Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter V
Marat as Revolutionary Pamphleteer and Journalist

THE first writing of Marat’s with a direct bearing on the Revolution is his Offrande à la Patrie, a pamphlet of sixty-two pages, in which he addresses his fellow-citizens on the approaching elections for the States-General. This body, which had not been called together since 1614, was now about to be summoned as a last resort, to stave off the impending bankruptcy of the country. It was now the end of 1788. Marat, it should be observed, was about this date attacked by a malady, at that time believed to be incurable (pruritus), from which he suffered during the whole of his revolutionary career, as has been too often forgotten not only by his enemies, but by otherwise impartial writers, in estimating the bitterness of some of his pronouncements.

The miseries of the people are the subject of the first discourse of the Offrande. These miseries the author traces to the wickedness of finance-ministers: “Traitors to their master, traitors to their country, they have by their crimes compromised authority and brought the State to the verge of the abyss.” Citizens are cautioned to beware of their subterfuges and to have the courage to shake off the evils so heavily weighing upon them. The second discourse appeals for union and foresight. The third warns the people against credulity in the choice of representatives. “Banish from the arena imprudent and fiery youth ... Enlightenment and virtue are the indispensable qualities for a representative of the people.” And farther on we read: “The care of your fortunes, your liberty, your honour, the love of your families, your country, and your king, religion and the glory of the State, unite at this moment to solicit your prudence, to arm your virtue.” In the fourth discourse Marat returns to the delinquencies of the finance-ministers, who have ruined France. In the last discourse, the fifth, suggestions are made for the basis of a constitution. The author declares it a necessity that the nation assembled in its estates should assure without delay its sovereignty and its independence of all other human authority. It was necessary that they should choose a place of sitting and decide to meet at least once every three years. The nation through its representatives was alone the legitimate sovereign, the supreme legislator, and it was to it that the ministers ought to be responsible. It was indispensable that the States-General should elect a permanent committee to sit during the time they were not in session themselves.

This work, which was published in February 1789, was followed two months later, on the immediate eve of the elections, by a supplement of the same size as the original brochure. Its object was to call to the mind of the electors the three fundamental principles of public liberty – for individuals, sacred rights; for the nation, inflexible laws; for the Government, insurmountable barriers. France, he declares, requires a national council, clothed with sovereign authority, and a constitution wise, just, and free. Marat admits that this reform will probably cause some commotion in the body politic, but this must be risked, for no petty reforms will avail. He is aware, he says, “that there are some who think him too warm in the way he pleads the nation’s cause, but these are people insensible to public calamities, who, in face of the existing terrible situation, never preach anything but patience and resignation.” We may well disregard these cold-blooded persons. Marat is content “to have the good opinion of strong, brave, and generous men, determined to right the wrongs of the oppressed and bring order out of chaos.”

The second discourse of this supplement is relative to the letter of convocation to the States-General, the language of which he finds not that of a tender father to his children, but the imperious dictation of a prince who, because his affairs are out of order, is willing to consider his subjects’ grievances, on condition that they afford him, in their turn, the means of getting out of his difficulties. This, he thinks, is not a tone that augurs well for the intentions of the King and his advisers.

In his third discourse Marat deals with the rights and duties of the representatives. He warns the latter against placing overmuch confidence in designs from the throne. The purity of the King’s intentions must be shown by acts. He also foresees the attempt to make the three Estates hold their sessions separately, according to the old feudal practice. This “Gothic mode” of conducting national business, contrary as it is to reason, will never do any good. The States-General must deliberate as a united assembly with one president, which must not dissolve until it has mapped out the kingdom’s fundamental laws as they are to be in future.

The fourth and last discourse points out the advantages inevitably resulting from permanent national assemblies. The assembly of the nation’s representatives, rather than the irresponsible council of the King, must be the future government.

The reader will readily see that Marat, in the above appeal, forestalls the action of the Estates on assembling. It cannot be doubted that Marat’s publication had its influence in determining the question of the one chamber and the oath in the tennis-court, when the deputies swore to remain assembled till they had given France a Constitution.

