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Jean Paul Marat: His Life

The greatest of all revolutionary journalists [1] Jean-Paul Marat was born on May 24th, 1743 in a small place named Boudry, not far from Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, a subject of the King of Prussia.

His father, a Sardinian born and former catholic priest had given up the frock to seek refuge in Calvinist Switzerland and converted to Protestantism. There and then he had married a young woman whose Protestant grand-parents had fled France to escape religious persecutions.

A learned man, thanks to his religious training, Mr. Marat earned his family's living by teaching languages and drawing patterns for printed cotton fabric. He thus managed to have three of his nine children educated at Neuchâtel College. Among those fortunate three was our future revolutionary.

When he reached his 16th year, Jean-Paul Marat left Switzerland for Bordeaux, in France, to try and make a living for himself. He stayed three years there, as the private tutor of a rich ship owner's children. Nayrac was their name. Some hold it that while living at the Nayrac mansion, he attended lessons at Bordeaux's Faculty of Medicine.

However that may be, he left in 1762 for Paris, where he was to live the three following years. But, as he himself put it in one of his writings: wishing to avoid the dangers of misbehavior and to seriously study in sciences, he decided to leave the French capital and make for England. He was then 22 years of age and it is likely that in the beginnings he did like daddy and taught languages to earn his daily bread. What is sure is that he endeavoured to acquire a wide command of literature and medicine. One may add that during the ten years he spent in Great Britain, he did not concern himself with literature and science only. He also was a close and passionate observer of social and political life, and he soon started to draw his own conclusions as to the events that were then stirring up the country. These he was to express in one of his most famous works : The Chains of Slavery, written in English and published in 1774.

Let us briefly sum up his British peregrination.

Around 1770, we know that he went to live in Newcastle, as a veterinary. At the end of 1772, he returned to London where he opened a medical consulting room and published his Essay on the Human Soul.

In 1775, he gave his Essay on Gleets, and in 1776, An Inquiry into a Singular Disease of Eyes, on presbyopia.

It is on June 30th, 1775, that he was made a doctor in medicine at Saint Andrew University, Scotland.

About the end of 1776 or the beginning of 1777 however, he sailed to France where he was going to settle for good. Explaining why, this is what he was to write on Nov.20, 1783 to his friend Roume de Saint-Laurent : «After ten years spent in London and Edimburgh, dedicated to all kinds of studies and scientific pursuit, I came back to Paris. Several patients of a distinguished rank who had been abandoned by their doctors and whom I had restored to health insisted, together with my friends, on my settling in the capital. I yielded to their wishes. They had foretold a happy future. I met but outrages, sorrows and tribulations.» [2]

Among those patients of a distinguished rank abandoned by their doctors, we may count the Marquise de l'Aubespine, spouse to the Marquess of this name, descended from the Duke of Sully, she herself being a niece of the famous Duke of Choiseul, minister of Louis XV.

The Marquise was being carried away by a lungs disease, and her doctors, having given up all hope of saving their patient did not expect her to survive more than 24 hours when Marat was called for and operated what looked like a near miracle. As a consequence, he soon enjoyed a numerous and rich practice, and it is no doubt thanks to the Marquise and her powerful friends that, in June 1777, he was appointed doctor to the regiment of the King's brother's guards.

Marat's social position while attending to the guards of Count d'Artois was comfortable. Being thus relieved of prosaic hunt-for-food care, he then ventured into the field of anatomical experiences, as we learn from this letter written to his English friend William Daly : «If you come to Paris, you will find me in the same lodgings where you visited me the last time you came, but they are more convenient, since I have now two more rooms, which I intend to use solely for dissection.(...) You say that you dislike the idea of innocent animals mangled by the scalpel; my heart is as tender as yours and I do not like more than you do seeing poor creatures suffer; but it would be impossible to understand the secret, astonishing and inexplicable marvels of the human body if one did not try to catch nature at work, and this cannot be achieved without doing some harm for a lot of good : it is only thus that one can become the benefactor of mankind.»

