Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter VII

The Girondins, notwithstanding the fiasco of the 26th of September, were not long before they returned to the charge. On October the 8th, the Committee of Public Safety was indicted in the matter of the September administration, the “People’s Friend,” as its chief member, being of course included in this indictment. Valazé made a well-studied speech, asserting, somewhat irrelevantly, that innocent persons had perished in the massacres of that month. Valazé’s speech continued to criticise the conduct of the committee in various matters, notably the arrests preceding the massacres, but as soon as it was concluded Marat rose, and silenced all further comment by remarking that the time allotted by the Convention for the investigation of the papers of the committee was four months, whereas Valazé, having only had them a few days, proceeded at once to make his report.

It was during the month of October, 1792, that Marat made his celebrated visit to General Dumouriez, in the salon of the comedian Talma. Two Parisian volunteer battalions had been accused of massacring four Prussian soldiers, who had deserted to the French ranks. There was an official report from the general to the Convention on the subject, but no detailed account had been given. The “People’s Friend” insisted upon having a procès-verbal of the whole case. To this end he visited in person all the departments of the war ministry, but no further information could he acquire. Learning, however, that on a particular evening Dumouriez was to be present at a bal masqué given by the actor Talma, he resolved to take advantage of this circumstance to obtain a personal interview.

On his arrival at the house, in the company of two friends, he was announced by Santerre (who was acting as gentleman-usher on the occasion) in a loud voice. On entering the apartment, he discovered numerous Girondins amongst the party. Pressing through the crowd, and stepping up to Dumouriez, he addressed him in the following terms:–

“We are members of the National Convention, and we come, sir, to beg you to give us some explanation relative to the affair of the ‘two battalions, the Mauconseil and the Republican,’ accused by you of having murdered four Prussian deserters in cold blood. We have searched the offices of the military committee and those of the war department; we cannot there find the least proof of the crime, and nobody can furnish information on the subject but yourself. We beg you to say whether you know all the circumstances of the affair.”

“Certainly, of my own knowledge.”

“Then it is not merely a confidential denunciation made by you on the faith of M. Duchasseau?”

“But, gentlemen, when I assert a thing I think I ought to be believed.”

“Sir, if we thought as you do on that point we should not have come hither. We have great reasons to doubt. Several members of the military committee have informed us that these pretended Prussians were four French emigrants.”

“Well, gentlemen, if that were the case?”

“Sir, that would absolutely change the state of the matter. It is the circumstances which provoked the murder that it is important to know. Now, letters from the army state that these emigrants were discovered to be spies, sent by the enemy, and that they even rose against the National Guards.”

“What, sir, do you then approve the insubordination of the soldiers?”

“No, sir, I do not approve the insubordination of the soldiers, but I hate the tyranny of the officers. I have too much reason to believe that this is a machination of Duchasseau against the patriot battalions, and the manner in which you have treated them is revolting.”

“M. Marat, you are too warm. I cannot enter into explanations with you.”

At this juncture Dumouriez walked off, followed by Marat’s two friends, while the latter himself lead some further conversation with the aide-de-camps and other officers in the salon. The visit then terminated.

“I was indignant at all that I heard, and at all the atrocity I suspected in the odious conduct of our generals. As I could not bear to stay any longer I left the party, and beheld with astonishment in the adjoining room, the doors of which were ajar, several of Dumouriez’s heiduks with drawn swords at their shoulders. I know not what could have been the object of this ridiculous farce; if it was contrived for the purpose of intimidating me, it must be admitted that the varlets of Dumouriez entertain high notions of liberty. Have patience, gentlemen, we will teach you to know it. Meanwhile rest assured your master dreads the point of my pen much more than I fear the swords of his ragamuffins.”

The scene would surely be no inapt one for a painter – the “People’s Friend,” short of stature; shabbily dressed, the brilliantly lighted ball-room, replete with every colour, the figure with whom he is conversing bedizened from head to foot with gold lace and insignia, and surrounded with gaily attired courtesans.

