Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter V

During the year 1791, Marat was occupied with the same struggle as the previous year, the struggle with the chicanery of the Constitutionalists. It is expressed in the words:– “The question is not how to remove your old tyrants, but how to exterminate the new ones, that you may live as free and happy men.” Ami, No.224. Space will not allow me to do more than touch upon the chief events of the year as far as they concern Marat. It opened as gloomily as the preceding closed. In the attempted arrest of the 14th of December previously, from which Marat escaped only owing to his careful concealment, three battalions had been, as on another occasion, marched to the supposed residence of the object of official vengeance. There was now, owing to the failure of this undertaking, a particular battalion charged upon oath with the mission to assassinate the “People’s Friend,” wherever found. But even among those of whom Lafayette believed himself most sure, Marat had some friends. On the 14th he had received intimation from several officers of the intended expedition, seventeen letters in all. “Parisians,” he writes, “with such men one need not despair.”

On the night of the 21st of June occurred the memorable flight of the King to Varennes; Marat had foreseen that this would be attempted, with a view, as he thought, of leaving a free passage for foreign intervention, Ami, No.434. Some days before this event he wrote urgently in favour of déchéance. He had been for some time practically republican, the course of events having more and more weaned him from the limited monarchy opinions expressed at the outset of the Revolution. After the flight to Varennes, republican ideas became general with the popular party, the restoration of the monarchy, which Carlyle compares to an inverted pyramid, finding little favour, except with the Constitutionalists, desirous of retaining their places and revenues. A petition for déchéance was accordingly drawn up, and a meeting convoked and held in the Champ de Mars, on Sunday the 17th of July, just one year and three days after the ceremony of the inauguration of the Constitution. Towards nightfall on this occasion, Lafayette appeared at the head of 10,000 National Guards, accompanied by cannon, &c., with the intention of dispersing the populace; Marie Bailly bearing the red flag, symbol of martial law, but one so small, as the witnesses declared, that he was able to carry it in his pocket. Without waiting for the three legal and prescribed summonses, the guards fired at Lafayette’s command, first into the air, and then upon the multitude. Some hundreds fell killed or wounded, and the rest were dispersed by the cavalry. After this affair there was a general flight of journalists, the only one remaining being the inexorable “People’s Friend,” but he as outspoken and energetic as ever. In his number of the 10th of July we read:

“The blood of old men, women, and children, massacred around the altar of the country, smokes still, it cries for vengeance, and the infamous legislator offers congratulations, and votes public thanks to these cruel tyrants, to these cowardly assassins, &c.”

But Marat had counted without compositors and without distributors. After the bold article of which the above is the commencement, these, one and all, deserted him – the panic was complete.

The next number of the Ami appeared on the 10th of August. In September the election for the new “Constituant” Assembly, which was to succeed the then expiring “Legislative” Assembly, were to be held. Marat intended, on the opening of the new legislature, to discontinue his journal – as he entertained some hopes that deputies more in harmony with the principles of the revolution might be returned. He closes his number of the 8th of September with the following letter:

“Letter of the Author to the Conscript Fathers

My compliments to the august assembly. Thanks to the sublime constitution, gentlemen, which you have given to France, there is no more water to drink, and as there are the galleys to gain, in defending the rights of the nation, the “People’s Friend” has the honour to inform you that he is on the point of renouncing the foolish project of immolating himself for the public safety, and to think in future of nothing further than how he may rebuild his fortune, having been reduced to the greatest straits in pursuit of this insane object,” &c.

He seems at this time to have been alternating between hope and despair in his views of public affairs generally, and especially as to the character and action of the chamber about to be elected. Three days previously to the letter just quoted, he had said “Before quitting the pen, to which I have consecrated three years in the defence of the rights of the nation and of public liberty, my last look will be for the welfare of the people.” The number for September the 21st contains “The last farewell of the ‘People’s Friend’ to his country.” He relates therein his mode of life since adopting the career of journalist. He had resolved with the cessation of his journal again to return to London. The number of the following day is dated from Clermont. It narrates how in the diligence he encountered five “Emigrants.” He learnt from their conversation of the means used to obtain passports, also of their designs of revenge for “Varennes,” when they should return, as they confidently hoped before long. No.559 is dated from Amiens; it treats of the famous decree against the titles of the nobility. “If justice had not interdicted this stroke of authority to the legislator, one would have thought common sense would have made its folly manifest.” He concludes by remarking it were better, instead of suppressing titles, to compel the bearers always to carry them in public, to the intent they might be known, and shunned by all true patriots.

On his journey our traveller had a narrow escape of being arrested. Alighting at the Hotel d’Angleterre, at Amiens, he hears a police agent say, close to his side, “It is he – I recognise him.” No doubt there was an amnesty, but the “People’s Friend” knew he was always a good prize. He feigns not to see anything, walks leisurely, and suddenly disappears behind a hedge. A shepherd passing, he requests to be reconducted on the road to Paris by a circuitous route, as he had abandoned the intention of proceeding to London. The man offered him as a guide a patriot, an old French Guard; so Marat, having donned the habit of a peasant, proceeded with his companion. At Beauvais a cabriolet was obtained, and on the morrow he found himself again in Paris.

On the first of October the new Constituent Assembly was opened, but its character became very soon apparent. It followed in the steps of its predecessor continuing the work, and no-work, of the Legislative Assembly. Marat’s indignation and disgust was such that, after two months’ “wrestling with principalities and powers,” he resolved, for the second time, to leave France, though not before he had cast upon it one more despairing farewell.