The next act in the revolutionary drama was the taking of the Bastille. What part did Marat play in this act? His enemies have sought to accuse him of cowardice, because, we suppose, he was not the first in the breach or at the drawbridge. Considering what Marat dared and braved during the following four years, such an accusation is absurd on the face of it, and only shows that any stick is good enough to beat Marat with. His own account of his conduct on the day in question is given in No.36 of the Ami du Peuple, and may be here quoted:- “At nightfall on the 14th of July, I circumvented the project of surprising Paris by introducing into the city by a ruse several regiments of dragoons and of German cavalry, of which a large detachment had been already received with acclamation. It had just reconnoitred the quartier St. Honore and was about to reconnoitre the quartier St. Germain, when I encountered it on the Pont Neuf, where it was halting to allow the officer in charge to harangue the multitude. The orator’s tone appeared to me suspicious. He announced as a piece of good news the speedy arrival of all the dragoons, all the hussars, and the royal German cavalry, who were about to unite themselves with the citizens in order to fight by their side. Such an obvious trap was not calculated to succeed. Although the speaker obtained for himself the applause of a large crowd in all the quarters where he had announced his information, I did not hesitate for an instant to regard him as a traitor. I sprang from the pavement and dashed through the crowd up to the horses’ heads. I stopped his triumphal progress by summoning him to dismount his troop and to surrender their arms, to be received again later on at the country’s hands. His silence left no doubt in my mind. I pressed the commandant of the city guard, who was conducting these horsemen, to assure himself of them. He called me a visionary; I called him a fool, and seeing no other means of circumventing their project, I denounced them to the public as traitors who had come to strangle us in the night. The alarm I caused by my lusty cries had its effect on the commandant, and my threatening him with denunciation decided him. He made the horsemen turn back and took them to the municipality, where they were requested to lay down their arms. On their refusing, they were sent back to their camp with a strong escort.”

Another reference of Marat’s to his conduct at the time in question is given in his Première Dénonciation contre M. Necker:– “From the Tuesday evening,” he there says, “the day of the taking of the Bastille, until the Friday evening, I did not leave the Comités des Carmes, [The Comité des Carmes, it should be observed, was one of the committees of the Paris districts elected for the purpose of electing the electors, who in their turn were to elect the deputy to act for them in the assembly of the States-General. These committees, which were only appointed for the special purpose in question, should in the natural course of things have dissolved, once their function was fulfilled. They decided, however, to remain in session, in order to watch their electors and deputies and the course of events generally.] of which I was a member. Obliged at last to take some repose, I did not reappear till the Sunday morning. The danger was no longer imminent, and I regarded things with a little more sang-froid. However important the occupations of a district commissioner might seem to me, I felt that they in no way suited a man of my character – a man who would not have accepted the place of first minister of finances even to save himself from dying of hunger. I proposed then to the Committee to have a printing-press and to permit me under its auspices to serve the country in chronicling the history of the Revolution, in preparing the plan of the municipal organisation, in following the work of the States-General. My proposal not proving to the taste of the majority, I regarded it as condemned, and persuaded of my perfect inaptitude for any other function, I resigned.”

Farther on, Marat continues:- “The plan that I proposed to the Comité des Carmes I executed in my own room at my own expense. My friends have done their utmost to prevent me from writing on current affairs. I have let them scream and have not feared to lose them. Finally, I have not hesitated to set the Government against me, the princes, the clergy, the nobility, the parlement, the badly-disposed districts, the état-majors of the mercenary guard, the councillors of the courts of judicature, the advocates, the procurators, the financiers, the speculators, the depreciators, the blood-suckers of the State, and the innumerable army of public enemies.”

From Marat’s proposition, following on the events of the 14th of July, originated his career as the journalist of the Revolution. Marat, as a matter of fact, henceforward disappeared not only from the Comité des Carmes, but from street agitation, and to a large extent from public meetings, devoting himself to his pen in the people’s cause. As we have already seen, some years before, when at the height of his popularity as a physician, he had expressed to Brissot his intention of abandoning medicine for scientific pursuits, so now he finally took his leave of solar microscopes and igneous fluids, to give his undivided energies – and what energies! – to that which until lately had been, after all, but a secondary occupation for him – revolutionary politics. Presumably out of the money he had acquired in the medical profession, he was enabled to start pamphlet-publishing and afterwards journalism. We may imagine that the expense of living in the French capital and of publishing unremunerative scientific works must at this time have considerably reduced his savings, and we have no reason to suppose that, even in his most flourishing years, he made any profitable investments.

