Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter VI
Marat as a Political Power
(Part 1)

AMONG the revolutionary days of 1789, the 5th and 6th of October, the upshot of the events of which was the coming of the Constituent Assembly and the Royal family to Paris, are by no means the least important, and in the preparing of those events Marat’s journalism played an important part.

This insurrectionary movement, called by Carlyle the “Insurrection of Women”, had as its immediate cause the bread-famine then prevalent in Paris; the working-women, the dames des halles, rose under the leadership of the eccentric revolutionary amazon, Théroigne de Mericourt, demanding bread and the return of the King to Paris, which it was supposed would cause the price of bread to go down, or at least be a guarantee of good faith. The growing distrust of the possible action of the Court had culminated when news was received of the banquet that was held on the 1st of October in the Palace of Versailles by the Royal Bodyguard; on which occasion the national tri-colour cockade was torn off and trampled under foot, and the white cockade of the Ancien Regime was donned in its place. Insults to the national emblems, and to those who wore them, continued throughout the following day. This, coming on the top of famine, naturally infuriated the populace of the capital. Now for three weeks past the question of the bread-famine, and of the necessity of having the Court under the people’s eye in the heart of the metropolis, had been among the daily themes of the Ami du Peuple, hence Marat is justly credited with having been one of the most potent influences in bringing about the occurrences in question. The story of the events of the 5th and 6th of October are to be found in every history of the French Revolution. The aimless riot begun by the women was given aim and direction by Maillard, the Bastille hero; the aim was the Court and the direction Versailles. The women, still led by Théroigne, carrying a drawn sword in her hand, and accompanied by a crowd of male Parisians, followed Maillard along the Versailles road. Lafayette, wishing to play the part of the saviour of the King in the nick of time, rather than prevent the attack on the Palace, delayed the pursuit till later in the afternoon. Drenched, and covered with mud, the crowd reached Versailles, demanding bread and the entry of the Royal family into Paris.

It is unnecessary to go into details of the events of that day and the following night. Enough to say that the virtual siege of the Palace by the Parisian crowd continued throughout the afternoon and evening, and that in the morning, about five o’clock, the entry was effected through an unguarded door. The crowd streamed in, and the King and Queen narrowly escaped. Lafayette, who had been roused from his slumbers, succeeded in inducing the King to appear with his wife and children on the balcony, where he announced, through Lafayette, his intention of complying with the popular demands. The Royal family, in fact, left Versailles that afternoon, followed later on by Lafayette, on his white horse, the National Guard, and the remnant of the Paris populace that had remained behind. Marat was naturally delighted at the success of the movement, the objects of which, by his persistent agitation far days past in his journal, he had been largely instrumental in bringing about. The next day we read in the Ami du Peuple:

The King, Queen, and Dauphin arrived in the capital about seven o’clock last night. It is indeed a festival for the good Parisians to possess their King. His presence will promptly change the face of things: the poor people will no longer die of hunger; but this benefit will soon vanish like a dream if we do not fix the Royal family in our midst until the complete consecration of the Constitution. The “People’s Friend” shares in the joy of his dear fellow-citizens, but he will not give himself over to sleep.

And, in fact, Marat did not give himself over to sleep, for we find in the following numbers of the journal no slackening of the defiance against the Government and all those in authority which had been the characteristic of the Ami du Peuple from the beginning.

Now it so happened that a warrant had been issued by the Court of the Châtelet for the arrest of Marat on the very day of the King’s arrival in Paris, though owing to events it was not executed on that day. The fact was that those members (the majority) of the Municipal Council who had come off second best in their tussle with Marat, as narrated in the preceding chapter, were determined to pay him out on the first opportunity. The opportunity presented itself on the occasion of an attack made by Marat on one of the Secretaries of the Municipality, by name Joly. An individual in whose word Marat placed confidence had come to him, accusing the Sieur Joly of falsification of a document. This Marat, as was his custom, published in the next day’s Ami. But the accusation in this case proved to be unfounded. Here, therefore, a fine opening was presented for the renewal of the attack on the redoubtable journalist, so little beloved by those in place and power. Hence, though the particular mandate issued for the 6th had to lapse, the Court immediately renewed it for the 8th. The Court of the Châtelet, it may be remarked, was the chief Royalist court of the Old Regime, which, pending the changes that were being made, still retained a moribund but spasmodic existence.

That the authorities were at this time the more determined to make a serious effort to seize the person of Marat was also partly due to the fact of the fear he inspired, as one who through his writings had been the prime instigator of the march on Versailles. Add to this his advice to the people to retain their arms, and to the sections to show their want of confidence in the Municipality by withdrawing their cannon, which had been parked in the Hotel de Ville. We should mention, moreover, that Marat played a personal part in the affair of the 5th, having been to Versailles on the day of the rising, though he does not appear to have stopped long. Camille Desmoulins in his journal (No.46) says: “Marat flies to Versailles and returns like lightning, making as much noise as four trumpets of the last judgment summoning the dead to rise.”

