Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter VIII

Early in March the Journal de la République ceased to exist, owing to the fact that Lacroix accused its editor of carrying on a profession – that of journalist – while he was at the same time fulfilling the office of deputy to the Convention, it being illegal for a deputy to engage in any other avocation. Marat deftly parried this stroke by altering the name of his paper to that of Publiciste de la République Française; Observations aux Français, de Marat, Ami du Peuple, Deputé à la Convention Nationale. Of course no one could object to a deputy merely publishing his observations to his constituents, so with this the matter dropped.

A singular incident occurred at the sitting of the 13th of March. A section of volunteers presented itself at the bar of the Convention, demanding amongst other things a decree of accusation against Dumouriez and his état major; this would have been the height of inexpediency inasmuch as Dumouriez was just at this time in the midst of his conquests, being about to enter Holland. Marat, commenting on the object of this deputation remarked, “I have already exposed these atrocious plots, the political liaisons of Dumouriez, his relations with the court, nevertheless I regard him as intimately bound up with the public safety since the 10th of August, and more particularly since the head of the tyrant has fallen beneath the sword of the law. He is bound to us by the success of his arms, and I appear in this tribune to combat this insensate motion, as well as to raise my voice against perfidy towards a general.” If the proposition were adopted, it would be equivalent to opening our doors to the enemy; passing on to another part of the petition, he says,

“I demand that the petitioners read the article of their petition in which they desire the heads of Gensonne, Negniard, and Guadet (Girondin deputies), atrocious crime tending to the dissolution of the Convention, and the loss of the country (unanimous applause). I have already raised my voice against these assassins. I have been to the popular society of the Cordeliers; I have there preached, and confounded these orators led on by the aristocracy.”

At an early opportunity, however, he again mounted the tribune to expose the dangers menacing the country from the Girondin party, which he supposed meditated a coup d’état. This incident is a good one as exhibiting Marat in his true light, not as painted by prejudiced historians – a man whose sole aim was the salvation of liberty – not a mere partisan but capable of calmly estimating what was expedient as well as what was just.

It was not long after this that the final breach between Mountain and Gironde took place. The last important act of the Girondin administration was the accusation and trial of Marat. It had been their aim as we have seen, to bring this about, ever since the opening of’ the Convention, and after the expiration of six months they succeeded. Marat had for a month past written repeatedly and with increasing severity against the chicanery of the Girondin faction, and in No.156 of the Publiciste had drawn a parallel between its conduct and that of Dumouriez who had, by this time, reached the lowest stage of his unpopularity, having fled across the frontier and been declared hors de la loi. On the 8th of April a deputation from the section Bon Conseil entered the Hall of the Convention to petition for the accusation of certain prominent Girondin deputies. Paris was shortly to pronounce the fate of the whole party, but it did not contemplate succumbing without a desperate struggle. In the debate which followed the presentation of the petition, Guadet, one of the deputies designated therein, said:–

“Listen to what Marat says after the scenes of the pillage of the provision shops. ‘One has indeed reason to be astonished that the people should have risen for sugar and coffee. When the people do rise, it is necessary for them to be terrible in their vengeances, so many enemies have they to overthrow.’”

Guadet then read a manifesto of Marat evoked by Dumouriez’s threat to march on Paris delivered on the 27th of March, and by his subsequent desertion:–

“Friends, we are betrayed! To arms! To arms! The hour has come when the defenders of the country must either conquer, or bury themselves beneath the ashes of the Republic. Frenchmen, never was your liberty in greater peril. Our enemies have now put the finishing stroke to their perfidies, and to consummate them. Dumouriez, their accomplice, is about to march upon Paris. The manifest treason of the generals in league with him has not admitted of a doubt, no more than that the plan of rebellion, together with his insolent boldness, are directed by the criminal faction, which has, until the decisive moment, maintained him, and which has deceived us as to his conduct; the menaces, the defeats, the plots of this traitor, of whose villainy in placing under arrest four commissioners of the Convention, which he would have attempted to dissolve, are sufficiently well known. But brothers and friends, your greatest dangers are in the midst of you. It is in the Senate that parricidal hands would tear out your vitals! Yes, the counter revolution is in the Government, in the National Convention. But already indignation inflames your courageous citizenship. Come, then Republicans, let us arm!”

On the conclusion of the quotation, Marat contented himself with the simple words, “It is true.”

A general shout of “to the Abbaye!” resounded from all sides.

Valazé observed that the address was being circulated in the departments under the signature of Marat.

“What is the use of this talk?” Marat exclaims.

“They seek to deceive you with a chimerical conspiracy, in order to smother up a conspiracy unhappily too real. Dumouriez has himself put the seal to it, in declaring his intention of marching on Paris to secure the triumph of the faction calling itself the only rational party in the Assembly, against the patriots of the Mountain.”

Danton then spoke, urging the sacredness of a deputy and suggesting that the accusations of Marat against the Girondin, and of the Girondins against Marat, should be alike referred to a committee for consideration and concluding, “If Marat be culpable, he has no intention of escaping you.” Fearing lest the opportunity of realising their intentions should slip out of their hands, the Girondins rallied to the charge in the person of their deputy, Fonfrède, who, in a violent speech, after accusing Marat of every conceivable journalistic crime, moved a decree of accusation. After considerable discussion the decree was referred to a committee for consideration, and Marat voted meanwhile under provisional arrest at the Abbaye; amid emphatic expressions of dissent from the tribunes. A copy of the decree was immediately handed to the chief official on guard in the hall. Patriots on all sides descended to the body of the building. They declared the “People’s Friend” should not be summarily arrested. The sentinels endeavoured to prevent his leaving the hall. The officer in possession of the decree was fetched. It was found unsigned either by the President or the Minister of Justice, and was therefore invalid. Thereupon the accused left, accompanied by a large crowd.