In the interval that had elapsed between the opening of the States-General and the fall of the Bastille, Marat had, he relates, written twenty letters to the Assembly. These are no longer extant. About three weeks after his leaving the Comité des Carmes, he attempted to publish the first of a projected series of short essays on the labours of the Assembly. He could, however, find no printer or bookseller to take it up, such was the terror Lafayette and his police had inspired. The essay in question dealt with the events of the momentous summer-night of the 4th of August. On this night, as the reader will probably remember, in consequence of the reading of the report of a commission appointed to inquire into the agrarian and other disturbances that had been going on for weeks past throughout the length and breadth of France, a grand sweep of feudal institutions was made by the legislators of the States-General, now become the Constituent Assembly, sitting at Versailles. Deputies, nobles and commons, vied with each other in proposing the abolition of obnoxious relics of the Middle Ages and of subsequent despotism. Old corvée rights were extinguished; the game laws followed; the copyhold services, the tithes, the feudal rights of cities over their neighbouring rural districts were annulled; the papal dues were done away with. This night was described by Mirabeau as an orgy, and certainly there is no more remarkable one in the history of Parliaments. The self-sacrifice, real or apparent, of the liberal nobles in the Assembly in thus surrendering the legal rights of their class not merely with willingness, but with a kind of rapturous enthusiasm, naturally startled France and the world. Marat, however, was not so enthusiastic on the results of this sitting. “It is true,” says he, “that on the night of the 4th of August the following points were decided in principle: the abolition of seigneurial justice and of the right of perquisites; the renewal of the prohibition of the possession of more than one benefice at a time; the repurchase of seigneurial rights, of the rights of the clergy; the abolition of the rights of hunting and fishing; the permission to every citizen to kill game that injures his property; the suppression of rabbit warrens; the repurchase of banalités; the abolition of wardenships, of seigneurial titles, of the dove-cot, of the mortmain of Mont Jura and Franche-Comté, of all pensions not declared to be for proved services; the proportional assessment of all the taxes on land to six months retrospective; the exemption from all taxation of artisans who have no journeymen under them; the suppression of venality and of hereditary judicial offices; the admission of all classes of citizens to all posts, ecclesiastical, civil, and military; the suspension of all lawsuits concerning seigneurial rights, until the constitution is established; the abolition of all the privileges of the provinces, and their absolute submission to the laws and to the taxes decreed by the representatives of the nation.”

Marat, whilst acknowledging the claim of generosity and public spirit to popular admiration, continues:-"Let us indeed beware of outraging virtue; but let us not be dupes of any one. If beneficence dictated these sacrifices, it must be admitted that it has waited rather late to raise its voice. What! at the reflection of the flames of their burnt chateaux they have the magnanimity to renounce the privilege of holding in chains men who have recovered their liberty with arms in their hands! At the sight of the tortures of plunderers, of peculators, of the satellites of despotism, they have the generosity to renounce seigneurial tithes, and to exact nothing more from unfortunate men who have hardly enough to live upon! Hearing the names of the proscribed and seeing the fate that awaits them, they accord us the benefit of abolishing hunting-preserves, and thus permit us not to allow ourselves to be devoured by wild animals! Let us admit that they have done that from virtue which might so easily have been attributed to fear; but let us agree that the importance of these sacrifices, so much extolled in the first moment of enthusiasm, has been exaggerated!”

It is significant of Marat’s tolerance – or, perhaps we might say, sentimental regard – for all pertaining to religion that, in a footnote to the above, after he had suggested that the nobles had been actuated more by fear than virtue, he specially excepts from his suspicions the abandonment of certain rights, particularly of double benefices, “of which some virtuous curé’s had given the example.” He also excepts the consent of the Third Estate deputies to the abolition of the privileges of the towns and of the provinces. There is little doubt that in singling out the liberal nobles of the Assembly as the object of his strictures, Marat was on this occasion unfair. We may take it for granted that the nobles, no less than the other classes, on the memorable night of the 4th of August, were really carried away by a sudden epidemic of enthusiasm, and that their sacrifices were not all the result of calculating motives. The fact was, however, that Marat saw that the aristocratic element had been perpetually imposing its will on the Assembly, and was about to do so again, by forcing into the new Constitution that was being elaborated the clause giving the King absolute right of veto. “It is evident,” he writes, “that this odious faction has formed the project of opposing itself to the Constitution and of restoring to the King absolute power, luring the nation by the vain display of some illusory sacrifices, whilst scoring over the fundamental laws of the State which have to be confirmed.” Marat undoubtedly went too far in calling the sweeping changes made on this occasion “for the most part illusory.” This they certainly were not “for the most part,” although certain items, specially criticised by Marat, may deserve the epithet to some extent. It is also quite true that the fit of enthusiasm did not maintain itself, and that class-interest got the upper hand again within a day or two. And hence, from the politician’s point of view, rather than the psychologist’s, Marat’s caustic criticism appeared completely justified.

