Jean-Paul Marat: The Great Denunciator
Posted on 6th March 2021
He was a friend of the people, the guardian of liberty, a hero of the revolution who demanded that society be purged of its impurities and that to do so the ‘Terror’ must be waged in perpetuity. He would seek out the enemies, uncover the spies and he would have them eliminated, for him there could never be enough killing. He was – the Great Denunciator.
He coined the phrase 'Enemy of the People' and that all those who were not with him were against the revolution. Those who opposed he ‘Terror’ he declared would be its next victim.
When he said enemy of the people, he meant it and all those who were not with him were against the revolution. Those who opposed he ‘Terror’ he declared would be its next victim. People feared him and were known to tremble in his presence and even now his name sends a chill down the spine; described as being "short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face" his enemies would say that his appearance was the physical manifestation of the darkness of his soul. But it wasn’t always so.
Jean Paul-Marat was born in the village of Boudry near Neuchatel in Switzerland on 24 May 1743, and was from the first an outsider. His family were Calvinists and as such treated with suspicion and so he experienced discrimination as part and parcel of everyday life from an early age. He was also a sulky and moody child who made few if any friends. The family home was not for him then a happy environment and he left at the first possible opportunity aged just sixteen. For the next ten years, he disappears from the historical record before re-emerging again in Newcastle, England.
It would appear however that he had in the meantime established a reputation for himself as a respected physician. He had also turned his mind to science and while in England had published his first scientific and philosophical works and it was evident from his writings that he believed science held the solution to all society’s ills.
In 1776 he returned briefly to Switzerland before travelling onto Paris where he worked as a doctor and cured a number of ailments that saw his reputation soar soon acquiring several aristocratic patients who pleased with the treatments he prescribed recommended him to others until he almost became an unofficial Court Physician. As a result, he also became a wealthy man.
Yet he never really considered himself a physician but rather a scientist and he was to use his new-found wealth to establish his own laboratory. He also wrote a series of essays on heat, light and electricity becoming well-known in Parisian scientific circles. He was even visited on several occasions by Benjamin Franklin, the great hero of the French scientific elite.
Even so, he still failed to gain admission to the Academie des Sciences who considered his research inadequate. This rejection hurt him deeply and as far as he was concerned it was yet another example of the despotism of authority and he was not one to forget a slight.
On 14 July 1789, the Bastille fell and with it the last vestiges of deference. What had been a movement for constitutional change now became a revolution and Marat embraced it enthusiastically.
With his career as a scientist stalled, he now turned his hand to journalism and in September 1789, he founded his own newspaper L'Ami du Peuple in which he attacked all the old institutions of authority in particular the Royal Family and the Clergy.
It quickly became popular with the poor and dispossessed of Paris who lapped up his denunciation of parasitical aristocrats, greedy merchants, counter-revolutionary food hoarders and its blood curdling message of death to all traitors. Such was Marat’s popularity that he never joined a political faction because he never needed to, his power lay with the mob, and it left him free to denounce anyone he chose.
He might lend his support to a political faction one day but then withdraw it the next and to be praised in the pages of his papers was no guarantee against future denunciation and all lived in fear of the next edition of L’Ami du Peuple.
The truth was he hated all those in authority and positions of political power, for him they were despots and tyrants, and he would quite happily mark them all down as enemies of the people. He would list in the pages of his paper those he deemed traitors and demand their immediate execution and moreover, he called upon the people to demand their execution also. Such was the fear of the Paris mob once so proscribed the guillotine would shortly follow.
Marat had no scruples about doing this. As far as he was concerned it was not up to him to prove their guilt but for the accused to prove their innocence, but he could also overstep the mark and in January 1790 his venomous and repeated attacks upon the Hero of the American Revolution and Commander of the Paris National Guard, the Marquis de Lafayette forced Marat to flee temporarily to London.
Upon his return to Paris, he hid for a time in the sewers and catacombs of the city until he felt it was safe to re-appear on the political stage. But the life of a man on the run had taken its toll with the filth and dampness of the sewers serving to greatly exacerbate his scrofula, a debilitating skin disease that caused him almost constant pain.
Marat received a warm welcome from the people of Paris so much so that the Authorities thought better of pursuing him and he returned to his writing. In early 1792 he demanded the deaths of almost the entire Legislative Assembly and appealing directly to the dispossessed of Paris he wrote: "Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured our repose, and happiness. A false humanity has held your arms and suspended your blows; because of this millions of your brothers will lose their lives".