“Oh, my country, what fearful lot is in store for thee! Oh, that I have been unable to unveil thine eyes! There is naught further to be done to prevent thy ruin, and thy faithful friend has no further duty than to deplore thy sad destinies, and shed tears of blood over thy prolonged disasters.” – Ami, Dec. 14, 1791.

The next day, December 15th, he left Paris definitely for London; while there planning a work, in two volumes, entitled L’Ecole à Citoyen. The following April (1792) the patriotic societies, at the instigation of the Cordelier’s Club, invited the patriotic journalist to return, promising him their support and assistance in the circulation of his journal. The fact that Pétion had replaced Bailly as Maire, may have contributed in some measure to induce Marat to accept this proposal, or it may be that his burning zeal could not allow him to rest, and that he had already decided to return to the struggle. Whether such was the case or not, we find, on the 12th of April, the criers once more announcing the reappearance of the Ami du Peuple, after four months’ suspension. At the head of the first seven numbers appeared in full the minute of the Cordelier’s Club, in which the “People’s Friend” was invited to resume his labours. Many things had happened during his absence; among them, a law had been passed declaring the King’s brothers and the emigrants generally, in a state of accusation. This denoted a distinct advance in revolutionary policy. Lafayette was now, moreover, beyond the frontier.

On the 26th of April, war was declared against Austria, a step greeted with great applause on all sides – each party hoping to gain by it. Our journalist alone saw its folly, and denounced the measure, not merely as a useless expenditure of blood and money, but as a dangerous manoeuvre to distract the people from national affairs, and to frustrate or delay the accomplishment of the Revolution. The only means of preventing it would have been “to retain as hostage among us Louis XVI, his wife, his son, his daughter, and his sisters,“ and to have held them responsible for the course of events. – Ami, No.634.

Marat’s opinion regarding the war-question was the beginning of that schism between him and the Girondists, which subsequently assumed such gigantic proportions. The “Girondins,” or the “Brissotins,” as they were at this time called, from their leader Brissot, were a species of Republican constitutionalists – Hommes d’Etat, as Marat characteristically dubs them. Their political programme was federalism. They were, without doubt, essentially the most brilliant party in the Assembly, comprising among their number the greatest orators in the country, but withal simply Rhetoricians, and Bourgeois politicians, who saw in the championship of the revolution, and in vague meanderings about liberty, a stepping-stone to office and who had no conception whatever of the vigorous action necessary in the crisis through which France was passing. As a consequence, apart from all considerations of the intrinsic merit of their programme, they were simply an obstruction to the progress and solidarity of the Revolution.

In the sitting of May 3rd Marat is denounced in the Assembly by the Girondin Deputy Beugnot, as a sanguinary regicide, on account of an article wherein he suspects certain generals of treason, and warns the army to be on its guard. The result is as often before. We read in No.650:

“They have launched against me a decree of accusation; I am ready to appear before any equitable tribunal, but I will not give myself up to tyrants, whose satellites doubtless have orders, if not to murder me during my arrest, at least to keep me confined in a dungeon. Only let the conscript-fathers, who persecute me, cite me before an English tribunal, and I engage, the procès verbal of their sitting, in my hand, to get them condemned to gaol as convicts.”

This of course meant that he intended again to adapt a subterranean life. For a whole week nothing was heard of him. The presses of the Ami had been sacked, as in the old Lafayette days. During his concealment his enemies took great pains to circulate a false Ami, a No.650, of which he says, “the tasteless and disgusting style of this false and ignoble print is only suited to the atrocities they would make me advocate, and to the calumnies poured forth in the letter pretended to have been addressed to me.” After the decree of the 3rd of May, the zeal of Marat’s persecutors became hotter than ever so much so, that before long his concealment had become habitual, varying only in point of degree. We may judge when the pursuit was hottest by the hiati occurring in the appearance of the Ami; thus in June only two numbers saw the light, although important events were taking place, showing that the authorities had been for the nonce successful in closing the mouth of their enemy. From the 7th of July to the 7th of August, ten numbers in all were published. The memorable 10th of August found Marat still in his concealment. He was not idle, however; before the close of the contest at the Tuilleries a lengthy placard bearing his signature was to be read in all quarters of the city. The following are a few extracts from it: –

“The glorious day of the 10th of August, 1792, may prove decisive for the triumphs of liberty if you know how to profit by your advantages! Dread the reaction! I repeat to you, your enemies will not spare you should they come back to power.

“No one has a greater horror of bloodshed than myself, but to prevent its flowing in streams, I exhort you to sacrifice a few drops. Above all things, hold the king, and his wife and son as hostages, and till the moment that his definite sentence shall be pronounced let him be shown at least four times daily to the people. Tremble, tremble, lest you let slip this unique opportunity which the tutelar genius of France has secured to you of escape from the abyss, and assurance of liberty!!”

Instant dissolution of the Assembly is advocated, and arrest of reactionary members.

In this placard is to be found again enunciated the principle of revolutionary policy before alluded to. We mean the summary sacrifice of two or three ringleaders of reaction, whose past conduct has proved them simply either ruthless caterers for their own particular class, or unprincipled plotters for private interests, rather than a straining of the principle of mercy into an excuse for allowing such men the opportunity of violating in the most flagrant manner, and with all the odour of respectability, the commonest principles of humanity and justice. The history of French Revolutions has taught the wisdom of this maxim, and on more than one occasion has its neglect caused “streams” of French blood to flow.

Last updated on 15.7.2006