Reflecting on the Life of a Revolutionary: Jean-Paul Marat

By Mallary A. Silva
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

Jean-Paul Marat, notorious for his inspiring yet aggressive publications during the French Revolution, was one of the most influential characters of the late 18th century. Indeed, his radical publications helped induce the violent manner of the Revolution.

Common analysis of Marat is predominantly derived in his own radical written works, however there is also speculation about his character from “blind admirers and passionate enemies.”1 Marat elicits absolute judgments from his contemporaries and revisionists in regards to his disposition and his role during the French Revolution.2 Marat was considered to be “The Friend of the People,” synonymous with the title of his most prevalent pamphlet entitled, L’Ami du Peuple.3 The degree of the people’s veneration was validated after his assassination in July of 1793.4 There is little ambiguity in regards to Marat’s convictions; his publications illustrate his concrete beliefs despite his consistent call for bloodshed. “…I want neither position nor pension…My only ambition is to assist in saving the people: let it be free and happy and all my wishes will be fulfilled.”5

Marat was born in Boudry, then a Prussian principality, on May 24, 1743.6 He was one of nine children; his father, Jean Mara, was a well-educated Frenchman who was originally a Huguenot, which created limited employment opportunities due to his religious affiliation.7 Jean-Paul Marat was described as, “…a horribly ugly little man, almost a dwarf…”8 His lack of hygiene has been mentioned in many descriptions. His character has been described as a man “…consumed with hatred and envy.”9 He faced much rejection both academically and occupationally.

Jean-Paul Marat

Marat’s young adult life eventually became diverse in residency and education. He left home at sixteen with dreams of large success. Marat lived in England, France, Holland, and Italy.10 He became a self-taught physician and eventually became so reputable as a physician that he was demanded amongst the French aristocracy.11 With Marat’s medical background he wrote often on science as well as politics and enlightenment ideals. Marat acquired influences from the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau in regards to his scientific research, and Voltaire criticized his Chains of Slavery publication.12 Marat began making a name for himself in the public eye, which was a desire of Marat’s since a young age.13 Some analysts of Marat explain that before recognition was acquired he held resentments towards anyone with money or status due to the rejection he faced during much of his young adult life.14 This also is thought to be a factor in his ability to relate to the poor and oppressed. 15

Although Marat was constantly pursing research all over Europe, in 1776 he became fairly settled in Paris (until numerous exiles throughout the Revolution).16 When Marat sensed political change during the calling of the Estates General, he postponed his scientific career to devote himself entirely to politics, and to the cause of the Third Estate.17 Marat had always been involved in politics; he originally was in favor of a dictatorship, and later would be in favor of a Revolutionary Tribunal.18 Marat was mainly inspired by the publication of Abbé Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate? Marat’s legacy from the Revolution is determined by his numerous publications and his unconditional support from the Third Estate, in particular the San Culottes.19

The publication that Marat is best known for was created in 1789 entitled, L’Ami du Peuple. The motivation for his career in journalism, and the birth of this publication was to advocate for the poor and “champion” their cause.20 This inspiring cause paralleled his ambitions to promote revolutionary activism and magnetized the people’s support.21 The future of the French government and the future of the people were the consistent themes of his articles overshadowed by his inspiring and passionate use of language:

A mass of club members, of talkers and vain petitioners who hide at the moment of crisis, leaving their fellow citizens to be slaughtered…LIBERTY WILL ROLL ALL THE TYRANTS OF THE UNIVERSE IN THE DUST. People: these are the heroes who should be taking up your defense and seeing to your triumph. As if a few ridiculous phrases were enough to crush the countless enemies of freedom. O foolish nation! Why haven’t you renounced your vain babbling and followed the advice of your friend, armed yourself with rope, with daggers, and ended the days of those of your defeated enemies who would have the audacity to rise up again.22

Marat’s publications were engaging which is a product of most propaganda. His words and phrase choices would mirror those of twentieth century dictators, “…enemies of liberty…” and “…evils that afflict our Fatherland” parallel speeches of Hitler and Stalin.23 Marat inspired nationalism through words such as “fatherland” and “liberty.” He lacked vague content; he targeted the enemies of France as anyone that was against his cause. Ironically, Marat forewarns in June of 1793 to not let any dangerous publications circulate.24 However, as Marat’s works progressed, so did his aggression; Marat’s rage which seeped from his pen was distributed to the masses and instigated a violence as apart of a greater movement that the world had yet to see.