Such was the influence he wielded that even Maximilien Robespierre first among equals in the Committee of Public Safety and de facto ruler of France was cowed in his presence. Marat who was an admirer of his wrote of their first meeting:
“Robespierre listened to me with terror. He grew pale and remained silent for some time. The interview confirmed me in the opinion that I always had of him, that he unites the knowledge of a wise senator with the integrity of a thoroughly good man and the zeal of a true patriot but that he is lacking as a statesman in clearness of vision and determination.”
It seemed that even Robespierre the architect of the Terror lacked the iron will to succeed.
His lust for blood still unsated Marat now turned his ire on the entire ruling Girondin Faction in the National Assembly. This was a dangerous move for both Marat and the Girondins, but it was the latter fearing for their lives who struck first. They charged Marat with treason, and he was arrested and forced to stand trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Marat remained unbowed and defended himself with vigour rounding on his accusers saying that they were the real enemies of the people and had revealed their treachery by bringing this sham trial. Sensationally he was acquitted of all charges and chaired from the Court he was greeted by thousands of cheering Parisians.
Marat was now more popular than he had ever been - he was the man who would root out corruption, he was the man who would expose the tyrants and destroy the old regime. He was the man who wanted the revolution they wanted, and they wanted blood. He spoke for them when he said, “I propose that the (National) Convention shall decree complete freedom in the expression of opinion, so that I may send to the scaffold the faction that voted for my impeachment.”
Just weeks after his acquittal on 2 June 1793, the Girondins themselves went to the guillotine. Their fall from grace saw the Jacobins of Robespierre and St-Just come to power and they like Marat would demand the guillotine and much to his satisfaction they would use it - the Terror had begun.
But Marat was not one to sit back and allow others to do his dirty work for him. “I believe in the cutting off of heads” he said, and he meant it. He could never be satisfied that there was enough blood and as the volume of his writing increased so did his pen became ever more venomous: "Man has the right to deal with his oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts. To ensure the public tranquillity 270,000 heads must roll.” And his murderous intent only increased as his own illness worsened.
By this time the scrofula that scarred and discoloured his skin and left it red raw was becoming unbearable and he had taken to soaking in a medicinal bath.
On 13 July 1793 while soaking in his bathtub writing he was informed there was a young woman by the name of Charlotte Corday who wished an audience. She had tried to gain access to his residence earlier in the day but had been turned away by the guards at the door, but she continued to loiter outside until she was able to gain entry by following behind some people making a delivery of bread.
Informed of her presence Marat who was soaking in his bathtub writing some letters at first declared himself too busy to see visitors but then relented and agreed she could be admitted to his presence.
After a brief introduction Corday informed him that she had just returned from Caen where the surviving Girondins were establishing a new power base. Marat insisted that she provide him with the names of those involved, and he would compile a list. Upon its completion and a quick perusal, he curtly informed her that they would all be dead on the morrow.
Corday now produced the knife that she had secreted on her person and without saying a word she plunged its six-inch blade deep into his chest. He cried out "Help me, my dear friend! Please God, help me!" His secretary Catherine Evrard now rushed into the room to find Corday standing over Marat’s body. She had made no effort to escape and the guards who quickly followed took her prisoner while a physician who was also present tried to revive him but to no avail.
It transpired at her trial that she was a Royalist who had many Girondin friends. She was a revolutionary she declared but one who wished to see a Constitutional Monarchy. She blamed Marat she said, for the death of so many of her friends and even some of her relatives. When asked if she felt any remorse for her terrible crime she replied, "I killed one man to save the lives of a hundred thousand".
On 17 July 1793, Charlotte Corday went to the guillotine.
Paris was plunged into a period of deep mourning for their hero as the people thronged onto the streets of to witness Marat's funeral cortege as it passed by. The Deputies of the National Assembly likewise turned out in force at his funeral in a very public display of grief that no doubt hid their sighs of relief behind a flood of crocodile tears.
The Marquis de Sade wrote a eulogy while the artist Jacques-Louis David produced a piece of revolutionary propaganda in his ‘Death of Marat’ which the man himself would have been proud.
Marat’s remains were then interred in the sacred environs of the Pantheon.
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