Marat endeavoured in vain to find a publisher for this pamphlet, which he proposed to issue under the name of Projet de leurrer le Peuple. Lafayette’s police had effectually intimidated printers and booksellers by the ordinances recently promulgated. Hence it was not until two or three weeks later that the above brochure saw the light in the pages of the Ami du Peuple. However, Marat, not to be outdone, published another pamphlet entitled Le Moniteur Patriote, which criticised Mounier’s projected constitution. The pamphlet was published in a form resembling the first number of a newspaper of the time, but no second number was ever published by him, although it was carried up to the fortieth number by other hands. It was followed in a few days by a thick quarto pamphlet bearing the title, Projet de Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, suivi d’un Plan de Constitution juste, sage et libre. In this work Marat lays down the basis of a constitution founded on his Rousseauite principles. Man has in a “state of nature” neither social rights nor social duties. His one right and his one duty is self-preservation. For him all that conduces to this end is justifiable. The pact social, however, whilst imposing upon him duties and obligations towards others and towards the State as a whole, only does so on the condition of the better guaranteeing of his original right of self-preservation. In a well-regulated society extreme differences in the fortunes of its members would not exist. A “rigorous equality”, however, Marat thinks, could no more obtain in Society than in Nature. “Heaven,” he says, “has given different individuals different degrees of sensibility, intelligence, imagination, industry, and power.”

In blissful ignorance of later developments of the capitalistic system, Marat assumes that extreme wealth must almost necessarily be the result of “intrigue, charlatanry, favour, malversations, vexations, rapine”, rather than the outcome of a nominally free contract between economically unequal “parties”. But whatever differences there may be in fortunes, it is an axiom with Marat that no citizen should be left without the means of living, and hence that it is just to tax the rich, at least to this extent, for the benefit of the poor. In fact, the modern ideas of a progressive income-tax on an ascending scale would undoubtedly have met with a defender in Marat. The right to live, the right to liberty, the right to equality before the law, and, further, the right of insurrection when and where authority infringed these inalienable rights of man, form the basis. With Marat, as Bougeart has justly observed, there is no question of the mere right of the majority. The Rights of Man, being anterior in origin to civil society, take precedence of all the institutions of civil society. No majority, however large, can be justified in enslaving a minority or in trampling on its rights. Here we have a distinct advance on Rousseau, with whom the right of the majority within civil society was supreme. Organised civil society forms, according to our author, a distinct body. The only true sovereign is the sum of the members of this society, or the people taken collectively, although, taken individually, each member is a subject. This sovereign is independent of all human power, and enjoys absolute liberty. Its will is law, and the authority it exercises is the legislative power. The whole nation is thus the true and only Legislator, just as it is the true and only State. “The sole barriers of the sovereign are the natural and civil rights, which it may never injure, for these rights are more sacred than even the fundamental laws of the State.”

Applying these principles, Marat finds that every citizen can claim the suffrage as birthright. But the power that the sovereign people confides to its representatives is no more than a terminable commission. Hence, the people has the right to give imperative mandates, to revoke the powers of a deputy when he abuses them, and to punish him. The executive power ought to be strictly separated from the legislative. The executive ought to be deprived of all means of influencing. elections. The legislature ought to have the right of assembly unconvoked by the executive. The sanction of the prince to its decrees ought to be a simple formality. The magistrates and judges, as guardians of the civil rights of citizens, must be independent of the executive power. The latter, in fact, ought, strictly speaking, to be limited in its functions to external or foreign affairs. All the rest ought to be regulated by municipalities. The army should be nothing more than a numerous national militia, in which every citizen of good name should be enrolled. The great cities should be supplied with artillery, and the troops they contain should be solely at the disposal of the elected municipal magistrates. As will be seen here, Marat forestalls many of the political planks in the programme of the modern Socialist party. His whole treatise is pervaded with a sense of the fact that the great enemy the people have to dread is that government or executive power they may have themselves created, and that this is in most cases more to be feared than a foreign foe.