It must be remembered, that the manifesto to the departments respecting the traitor Dumouriez, constituted the main count in the indictment as submitted to the committee for consideration. The following day, on the reporter reading this to the Convention, it was greeted with unanimous applause from the Mountain, large numbers of deputies crowding to the bureau to affix their signatures to it. The Girondin conspirators had conjectured that it might possibly have to be erased from the charge sheet, so they had supplemented it with two new counts of accusation; the first based on an article recommending the dissolution of the Convention, and the second on the old affair of the forestallers unsuccessfully handled by them on a former occasion. The voting took place by Appel nominal and the decree of accusation was carried by a large majority. Marat still continued the publication of his paper, although daily expecting a summons. This did not arrive till the 22nd, and then only on great pressure from without, as the Girondists were anxious to postpone the hearing of the case till they could “pack” the tribunal with their own men. On the morning of the 23rd, a notice of the fact appeared in the Publiciste,

“People, to-morrow your incorruptible defender will present himself before the Revolutionary tribunal. He has always wished your happiness, his innocence will triumph. His enemies will be confounded. He will come out of the struggle more worthy of you and will console himself in this new trouble by the hope of the advantages the cause of liberty will derive from it.”

On the evening of the 23rd Marat constituted himself a prisoner. He was accompanied by numerous colleagues of the Convention, and by a Colonel of the National Guard, &c.

The next day, the 24th, the trial came on. The hall of the tribunal was early crowded, many persons having remained from over night, to ensure for themselves good places. On the proceedings commencing, Marat introduced himself with the words:

“Citizens, it is not a criminal whom you see before you, it is the apostle and martyr of liberty; it is only a group of factious persons and intriguers, who have obtained this decree of accusation against me.”

The act was then read and the witnesses proceeded to be examined. The audience at one time applauding, the prisoner turned to them and said,

“Citizens! My cause is yours. I defend my country; I request you to preserve the most profound silence, to deprive our enemies of the opportunity of saying that the court has been influenced in any way.”

On being asked by the president whether he had any remark to make, he recounted in a short and concise speech, his various services to the revolution, from the publication of the Chains of Slavery up to that moment. Examined as to each article of the indictment, he refuted the idea of there being any criminal intention in aught he had written, and when asked finally whether he had anything further to say in his justification, he ruthlessly criticised and exposed the administration of the Girondins – especially their conduct towards the chiefs of the Mountain, the Commune, and the Sections. He also dwelt on the fact that his accusers had been compelled by popular pressure to abandon the original basis of the indictment and to substitute for these two new charges (or, rather, old charges revived) which had nothing to do with it, thereby exhibiting the malicious intent actuating them.

“Full of confidence in the judgment, equity, and good citizenship of the tribunal, I myself desire the most rigid examination of this affair. Strong in the testimony of my conscience as to the rectitude of my intentions, and the purity of my citizenship, I do not ask indulgence, but only the most rigid justice ... I desire a consecutive reading of the denounced numbers, for it is not from isolated and excised passages that one can judge the meaning of an author; it is only by reading what precedes and what follows, that we can estimate his intentions rightly ... If, after such a perusal, there remain any doubts, I am here to dispose of them.”

The President then put the usual questions to the jury, who, after an absence of three-quarters of an hour, returned with an acquittal couched in the most laudatory terms. Marat, turning to the Court, said,

“Citizen jurors, and judges who compose the revolutionary tribunal, the lot of the traitors to the nation is in your hands protect the innocent and punish the guilty, and the country, will be saved.”

Scarcely was the acquittal pronounced than shouts of applause resounded from court, from staircase, from ante-chambers, and from corridors. As the news spread, the crowds outside in the street took up the joyful acclamation, and it was with difficulty the “People’s Friend” resisted being borne aloft shoulder high by enthusiastic patriots. Crowds thronged the streets between the Palais de Justice and the hall of the Convention. A chair was procured, and the “People’s Friend” was carried along amid deafening cheers, crowned with oak garlands (which he was compelled to wear, notwithstanding his having repudiated them when first offered). Never was such a triumph known before in Paris. The crowds reached the Convention doors, forced their way in, and bore Marat to President Lasource’s chair. A sapper named Rocher took upon himself the part of spokesman, and thus addressed him –

“Citizen President, we return to you our brave Marat. We know well how to confound all his enemies. I have already defended him at Lyons, and I shall defend him here, and the first who would take the head of Marat, must first take the head of the sapper.”

Permission to defile was accorded; men, women, and children rushed in shouting, “Long live the Republic, the Mountain and Marat.”

Marat ascended the tribune.

“Legislators, the proofs of good citizenship and of joy which resound throughout this building, are a homage rendered to the National representation, to a colleague in whose person the sacred rights of a deputy have been violated. I have been perfidiously inculpated; a solemn judgment has assured the triumph of my innocence; I bring you back a pure heart, and I shall continue to defend ‘the rights of man,’ of the citizens and of the people with all the energy nature has given me.”

From that day the fate of the Gironde was practically sealed. The people of Paris had recognised at last their friend at his true worth. His accusers, who would have killed him, lifted him instead to the pinnacle of popularity. Paris rang with his praises, and not merely Paris, for congratulations poured in on all sides from the departments.

Last updated on 15.7.2006