It will readily be understood, therefore, why the authorities did not dare to execute the mandate for the 6th, and why they lost no time in renewing it. Accordingly, on the evening of the 8th, a body of constables, followed by a carriage, presented themselves at the house where Marat lodged, in the Rue du Vieux Colombier. “It would have been all up with me,” says Marat (Ami, No.70), “if they could have succeeded in forcing the door, which we had refused to open to them. The people’s enemies regarded me as the primary motive-power of the insurrection which had saved the country. They set a price on my head, and to cover assassination they caused to be bruited abroad that I was in the dungeons of the Châtelet. Let me here acquit myself of a duty dear to my heart, towards so many good citizens who came to urge me to seek my safety in flight. I had informed two districts of the dangers that I was running; one had frequent patrols made before my door, the other sent me some officers to see to my safety. Several friends, relying only on their zeal, took me from my house and conducted me to Versailles. I addressed my complaints to the Assembly. It would be ungenerous were I to pass in silence the reiterated efforts made by M. Freteau, its worthy president, to induce the Assembly to take them into consideration.”

Marat had not been many days in hiding at Versailles before, owing to the perfidy or the pusillanimity of the innkeeper with whom he was lodging, he found himself denounced and a body of National Guards appearing at his room. They proved, however, to be “patriotic” in their sympathies, as was also their Colonel, the subsequently well-known Lecointre, who offered Marat an asylum at his own house. The Court of the Châtelet was not disposed, however, lightly to let its victim go, the more so that it came to the knowledge of the authorities that he had in preparation a pamphlet exposing Necker, whom he had already denounced in the Ami du Peuple as a malversator of the national funds and a chief cause of the famine. The result was that the “People’s Friend” found it prudent to leave Versailles and take refuge in a basement dwelling on the top of Montmartre, whence the journal was now issued. Spies, however, after some weeks found out his retreat, and on the 12th of December he was brought before the Court, but, owing to a technical defect in the indictment, the powers of the Court of the Châtelet and the subordinate courts being at this time very uncertain and confused, the prosecution fell through. Marat, in his own account of the proceedings, relates that early in the morning of the 12th of December the dwelling was assailed by a detachment of twenty men. “I opened the door to them,” says Marat, “in my shirt. ‘What can I do for you, gentlemen?’”

“We have come to arrest you.” “Your order? I will follow you, but permit me first of all to dress myself.” My papers having been seized, I am taken to the Comité des Recherches (one of the lower courts). I announced myself with the words: “The ‘People’s Friend’, gentlemen, has come to see you; how many do you require to form a tribunal? Three. I will wait then.” So saying, I took a seat by the fire. These gentlemen having awakened me rather early, I had not breakfasted, so I accepted a cup of chocolate and entered into conversation. Nothing loth to question me, they inquired, what they knew as well as I did, why I left Paris, where I had been, and how long I had remained in each place. My interrogatory ended, M. de Lafayette arrives, and the gentlemen of the committee present me to him. “Who are those of my Etat-Major who have given you offence?” he asked. “I will let you know in a future number of the Ami,” I replied.

Marat was now taken to the Commission of Police. On being reproached for his incessant denunciations, he observed, “Gentlemen, these are the disagreeables we have to put up with in the passage from slavery to liberty. Do you really believe that a Revolution such as this could accomplish itself without some misfortunes, without the shedding of some drops of blood? I entertain no hostile design against you, but had I to choose between my duty to the Commission of Police and my duty to liberty, my choice would be already made” (No.71). Marat’s outspoken candour had a powerful effect on the Commission, which at once set him at liberty, even offering a coach to carry him home. One of the members, in the ardour of his enthusiasm, embraced him, exclaiming, “Go, my friend; go, write and unmask the villains!”

Marat was naturally not displeased with the result of these interviews. He felt, he tells us, that the difference between the Ancien and Nouveau Regime was, after all, beginning to make itself felt. Profiting by the situation, he went boldly the next day to demand of Lafayette the return of his confiscated presses. For, about three weeks previously, Marat had freed himself from the annoyance caused him by the unreliability of printers, who might be intimidated or might be bribed, by buying presses and setting them up in his own rooms, thus having the printing of the paper under his own eye. The presses were restored within the fourteen hours’ delay he had given, and the “People’s Friend” felt himself and his journal safe from arrest.

Acting on this assumption, he now changed his residence, descending from the heights of Montmartre into the district of the Cordeliers, where, at No.39 Rue de la Vielle-Comédie, close to the Cordeliers’ Club, he openly established the office of his paper and his own domicile.