In religion, Marat would tolerate all creeds, “except that which would sap society” – a highly dangerous waver-clause! All the peoples of the earth have one religion, but their chiefs have woven a subtle bond to enchain them. As to the Catholic clergy, they have found the secret of erecting themselves into a sacred hierarchy, to attract respect to themselves by vain pomp, to make for themselves a rich patrimony from the credulity of the people, to live in idleness, luxury, and pleasures, and to consume the substance of the poor. It is time to stop this scandal, to recall the higher clergy to the spirit of the creed they profess, and to make them return to the poor the goods they have so shamefully taken from them. With all his toleration, Marat postulates a national religion. In conclusion he sums up the principles of his constitution with the words:- “The social pact being a reciprocal engagement, into which all the members of the State enter, if the citizen wishes others to respect his rights, he ought to respect theirs in return.”

We have now given a sketch of the salient points in the last important essay of Marat in constructive politics. Shortly after its publication, on the 8th of September 1789, the prospectus of Marat’s first journalistic venture was distributed in the streets of Paris. It bore the title, Le Publiciste parisien, journal politique, libre et impartial, par une société de patriotes, et redigé par M. Marat, auteur de l’Offrande à la Patrie, du Moniteur, du Plan de Constitution,” etc. etc. It also had appended to it Marat’s favourite epitaph, which he had probably adopted from Rousseau: Vitam impendere vero. Marat’s recent pamphlets had paved the way for the new journal, and considerable curiosity was excited by it. Later, in the Journal de la République, No.46, he expounded the principles which ought to actuate a patriotic journalist, and which he had doubtless formulated to himself on entering his new career. He was to scorn delights and live laborious days. He must be filled with an indomitable courage, to brave the hatred of those in power. He must despise the calumnies of which he will find himself the object. Finally, he must carry self-abnegation to the point of heroism, be prepared for every privation, contumely, and suffering, “be ready to spill his blood, drop by drop, to expose himself to perish miserably upon the scaffold, for the salvation of an ignorant and misguided people, who too often disdain him, who even outrage him sometimes, and by whom he is almost always misunderstood.”

In the opening number of the Publiciste he declares: “However severe my pen may be, it will be only to be dreaded by vice, and even as regards scoundrels it will respect truth.” The first few numbers dealt with the then all-absorbing questions of the Constitution, of one Assembly or two, of the King’s Veto.

From the sixteenth number, the Publiciste parisien was rechristened by its owner the Ami du Peuple, a name that has ever since been a synonym for Marat himself. Thus named, the paper became the most important organ of the thoroughgoing side of the Revolution, until the opening of the Convention. Already at the thirteenth number, the publication had become a power, for in this issue we find Marat defending himself not against the avowed enemies of the Revolution, but against its milk-and-water friends, who wished to temper his zeal. “They admit,” he says, “that I am right in attacking the corrupt faction that is dominant in the National Assembly, but they wish me to do so with moderation. It is like arraigning a soldier who is fighting against perfidious enemies.” Shortly after this, Marat received his first summons to appear before the police tribunal. Two months had not elapsed from the founding of the paper before a second arrived. In consequence, the words that had appeared originally under the paper’s title, “by a society of patriots,” were struck out, Marat not wishing to risk implicating others in the further prosecutions which he knew awaited the journal.

The Ami du Peuple was never a newspaper in the modern sense. The modern “newspaper” with its leading articles was not as yet fully evolved out of the “pamphlet”. The eight small octavo pages which usually composed it were made up almost exclusively of criticisms and remarks on current events written by Marat himself. It was, in fact, rather a daily pamphlet than a journal in the modern acceptation of the word. Notwithstanding its being written by one hand, which, one would have thought, might often prove unequal to the task of filling up the quota of “copy,” on many occasions it had to be enlarged to twelve, and sometimes even sixteen, pages. It must not be forgotten that the hand was the hand of a Titan amongst the political writers of all time. At one period, indeed, Marat attempted what was an obviously impossible tour de force. Finding even an enlarged Ami du Peuple an insufficient medium for his overflowing zeal, he started a second paper in June 1790, which he called the Junius français. The venture, however, as might have been expected, proved beyond the powers of even Marat, and the Junius français had to be stopped at the thirteenth number. It is significant of the difficulties of popular journalism under the regime of Lafayette, that during the ephemeral existence of the Junius Marat had to change his printer four times. From the first, the Ami du Peuple repeatedly refers to Marat’s previous substantive works, especially to the Plan de Legislation criminelle and to the Plan de Constitution. Marat’s whole journalistic career was, in fact, little more than a commentary and application of the principles he had enunciated before entering upon it.

