Today is Bastille Day when the French Revolution is celebrated in France and yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the great French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat 24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793. I have had the honour of giving a lecture using his name in the Sorbonne in Paris in the room where his body lay in state. He was a physician, political theorist and scientist best known for his career in France as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution. His journalism became renowned for its fierce tone, uncompromising stance toward the new leaders and institutions of the revolution, and advocacy of basic human rights for the poorest members of society.
Marat was one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. He became a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes, publishing his views in pamphlets, placards and newspapers, notably his “L’Ami du peuple“, which helped make him their unofficial link with the radical, republican Jacobin group who came to power after June 1793.
Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer, while taking a medicinal bath for his debilitating skin condition. In his death Marat became an icon to the Jacobins, a sort of revolutionary martyr, as portrayed in David’s famous painting of his death.
Around 1770, Marat moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, possibly gaining employment as a veterinarian. His first political work Chains of Slavery, inspired by the activities of the MP and Mayor John Wilkes, was most probably compiled in the central library here. By Marat’s own colourful account, he lived on black coffee for three months, during its composition, sleeping only two hours a night – and then slept soundly for thirteen days in a row. He gave it the subtitle, “A work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of Despotism disclosed”. It earned him honorary membership of the patriotic societies of Berwick, Carlisle and Newcastle. The Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society Library[possesses a copy, and Tyne and Weir Archives Service holds three presented to the various Newcastle guilds.
A published essay on curing a friend of gleets (gonorrhea) probably helped him to secure his referees for an MD from the University of St Andrews in June 1775. On his return to London, he further enhanced his reputation with the publication of an Enquiry into the Nature, Cause, and Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes.
In 1776, Marat moved to Paris following a brief stopover in Geneva to visit his family. Here his growing reputation as a highly effective doctor, along with the patronage of the marquis de l’Aubespine, the husband of one of his patients, secured his appointment, in 1777, as physician to the bodyguard of the comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s youngest brother who was to become king Charles X in 1824. The position paid 2,000 livres a year plus allowances.
Marat was soon in great demand as a court doctor among the aristocracy and he used his new-found wealth to set up a laboratory in the marquise de l’Aubespine’s (thought by some to be his mistress) house. Soon he was publishing works on fire & heat, electricity and light. In his Mémoires, his later enemy Brissot admitted Marat’s growing influence in Parisian scientific circles. When Marat presented his scientific researches to the Académie des Sciences, they were not approved for official publication. In particular, the Academicians were appalled by his temerity in disagreeing with (the hitherto uncriticized) Newton. Benjamin Franklin visited him on several occasions and Goethe described his rejection by the Academy as a glaring example of scientific despotism. In 1780, Marat published his “favourite work”, a Plan de législation criminelle. Inspired by Rousseau and Cesare Beccaria, a polemic for judicial reform, entered into a competition organised by the Berne Academy, argued for a common death penalty for all regardless of social class and the need for a twelve-man jury to ensure fair trials.
In April 1786, he resigned his court appointment and devoted his energies full-time to scientific research. He published a well-received translation of Newton’s Opticks (1787), which was still in print until recently, and later a collection of essays on his experimental findings, including a study on the effect of light on soap bubbles in his Mémoires académiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière (“Academic memoirs, or new discoveries on light”, 1788).
Many of his references to slavery illustrate the curious links between the use of the language of slavery in a metaphorical sense (to be “slave” to a king) and the triangular trade (chattel slavery). As a tutor to the Nairac family in the leading slave port of Bordeaux, he may have witnessed aspects of the trade. Monsieur Nairac was a leading slave merchant and later an ennobled member of the National Assembly. Soon after the uprisings in the Caribbean island and sugar colony of St Domingue (later Haiti after its revolution), he wrote in 1792 that those in St Domingue are “a separate people” from France. He cited the new constitution (of 1791), “The basis of all free government is that no people can be legally subject to another people…” (from “The Friend of the People” 1792. See the excerpt in Dubois & Garrigus, editors, “Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804”, p 111-112).