The authorities now struck upon a new line for damaging Marat. A large number of agents were bribed to spread the report that Marat, in league with the Cordeliers’ Club, was in the service of the aristocrats, endeavouring to foment a counter-revolution. These slanderers were to be found in the cafés, in the district assemblies, in the clubs. But this scheme proved also unproductive of any serious result. Marat by means of his paper could effectually foil such proceedings.

Finally, on the 22nd of January 1790, the Court of the Châtelet once more renewed its mandate of arrest, while the City Council authorised Lafayette to choose three of the most reactionary battalions of his National Guard, with which to ensure its not missing fire this time. These consisted of three thousand men, foot and horse combined, who, on the appointed day, invaded the Cordeliers’ quarter, and occupied the street where Marat resided. In addition to the above, several thousand men more were deemed necessary to surround the entire quarter, in fact, it is said twelve thousand men were under arms. The Royalist writer, Montjoie, in his Histoire de la Conjuration de Philippe d’Orléans (vol.ii, p.157), has the following observations anent this military display: “Lafayette marched against Marat an army of six thousand men, and posted them at the opening of every street; abutting on the house were two pieces of artillery. This was so extraordinary that, had I not been a witness of it myself, I should never have believed it. Conceive indeed this ‘hero of two worlds’ deploying forces so formidable against a crank whose only arm was his pen.” At six o’clock in the morning the bailiffs of the Châtelet broke into Marat’s apartment sword in hand. Their intended victim, however, had been forewarned and escaped, so the emissaries of the law had to content themselves with wrecking the place, pillaging journals and manuscripts, and placing official seals on the printing-presses, while certain grenadiers outside amused themselves by fixing lighted candles to their guns and shouting “Marat à la lanterne”. In the Ami du Peuple (No.170) Marat writes: “I was sleeping in a neighbouring street, when a young man attached to my office came to me in tears with the news that my house was surrounded by several battalions. At the same instant my host and his wife entered my room with an air of consternation; they tried to speak, but could only tremble. ‘Be quiet,’ I said, ‘it is nothing; only leave me alone.’ I am never more sangfroid than in the midst of imminent danger. Not wishing to go out en dishabille, for fear of exciting attention, I carefully made my toilette; throwing an overcoat over me, and covering my head with a round hat, I put on a smiling air and took my departure. I gained the Gros-Caillon by passing through a detachment of the guard sent to arrest me. On the way I sought to distract my companion, and managed to preserve a good humour till about five o’clock in the evening, at which hour I awaited a proof of the sheet containing an account of the famous equipage. No one appearing, I had a presentiment of my impending misfortune, and the rest of the day was passed in sadness. They had got wind of the route I had taken. In the evening the house was invested with spies. I recognised them from behind a jalousie. It was suggested to me to escape by the roof on the approach of night, nevertheless I passed them in open daylight, giving my arm to a young person who accompanied me, and walking leisurely. As soon as it grew dark I repaired to the Grand Basin de Luxembourg. Two friends were waiting there, to conduct me to the house of a lady in the neighbourhood. Finding no one at home I was ‘thrown on the pavement,’ at which one of my companions began to cry, but I dried his tears by bursting out laughing. We took a coach, and I went to seek an asylum at the bottom of the Marais. Arrived at the Greve, I saw the lantern which my enemies had destined for me two days previously, and I passed beneath it. On reaching the Rue de la Perle, I found there a person who was not unknown to me. To distract the curious it was necessary to simulate gaiety, till in the end it came itself. After a quarter of an hour’s conversation I inquired of my host in a whisper if he were sure of the person present. ‘As yourself,’ he replied. ‘All right,’ I rejoined, and continued the conversation. After having had supper I went to bed. In the middle of the night a squadron of cavalry halted underneath my window, but finding, on half opening the shutters, that none of them had put foot to the ground, I quietly resumed my bed till the next morning. But it was necessary to decamp.”

Marat, in fact, took immediate steps for leaving Paris and France, and in a few days was once more to be found in London.

As may be judged from the attention paid to him generally by the authorities, and especially from the extraordinary military preparations made for seizing his person, Marat had already attained the position of being regarded on all sides as one of the foremost pillars of the Revolution. It so happened, moreover, that just at this time the revolutionary Cordeliers’ Club, into which what was in the first instance a primary electoral assembly of the district had resolved itself, and of which Danton was the leading spirit, had its own particular quarrel with the Municipality. Into the details of this quarrel, which turned on questions of rights and jurisdiction, it is beyond our present purpose to enter, the interesting point respecting it being that it led the Cordeliers’ Club and its leader Danton to make the cause of Marat in a special sense their own. The club, in fact, through Danton, fought the Châtelet and the Municipality inch by inch in the matter. Danton, who was an able lawyer, was not slow to find legal flaws in the slipshod proceedings of the old Royalist Court. The struggle was going on during the whole forenoon of the 22nd, and was only ended on Danton’s promise to accept the decision of the National Assembly. The afternoon was therefore occupied in pleading the cause at the bar of the “Constituent”.

