Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter IV

Less than a month after the re-appearance of the Ami June 10th, 1790, a decree was passed, upon the proposition of the King, fixing the civil list at twenty-five millions. This meant, of course, additional means to crush obnoxious persons, besides additional taxation in a time of scarcity. An indignant war-cry, addressed to all patriots, was immediately raised by Marat at this barefaced attempt at once to exhaust the nation, and trample on the little liberty already won. The municipality finding therein a new pretext for arrest, Marat is once more environed by a network of spies. The cry of “anarchist” raised by the Government is taken up by “moderate” journals of all shades; indeed, the “People’s Friend” is left with only one public defender, he being Camille Desmoulins. The latter, in conjunction with many of Marat’s private friends, urgently exhort him to fly, but in a noble letter, unfortunately too long to quote in full, he replies, asking whether – when one considers the number of men who are annually torn from their families to fight and die for a supercilious royal master, who cares not a jot for them, yet who go cheerfully, and as a matter of duty – it is a great sacrifice for him, a man without family, to risk a little danger at an imminent crisis to help to save a whole nation from despotism, danger being moreover a condition to which he is by this time pretty well accustomed, since, for eighteen months condemned to every sort of privation, he has rushed from one retreat to another, often unable to sleep two consecutive nights in the same bed (Ami, No.170).

The storm, notwithstanding, blew over without the mandate of arrest being put into execution, but it was not long before Paris once more rang with the name of Marat. The Ambassador of the Court of Vienna requested of the King a free passage through France for the Austrian troops, on their way to Belgium. Marat’s ready suspicion, assisted possibly by information received, at once saw in this a stratagem; and, on July 26th, a placard, bearing his signature, was to be seen posted up in all quarters of the city. It was headed, C’en est fait de nous, – “It is all over with us,” and proceeded to denounce this manoeuvre of the enemy as a plot to crush the revolution by force of arms, and reinstate “Royalism” in all its former glory. The placard terminates with these words, often made a notable point-d’apptui by the caluminators of the “People’s Friend”: “Five or six hundred heads fallen would have assured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the life of millions of your brothers.” [1] Shocking language, truly, for those who are profuse in shudderings and vituperations at the execution of a handful of hostages by men goaded to the last verge of desperation, while they have no word of condemnation for the indiscriminate slaughterers of men, women, and children in the exultation of victory, and no word of sympathy for their victims. It is a privilege of a defender of “order” to murder at his pleasure in defence of his “order,” and the exercise of this privilege is often a proof of decision and capacity; but when the advocate of “subversive doctrines” dares to raise so much as a finger against his persecutors and those of his party, “Hideous monster! incarnate fiend!” is the verdict of “Respectability.” It matters not that judgments of this kind are contrary to justice and morality; it being a successful means of throwing dust before the mental vision of that large section of the public, which does not enter into the facts of the case setting impartial truth at defiance, and, creating a hue and cry in the interest of “order” is likely to continue, like many other things, because it pays; and so justice and humanity must bow their heads for a while to the status quo.

Apart from these considerations, the question arises, Did Marat, in this and certain other declarations of a similar nature, mean anything more than to destroy a sense of fatal security in the minds of the Royalist plotters? I fancy no impartial mind, on reviewing the evidence, will think he did. Apropos of this aspect of the question, I quote a few passages from Mr. Bowen Graves’ masterly article in the Fortnightly Review for February, 1874, the only defence of Marat, as far as I am aware, that has hitherto appeared in English, and which, in point of conclusiveness, leaves nothing to be desired:–

“What can give a more hideous picture of human nature than Marat’s estimate, as we find it in Michelet, of the number of heads demanded by the public weal as exactly two hundred and seventy-three thousand! It would impress us far less with horror if the number had been a million at once. A thousand, a hundred thousand, or a million may be figures of speech; there is no figure of speech suggested by that horribly detailed two hundred and seventy-three thousand. Now, the fact which is really remarkable is, that no such number, or anything like it, occurs in any of Marat’s writings. The detail is imported from without. The credit of its origination belongs to Barbaroux; the finishing touch – the last embellishment, the three – is M. Michelet’s own. Threats of bloodshed are, no doubt, only too frequent, but always in language such as, to an impartial mind, excludes the idea of calculation. One day it is ten thousand heads that must fall, the next it is one hundred thousand, a third it drops to fifty thousand, a fourth to twenty, and so on. A few months before his death, he tells us in his journal what he meant by them: ‘I used them,’ he says, ‘with a view to produce a strong impression on men’s minds, and to destroy all fatal security.’ There is nothing to be found in the pages of the Ami du Peuple approaching in cold bloodthirstiness what is to be met with repeatedly in the Actes des Apôtres, for example, or the Journal de la Cour et de la Ville; or, to take another example: ‘it will cost ten thousand lives to save the country,’ says one man. ‘When compromise was proposed,’ says another, ‘to the effect that the Government should enter Paris, but not the army, I replied that if it should cost a river of blood the army should enter first.’” – Fortnightly Review, February, 1874.

The Commune and Marat are monsters without a parallel, but M. Thiers, the author of the above declaration, is a champion of respectability and moral order. “If I knock you down, mind, it is nothing, but if you hit me back again it is a dastardly outrage.” The sarcasm of Punch to this effect will apply to every struggle between constituted authority and revolution. Respectable officialism cannot commit a crime, the most it can do is to make a mistake. Revolutionism cannot make mistakes, it can only commit crimes.