On the eve of the French Revolution, Marat placed his career as a scientist and doctor behind him and took up his pen on behalf of the Third Estate. After 1788, when the Parliament of Paris and other Notables advised the assembling of the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years, Marat devoted himself entirely to politics.His Offrande à la Patrie (“Offering to the Nation”) dwelt on many of the same points as the Abbé Sieyès’ famous “Qu’est-ce que le Tiers État?” (“What is the Third Estate?”) Before the Estates-General met in June 1789, he published a supplement to his Offrande, followed in July by La Constitution (“The Constitution”) and in September by the Tableau des vices de la constitution d’Angleterre (“Tableau of the flaws of the English constitution”) intended to influence the structure of a new constitution for France. The latter work was presented to the National Constituent Assembly as an anti-oligarchic dissent from the Anglomania that was then gripping that body.
In 12 September 1789, Marat began his own paper, which was first called Publiciste parisien, before changing its name four days later to L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”). From this position, he often attacked the most influential and powerful groups in Paris, including the Corps Municipal, theConstituent Assembly, the ministers, and the Cour du Châtelet. In January 1790, he moved to the radical Cordeliers section, the Club des Cordeliers, then under the leadership of the lawyer Danton, was nearly arrested for his aggressive campaign against the maequis de La Fayette, and was forced to flee to London, where he wrote his Dénonciation contre Necker (“Denunciation of Jacques Necker”), an attack on Louis XVI’s popular Finance Minister. In May, he returned to Paris to continue publication of L’Ami du peuple and briefly ran a second newspaper in June 1790 called “Le Junius français” named after the notorious English polemicist of that name.
Marat faced the problem of counterfeiters distributing falsified versions of L’Ami du peuple , which led him to call for police intervention. Ironically, Marat’s L’Ami de peuple was originally an illegal publication itself. However, effective police intervention resulted in the suppression of the fraudulent issues, leaving Marat the continuing sole author of L’Ami de peuple.
Fearing reprisal, Marat went into hiding in the Paris sewers, where he almost certainly aggravated his debilitating chronic skin disease (possibly dermatitis herpetiformis).
During this period, Marat made regular attacks on the more conservative revolutionary leaders. In a pamphlet from 26 July 1790, entitled “C’en est fait de nous” (“We’re done for!”), he warned against counter-revolutionaries, advising, “five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom, and happiness.”
From 1790 to 1792, Marat frequently had to go into hiding. In April 1792, he married the 26-year-old Simonne Evrard in a common-law ceremony on his return from exile in London, having previously expressed his love for her. She was the sister-in-law of his typographer, Jean-Antoine Corne, and had lent him money and sheltered him on several occasions.
Marat only emerged publicly on the 10 August Insurectin, when the Tuileies Palace was invaded and the royal family forced to shelter within the Legestative Assembly. The spark for this uprising was Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg’s provocative proclamation, which called for the crushing of the Revolution and helped to inflame popular outrage in Paris.
Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 as one of 26 Paris deputies although he belonged to no party. When France was declared a republic on 22 September, Marat renamed his L’Ami du peuple as Le Journal de la République française (“Journal of the French Republic”). His stance during the trial of the deposed king Louis XVI was unique. He declared it unfair to accuse Louis for anything before his acceptance of the French Constitution of 1791, and, although implacably believing that the monarch’s death would be good for the people, defended Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the King’s counsel, as a “sage et respectable vieillard” (“wise and respected old man”).
On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was quillotined, which caused political turmoil. From January to May, Marat fought bitterly with the Girondins, whom he believed to be covert enemies of republicanism. Marat’s hatred of the Girondins became increasingly heated which led him to call for the use of violent tactics against them. The Girondins fought back and demanded that Marat be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. After attempting to avoid arrest for several days Marat was finally imprisoned. On 24 April, he was brought before the Tribunal on the charges that he had printed in his paper statements calling for widespread murder as well as the suspension of the Convention. Marat decisively defended his actions, stating that he had no evil intentions directed against the Convention. Marat was acquitted of all charges to the riotous celebrations of his supporters.
The fall of the Girondins on 2 June, helped by the actions of François Hanriot, the new leader of the National Guard, was one of Marat’s last great achievements. Forced to retire from the Convention as a result of his worsening skin disease, he continued to work from home, where he soaked in a medicinal bath. Now that the Montagnards no longer needed his support in the struggle against the Girondins, Robespierre and other leading Montagnards began to separate themselves from him, while the Convention largely ignored his letters.