No sooner was the incident brought before the Convention, than the Gironde became beside itself with rage at this attack on its idol, even sinking to threats of personal violence. Indeed, its fury was now fast growing altogether ungovernable, and reckless even of the commonest principles of decency: Gangs of Girondins, National Guards, and Marseillais patrolled the streets, shouting La tête de Marat, Robespierre et Danton, et de tous ceux qui les défendront. They stopped under Marat’s window in the Rue des Cordeliers, threatening to set fire to the house. So great was the danger as to necessitate the suspension of the Journal de la République during the first week in November.

Within the Convention the excitement raged more violently than in the street. The “People’s Friend” never rose to speak but his voice was instantly drowned by yells and hisses. We read in the Journal de la République (No.46):

“I have twice sought to present my views to my colleagues as clearly and simply as possible, but as I am unable to develop them at any length, they have produced no effect; it only remains for me to appear on great occasions to foil the plots of the criminal faction (i.e., the Girondins), and to defend the rights of the people.”

To show how completely isolated he was, even within the Mountain itself, I subjoin an extract from the sitting of the Jacobin’s Club, of Sunday, December 23rd.

Robert – “It is very astonishing that the names of Marat and Robespierre are always coupled together. Marat is a patriot, he has excellent qualities I admit, but how different is he from Robespierre? The latter is discreet, moderate in his means, whereas Marat is exaggerated, and has not that discretion which characterises Robespierre. It is not sufficient to be a patriot; in order to serve the people usefully it is necessary to be reserved in the means of execution, and most assuredly Robespierre surpasses Marat in the means of execution,” &c.

Bourdon – “We ought long since to have acquainted the affiliated societies with our opinions of Marat. How could they ever connect Robespierre and Marat together? Robespierre is a truly virtuous man, with whom we have no fault to find from the commencement of the Revolution. Robespierre is moderate in his means, whereas Marat is a violent writer, who does great harm to the Jacobins (murmurs); and besides, it is right to observe that Marat does us great injury with the National Convention. The deputies imagine that we are partisans of Marat, we are called Maratists; if we show that we duly appreciate Marat, then you will see the deputies draw nearer to the Mountain where we sit, you will see the affiliated societies which have gone astray rally around the cradle of liberty. If Marat is a patriot he will accede to the motion I am going to make; Marat ought to sacrifice himself to the cause of liberty. I move that his name be erased from the list of members of this society.”

This motion excited some applause, violent murmurs in part of the hall, and vehement agitation in the tribunes.

Dufourny “I oppose the motion for expelling Marat from the society (vehement applause). I will not deny the difference that exists between Marat and Robespierre. These two writers, who may resemble one another in patriotism, have very striking differences. They have both served the cause of the people, but in different ways. Robespierre has defended the true principles with method, with firmness, and with all-becoming discretion; Marat, on the contrary, has frequently passed the bounds of sound reason and prudence. Still, though admitting the difference that exists between Marat and Robespierre, I am not in favour of the erasure. It is possible to be just without being ungrateful to Marat – he has been useful to us, he has served the Revolution with courage (vehement applause from the society and tribunes). There would be ingratitude in striking him out of the list (“yes, yes,” from all quarters). I conclude with proposing that the motion of Bourdon be rejected, and that merely a letter be written to the affiliated societies to acquaint them with the difference that we make between Marat and Robespiere (applause).”

This motion was in the end adopted.

As an instance of this debatable Jacobin’s influence with the people, I may cite, on the other hand, another incident of a different kind. “It is some days now that I was addressed by some Marseillais with the words: ‘Marat, your party increases every day – we belong to it.’ I replied: ‘Comrades, I have no party; I do not wish any, only be happy and free, that is all I desire.’” Journal de la République, No.80. On the occasion of the King’s trial, Marat voted “death without respite” in the following terms:–

“With the full conviction I have that Louis is the principal author of the misfortunes which caused so much blood to flow on the 10th of August, and of all the massacres which have sullied France since the Revolution – I vote the death of the tyrant within 24 hours.”

