Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter II

Early in the year 1789 Marat published his Offrande à la Patrie, and this may be regarded as the first of that long series of political writings that went so far at once to stimulate and consolidate the course of the Revolution. With this the real life-work of Marat, that which will ever render his name a prominent one in history, may be said to commence.

The Offrande à la Patrie consists of two brochures, the first containing five discourses, the second (published as a supplement) four. It treats of various topics bearing upon the then imminent crisis, urging unity upon the people in the common cause, warning them against corruption, and denouncing the ministers of finance, who, by their malversations, had so powerfully contributed to the ruin of France, an exception being made in favour of Turgot, as the one upright man among them. The pamphlets had a considerable circulation, and gave their author a foot-hold in the political arena.

The next important event we have to record, is Marat’s conduct on the ever memorable 14th of July of the same year, the day of the storming of the Bastille. It is well known that he was present, and took an active part in that event; but as every detail connected with it has been so often recapitulated, it would be superfluous to do more than mention it in this place. We will therefore pass on to the ensuing evening, and see how he acts. A rumour had gained currency towards nightfall to the effect that several battalions of the royal troups were about to enter the city, to fraternise with the populace, and if need be, to fight on their side. The news of this sudden conversion aroused very grave suspicions in the mind of the “people’s friend.” Upon learning that a numerous detachment was already reconnoitering, and having passed through the Quartier St. Honoré, was on its way to the Quartier St. Germain, he, in his character of popular sentinel, went in search, encountering the troops on the Pont Neuf, where a halt was being made to enable their officer to harangue the surrounding crowd, by which they were being enthusiastically cheered. The tone of the officer’s speech, announcing the speedy arrival of the Royal Hussars, Royal German Cavalry, &c., proving anything but calculated to inspire confidence, Marat pressed through the crowd, and seizing the bridle of his horse, begged the commandant of the accompanying civic guard to reassure himself respecting them. This the latter refused to do, calling Marat a dreamer (visionaire), who retorted by calling him an imbecile, and insisting that the cavalry detachment should be at once challenged to dismount and deliver up their arms, as a pledge of fidelity, to be re-delivered as soon as the bona fide nature of the case was made out. The commandant still refusing, Marat turned to the bystanders, and in a loud voice denounced the whole affair as a conspiracy, the intention being to quarter the troops in the city, and under cover of the night to massacre the unsuspecting populace. The horror and consternation which spread amongst the crowd may be well imagined. Ultimately, after being threatened, the commandant did challenge the royal troops in the manner Marat had suggested, and the latter of course declining the proposal, were re-conducted to their own camp sous bon escort. The service rendered on this occasion to the Revolution and humanity can hardly be over estimated. Had the infamous attempt exposed succeeded, a massacre far exceeding those of September three years later must have inevitably resulted.

On the following Sunday morning, on his re-appearance at the Comité des Carmes, of which he was a member, Marat proposed that, under the auspices of the Committee, a journal having for its object a commentary on the current events, should be established, offering himself as editor, at the same time remarking that he felt this to be the way he could best serve the country. His proposition being rejected, and Marat, as he expresses it, feeling his total inaptitude for anything else in the shape of public work, retired; but he shortly afterwards put the project into execution at his own expense, in the form of a journal, entitled Le Moniteur Patriote, though only one number saw the light under his editorship. It was followed in a few days by a pamphlet entitled La Constitution, ou Projet de Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, suivi d’un plan de Constitution juste, sage et libre par l’Auteur de l’Offrande à la Patrie. Paris, chez Buisson, 1789, in 8vo., 67 pages.

This work, together with a subsequent one, the Plan de Legislation Criminelle, constituted the theoretic basis of Marat’s political action. They were both founded on Rousseau’s Social Contract, which has been aptly characterised as the gospel of the period. It assumed society to be based solely on a hypothetical compact between the individual and the community, and it formed the text for all social and political speculation at the time. The hypothesis, although doubtless expressing a truth, was inadequate. Its standpoint was exclusively subjective – it omitted to take into due consideration the course of historic evolution. Man is conditioned in all his relations, and when one set of conditions is viewed to the exclusion of others, fallacy inevitably results.