In the placard C’en est fait, Marat proposes what was afterwards put into effect by the unanimous voice of the popular party, namely, to imprison the royal family in the Tuileries, as some safeguard against the plottings of Royalists. Yet this placard was again sufficient to raise a storm against him, in which he was forsaken by all, even to Desmoulins. To us, who can detect no direct evidence of any secret purpose in the movement of the Austrian troops, the passionate declamation contained in it seems somewhat exaggerated, but we must in all historical judgments bear in mind the material circumstances as well as the moral conditions of a time. France was at this period breathing an atmosphere of “plots,” real and imaginary. The flocks of eminent “aristocrats” from across the Rhine were known to be in active correspondence with their brethren in France. The European courts – notably that of Austria (personally related to the Queen) – were anxiously watching events in the interests of Royalism. Surely it was, to say the least, very natural to suspect any attempt to introduce Austrian troops on to French soil. A much less suspicious circumstance might surely have raised the suspicions of a much less suspicious “patriot” than the “People’s Friend” in those days. Every attempt was made to stop the circulation of the placard, and to seize the person of Marat, who was in consequence compelled more than ever to conceal himself.

A week after appeared another placard, On nous endort prenons-y-garde, “We are sleeping, take care.” This was a denunciation of the conduct of the Châtelet in prosecuting those who had taken part in the famine insurrection of the preceding October. It endeavours to show that the descent upon Versailles was an act of necessity on the part of the populace; and was justified by its results; from that time the previous scarcity of bread having become, to a great extent, ameliorated. On the 25th of August appeared yet another placard, C’est un beau réve gare au veveil, “It is a fine dream, beware of the awakening.” This time it was no public event that called for comment or remonstrance; but a report, ingeniously circulated by the enemies of the revolution, that the provinces were vehemently demanding a return to “order,” that the existing misery of the working classes was entirely caused by the disorders of the time, &c. It proceeds to refute in detail these assertions, and terminates with a passionate appeal to the nation to take counsel of its misfortunes.

It was about this time that an event occurred in the North-east district which filled all France with horror. On the 29th of August, certain regiments forming part of the garrison at Nancy, being reported in a state of mutiny, Commandant Bouillé, cousin of Lafayette, was despatched to restore “order”; this he effected on the 31st, at the cost of a frightful massacre. It should be observed that most of the troops he employed were Germans. Marat’s cry of alarm was again thrown into the form of a placard. Affreux Reveil, “Terrible Awakening”:

“Behold the horrible catastrophe that I so long have predicted! inevitable consequence of your want of foresight and blind security. Nothing equals the criminality of the commandant and officers of Nancy, unless it be the unscrupulousness of the Assembly, in launching these horrible decrees, acts of madness, or rather acts of barbarity, deserving the severest punishment. Crush beneath your feet those who would light the torch of civil war, invite the provinces without delay to name other deputies, install them in the Senate, and drive away with ignominy those who now disgrace their office. Disarm the German satellites, who murder your compatriots, &c.”

Our journalist devotes several numbers of the Ami, some double ones, to proving that the conduct of the authorities, i.e., Lafayette and company, even from their own point of view, was altogether unnecessary and unjustifiable, and further, that the garrison in the first instance had good cause for complaint, and were fully justified in taking up the position they did.

“Stupid despots,” he writes, “will you never learn that it is by honour and justice, those all-powerful divinities, that one should rule free and sentient beings? What could not you have obtained from a peaceable citizen and an intrepid warrior had you known how to elevate his heart! Will you then never honour human nature, and always prefer the pleasure of tyrannising over slaves to the privilege of commanding free men?”

This affair contributed considerably to extend Marat’s influence, while, at the same time, intensifying the hatred of his enemies, and increasing his persecutions.

Amid all these there was one circumstance from which he might have derived some satisfaction, both personal and public. On the 6th of September, just a week after the Nancy massacre, the Assembly abolished the Court of the Châtelet; the Court with which the same Assembly had so often united in striking at the author of the Ami, and (through the Ami) of so many denunciations of its conduct and decrees. But, unfortunately, although the Châtelet was abolished, domiciliary visits and official decrees of arrest were by no means at an end. Early on the 15th, Lafayette having learnt the previous day that a number devoted to an examination of his conduct was in active preparation, a visit was made to the office of the Ami du Peuple; everything was ransacked, seized, or destroyed, even to the mattress from which the manager, Sieur André, had just risen, which was ripped up with bayonets. The “People’s Friend,” in propria persona, was, however, not to be found, he having long since been compelled to abandon the upper earth for subterranean retreats. [2] Where he was it was found impossible, by threats or otherwise, to extort from Sieur André. Another formidable attempt at arrest with the same result was made by Lafayette on the 14th of the following December.


1. It is alleged by Camille Desmoulins, that Marat on one occasion repudiated the authorship of the placard in the course of conversation, but this assertion would hardly seem to be borne out by facts.

2. One of his most frequent places of concealment was the cellars underneath the Cordelier’s Club. He was also sheltered by personal friends, among others Legendre, and Boucher St. Sauveur, &c.

Last updated on 15.7.2006