1902 Encyclopedia > Jean Paul Marat

Jean Paul Marat
French revolutionary journalist

JEAN PAUL MARAT (1743-1793), a famous revolutionary leader, was the eldest child of Jean Paul Mara of Cagliari and Louise Cabrol of Geneva, and was born at Boudry, in the principality of Neuchatel, on May 24, 1743. His father was a doctor of some learning, who had abandoned his country and his religion, and had married a Swiss Protestant. It was he that laid the basis of the young Jean Paul's scientific learning, and the son at the same time imbibed the doctrines of Rousseau. On his mother's death in 1759 he set out on his travels, and spent two years at Bordeaux in the study of medicine, whence he moved to Paris, where he made use of his knowledge of his two favourite sciences, optics and electricity, to subdue an obstinate disease of the eyes. After some years in Paris he went to Holland, the retreat of philosophers, where all the works of the Encyclopedists were printed for the French market, and then on to London, where he settled in Church Street, Soho, a fashionable district, and practised his profession. In 1773, at the age of thirty, he made his first appearance as an author with a Philosophical Essay on Man, being an Attempt to Investigate the Principles and Laws of the Reciprocal Influence of the Soul on the Body, of which only two volumes are extant, though at the end of the, second volume he speaks of a third. The book shows a wonderful knowledge of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish philosophers, and directly attacks Helvetius, who had in his L'Esprit declared a knowledge of science unnecessary for a philosopher. Marat, as he now began to call himself, declares that physiology alone can solve the problems of the connexion between soul and body, and proposes the existence of a nervous fluid as the true solution. In 1774 he published a political work, TJie Chains of Slavery, which appeared without his name, and was intended to influence constituencies to return popular members, and reject the king's friends, with innumerable examples from classical and modern history of the ways in which kings enslaved their peoples. The book was too late to have any influence on the general election, and was got up in a style too costly for a wide circulation, but its author declared later that it procured him an honorary membership of the patriotic societies of Carlisle, Berwick, and Newcastle. He remained devoted to his profession, and in 1775 published in London a little Essay on Gleets, price Is. 6d., of which no copy is to be found, and in Amsterdam a French translation of the first two volumes of his Essay on Man. In this year, 1775, he visited Edinburgh, and on the recommendation of certain Edinburgh physicians, was, on June 30, made an M.D. of St Andrews University. On his return to London he published an Enquiry into the Nature, Cause, and, Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes, with a dedication to the Boyal Society. In the same year there appeared the third volume of the French edition of the Essay on Man, which reached Ferney, and exasperated Voltaire, by its onslaught on Helvetius, into a sharp attack, that only made the young author more conspicuous. His fame as a clever doctor was now great, and on June 24, 1777, the Comte d'Artois, afterwards Charles X. of France, " owing to the report he had heard of the good and moral life, and of the knowledge and experience in the art of medicine, of J. P. Marat," made him by brevet physician to his guards, with 2000 livres a year and allowances.

Marat was soon in great request as a coiirt doctor among the aristocracy ; and even Brissot, in his Mémoires, admits his influence in the scientific world of Paris. The next years were much occupied with scientific work, especially the study of heat, light, and electricity, on which he presented memoirs to the Académie des Sciences, but the Academicians were horrified at his temerity in differing from Newton, and, though acknowledging his industry, would not receive him among them. His experiments greatly interested Benjamin Franklin, who used to visit him ; and Goethe always regarded his rejection by the Academy as a glaring instance of scientific despotism. In 1780 he had published at Neuchatel without his name a Plan de Législation Criminelle, founded on the humane principles established by Beccaria. In April 1786 he resigned his court appointment. The results of his leisure were in 1787 a new translation of Newton's Optics, and in 1788 his Mémoires Académiques, ou Nouvelles Découvertes sur la Lumière,

His scientific life was now over, his political life was to begin ; in the notoriety of that political life his great scientific and philosophical knowledge was to be forgotten, the high position he had given up denied, and he himself to be scoffed at as an ignorant charlatan, who had sold quack medicines about the streets of Paris, and been glad to earn a few sous in the stables of the Comte d'Artois. In 1788 the notables had met, and advised the assembling of the states-general. The elections were the cause of a flood of pamphlets, of which one, Offrande à la Patrie, was by Marat, and, though now forgotten, dwelt on much the same points as the famous brochure of the Abbé Siéyès. When the states-general met, Marat's interest was as great as ever, and in June 1789 he published a supplement to his Offrande, followed in July by La Constitution, in which he embodies his idea of a constitution for France, and in September by his Tableau des Vices de la Constitution d'Angleterre, which he presented to the assembly. The latter alone deserves remark. The assembly was at this time full of Anglomaniacs, who desired to establish in France a constitution exactly similar to that of England. Marat, who had lived in England, had seen that England was at this time being ruled by an oligarchy using the forms of liberty, which, while pretending to represent the country, was really being gradually mastered by the royal power. His heart was now all in politics ; and, feeling that his energies needed a larger scope than occasional tracts afforded, he decided to start a paper. At first appeared a single number of the Moniteur patriote, followed on September 12 by the first number of the Publiciste parisien, which on September 16 took the title of L'Ami du Peuple, and was to absorb his future life.

The life of Marat now becomes part of the history of the French Revolution. From the beginning to the end he stood alone. He was never attached to any party ; the tone of his mind was to suspect whoever was in power ; and therefore no historian has tried to defend him, and all state the facts about him with a strong colouring. About his paper, the incarnation of himself, the first thing to be said is that the man always meant what he said ; no poverty, no misery or persecution, could keep him quiet ; he was perpetually crying—"nous sommes trahis."