Marat's activities at the time however, were not limited to vivisection, for he also carried out research work on electricity, fire and optics, which he put in writing (1778) in his Discoveries on fire, electricity and light, to be published in 1779. Simultaneously - that is in the same year 1778 - he wrote another work of a quite different kind : his Plan of Criminal Legislation, through which, regardless of his priviledged situation, he sternly criticized the system in vigour. This was to be followed by his Physical Research on Fire (1780), Physical Research on Electricity (1782), and an essay on medical electricity, prized on August 6th, 1783 by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Rouen, that was published the next year. In 1784, he also published his Elementary Notions in Optics. By 1787, his New Translation of Newton's Optics was in print, to be followed, in 1788, by his Academical Essays or New Discoveries on Light, as related to the most important points in Optics.

During this period of scientific pursuit, Marat was in relationship with prominent personalities such as L.A. d'Ambournay, Pilâtre de Rosier, Benjamin Franklin, etc.

The letters he exchanged with his aforementioned friend Roume de Saint-Laurent reveal that around June 1783, the latter was trying to have him named at the head of a Spanish Academy of Sciences. Saint-Laurent introduced his learned friend to Count d'Aranda, the Spanish Ambassador at the French Court; several steps were taken but nothing was to materialize, owing probably to unfavourable interferences.

All that we know is that at the end of 1783, Marat was no more in medical charge of Count d'Artois' guards. It may be that he himself had resigned his position in view of the Spanish venture. But about the same time, his relationship with the de l'Aubespine family had also come to an end and his rich practice was becoming scarce. The Chains of Slavery were obviously not to the French nobility's liking. A bit too subversive for their taste, surely.

Despite his reduced income, Marat went on writing and publishing, as we have seen, until 1787.

In July 1788, he fell so seriously ill that he wrote his last Will and appointed one of his friends his sole legatee. This friend, the famous clock-maker Abraham Louis Bréguet, he commissionned to donate his scientific instruments as well as his notes and manuscripts to the Academy of Sciences, after his death. One month later however, Minister Loménie de Brienne summoned the States General for May 1, 1789, and the dying Marat suddenly came back to life. Here is what he later wrote on the subject : «... I was on my deathbed when a friend, the only one I had allowed to assist me in this last hour, told me of the States General convocation : this event made such a strong impression on me that it made me fall in a salutary fit; my courage revived and the first use I made of it was to give my co-citizens a token of my devotion : I wrote Offering to the Country.»

From this day, Marat threw himself restored body and soul into the Revolution and fought its enemies with merciless and ceaseless energy until the day of his assassination.

Marat enjoyed an incredible working power and his sheer honesty equalled his total lack of materialistic ambitions. He also gave proof of an astounding boldness as far as his own safety was concerned, for he never hesitated, from the very first days of the Revolution, to publicly reveal the misdoings of the potents, such for instance as the famous Necker, Minister of Finances, against whom he wrote and published two pamphlets, one of 69 pages; one of 40 pages.

On September 12, 1789, the first number of his first newspaper saw the light : its name Le Publiciste parisien («The Parisian Publicist») was changed no more than five days later into the legendary L'Ami du Peuple («The Friend of the People»). From 1789 to 1793 Marat issued 914 numbers of this paper, a veritable weapon with which he relentlessly fought anyone who tried to slow or stop the progress of the Revolution that gave the world The Rights of Man and Citizen.

Often compelled to hide and even to seek shelter in momentary exile (in England, for instance, where he went in march 1790 and stayed three months), he never stopped writing and printing this paper that was to make him so popular.

It is impossible, in such a brief survey, to give a fair account of his political works - more than 10.000 pages [3] - , to describe the haps and mishaps of his life or to record the attacks he had to suffer from July 1789 to his murder in July 1793. Let us just quote a few lines from one of the above-mentioned pamphlets against Necker. It is entitled Dénonciation faite au Tribunal du public, par M. Marat, l'ami du peuple, contre M. Necker, premier ministre des finances («Denunciation against Mr. Necker, First Minister of Finances, made by Mr. Marat, the Friend of the People, in presence of the Public's Court»)

« Since I denounced Mr.Necker, the public has been flooded with writings in which the First Minister of Finances is shamelessly toadied and I pitilessly vilified by vendors of insults and libels. In such a kind of war one feels only too well how prodigiously the odds are against a man who earns lis life though hard work, in favour of a man who holds authority, who bestows offices and who owns a fortune of 14 to 15 millions.