It is an important question for the student of the philosophy of history, indeed we may say the great central question, in how far human development is determined, like lower forms of development, by inflexible cosmic laws, and where and in how far the individual may be viewed as a modifying cause, in other words, the precise point at which human will enters as an element of causation. Hitherto, all those historians who have left the theological hypothesis out of account, have been divided into two camps, the one maintaining the entire subjection of human affairs to objective laws, and the other their entirely capricious and subjective nature. Most thinkers are now familiar with the truth, that the laws of human nature are based upon the laws of animal nature generally, and these again on the laws of inorganic nature, &c. For those who accept this position (the doctrine of evolution in its simple form), the statement of the problem of the philosophy of history becomes comparatively easy. Recognising each series of phenomena to involve something specially its own over and above that which has preceded it in the scale of existence – and recognising this something in the human series to be definite action directed by conscious intelligence – it must stand thus: to sift that element in history where the consciously directed will enters as a casual agent from those elements directly traceable to other and lower causes. But although the statement of the problem becomes simplified, it must be admitted that its complete solution is little advanced, for this would mean (to take an example) nothing less than determining the extent of Charlemagne’s influence as an individuality on the subsequent state of Europe, or in other words what that state would have been had Charlemagne not lived; or in the case of the French Revolution, the amount and character of the influence exercised by Voltaire, Rousseau, and the other great pre-revolutionary thinkers (considered in the light of individualities, and not as mere products of their time), upon the succeeding events, in other words, how those events would have shaped themselves had these writers not existed. Nevertheless this question of the determining power of individuality, as distinguished from lower elements of causation, although impossible completely to disentangle from that complex whole – human progress – if clearly kept in view as the first object of the science of history, might be sufficiently elucidated to throw a flood of light on the subject for our present and future guidance, both scientific and practical.

On the 8th September, 1789, the Parisians were greeted with the prospectus of a new journal bearing the heading – Le Publiciste Parisien, journal Politique, Libre et Impartial, par une Societé des Patriotes, et redigé par M. Marat, Auteur de l’Offrande à la Patrie, du Moniteur, du Plan de Constitution, &c., &c., with the usual epigram of Marat’s Vitam impendre Vero (spend life in the cause of truth). Sixteen days afterwards its name was changed to that of Ami du Peuple, a name which has ever since been used as an alternative for that of Marat. Within the first month of its appearance, its editor was summoned twice before the Commune, and in consequence of this the words Par une Societé des Patriotes were struck out of the heading, the journal appearing as edited by M. Marat alone, to avert the possibility of others being implicated in the prosecutions he well knew still awaited himself. The character the Ami du Peuple assumed, was proximately determined by the election of the “States General,” and the composition of the Assembly, the average stamp of whose members were royalists of the Malouet and Monier type. One party in the Chamber was for delivering France over to the English; the majority were only waiting for an opportunity to reinstate the absolute monarchy, as it was before the 14th July; while, to crown all, a famine had been concerted, or had every appearance of being so, by the agents of government, to reduce the populace to submission.

The success of the journal was signal and complete, notwithstanding that every possible obstacle was thrown in its way by the authorities. At one time the patrols of Lafayette would seize the copies from the hands of the colporteurs; at another they would be intercepted through the post on their way to the departments. To avert the danger constantly overhanging him of the printers refusing their services, or having their license taken away, before many months were over Marat was driven to set up a press in his own room, and to commence printing on his own account, expending on this enterprise his whole fortune. It may be well to consider in a few words the character of this famous journal – the Ami du Peuple. As has been often enough remarked to us at this distance of time, the numbers seem but a dreary succession of denunciations and personal attacks. It must, however, be borne in mind that the journal was intended to fulfil a special object, a practical object of the hour; not merely to direct the course of public opinion on matters of general policy, but to constitute itself the organ of the oppressed of all classes, an organ where every wrong could be recorded, as far as space allowed, in the language of the victim, and so to become a terror to official “evil doers.” This being the only medium through which the oppressed could make their wrongs public, it is obvious, complaints, and their consequent denunciations, filled much of its space. It must further be borne in mind that the France of the period, in its official aspect, was, from the King on the throne downwards to the meanest police agent, one rotten mass of unblushing corruption and villainy – a state of things only to be paralleled in our own day by Turkey or Russia.

The following is an instance, on a small scale, of what was daily occurring in one way or another throughout the whole governmental system: – A commissary of police, having seduced the wife of a maker of harpsichords, had abused his authority to have the latter dragged to Bicètre. After vividly depicting the man’s utter ruin, Marat concludes as follows:

“The Sieur Heintzler lodges in the Rue St. Jacques de Latran, &c. As his barbarous persecutor, after the horrors he has already persecuted, may be justly suspected of anything, I demand that he be at once arrested by the police, to prevent his again being able to approach his victim, whom I place under the protection of the revolutionary committee of his section.”