Many common themes highlighted in most of Marat’s works including L’Ami du Peuple which later became the French Republic’s executive gazette around 1793 entitled, Journal de la République Française, are based on poverty, famine, and both foreign and civil war. An excerpt from Journal de la République Française, illustrates Marat’s objectives for this particular publication:

The journal of the Friend of the People is too will known for me to give a detailed prospectus of the paper that replaces it. The unveiling of plots, the unmasking of traitors, the defense of the rights of the people, giving an account of the work of the Convention, following its march. Recalling to principles those of its members of stray from them, and consecrating my lights on the new constitution that will be given to France: this is the object of this journal.25

There is a sense of security that comes with Marat’s promises. It is easy to see how he obtained such a massive following. The promise to defend the rights of the common man as well as to keep the people informed of the progress of the Convention are evident reasons why the people would put their trust in Marat. Marat would also listen to any San Culottes that approached him and was known for giving away his money to feed those poorer than himself.26 Marat was without a doubt a man of the people. The promise of a new constitution gave the people hope for reform and security in France, especially in Paris. The most significant line of this particular excerpt derives from the second sentence, “…unveiling of plots the unmasking of traitors,” this perspective would be the dominating force for leaders such as Marat, Robespierre, and the Jacobin party during the Reign of Terror, which many historians claim did not begin until 1793.27 Many of his passages, like the previous, that were published in 1792 foreshadow the violent nature of the Revolution after 1793, illustrating his role as a possible instigator on behalf of Marat’s writings. 

France was not entirely composed of Marat admirers, some critics called him mad. Marat was blamed for a lot of the violence that had been breaking out in France, specifically the September Massacres that occurred in Paris. According to biographer Ernest Belfort, Bax, Marat did not directly initiate the event, however his role and enthusiasm for the event is questioned. Bax initially defends Marat in his biography Jean-Paul Marat: The People’s Friend by stating, “The Sections of Paris had begun to act of themselves. Marat and his Committee of Supervision at most took the control of the movement which had already begun spontaneously…”28 Bax reinforces his stance on Marat’s influence by writing, “…to prevent or to dam the powerful movement which had now seized the whole of Revolutionary Paris was beyond the power of any man.”29 Bax has been criticized for his lack of impartial publications on Marat; Bax’s research defines Marat as a hero.30 According to historian Sarel Eimerl, “Somebody must have organized them and almost certainly that person was the ferocious dwarf like Marat.”31 The September Massacres still holds uncertainty in regards to it’s beginning yet is still debated amongst historians as to whether Marat was the instigating force.

With Marat’s known beliefs and his antagonistic publications, speculation about Marat’s sanity transpired, slanders had been made in regards to Marat’s character, which he immediately addresses in the first issue of Journal de la République Française. This excerpt not only illustrates the accusations against Marat, but his use of what has been called a “fiery language” and his sense of self worth:

I broke this murderous arm in the hands of my slanderers, but they only stopped accusing me of venality in order to accuse me of rage; cowards, the blind, scoundrels and traitors have joined together to depict me as a complete madman…Three hundred predictions proved by the facts of the revolution have avenged me for these insults… the mad patriot now passes for a prophet.32

Marat’s writing style flows in a way of elegance yet is powerful due to his word choices such as, “murderous” and “rage.” This excerpt mirrors many of Marat’s other publications in regards to his repetitious theme of blame. In many of Marat’s publications “enemies of the fatherland,” “traitors,” and conspirators are all targeted as enemies of France and the people.33 Marat’s publication not only instigated the violence during the Terror, but also the paranoia, which was the foundation of this violence. Every crisis needed a scapegoat, and soon the indistinctness of who the alleged enemies were would be uncovered by wrongful accusations and political warfare followed by an engagement with the guillotine. This idea that there were enemies of the Revolution within the borders of France was not only formed by Marat, but further fueled an already disastrous experiment with freedom with the propagandist tool of paranoia. Robespierre would carry out this ideology even after Marat’s death.34

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