The nation, he said, had a right to pronounce judgment, and Louis had been guilty of what the law held to be the most heinous crime possible, he had sought to betray France into the hands of the European coalition. While proceedings were pending, he repeatedly received letters from royalists offering bribes for him to vote in favour of acquittal or banishment, or even to say one word in behalf of the accused, – “If you will but do it we are prepared to lay down a hundred thousand ecus.” Our journalist replied in laying these letters before the Committee of Public Safety; “I am for the people. I shall never be but for them. That is my profession of faith” (Journal, No.79). [1]

The death of the King brought with it no reconciliation between Mountain and Gironde; indeed, the zeal of parties in the Convention broke out with redoubled fury. Mr. Carlyle remarks that the last act performed in unison by all the parties in the Assembly was the attendance at the funeral of Lepelletier St. Fargeau, who was assassinated in a café by a Royalist, as one of those who had voted “death,” on the evening following the King’s execution. In this ceremony singular unanimity was displayed, deputies of various shades – Marat among them – making speeches on the occasion.

With the new year, the all-absorbing question had become one of “Mountain” or “Gironde.” Outside the walls of the Convention – in the street – the great question was one of bread, within the last few months months the scarcity having been again steadily on the increase. The assignats, or paper money, as Marat had foreseen, had lately much deteriorated in value. The farmers and corndealers refused to sell, except at exorbitant prices. Many persons were making capital in this way out of the public calamity. These circumstances roused Marat’s indignation to fever pitch, and led, on the morning of the 25th, to the publication of that memorable passage in his journal:

“In every country where the ‘rights of the people’ is not an empty phrase, ostentatiously recorded on paper, the sacking of a few shops, at the doors of which the ‘forestallers’ were hanged, would soon put a stop to those malversations which are driving five millions of men to despair, and causing thousands to perish of want! Will the deputies of the people do nothing more than prate about their sufferings, and never propose any remedy to relieve them?”

It is easy enough to denounce a passage like the above as inciting to plunder and massacre, and this has been done hundreds of times by those who have not the remotest conception of the real character of Marat, or of the motives which inspired his conduct. It must be recollected that there has probably never lived a man who so keenly felt the sufferings of his fellow-men. The passage quoted must be read, moreover, side by side with other passages, showing that, although the means suggested may have been anarchical, they were not the outcome of a passionate indignation merely, however much this may have contributed to their production, but were urged in accordance with a definite principle laid down by Marat years previously.

“In a world full of the possession of others, where the indigent have nothing to call their own, they are obviously reduced to perish of hunger. Now, since they derive nothing but disadvantages from society, are they obliged to respect its laws? Doubtless, no! If society abandon them they re-enter a state of nature, and when they reclaim with force their rights, which they would not have parted with except to secure greater advantages, all authority that opposes them is tyrannical, and the judge who condemns them to death is a cowardly assassin.” [2]

The source of inspiration whence this passage is drawn will be sufficiently apparent; it will be equally obvious that the passage in the Journal de la République is only a deductive application of this principle. Yet, even though we may repudiate the method of Rousseau, is not the principle involved defensible on other grounds than those of the Social Contract? Does not the answer to this question depend on the view we take of the uses of property – unconditionally selfish or conditionally social; if the latter view be adopted, does it not logically follow that the extraordinary hoarding up of the necessaries of life for commercial purposes in a period of scarcity – or, in other words, the taking advantage of public calamity for purposes of self-aggrandisement, even though it be done under cover of the ordinary laws of trade – is in itself a crime meriting as severe a punishment as any other form of murder. But it must be borne in mind that the paragraph in question was not the cause of the riots these had begun some days before. It was hunger, not Marat, which swayed the queues at the bakers’ shops, and swept them in torrents over the neighbouring streets.

M. Bougeart, speaking of this matter, says:–

“I know that against death from hunger our profound legislators have invented the bayonet of the gendarme, or the convict’s prison. I know that it is good taste, good manners, true religion, sound philosophy, and, above all, a guarantee of personal safety to be of the opinion of the legislator; but is it more humane, is it more just? Take note, readers: for so long as you have not replied I shall be of the opinion of Marat, and I assure you, in the name of human conscience, I shall make some proselytes.”