Here, however, Danton and his colleagues were not successful, the Assembly eventually overruling their objections and condemning the attitude of the Cordeliers, at the same time adding a clause that it relied upon their patriotism for executing its will. There was nothing now left to the district but to send two members to the commander of the forces, informing him that they no longer had any right to obstruct his action. Marat’s house was therefore again entered, but, as we have seen, Marat was not there but in hiding, and succeeded in evading the attentions of the Châtelet and the Municipality by a flight to England. This affair, which was the first to bring the name of Danton prominently before the general public, formed the opening of the latter’s career as an active revolutionary force, as opposed to a mere club orator.

During his enforced residence in England, though the Ami du Peuple had, of course, to be abandoned, Marat was not idle in a revolutionary sense, occupying himself with writing three pamphlets, the Appel à la Nation, the Lettre sur l’Ordre judiciaire, and the Seconde Dénonciation contre M. Necker. Of these, the first was the most important. It is, in fact, a powerful defence of his action and indictment of that of the authorities. In characteristic eighteenth-century classical style, Marat writes, “Before falling beneath the blows of tyranny, I shall have the consolation of covering my cowardly persecutors with opprobrium; I shall afterwards envelop my head in my mantle and shall present my neck to the steel of the assassin.” He defends himself against the charge of violence in his writings. “I have been reproached,” he says, “for having been unmeasured in my demands. But what would you have? Embittered by the grievances addressed to me from all sides against the agents of power, harassed by the crowd of oppressed who had recourse to me, revolted at the continual abuse of authority, at the ever-renewed attempts of the supporters of despotism, how could I be otherwise than overwhelmed with indignation against the authors of such crimes, how could I fail to exhibit with regard to them all the horror that filled my soul?” He points out how the Assembly, the Municipality, and Lafayette, by the action with respect to him on the 22nd of January, had risked exposing the capital to the horrors of Civil War. “When the dream of life shall be about to finish for me,” he says, “I shall not complain of my sorrowful existence if I have but contributed to the welfare of humanity, if I have but left a name respected by the wicked and beloved by good men.” The letter Sur l’Ordre judiciaire is an unimportant technical pamphlet of eight pages. On the other hand, the Nouvelle Dénconciation de M. Marat, l’Ami du Peuple, contre M. Necker, a long pamphlet of forty pages, consists of a trenchant criticism of the policy of the Minister of Finance. Marat had already issued from his press in Paris a denunciation of Necker which had had a considerable vogue.

In this, his first “denunciation”, he had criticised the mode in which Necker’s fortune, amounting, it is said, to over thirteen millions, was acquired by the discounting of Canadian bills and the ruin of the French East India Company. Marat insists that wealth obtained in this way by doubtful tricks of stock jobbing is anything but a title of honour to the possessor. Setting a gambler in stocks at the head of the finances was simply to ruin the nation. The brochure then proceeds to deal with Necker’s conduct as a minister, accusing him of having been the prime agent in the production of the famine, by encouraging forestalling, with the sinister motive, he hints, of promoting reaction by disgusting people with the new regime. He is further accused of raising a revenue by imposing a tax ruinous to the poor, rather than by economies in the civil lists, the sale of the Royal demesnes, or the abolition or reduction of sinecures. In conclusion, he challenges the minister to answer his accusations. The only answer he got from those in authority was the mandate of arrest of the 22nd of January. Under these circumstances, Marat determined to drive home his attack by a second pamphlet. In this “new denunciation” of Necker, as he terms it, he gives additional proof of the charges made in the former attack. He readily admits Necker’s capacity as a financier, but this very ability, he contends, is what fills him with alarm, and he here furnishes what he deems conclusive proofs of a ministerial attempt to favour reactionary tendencies by the production of an artificial scarcity. Both the pamphlets had a large sale, and contributed greatly to strengthen Marat’s already powerful hold on revolutionary public opinion.