Further, the suspicious tone of his mind extended to his paper, and he made it play the part of the lion's mouth at Venice : whoever suspected any one had only to denounce him to the Ami du Peuple, and the denounced was never let alone till he was proved innocent or guilty. He began by attacking the most powerful bodies in Paris,—the corps municipal, with Bailly at their head, and the court of the Châtelet,—and after a struggle found them too strong for him, and fled to London (January 1790). There he wrote his Dénonciation contre Necker, and in May dared to return to Paris and continue the Ami du Peuple. He was embittered by persecution, and continued his vehement attacks against all in power—against Bailly, against La Fayette, and at last, after the day of the Champs du Mars, against the king himself. All this time he was hiding in cellars and sewers, where he was attacked by a horrible skin disease, tended only by the woman Simonne Evrard, who remained true to him. The end of the constituent assembly he heard of with joy, and with bright hopes (soon dashed by the behaviour of the legislative) for the future, when almost despairing in December 1791 he fled once more to London, where he wrote his École du Citoyen. In April 1792, summoned again by the Cordeliers, he returned to Paris, and published No. 627 of the Ami. The war was now the question, and Marat saw clearly enough that it was not sought for the sake of France, that it was to serve the purposes of the royalists and the Girondins, who thought of themselves alone. The early days of the war being unsuccessful, the proclamation of the duke of Brunswick excited all hearts ; who could go to save France on the frontiers and leave Paris in the hands of his enemies 1 Marat, like Danton, foresaw the massacres of September. After the events of August 10th he took his seat at the commune, and demanded a tribunal to try the royalists in prison. No tribunal was formed, and the massacres in the prisons were the inevitable result. In the elections to the convention, Marat was elected seventh out of the twenty-four deputies for Paris, and for the first time took his seat in an assembly of the nation. At the declaration of the republic, he closed his Ami du Peuple, and commenced a new paper, the Journal de la République Française, which was to contain his sentiments as its predecessor had done, and to be always on the watch. In the assembly Marat had no party ; he would always suspect and oppose the powerful, refuse power for himself. After the battle of Valmy, Dumouriez was the greatest man in France ; he could almost have restored the monarchy, yet Marat did not fear to go uninvited to the tragedian Talma's, and there accuse Dumouriez in the presence of his friends of want of patriotism. His unpopularity in the assembly was extreme, yet he insisted on speaking on the question of the king's trial, declared it unfair to accuse Louis for anything anterior to his acceptance of the constitution, and, though implacable towards the king, as the one man who must die for the people's good, he would not allow Malesherbes, the king's counsel, to be attacked in his paper, and speaks of him as a "sage et respectable vieillard." The king dead, the months from January to May were spent in an unrelenting struggle between Marat and the Girondins. Marat despised the ruling party because they had suffered nothing for the republic, because they talked too much of their feelings and their antique virtue, because they had for their own purposes plunged the country into war ; while the Girondins hated Marat as representative of that rough red republicanism which would not yield itself to a Boman republic, with themselves for tribunes, orators, and generals. The Girondins conquered at first in the convention, and ordered that Marat should be tried before the Tribunal Bevolutionnaire. But their victory ruined them, for Marat was acquitted on April 24, and returned to the convention with the people at his back. Their fall was a veritable victory for Marat. But it was his last. The skin disease he had contracted in the subterranean haunts was rapidly closing his life ; he could only ease his pain by sitting in a warm bath, where he wrote his journal, and accused the Girondins, who were trying to raise France against Paris. Sitting thus on the 13th July he heard in the evening a young woman begging to be admitted to see him, saying that she brought news from Caen, where the escaped Girondins were trying to rouse Normandy. He ordered her to be admitted, asked her the names of the deputies then at Caen, and, after writing their names, said, "They shall be soon guillotined," when the young girl, whose name was Charlotte Corday, stabbed him to the heart. Grand was the funeral given to the man who had suffered so much for the republic. Whatever his political ideas, two things shine clearly out of the mass of prejudice which has shrouded the name of Marat—that he was a man of great attainments and acknowledged position, who sacrificed fortune, health, life itself, to his convictions, and that he was no bête feroce, no factious demagogue, but a man, and a humane man too, who could not keep his head cool in stirring times, who was rendered suspicious by constant persecution, and who has been regarded as a personification of murder, because he published every thought in his mind, while others only vented their anger and displayed their suspicions in spoken words.

The only works of Marat not mentioned in the text are Les aventures du Comte Potowski, a poor novel, which must have been written in his early days, and which was discovered in MS. and published by Bibliophile Jacob ; two brochures on a balloon accident, 1785 ; Les Charlatans Modernes, ou Lettres sur le Charlatanisme académique, 1791 ; Le Junius Français, journal politique, June 2 to June 24, 1790 ; translation of Chains of Slavery, with fifty pages on French history prefixed, year 1.

On Marat's life should be read L'ami du périple, Skizzen aus Marat's journalistichen Leben, Hamburg, 1846 ; A. Bougeart, Marat, l'ami du peuple, 2 vols., 1864 ; G. Piazzoli, Marat, l'amico del Popólo e la Bivoluzione, Milan, 1874 ; A. Vermorel, Œuvres de J. P. Marat, l'ami du peuple, recueillies et annotées, 1869 ; F. Chevremont, Marat, Index du Bibliophile, &e., 1876 ; Id., Placards de Marat, 1877 ; and particularly his Jean Paul Marat, esprit politique, accompagné de sa vie scientifique, politique, et privée, 2 vols., 1881. (H. M. S.)

The above article was written by: H. Morse Stephens, author of The History of the French Revolution.

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