pointing out that the lines contain “a fragment of the history of the birth of the Republic.”

Among the signatories are former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, French Academy member Erik Orsenna and the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard. In the column, they asked why the French State did not exercise its preferential right of purchase to acquire the manuscript: in 2011, the government succeeded in preventing some of Robespierre’s writings from being auctioned at Sotheby’s when a public backlash erupted over the fear the documents would leave the country. EL PAÍS’ request for comment from the French Ministry of Culture has so far received no response.

In the Le Monde column, the signatories point out that Robespierre, despite being considered a controversial figure by some historians, was one of the primary promoters of the abolition of privileges and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789.

For Chavanette, the letter is not only a vital fragment illustrating the legendary Revolutionaries’ story, but a document that also invites reflection and questions: “Philosophically and spiritually speaking, is it fair to sacrifice a friend in the name of the general interest?” But its uniqueness lies above all in the fact that it can be interpreted both in defense of and against the figure of Robespierre, who was nicknamed the “incorruptible one,” as the signatories of the Le Monde column highlighted.

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