The “People’s Friend” (the cognomen he had now familiarly acquired from the title of his journal) remained for nearly four months in England, returning to Paris on the 18th of May 1790. The course of events had now rendered it apparently safe for Marat to reside in Paris. On the 26th of February the Assembly had enacted an equality in the matter of criminal justice; on the 16th of March it had definitely abolished lettres de cachet and all measures of arbitrary arrest; and on the 30th of April it had instituted the jury system for all offences, a measure which Marat had himself demanded in his Lettre sur l’Ordre judiciaire. Not only had the Legislature placed the administration of justice on a new footing, but public opinion generally had set in strongly against the arbitrary action of the Châtelet, backed by the Municipality and the Ministry, in the matter of the 22nd of January. There was therefore no likelihood of any further proceedings being taken on the old basis. Immediately on his return, Marat resumed his journal, taking it up at the number following that at which he had left off, which happened to be No. 106. It was not long, however, before the fearless journalist gave occasion for the representatives of law and order to intervene under cover of a new press-law. On the 10th of June the Assembly passed a decree fixing the Civil List at twenty-five millions. All the advanced journals uttered a cry of indignation at impoverished France, with a famine at its doors, being thus compelled to furnish the Monarch with the means of subsidising traitors to the Revolution. The Ami du People, as may be imagined, was nothing behindhand in energetic remonstrance, but even now Marat was only attacked under cover of a general measure against incendiary journalists. Fréron, the editor of the Orateur du People, was the first to be pounced upon on this occasion; then the emissaries of the law betook themselves to the printer of the Ami du People, for Marat since his return had been obliged to again have recourse to printing-firms. Marat, however, was not himself discovered, although within the building at the time. On the advice of his friends he went into hiding; and now in fact began that life in cellars which lasted with little intermission for over two years, and which so seriously undermined the never too robust health of the “People’s Friend”. The Ami du People continued for the most part to appear regularly, but the person of its author remained hidden to all save a few trusted friends. Legendre, after the death of Marat, boasted of having hidden him during these two years in his cellars. It is, however, certain that he spent much of this time in the cellars underneath the Cordeliers’ Club. He also, it is alleged, hid himself for some time in some quarries on Montmartre.

Referring to his life at this time, he says (Ami, No.170): “Exposed to a thousand dangers, encompassed by spies, police-agents, and assassins, I hurried from retreat to retreat, often unable to sleep for two consecutive nights in the same bed.” Guiraut, in his funeral oration on Marat, speaking of his life during the period in question, states that he was devoured by the most frightful misery, his only outer covering being a simple blue cloak, and that he usually had a handkerchief steeped in vinegar bound round the top of his head. Working, often day and night, in these damp, subterranean retreats, by the miserable light of a small oil lamp, constantly burning, the fumes of which poisoned the low, ill-ventilated apartment, his eyelids would become badly inflamed, and he contracted a continual insomnia, which combined with the malady from which he was suffering and his originally highly-strung and delicate constitution to make his life one long torture. His journalistic activity during this time points to the most marvellous instance of human fortitude and prolonged determination on record. Knowing the circumstances, we do not need to wonder that his pen sometimes outran the limits of parliamentary expression, or that his revolutionary zeal now and then found vent in truculency of language.

Marat, as has been already mentioned, just before the outbreak of the Revolution, had been attacked by a painful disease. Much mystery has been made, with the usual insinuations in a similar case, with respect to Marat’s malady. There is, however, no doubt whatever that it was the skin disease known as pruritus, the cure of which offers little difficulty to modern medicine, though its origin remains still doubtful. To eighteenth-century therapeutics, however, modern treatment and remedies were unknown, and the disease was regarded as incurable, and even as mortal.

Beginning locally, in Marat’s case at the perineum, it usually spreads, if neglected or improperly treated, over the whole body. In addition to the inflammatory irritation suffered by the victim, often proving well-nigh unendurable, he was at times attacked by racking nervous headaches.

In addition to his journal, Marat now adopted a new measure of agitation, to wit, placards. It having become known that the ambassador of the Court of Vienna was negotiating with the King for a free passage for the Austrian troops through French territory on their way to Belgium, Marat felt the matter to be too urgent for treatment in his journal alone, and at once wrote a placard denouncing the counterrevolutionary stratagem, which he had affixed all over Paris. It was headed “C’en est fait de nous” (It is all over with us), and proceeded to denounce this manoeuvre of the enemy as a plot to crush the Revolution by force of arms, and reinstate “Royalism” in all its former glory. The placard terminated with these words, often made a notable point d’appui by the calumniators of the “People’s Friend": “Five or six hundred heads lopped off would have assured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the lives of millions of your brothers.”