Be it as it may, my principles are well-known, my morals are well-known and my way of living is well-known; thus I shall not stoop to combat cowardly murderers who worm their way in the dark to stab me. Let the honest man turn up who has anything to reproach me with, and if ever I disobeyed the laws of the sternest virtue, I beg him to publish the proofs of my dishonour. I would end this article right here if it were insignificant to the cause of liberty that the public be not taken in by the tricks that are used to instigate prejudice against their incorruptible defensor.

As my pen had made some sensation, the public enemies, who are also mine, have rumoured that it was corrupt, which owing to the ways adopted by most of our time's literary people was not too difficult to make believe to whoever had not read me. But one has but to cast a glance at my writings to satisfy oneself that I am maybe the only author beyond suspicion since J.J. [Jean-Jacques Rousseau]. And to whom I pray should I have sold myself ? - Ist it to the National Assembly, against whom I so many times protested, whose many a fatal decree I attacked and whom I so often reminded of their duties ? - Is it to the Crown whose odious usurpations and dangerous prerogatives I always fought ? - Is it to the Ministry, that I always presented as the eternal enemy of the People and whose members I denounced as traitors to the country ? - Is it to the princes whose scandalous state I would have restrained, whose expenditure I would have reduced to the simple income of appanage and whom I have asked that they be tried when culprits ? - Is it to the members of the Church whose dissoluteness and ridiculous claims I was never tired of blaming, and whose properties I have demanded to be restituted to the poor ? - Is it to the nobility, whose unjust pretentions and iniquitous privileges I have criticized, whose perfidious aims I have unveiled ? - Is it to the Parliaments whose ambitious views, dangerous maxims and revolting excesses I have pointed out, whose abolition I have demanded ? - Is it to the financiers, the depredators, the extortioners, the leeches that bleed the country, whom I asked that they be made to belch out their ill-gotten gains ? - Is it to the capitalists, the bankers, the stock-jobbers whom I have hounded like public pests ? - Is it to the Municipality whose secret plans I disclosed, whose dangerous purposes I unveiled, whose felonies I unearthed and who had me arrested ? - Is it to the districts, whose alarming composition I underlined and proposed that they be reformed ? - Is it to the National Militia, whom I attacked for their stupid doings and their stupid trust in suspect officers ? - It leaves but the People [4] whose rights I constantly defended and in favour of whom my zeal is limitless. But the People buys no one, and besides why buy me ? I am wholly devoted to it. Will they incriminate me for giving myself ?

[...] Hey ! For whose sake did I make these mortal foes ? For the People, this poor People exhausted with misery, forever vexed, forever crushed, forever oppressed, who has no offices or pensions to give. It is for my having espoused the People's cause that the wicked persecute me and that I am under order of arrest like a bandit. I feel no regret though, and what I did I would do again. You, vile men who have no other passion in life than the greed for gold, do not ask what interest urged me; I vindicated humanity, I will leave a name and yours is made to perish.

[...] I believe that I have said enough to make the noise of such a lie fade shamefully away; it is the only one that could have harmed the cause I defend. As to the others, let my slanderers feel free, I will not waste on them the time I owe the Country.»

This is dated January 18, 1790. One may guess what Marat had to meet with as time went on and his determination grew.

In the month of september 1792, he was made a deputy by the people of Paris. His election did not change in the least his way of living. Disdainful of worldliness, ascetic in habits, he never did anything else but fight the enemies of the Republic, either by addressing the National Assembly or by way of his paper.