The far-reaching nature of Marat’s sympathy may be judged of from his language on the occasion of the ill-treatment of some sailors by their officers on the coast of Newfoundland, when he writes:– “At the thought of such ferocity the heart is wrung with sorrow and shocked with indignation. One trembles at the lot of these unfortunate victims of cupidity and cruelty, one burns with fury against their horrible oppressors.” There was no tale of suffering that did not find an echo in the heart of Jean Paul Marat, and a ready place in his journal. To multiply instances here would be superfluous when the journal teems with them, scarcely a number appearing without some notice of the kind. Morning, noon, and night was the People’s Friend assailed, both personally and in writing, by the unfortunate imploring his assistance.

I cite one of these only, as showing into what unexpected quarters the general confidence in Marat had penetrated. In number 88 of the Ami, January 5th, 1789) we find it thus recorded: -

“Last Friday afternoon, about three o’clock, the Sister Catherine, nun at the Abbaye de Pantenont, presented herself before me, accompanied by a lady who appeared to be her mother ... The visit of a tall, young, and beautiful woman in such a costume could not but astonish me. I asked to know the purport of her coming. She held in her hand a number of my journal, and informed me that she had come from the Faubourg St. Antoine to beg me to aid her with my advice. Her open and unaffected manner, the tone of sorrow audible in her voice, and her ingenousness, which announced a simple and honest soul, inspired me with interest on her behalf. I enquired the cause of her misfortunes. She informed me that the previous morning she had escaped from the tower, where an attendant had concealed himself. The following is our conversation almost word for word, as far as my memory serves me, for I did not take any notes: ‘What was it, my sister, determined you to such a bold step?’ ‘The bad treatment I was continually made to suffer in the convent.’ ‘By whom, may I ask?’ ‘By the Mesdames de Cherie de Creveton, and, above all, by Madame de Betisi, my mistress.’ ‘What was this bad treatment?’ ‘I have been ceaselessly worried, many times beaten, and kept in penitence till my knees were quite lacerated.’ ‘You seem to me an amiable person, what reasons could these ladies have had for treating you in this manner?’ The poor girl did not hesitate, but gave me a long recital, out of which, however, I could make very little. She stated that her cruel treatment resulted from the fact that Madame de Betisi, who had compelled her to enter the convent, was jealous of the confidence she showed to her coadjutrice, Madame de Varien ... Being unable to persuade myself that petty jealousies alone had been the occasion of such inhuman conduct, but readily guessing from the resolute air of Anne Barbier (such was the name of the nun) that she had not been born to servitude, and judging from the fact of her having recourse to the People’s Friend, that she might possibly be a patriote, I asked how she came to know of me, and if she ever had access to the public journals. ‘We have in the convent the Courier of M. Mirabeau ...’ ‘Have you never, my sister, spoken in the presence of these ladies on the subject of public affairs?’ ‘Oh, very often; I have even disputed with them. The day the Bastille was taken they exclaimed, on seeing the citizens run to arms, “There go the dogs, the scoundrels, who would massacre the faithful subjects of the King.” “Why call them dogs,” I said, “they are perhaps as good as you are,” “Silence, insolent one,” was the retort, “Do you know what you are saying?” Each time there has been a disturbance in Paris we have re-commenced our disputes.’ After this simple exposure of facts it is clear that the Sister Catherine, given over to the mercy of these benign aristocrats, has become (by reason of her patriotic sentiments) the object of their petty vengeances, covered with the veil of hypocrisy.”

In its political aspect the Ami was the logical counterpart of what it was in the humbler aspect we have just been contemplating; as in the one it was a protest against official injustice to individuals, so in the other it was a protest against official injustice towards masses and classes. Here also, and for the same reasons, we find ceaseless denunciations. Every number is a protest against the “insolence of office,” against vested interests and class government. Marat was always suspicious, and, as the sequel proved, only with too good reason, of those in power. [1] Suspicion always seems contemptible unless it can be verified, and the fact of Marat’s continual defiance, probably itself largely contributed, as Mr. Bowen Graves has suggested, to intimidate the guilty occupants of high positions, and so to prevent its verification by preventing the committal of the conjectured crimes. The cases, however, of Necker, of Dumouriez, and subsequently of Barrère, proved that Marat possessed a real insight into character and conduct, and was no reckless slanderer. Any dennuciation proved to be false was always apologised for with the same publicity as it was made.