This remark has, of course, been eagerly seized upon by Marat’s enemies as a convincing proof of his bloodthirstiness. That it should be so is only in accordance with the usual practice of the upholders and sycophants of established authority at all times, to seize with a hawk-like grip on anything tending to damage the enemies of that order and to draw off attention from the crimes and atrocities committed in its name and on its behalf. The classical instance of this sort of thing is to be found in the pretended “horror and indignation” expressed by the organs of the dominant classes, at the time of the fall of the Paris Commune, at the execution by the despairing people of Paris of a few representative men of those classes, while these very same organs had scarce a word of reprobation at the indiscriminate slaughter in cold blood of the men arid women and children of the Proletariat which had been taking place for days previously, and the deliberate murder of prisoners of war for weeks beforehand. The doctrine is thus insidiously inculcated, both directly and indirectly, that a defender of the established order has the right to murder at his pleasure in the defence of this order, and the exercise of this privilege is often a proof of decision and capacity; but when an enemy of the established order dares to lift a finger, even in self-defence, he instantly becomes a criminal and a monster. The means of influencing public opinion in this direction is naturally always in the hands of wealth and privilege – the platform, the pulpit, and, above all, the press. The injustice of such judgments matters not; the object is attained if the conscience of wealth and privilege is salved thereby, and the mental vision of that large section of the general public which does not enter into the facts of a case is effectively hoodwinked. There is no doubt whatever that, by such utterances as these, Marat, whose single-minded object was to save the Revolution from the various plots which there is no denying were at this time constantly being hatched against it, was only concerned to keep public attention alive to the manoeuvres of the Court and its satellites. As is justly observed in the excellent article on Marat, constituting, so far as I am aware, the first defence of the “People’s Friend” in the English language, in the Fortnightly Review for February 1874, from the pen of Mr. Bowen Graves:

Threats of bloodshed are, no doubt, only too frequent, but always in language such as, to an impartial mind, excludes the idea of calculation. One day it is ten thousand heads that must fall, the next it is a hundred thousand, a third it drops to fifty thousand, a fourth to twenty, and so on. A few months before his death, he tells us in his journal what he meant by them: “I used them,” he says, “with a view to produce a strong impression on men’s minds, and to destroy all fatal security.” There is nothing to be found in the pages of the Ami du Peuple approaching in cold bloodthirstiness what is to be met with repeatedly in the Actes des Apôtres, for example, or the Journal de la Cour et de la Ville. Or, to take another example, “It will cost ten thousand lives to save the country,” says one man; “When compromise was proposed,” says another, “to the effect that the Government should enter Paris, but not the army, I replied that if it should cost a river of blood the army should enter first.”

Marat and the Commune of 1871 have, of course, been represented as abnormal monstrosities of wickedness, but Adolphe Louis Thiers, who was responsible for the deliverance which closes the above quotation, has gone down to history as an eminent statesman, a lover of his country and a champion of respectability and moral order. “If I knock you down, mind, it’s nothing, but if you hit me back again it’s a dastardly outrage!” The above observation, represented by Punch as addressed by a special constable to a Chartist, has its application in every struggle between constituted authority, backed by wealth and privilege, and revolution. Officialism cannot commit crimes; the most it can do is to make mistakes. Revolution, on the contrary, it would seem, cannot make mistakes, it can only commit crimes. It is true that Marat did not believe in the sacrosanctity of reactionists, as against those of his own side. On this point, indeed, he has a note in No.121 of the Ami. “Will they accuse me of being cruel,” he says, “who cannot even see an insect suffer? but when I find that, in order to spare a few drops of blood, one risks shedding floods of it, I am indignant in spite of myself at our false maxims of humanity, and at our foolish regard for our cruel enemies; fools that we are, we fear to cause them a scratch; ... let them but be masters one day, and you will soon see them overrun the provinces, fire and sword in hand, striking down all those who offer them any resistance, massacring the friends of the country, slaughtering women and children, and reducing our cities to ashes.”

Though the law relative to the press had not yet been passed by the Constituent, the placard “C’en est fait de nous” was denounced in the Assembly by the reactionary deputy, Malouet, on the 31st of July, and on his motion a decree was passed ordering the Royal prosecutor of the Court of the Châtelet immediately to take proceedings against the authors, printers, and circulators of writings exciting the people to insurrection against the laws, shedding of blood, or the overturning of the Constitution. This decree, which was, of course, meant to cover Marat’s placard, was rescinded two days later on the motion of the Girondist, Pétion, on the ground that its vague expressions might lend themselves to arbitrary prosecutions; but at the same time proceedings were ordered to be taken against the incriminating placard. Nothing daunted, on the 11th of August Marat issued a second placard, beginning “On nous endort, prenons-y garde!” which may be freely rendered into colloquial English, “They are bull-dosing us, look out!” It was dictated by the action of the Châtelet against those who had taken part in the events of the 5th and 6th of October of the previous year; these were being treated as evidence of a treasonable plot against the Royal family. Against this Marat protests with his usual energy, declaring the proceedings to be a subterfuge to call off public attention by the invention of a purely imaginary conspiracy from the real counter-revolutionary plots then being fomented by the agents of Royalism.