The only portion of the Ami du Peuple not written by Marat himself was devoted to letters he was constantly receiving from the victims of official tyranny in some form or shape. His zeal for the righting of private wrongs was only equalled by his enthusiasm in dealing with public abuses. These letters, of which there are between three and four thousand in all in the files of the journal, are in many cases of considerable interest. Bougeart remarks (vol. i., p.199) that he was at first inclined to doubt the authenticity of some of these letters, on the ground of a certain similarity amongst them, until he discovered Marat’s explanation in No. 246 of the Ami, wherein he says: “It need surprise no one to find the same style in most of the letters that I publish: the limited space of my journal obliges me to edit them, so as to retain no more than their substance. For the rest, I accept the responsibility for certain epithets which I have retouched to adapt them to the subject.”

As an illustration of the personal grievances of which the, “People’s Friend” was the recipient, we give an extract from the Ami of the 5th of January 1790 (No.88). “Last Friday afternoon, about three o'clock, the Sister Catherine, nun at the Abbaye de Cantenont, 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 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 assist her with my advice. Her open and unaffected manner, the tone of sorrow in her voice, and her ingenuousness, indicating a simple and honest soul, inspired me with interest on her behalf. I inquired the cause of her misfortunes. She told 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, Sister, that drove you to such a bold step?” “The bad treatment I was continually made to suffer in the convent.” “From whom, may I ask?’ ‘From the Mesdames de Cherie de Creveton, and even more from Madame de Betisi, my mistress.” “What was this bad treatment?” “I have been ceaselessly worried, many times beaten, and kept at penitence until my knees were quite lacerated.” “You seem to be 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 was due to 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 Varies ... Being unable to persuade myself that petty jealousies alone had been the occasion of such inhuman conduct, but readily guessing from the resolute manner of Anne Barbier (such was the nun’s name) 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 ask 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 spoken, Sister, in the presence of these ladies, on the subject of public affairs?” “Oh, very often; I have even argued with them. The day the Bastille was taken they exclaimed, when they saw the citizens running 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 reply; ‘do you know what you are saying?’ Each time that there has been a disturbance in Paris we have recommenced our disputes.” After this simple exposure of facts, it is clear that the Sister Catherine, given over to the mercy of these kind aristocrats, has become, by reason of her patriotic sentiments, the object of their petty revenge, covered with the veil of hypocrisy.

Here are other extracts, showing the nature of the cases taken up by Marat. A commissary of police, having seduced the wife of a harpsichord-maker, abused his position to have the latter dragged off to the prison of Bicêtre. After vividly depicting the man’s utter ruin, Marat concludes as follows:–

“The Sieur Heintzler lodges in the Rue St. Jacques de Latran, etc. As his barbarous persecutor, after the horrors he has already perpetrated, 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.” Some sailors on the coast of Newfoundland were ill-treated by their officers. Marat writes: “At the thought of such ferocity one’s heart is wrung with sorrow and shocked with indignation. One shivers at the fate of these hapless victims of cupidity and cruelty; one burns with fury against their horrible oppressors.”

The “People’s Friend” exacted the usual “name”, etc., from his correspondents as “a guarantee of good faith,” but they were generally suppressed in publication. Initials, however, were often given. It was obvious that, having taken upon himself this delicate journalistic task, Marat was specially liable to have attempts made to dupe him by the enemies of the Revolution. A number of these attempts he was successful in unmasking, although doubtless he occasionally fell into a trap of the kind. Many of them, however, were particularly fatuous. Thus, on one occasion, he received a circumstantial letter detailing a projected Royalist conspiracy, the first act of which had been the burying of a large number of arms at Vincennes, and to effectually prevent any danger of the affair being revealed, the subsequent poisoning at a supper of all the workmen engaged in the operation. To this Marat replied: “However clever the correspondent may think himself, the advice he gives to the ‘People’s Friend’ is too improbable not to appear suspicious and even false. I invite such worthy persons ... not to play with the ‘People’s Friend’. He will never be their dupe.”