But it must by no means be inferred from the foregoing remarks that the journal occupied simply the place of prosecutor to the Revolution, and expressed no positive or definite views beyond those involved in this capacity. As will be seen hereafter, the editor’s political principles, based as they were upon the social contract of Rousseau, he, with a consistency inferior to that of no other political thinker of the time, sought rigorously to carry but in the sphere of practical politics. Every event received its comment from this point of view with the utmost regularity. The size of the Ami was entirely regulated by the circumstances of the moment, sometimes consisting of a single sheet widely printed, sometimes of two or three sheets closely printed. The colour of the paper varied also between blue, green, yellow, and white. It should be remarked that in the whole series of 642 numbers there is only to be found one coarse expression, used with initial letters, and subsequently retracted – this at a time when coarse abuse was strictly the order of the day. One of the most annoying methods by which the Government party sought to weaken, or divert to its own uses, the popular confidence in Marat, was by circulating spurious Amis, in which all Marat’s views were (of course with as much appearance of seriousness as possible) absurdly travestied, and a copious amount of bloodthirsty advice given. Historians have eagerly caught up these forgeries as evidence of the sanguinary character of the “People’s friend.” A more usual, and if anything still more annoying plan, and one which seems to have been so successful as to lead to the abandonment of the former, was that of publishing advice purporting to come from Marat, either of an utterly laissez faire character, or else designed to promote discord in the popular ranks. On his return from London, in 1791, Marat found no less than four separate journals afloat purporting to come from him, all of this nature. He writes,

“I warn my readers, the friends of liberty, that they may distinguish my paper from the false Amis published under my name, if only by this, that the authors of the latter are sleepers, who always preach peace, tolerance of factious priests, patience under the outrages of public functionaries, submission to laws good or bad, blind obedience of soldiers to their officers, &c.”

What Marat wrote in his journal he defended by word of mouth in the Cordelior’s club, although he always regarded journalism as his vocation more than oratory. Danton owed his power to speaking, Marat to his writing. In addition to his journal, the “ People’s Friend” had two other modes of making his views public. He was accustomed on special occasions when “urgency” was required, to supplement the latter by placards and pamphlets. When any important crisis took place in public affairs, the placards were to be seen in all the most conspicuous places on the walls of Paris. Among the most notable of these placards may be mentioned that on the occasion of the massacre of the troops at Nancy, Affreux Reveil, that headed On nous endort; prenons y-garde, an expression of indignation, of the prosecution of those who had taken part in the famine insurrection, of the 5th and 6th of October by the royalist court of the Chatelet, &c., &c. Among the pamphlets may be mentioned the Appel à la Nation, written from London in 1790; the Plan de Constitution, already spoken of; and, most important of all, the Plan de Legislation Criminelle, a system of legislation rigorously deduced from Rousseau’s Social Contract, and which it is said Marat regarded as his least imperfect work. Also the celebrated Dénonciation faite au Tribunal Publique contre M. Necker, &c., Marat having regarded the Minister of Finance as the principal agent of the famine, and the second Dénonciation contre M. Necker, &c., in which the charges made in the former pamphlet bearing that title, are further substantiated.

Constant attempts were being made, either by ill-judged wags or by persons politically, interested, to palm some absurd story upon the “People’s Friend,” to the intent that he might make himself ridiculous, and bring his journal and, influence into contempt. Once one of these anonymous letters conveyed the intelligence that a large quantity of arms and ammunition was about to be deposited in the fortress of Vincennes, and that to prevent the affair coming to light all the workmen engaged in it were to be poisoned at a supper given them the same evening. The only notice taken of this was a paragraph in the next day’s Ami concluding,

“However clever my correspondent may be, the advice he gives is too improbable not to appear suspicious and even false. I warn honest men not to play with the ‘People’s Friend’ any more, as he is never likely to be their dupe.” No.251.


1. Marat dimly perceived the fact first distinctly recognised by modern Socialists, that all bureaucracies are necessarily opposed to popular interests; that the existence of a state of an official or governing class – means the existence of a power possessing interests distinct from those of the people, and only too frequently opposed to them. We see daily illustrations of the fact that the internal governing class, from hangman to Home Secretary, forms a mutual admiration society, and that the external governing class, from Colonial Sub-Commissioner or Under-Secretary of Embassy to Colonial or Foreign Minister of State, similarly forms a closed circle, the action of each member of which is defended against outside attacks by each other member. We sometimes hear it said that office “sobers” politicians. The explanation of this is not far to seek. A politician who has once reached the Elysian fields of office can well afford to regard with a sober eye the interests of the poor mortals with whom he has in reality ceased to be identified. No mere change in political forms will remove this evil. It is common alike to Conservative and Liberal, Monarchical and Republican Governments. Modern scientific Socialism in repudiating the assumed necessity of a governing apart from a governed class, merely follows in principle the tendency of physical science, in repudiating the assumed necessity of a power regulating nature apart from nature itself and its laws. It is the immanent as opposed to the transcendent standpoint applied to human society.

Last updated on 15.7.2006