The placard contains a reiteration of the doctrine already enunciated in the Plan de Legislation criminelle.” The Prince,” it says, “being only a servant of the nation, the attempt against his life could never be anything but a private crime, such as the attempt against the life of any other mandatory of the people – a crime less serious than an attempt against the country.” On the 22nd of the month appeared a third placard, “C’est un beau rêve, gare au reveil!” (It is a beautiful dream, beware of the awakening!). This time the object was to guard the public from being deceived by the representations in various quarters by the Reaction, that the provinces were loudly denouncing a return to “order”, to wit, the Ancien Regime; that the misery of the people proceeded from the Revolution; that the revolted regiments were everywhere returning to their duty, and that it was the business of the Assembly to follow suit, as the interpreter of the general sentiment. These assertions are severally refuted, and the placard terminates with a vehement appeal to the people to take warning in time, or be prepared to live its days out in oppression and slavery.

Finally, on the 23rd of August, the walls of Paris were found covered with the fourth of these celebrated placards of Marat. This fourth and last of the present series is perhaps the most important of them all. It deals with the affair of Nancy – an affair which shook France and produced much sensation throughout Europe at the time.

The incident referred to took place in August 1790. Bouillé, in consequence of the insubordination of two battalions of Swiss Guards, animated, it is said, by revolutionary principles and supported by some French National Guards at Châteaux Vieux, near Nancy, besieged the town of Nancy, whither the revolted regiments had retired, with a small army of four or five thousand men. On his subsequently entering the town, a pitched battle was fought in the streets, when the Swiss, with the French Guards who had joined them and who were supported by the population, were slain to the extent of more than half their number.

Wholesale executions followed the restoration of “order” in the town. The King and the majority of the Assembly exasperated the revolutionary parties outside on this occasion by specially thanking the General for his conduct, and adjuring him to continue in the same course.

Marat’s placard is headed “L’affreux Reveil” (The Frightful Awakening). The Reaction both in the Assembly and outside would have had the public regard the recalcitrant Swiss and their French colleagues as no more than mutineers, and clamoured for the execution of a number of the survivors. “Barbarians,” writes Marat in this placard, “these men whom you are going to massacre are your brothers; they are innocent; they are oppressed; that which you did on the 14th of July they are doing to-day; they are opposing themselves to their slaughterers. Will you punish them for following your example and repelling their tyrants?” Marat continues, after urging anew the innocence of the revolted battalions and the guilt of their commanders: “The National Assembly itself, by the vice of its composition, by the depravity of the greater part of its members, by the unjust vexations and tyrannical decrees which are daily forced from it, no longer merits your confidence.” He goes on to describe as a band of enemies of the Revolution and of liberty “those whom you have the stupidity to regard as representatives of that nation whose mortal enemies they are; these are the men you regard as legislators, and whose decrees you have the folly to respect.” The placard ends with an appeal to the people to come to the succour of their brethren, and to disillusionise the citizen-soldiers. “I invite all the Swiss,” he says, “to support their compatriots; disarm the German satellites who slaughter your fellow-citizens; arrest their officers and let the avenging axe immolate them at last on the altar of liberty!”

This affair of Châteaux Vieux or of Nancy, as it was variously called, naturally for days filled the journals of the time on both sides, the Ami du Peuple included. Many “patriots” were disheartened, not a few of the friends of liberty seeing therein the indefinite postponement, if not the death, of their hopes. Loustalot, the popular journalist, and the editor of the Révolutions de Paris, died of grief at the blow he thought the Revolution had received. Marat has an eloquent article on the subject of his death. “As long as the sun shall illumine the earth,” he exclaims, “the friends of liberty will recall Loustalot with tenderness, their children will each day bless his memory, and his name, inscribed in the glorious annals of the Revolution, will descend with glory to our latest descendants! Dear and sacred shade, if thou still preservest some remembrance of the things of life in the abode of the blest, suffer that a brother in arms whom thou hast never seen may water with his tears thy mortal remains and throw some flowers on thy tomb! Let our faithless representatives put on mourning for the oppressors of liberty – children of the country will never wear it save for its defenders; and we, their honest advocates, let us redouble our energy in sustaining their cause, and repair by our zeal the cruel loss we have suffered!” In the end, the revolted regiments were avenged, the authorities had to capitulate, and the survivors among the victims were received in high festival by the Paris populace.