The Girondists, whose anti-revolutionary tactics he had unmasked, manoeuvred to have him accused of some invented crimes. The trial took place on April 24, 1793. Thanks to his own eloquence and to the truth of facts, he was unanimously declared not guilty and so escaped the guillotine. His release turned to a triumph and he was carried shoulder high by his friends and a crowd of admirers when he left the redoubtable Tribunal Révolutionnaire.

A little more than one month later (June 2, 1793), the Assembly voted the proscription of all the 29 Girondist deputies. Part of these outlaws sought refuge in Caen. There, one of the female inhabitants consorted with them. She was 25, the daughter of a penniless aristocrat; her emigrated brother served at the Royal Bourbon; another brother and one uncle were to join the Royalists armed by the english government who landed at Quiberon in 1795. Her name was Charlotte Corday.

Probably influenced by them, she stepped into the coach to Paris (July 9, 1793) for the purpose of finding and killing Marat.

Four days later (July 13), having bought a knife, she knocked at his door and insisted on seeing him in person «to inform against the runaway Girondists». Marat, who suffered a violent eczema, tried to find some relief by working almost all day in a cooling bath. While he wrote down the names she dictated, Charlotte stabbed him in the sub-clavicular artery.

Arrested and submitted to trial, she was condemned to death on July 17 and executed that same day.

Amid the general grief of all true Republicans, Marat was buried in the garden of the Club des Cordeliers (formerly a Franciscan Friars convent). The government had this epitaph carved on his grave :

JULY 13, 1793

Memorial ceremonies were held all over the country; David painted his famous masterpiece representing Marat, dead, in his bath, 58 localities changed their name into Marat; etc.

On September 21, 1794, after an usher of the Convention had read the decree bestowing immortality on him, Marat's body was placed into the Pantheon, but soon afterwards, under pressure of the Thermidorian reaction, the decapitated Convention voted that famous citizens could not be admitted into the Pantheon until ten years after their death, and so Marat's remains were expelled, to be buried in the nearby Saint Genevieve cemetery. A few years later, the cemetery was desecrated and put to another purpose.

An inventory of Marat's possessions, ordered upon his death by the Commune of Paris states that apart from his furniture, only one assignat [5] worth 25 sous was found. His wife, Simone Evrard, and his sister Albertine continued to live together in a state of poverty nearing misery. They made watch needles for a living.

Ever since the victory of the Counter-Revolution, Marat has been persistently not just attacked but basely slandered by all and sundry. Among the rich and the potents, the nobility and the gentry whose pet aversion he always was never miss an occasion of re-lynching the black sheep post mortem. Decency with some even of high rank is often more a pretence than a fact.

Among those few who spent their life maintaining Marat's memory alive and respected is one François Chèvremont (1824-1907), who called himself «Marat's bibliographer» and is the author of two important works on the great revolutionary. Also a passionate collector, his precious and very important collection of books and documents of Marat, was donated in 1898 to the British Library of London.

[1] According to Mr. Gérard Walter, in his work : Hebert et le Père Duchesne, Edit. J.B. Janin, Paris, 1946, page :38. one of his biographers and a learned specialist in the history of the press.

[2] This was a clear hint at the unpleasant dealings he had with some members of the French Academy of Sciences who snubbed or boycotted his works and/or discoveries.

[3] Besides several biographies and historical studies of which he is the subject, his Complete Political Works have been recently published in ten volumes by Pole-Nord editions, Brussels.

[4] To me the word people is almost always synonymous to nation. In this case, I mean the nation, its numerous enemies being excepted. (Marat's note)

[5] Revolutionary paper money

The «Association Jean-Paul Marat» was founded to make those who so desire acquainted with Marat and his works, in the firm belief that two centuries later, some of his precepts are not out of date.

To its members, the Association is willing to send on simple request Marat's complete bibliography (biographies, essays or general documentation), as well as photocopies of any of Marat's politics writings or piece of information, all this in French - The Chains of slavery, edition 1774, also in English - at strict cost price, and to send by usual mail.

All correspondence through e-mail.


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Last modified: Apr 03, 2001, /english/senie.html