Jean-Paul Marat: The Great Denunciator

He was a Hero of the Revolution who declared that society had to be purged of its impurities and that The Terror had to be waged in perpetuity, for him there could never be enough killing. He was – The Great Denunciator.

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. He coined the phrase Enemy of the People and all those who were not for him were against him, those who opposed The Terror would be its next victim.

People feared him and were known to shake in his presence and even now his name sends a chill down the spine.

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 were treated as outcasts and so he experienced discrimination as a part of everyday life from an early age.

He was a sulky and moody child who had few if any friends, and leaving home at the first possible opportunity aged sixteen he disappeared for the next ten years from the historical record before emerging again in Newcastle, England.

It would appear during this period however, that he had already established a reputation as a respected physician who had also turned his mind to science. Whilst in England he published his first scientific and philosophical pamphlet 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. He soon acquired a number of aristocratic patients who pleased with the treatments he prescribed recommended him to others until he was almost the unofficial Court Physician.

As a result he also became very wealthy.

But he never really considered himself to be a physician but 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 and was even visited on a number of 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 crude and 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 never one to forget a sleight.

On 14 July 1789, the Bastille fell and what was a movement for constitutional change would soon become a revolution, a development that Marat would enthusiastically embrace.

With his career as a scientist stalled he now turned his hand to journalism and in September 1789, founded his own newspaper L’Ami du Peuple in which he attacked all the old institutions of authority and deference in particular the Royal Family and the Clergy.

L’Ami du Peuple quickly became popular with the poor and dispossessed of Paris who lapped up its denunciation of parasitical aristocrats, hypocritical priests, greedy merchants, food hoarders, counter-revolutionaries 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 laid 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’Amici 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 listing in the pages of his paper those he deemed traitors and demanding their immediate execution, moreover, he called upon the people to demand their execution too. 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.

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.

The filth and dampness of the sewers had served 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 and in early 1792 demanded the deaths of almost the entire Legislative Assembly.

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.”

By directly appealing to the mob he could hold the politicians effectively hostage and with every blood curdling cry for the death of traitors his popularity soared and theirs diminished – he was the clarion of the people.

In September 1792, he was elected to the recently constituted National Convention where he was careful to remain staunchly independent taking a contrary view to almost every other expressed. For example, when the trial of King Louis XVI began in January 1793, Marat declared him not guilty of any crime committed during his reign, but thought he should die anyway.

With the King executed he now turned his ire upon ruling Girondin Faction that dominated the Legislature, this was a dangerous move for both parties but it was the Girondins, fearing for their lives, who struck first. They charged Marat with treason and on 24 April he was arrested and forced to stand trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Marat remained unbowed before his accusers defending himself with vigour and rounding upon them declaring 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 was greeted by thousands of cheering Parisians milling outside.

Marat was now more popular than ever – 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.

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.

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The Terror had begun.

But Marat was not one to sit back and allow others to do his dirty work for him. He could never be satisfied that there was enough blood and the volume of his writing increased and 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.”

His murderous intent only increased as his own illness worsened, and the scrofula that scarred and discoloured his skin and left it red raw was becoming unbearable, so much so that he spent most of his days soaking in a medicinal bath.

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On 13 July 1793, an oppressively hot day that had seen Marat soaking in his bathtub writing letters since early morning he was informed that there was a young woman by the name of Charlotte Corday who had important information and wished an audience. He was busy and sent her away but when she returned later he agreed that she could be admitted to his presence.

Corday told Marat 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 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! Please God, help me!”

His guards rushed into the room and dragged him from his bath, but he was already dead.

Corday, who had made no attempt to escape, was promptly arrested.

It transpired at her trial that she had previously been a Royalist who had become a Girondin; she was a revolutionary but one who would have liked to have seen a Constitutional Monarchy; she blamed Marat for the death of many of her friends and even some of her relatives.

When questioned she showed no remorse for what she had done:

“I killed one man to save the lives of a hundred thousand.”

On 17 July 1793, Charlotte Corday went to the guillotine – Marat’s last victim.

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Paris was plunged into a period of great mourning as the people thronged onto its streets to witness Marat’s funeral cortege as it passed by; the Deputies of the National Convention 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 soaring in its rhetoric, unstinting in its praise; and bereft in its tone; While the artist Jean-Louis David produced a piece of revolutionary propaganda of which Marat himself would have been proud.

His remains were then interred in the sacred ground of the Pantheon.

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