This Nancy affair contributed to augment Marat’s already powerful influence considerably. About the same time took place the resignation of the finance minister, Necker, on the excuse of fatigue and disgust. Respecting this event, Marat says (Ami, No.214), in an article in the form of a letter to the late minister, “You accuse destiny of the ill-success attending the events of your career. How would it be if, like the ‘People’s Friend’, the prey of a mortal malady, you had renounced the preservation of your life in order to enlighten the people on their duties; if you had been reduced to bread and water in order to consecrate all you possess to public affairs; if, in order to save the wretched, you had quarrelled with all the world, without preserving for yourself a single refuge under the sun!” And again: “If, fleeing from asylum to asylum, you had been driven to live in a cellar to save a stupid, blind, and ungrateful people!” But amid all his troubles, public and private, one cause of satisfaction, alike public and private, awaited Marat. On the 6th of September 1790, the Constituent Assembly formally abolished the ancient Court of the Châtelet. This measure Marat had been ceaselessly demanding for a year past, denouncing the effete tribunal as a hotbed of reaction and corruption. As to the composition of the new National High Court, which was to take its place, Marat was vehement in his demands for the rejection of all functionaries belonging to the “Judicature of the Ancien Regime,” except where such had afforded conclusive evidence of patriotism.

On the 14th of September a notice appeared in the Ami du Peuple to the effect that a number was in preparation dealing with the conduct of Lafayette, just as the celebrated number of the 22nd of January, the day of the momentous attack on Marat’s house, had been devoted to the delinquencies of Necker. Now the object of the projected attack was determined at all costs to do his best to prevent this number appearing. As has already been stated, his own presses having been confiscated at the time of the abortive attempt to seize him which led to his flight, Marat had on his return from England been compelled once more to give the production of the Ami du Peuple into the hands of ordinary printers. It was accordingly against the Sieur André, Marat’s printer, and the Dame Méginier, whose function it was to distribute the copies of the paper to the street vendors, that the attacks were directed. The following day, the 15th, at one o’clock in the morning (Ami, No.224),the street where the printing-office was situated was alive with 300 National Guards, while a police agent obtained entrance by a ruse. In a moment the place was filled with uniforms. On the first floor the printers were discovered “taking off” the redoubtable number. All the copies were seized, the presses were overturned and smashed with blows from axes; the room where the master was sleeping was forced open, and he was compelled to rise with a bayonet at his chest. After repeated demands to show authorisation, a note was produced signed by Bailly and Lafayette, ordering the raid on the printing-office, together with the arrest of the proprietor on his refusal to betray the address of Marat. The Sieur André replied, protesting his ignorance of the whereabouts of the popular journalist, and pleading the illegality and injustice of seizing his person and imprisoning him for the offence of not being acquainted with Marat’s domicile. The journal, he said moreover, was signed by the author as the law required, and hence they had no right to confiscate copies of the paper, still less to smash up his (André’s) presses. All this, though it had the effect of relieving the Sieur André’s person from further molestation, did not prevent the seizure of the edition of the paper. The emissaries of Lafayette then decamped with their spoil to Dame Méginier, where they forced drawers and chests, ripped open the bed with their bayonets, emptied the pockets of the good woman, and departed at daybreak. Marat’s comment on the whole business was, that it seemed now a question not so much of getting rid of the old tyrants as of exterminating the new ones.

The affair of Nancy had more to do than anything else in establishing a gulf between the constitutional reformers and the revolutionary party proper. Addressing the authorities, Marat says, referring to it, “I no longer consider myself engaged by the Constitution since you yourselves have violated it.” Henceforward, thinks Marat, it is war to the knife. There are henceforward only two parties, the party of the Revolution, of the Sovereignty of the people, of Liberty; and the party of Counter-revolution, of Reaction, of Royalism. All who, whatever their profession otherwise, favour measures initiated by the latter, be their excuse what it may, must be regarded from henceforth as the “enemy.” Now more than ever it behoves “patriots” to adopt the attitude of ceaseless watchfulness, of défiance. Marat himself, as the sentinel of the Revolution par excellence, will certainly not fail in this respect. Denunciations of all official personages, high or low, whose acts give cause for suspicion, will be unsparingly dealt with by the “People’s Friend”. “Hypocrisy,” says Marat, “is the characteristic vice of all public functionaries; hence whenever the ‘ People’s Friend’ can raise his voice, he will apply himself to destroy the baneful delusion of blind security” (Ami, No. 302).

At this time the Ami du Peuple was the most widely-read paper in Paris of all the revolutionary press. Lafayette was now at the height of his power, and the risks run by “patriot” journalists were enormous. Two further attempts were made this year (1790) to prevent the issue of the paper and to obtain possession of the person of Marat. One domiciliary visit was made on the 2nd of December, and another on the 14th of the same month, but both without any important result. The remarkable thing was the astonishing energy of the man, who could find means, in spite of confiscation, the smashing of presses, and similar devices, to prevent an interruption in the issue of his journal for even a single day.


Last updated on 21.6.2003