Sunday, July 24, 2011

July Anniversaries: Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, 13 July 1793

On 13 July 1793, the counter-revolutionary Charlotte Corday stabbed to death the French Revolutionary radical Jean-Paul Marat. The unusual setting—his bathtub—and its iconic representation in the famous tribute by Jacques-Louis David have contributed to making this one of the best-known assassination scenes, even among those otherwise ignorant of the deeper history.

Corday was convinced she was saving her country from a bloodthirsty monster. Although most historians have long ceased to endorse such a simplistic view of Marat, he certainly gave his enemies plenty of ammunition. He repeatedly called for a dictatorship as the only solution to the nation's problems, saying that the alternative was fifty years of anarchy. Above all, he was known for his violent language, which many saw as a call to actual violence.

Already in the spring of 1791, two years before the so-called "Terror," he demanded a steady stream of executions:
eleven months ago five hundred heads would have sufficed; to-day fifty thousand would be necessary; perhaps five hundred thousand will fall before the end of the year. France will have been flooded with blood, but will not be more free because of it.
As Louis R. Gottschalk, citing this passage in his biographical study, observes:
He generally dealt in round numbers , , , It is doubtful whether Marat ever stopped to realize the significance of the numbers he used. Figures seemed never to have had much meaning for him. When he wished to be emphatic he used an exorbitantly high number; when he wished to be derogatory he used a correspondingly low one. He would demand a certain number of heads at one time, a lower one the next, a higher one the next, and so one, the figures varying from day to day with no continuous progression. . . . Marat himself claimed that his motive for demanding so large a number of executions was to arrest the counter-revolution once and for all. . . . Thus, to him, what others called his thirst for blood was really clemency.
   Moreover, there is good reason to believe that Marat used exaggeration deliberately, in order to create a stronger impression upon his readers.
[Louis R. Gottschalk, Jean Paul Marat, A Study in Radicalism (1927; rpt. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 121-22]
He was also capable of a lighter touch and some wit, as in this comment in the "Debates on the eligibility of Protestants, Actors, Jews and the Executioner for civil and political assemblies...":
...I don’t have the strength to make any observations on the puerile objects with which the National Assembly occupies itself at this moment, when objects of great importance call for its attention. I have even less strength to speak about the monstrous assemblage it made of members who are not eligible for civil and political assemblies.

That which M. l'Abbé Maury has never said anything that was more sensible than his condemnation of the executor of justice; and he has never said anything as profound as in his speech against the Jews; he has never said anything as ridiculous as in his speech in condemnation of actors. Let us forget the executioner. Should such a being occupy the work of the Assembly for even one instant? Should his name even be pronounced? As for the Jews, even if it doesn’t appear that they are going to take up the diverse employments of society, this is not a reason to exclude them. As for actors, the question agitated concerning them only proves the barbarity of our prejudices. They are reproached for the irregularity of their morals. This reproach is laughable when we examine those of their censors. It is a fact that comedians have more sensibility, more delicacy of feeling than most men, fruit of a more careful education. But without exaggerating anything, we don’t fear saying that their morals are those of the century. The least well-bred actor is worth as much as a courtier, and the gayest actress is worth as much as a trollop of the court. And in any case, what could be more ridiculous than to hear a man of the world, an abbot, a prelate, after leaving the arms of an adulterous woman, declaim against the morals of actors! Will we always be barbarians? Will we always be children? Will stupid prejudices always be the rule in our speeches?
(text and translation from the Marat Archive, at
In his journalism and political oratory alike, Marat anticipated the character of some sectors of the blogosphere, which adopt a tone of studied outrage directed against the "mainstream" media and the political "establishment." His followers were loyal because he punctured the pretensions of the privileged and gave voice to the cause of those who felt excluded, as he put it:
of the needy, of those workers who form the sanest the most useful part of the people, without whom society could not exist a single day; of those precious citizens upon whom weigh all the burdens of the state and who enjoy none of its advantages; of those unfortunates who look with disdain upon the scoundrel who grows fat by their sweat and who rudely rebuff the publicans who drink their blood in cups of gold; of those unfortunates who in the midst of the luxury, pomp, and pleasure which the lord who oppresses them enjoys in their presence, have as their share only labor, misery, grief, and hunger.
[cited in Gottschalk, 101]
Immediately following his death, Marat became a revolutionary martyr, and the subject of a veritable cult manifested in official actions and popular adulation alike. Many of Marat's erstwhile revolutionary allies had never been quite comfortable with his language or his personal ambitions, and so, like Che Guevara, he was in some ways a more valuable asset to the Revolution when dead than alive. Here, one of the typical small manifestations of the cult:

medal: "To Marat The People's Friend 1793"; uniface, copper, 22 mm (presumably aftercast?)
Watching the the scandal over phone-hacking in the Murdoch press unfold and the crisis over the US budget and debt-ceiling mount, it becomes just a little bit easier to understand the gut-wrenching resentment and anger that moved Marat to the violent words that won him so many followers. And, watching the horrific reports of terrorist attacks (Norway is the latest, though the facts are just beginning to emerge) one is also reminded that words of violence and hatred can sometimes have consequences.

A fuller account of the assassination and the cult in last year's post.

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"Above all, he was known for his violent language, which many saw as a call to actual violence."

I would say it's a very cautious assessment: after all, what is there more potent than language when calling for violence?

Otherwise: yes, he wasn't a fool. Like Che, who still was somewhat of a fool - at least when it came to self-estimation.