Amongst various means resorted to by the Royalist party to discredit the Ami and its editor, the most vexatious was the printing of bogus numbers of the paper. Some of these represented Marat as having changed his attitude, as defending some act of the ministry or as putting in a word in favour of some reactionary law. Even the one-time President of the Assembly, Clermont-Tonnerre, was not ashamed to perpetrate this kind of forgery. Later on, Bailly, Lafayette, and Roland, by means of their agents, had recourse to the same ignoble device (Bougeart, vol. i. p. 207). On one occasion, in September 1790, a pamphlet that excited some attention was published under the name of Marat, entitled Lettre au Roi, ou l’.Ami du Peuple au Père du Peuple. Respecting this Marat writes, in No.24 of the Ami: “Only an imbecile could suspect me of royalism. I am represented as carrying my complaints of my persecutors to the Prince. He is the last man, after his ministers, to whom I should think of speaking about them.” He continues: “I am very far from expecting the nation’s welfare from the monarch, I who regard him as its eternal enemy. Louis XVI is, in my eyes, covered with the blood of the patriots of Nancy, [The celebrated affair of Nancy is referred to in the next chapter.] having applauded their executioner; as long as I live, I will not cease to lay that crime at his door.”

Modern writers, with the object of injuring Marat, have sometimes taken these sham Amis as really emanating from him. On his return from London in 1790, Marat records that he found four sheets of this description in circulation. All this shows, if nothing else, the prodigious influence of Marat’s paper on the course of public events. The “People’s Friend” himself gives general hints as to how to tell the sham from the true Amis. “I notify my readers, friends of liberty,” he says, “that they may distinguish my paper from the false Amis du Peuple, published under my name, by the fact that their authors are humbugs (endormeurs), who always preach peace, tolerance of factious priests, patience under the outrages of public functionaries, submission to laws however bad, blind obedience of soldiers to their officers; humbugs, who have to be silent on the prevarications and conspiracies of those who mislead the people, of the National Assembly, of the Municipality, of the Departments, of the Etat major of the General (Lafayette), which I am ceaselessly denouncing whilst sounding the tocsin; humbugs, who do nothing but declaim against the Jacobins, the fraternal Societies, the Club of the Cordeliers, against whom I never say anything except it be to condemn their inaction and cowardice” (Ami, No.448).

Other imitations there were, made simply for the purposes of gain, and consisting of rechauffées of old articles by Marat. As Bougeart justly remarks, the true touchstone of Marat’s journalistic handiwork is its agreement or disagreement with his three constructive treatises – the Plan de Legislation, the Offrande à la Patrie, and the Plan de Constitution, of which treatises his journalism was merely the application and commentary.

The unceasing exhortations to watchfulness, the endless denunciations of those in office, render a perusal of the Ami du Peuple somewhat tedious reading. Yet how necessary these exhortations were, and how well-founded the suspicions on which the denunciations were based, can only be appreciated by one who has closely followed the political and social history of that remarkable transition in France when the Old Regime, with all its bureaucratic traditions, handed down in spirit if not in letter to its immediate successors of the “constituent” period, was struggling with the new order of things inaugurated by the Revolution.

Marat’s first summons was received on the 25th of September from one of the functionaries of the Paris Municipality, at the head of which were Lafayette and Bailly. The same evening he presented himself at the Hotel de Ville, where he remained five hours without obtaining an audience. Next day he again repaired to the municipal headquarters, and waited with the same result. The day following, a note appeared in the Ami in these words; “Your occupations are doubtless infinite, and mine are none the less so, and they much more concern the public welfare. I am the eye of the people; you are at most the little finger. Hence, be satisfied that, jealous of my time, I await at home further orders.” A day or two after (Ami, No.19), we read as follows: “To-day I receive a new order from the Municipality of Paris. I shall show the same deference to these gentlemen as before; I shall repair to the Hotel de Ville. I do not know what they want with me, but I have a new subject of complaint against them. I invoke the rights and citizenship which they have violated, the interests of the people which they have sacrificed, in causing certain numbers of this journal to be seized some days ago by their patrols from the hands of the news-vendors ... Read then, blind soldiers, these writings the salutary influence of which you obstruct, and tremble with horror at serving as the instrument of tyranny in crushing the only defender left to you! “