Marat was in his bathtub on 13 July, when a young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, appeared at his flat, claiming to have vital information on the activities of the escaped Girondins who had fled to Normandy. Despite his wife Simonne’s protests, Marat asked for her to enter and gave her an audience by his bath, over which a board had been laid to serve as a writing desk. Their interview lasted around fifteen minutes. He asked her what was happening in Caen and she explained, reciting a list of the offending deputies. After he had finished writing out the list, Corday claimed that he told her, “Their heads will fall within a fortnight”. A statement which she later changed at her trial to, “Soon I shall have them all guillotined in Paris”. This was unlikely since Marat did not have the power to have anyone guillotined. At that moment, Corday rose from her chair, drawing out from her corset the five-inch kitchen knife, which she had bought earlier that day, and brought it down hard into Marat’s chest, where it pierced just under his right clavicle, opening the carotid artery, close to the heart. The massive bleeding was fatal within seconds. Slumping backwards, Marat cried out his last words to Simonne, “Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!” (“Help me, my dear friend!”) and died.
Corday was a Girondin sympathiser who came from an impoverished royalist family – her brothers were émigrés who had left to join the exiled royal princes. From her own account, and those of witnesses, it is clear that she had been inspired by Girondin speeches to a hatred of the Montagnards and their excesses, symbolised most powerfully in the character of Marat. The Book of Days claims the motive was to “avenge the death of her friend Barboroux”. Marat’s assassination contributed to the mounting suspicion which fed the Terror during which thousands of the Jacobins’ adversaries – both royalists and Girondins – were executed on supposed charges of treason. Charlotte Corday was guillotined on 17 July 1793 for the murder. During her four-day trial, she had testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying “I killed one man to save 100,000.“
Marat’s assassination led to his apotheosis. The painter Jacques-Louis David, a member of one of the two “Great Committees” (the Committee of General Security), was asked to organize a grand funeral. David took up the task of immortalizing Marat in the painting The Death of Marat, beautifying the skin that was discoloured and scabbed from his chronic skin disease in an attempt to create antique virtue. David, as a result of this work, has since been criticized as glorifying the Jacobin’s death. The entire National Convention attended Marat’s funeral and he was buried under a weeping willow, in the garden of the former Club des Cordeliers (former Couvent des Cordeliers). After Marat’s death, he was viewed by many as a martyr for the revolution, and was immortalized in various ways in order to preserve the values he stood for. His heart was embalmed separately and placed in an urn in an altar erected to his memory at the Cordeliers in order to inspire speeches that were similar in style to Marat’s eloquent journalistic skills. On his tomb, the inscription on a plaque read: “Unité, Indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou la mort”.
His remains were transferred to the Panthéon 25 November 1793 and his near messianic role in the Revolution was confirmed with the elegy: Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles, priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against these plagues of the people. The eulogy was given by the Marquis de Sade, delegate of the Section Piques and an ally of Marat’s faction in the National Convention (there is evidence to suggest that shortly before his death Marat had fallen out with de Sade and was arranging for him to be arrested). By this stage de Sade was becoming appalled with the excesses of the Reign of Terror and was later removed from office and imprisoned for “moderatism” on the fifth of December.
On 19 November, the port city of Le Havre-de-Grâce changed its name to Le Havre-de-Marat and then Le Havre-Marat. When the Jacobins started their dechristianisation campaign to set up the Cult of Reason of Hébert and Chaumette and Cult of the Supreme Being of Robespierre, Marat was made a quasi-saint, and his bust often replaced crucifixes in the former churches of Paris.
By early 1795, Marat’s memory had become tarnished. On 13 January 1795, Le Havre-Marat became simply Le Havre, the name it bears today. In February, his coffin was removed from the Panthéon and his busts and sculptures were destroyed. His final resting place is the cemetery of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.
His memory lived on in the Soviet Union. Marat became a common name and the Russian battleship Petropavlovovsk (Russian: Петропавловск) was renamed Marat in 1921. A street in the centre of Sevastopol was named after Marat (Russian: Улица Марата) on 3 January 1921, shortly after the Soviets took over the city.
Described during his time as a man “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face,” Marat has long been noted for physical irregularities. The nature of Marat’s debilitating skin disease, in particular, has been an object of ongoing medical interest. Dr. Josef E. Jelinek noted that his skin disease was intensely itchy, bistering, began in the perianal region, and was associated with weight loss leading to emacation. He was sick with it for the three years prior to his assassination, and spent most of this time in his bathtub. There were various minerals and medicines that were present in his bath while he soaked to help ease the pain caused by his debilitating skin disease. The bandana that is seen wrapped around his head was soaked in vinegar to reduce the severity of his discomfort Jelinek’s diagnosis is dermatitis herpetiformis.