The following is an epitome of some of the circumstances attending this affair of the “forestallers,” or bread riots:– On the 24th February, Procureur Chalmette made a report on the subject of the want of means of subsistence in Paris, before the Council General. He demanded an advance of four millions. The Girondins objected to this, as a special favour shown to one town. Whilst the debate went on hotly in the Chamber, pillaging of provision shops proceeded in the streets. The following day, the 25th, there was a deputation to the Convention, to protest against the riotous scenes of the previous day. Barrère, who led the debate ensuing, spoke of all the troubles as the work of ultra-patriots, hinted at a particularly mischievous ultra-patriot, but did not dare to mention names. Sallis then rose. “I come to denounce to you,” said he, “one of the instigators of these troubles, it is Marat.” He then read the article containing the passage about the “forestallers.” No sooner had he concluded, than the whole Assembly rose in indignation. Marat rushed to the tribune, and repeated in substance what he had written a day or two previously in his journal. It is incontestible, he said, that the capitalists, agents, and monopolisers are nearly all supporters of the ancien régime.

“As I see no chance of changing their hearts, I see nothing but the total destruction of this accursed conspiracy that can give tranquillity to the State. To-day it redoubles its energy to distress the people by the exorbitant price of bread, the first necessary of life. Since there is no law to punish monopolisers, the people has a right to take justice into its own hands.”

However dreadful it may sound when enunciated by Marat, this is a principle practically adopted under all circumstances where ordinary law is ineffective; only usually in the interests of “property,” rather than against its abuse. It should be remembered by those who shudder at the words of Marat, that at this very period, and for long after, the common law of England caused dozens of human beings to be hanged every week, for trivial offences, such as stealing a loaf of bread; and yet the supporters of these laws are not execrated as monsters, but are merely described as unnecessarily severe in their views of justice. Marat, on the other hand, because under extraordinary circumstances he thought an example necessary from among those who were reducing the people of Paris to starvation, is denounced as a sanguinary demagogue. Marat had never learnt the right of property to outrage humanity, any more than he had learnt the right of office, however high, to outrage justice. His principle was that of him who possessed much, whether in the shape of wealth or power, much should be required; that wealthy or official criminals deserved a punishment tenfold greater than ordinary criminals. For his insistence on this great principle, if for nothing else, he deserves the eternal gratitude of mankind.

On the conclusion of his speech, Buzot moved that “M. Marat be decreed accused.” “The law is precise,” he said, “but M. Marat quibbles about its expressions; the jury will be embarrassed how to act, and we have no wish to give M. Marat a triumph in the very face of justice.” Several propositions were then made, a resolution being ultimately passed that all the instigators of the riots should be, without distinction, cited before the ordinary tribunals. “Good,” exclaimed Marat, “then pass an Act of Accusation against myself, that the Convention may prove it is devoid of all shame.” It was ultimately adopted, amid great excitement, that Marat should be sent, with the remaining accused, before the ordinary tribunals, though the executive power, in as far as the former was concerned, did not pursue the matter any further. The two following numbers of the Journal de la République are devoted to explanations of his conduct, and to a discussion on the causes of the famine.

“The cause of this scourge which distresses us lies in the mass of paper money (assignats), of which the value diminishes in inverse ratio to its multiplication. Now, diminution in value implies an increase in the price of necessaries; soon they will be so high that it will be impossible for the indigent to obtain them ... I foresaw these disorders three years ago [3], and I then did all in my power to oppose the system of assignats – above all, of assignats of small value. It is not by petty expedients that one succeeds in remedying the unfortunate consequences of a fundamentally vicious measure. The only effectual one is that which I proposed at the time, viz., to cancel the National Debt, by paying without delay the creditors of the State, each with a national bond rather than by setting afloat a large quantity of forced paper money, of which the inconvenience is the discredit, which the want of public confidence inseparable from it invariably entails,” &c., &c.


1. To show, however, that Marat had no bitter feeling against the royal personage, I may quote what he says in his journal when describing the trial: “Il s’est comporté à la barre avec décene. Qu’il aurait été grand a mes yeux s’il avait été innocent.” It is the man who wrote these words who is so often described as destitute of the commonest feelings of humanity.

2. Plan de Legislation Criminelle.

3. In his pamphlets against Neckar, and also in the Ami du Peuple.

Last updated on 15.7.2006