Finally, on the 30th of September, Marat again presented himself at the Hotel de Ville, and almost immediately afterwards appeared before the members of the Commune, or Municipality, of Paris. The mayor Bailly told him that his journal had been formally denounced, on the ground of its incendiary character, by the district of the Filles St. Thomas. “I should not have believed the thing possible,” says Marat in his journal, “had I not remembered that the district is one peopled by the hangers-on of the money-market – bankers, financiers, agioteurs, that is to say, of men who live on the ruin of others, who drink the blood of peoples, and whose rapacity – true scourge of humanity – is one of the chief causes of the public misery.” Marat relates that he produced, in justification of his attitude, a letter non-suspect that he had received, praying him to denounce publicly one of the members of the Constituent Assembly. This letter, he says, contained “grave facts.” He also admitted having denounced another member, not on moral grounds, but on the ground of his incapacity for his functions. One of the municipal councillors then reproached him with certain articles, and warned him of the danger of destroying confidence in an Assembly which was destined to effect the salvation of France. The councillor at the same time expressed his belief in the patriotic intention of Marat’s exertions. To this Marat relates that he rejoined: “Ah! can you doubt it, Monsieur? I will not tell you in reply that, since the loss of my little fortune, I live economically in a humble retreat; I will not tell you that for nine months I have kept to bread and water, to provide the cost of printing which has become enormous, and to serve my country with my pen; but what other motive than the purest love of humanity could induce a man of discretion, without intrigues, without partisanship, without ambition, one who wishes for no active part in public affairs, to expose himself to the revengeful blows of the rascals whom he pursues, to sacrifice his livelihood, to devote himself to death?”

In the course of this interview, the “People’s Friend” denounced the corruption in various State departments to the city councillors present. He was heard, it would seem, not altogether without sympathy by some of them. At all events, no further steps were taken at the time. As regards this incident, Marat’s appreciation of the character of the ci-devant astronomer and now mayor of Paris, Bailly, is interesting. “I recognise in Monsieur Bailly a distinguished savant, and I readily credit him with all the domestic virtues, but it is with regret that I see him at the head of the Municipality. He has passed his life in studying the exact sciences, but is little versed in public affairs, and he is attached to the Government by benefits that delicacy ought to bid him sacrifice the moment he has decided to devote himself to the service of his country.” How true this estimate was of the old eighteenth-century man of science subsequent events only too clearly prove. Bailly, from sheer timidity and want of backbone, allowed himself to be dragged at the tail of all the intrigues and rascalities of Lafayette and his following, and we may regret, but cannot wonder, that he ultimately found his way to the guillotine.

Among the numerous letters addressed by Marat to the Constituent Assembly in the summer and autumn of 1789, one only has remained to us in its entirety, having been subsequently published by Marat. It was written during the heat of the great debates on the Constitution which occupied the Assembly sittings during August, was presented on the 23rd of that month, and bore the title Tableau des Vices de la Constitution anglaise, which was followed by the declaration of its being designed to cause the avoidance of a “series of rocks-ahead in the Government which our deputies are desirous of giving to France.” After sketching the dangers of the English oligarchy, Marat offers as prophylactic, or as remedy, as the case might be, the following measures:- (i.) To merge close boroughs in the adjoining county representation; (ii.) to take away from the crown the right of making peers, and to confirm it on Parliament under certain restrictions; (iii.) to turn all placed men out of Parliament; (iv.) to render the accounts of the State subject to examination and audit, on the motion of any three members. These measures, which Marat had already proposed for the consideration of the English political clubs in 1774, as an appendix to his Chains of Slavery, he reproduces in the present document for the benefit of the Constitution-makers of France. He alleges that, when first published in England, his suggestions caused general fermentation, producing a sudden demand for parliamentary reform, which became in consequence the favourite toast of the popular clubs. The third of the proposed measures, he said, had been passed, and so, he adds, would the others be in good time. Anglomania was at this time rampant in France, and the English Constitution was being lauded by many of the members of the Constituent Assembly as the perfection of wisdom. The advocates of two chambers were indeed continually calling to their aid the analogy of England. The dominant party in the Assembly, of which Moonier was President at the time, were, in fact, contemplating imposing upon France an exact copy of the English Constitution. Marat’s exposure of the vices of this much-belauded model came therefore by no means too soon. The document undoubtedly had its effect. It was about this time that Marat replied to the projected Constitution drawn up by Moonier and his Committee-men by his own Plan de Constitution which we have just now noticed.

From an Oil Painting by Langlois, pupil of David. Presented by M. Chevremont to M. G. Pilotelle in 1898.


Last updated on 21.6.2003