Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend


As being perhaps the best abused man in modern history, the “People’s Friend” has always exercised a fascination over the writer of this volume. The verdict of the “world” on a public character, as well as on moral worth in general and its opposite, like the public opinion of the “world” on other matters, represents only too often the verdict or the opinion of class prejudice and ignorance. It is, in fact, a fairly safe plan to ascertain for oneself “what most people think” on such questions, and then assume the opposite to be true. The result is a good working hypothesis, which remains, of course, to be possibly modified or even abandoned by subsequent investigation, but which is generally the nearest approach to truth we can make in the absence of the requisite knowledge for forming an unbiased judgment. Acting on this principle, the very extravagance of abuse with which Marat had been assailed suggested to me the probability that an exceptionally noble and disinterested character lay behind it. Modern research on the subject of the French Revolution has certainly more than justified this assumption. The old legend of “the monster Marat” has been so completely blown to the winds that any historian who attempted to resuscitate it nowadays would assuredly put himself out of court with all serious students of the French Revolution.

The work of rehabilitating the memory of Marat owes its initiation, and in part completion, to the exhaustive labours of the late M. Bougeart and to the equally minute and careful researches of M. Chevremont. M. Bougeart’s excellent Life of Marat in two volumes appeared in 1865. The French Imperial authorities, the representatives of privilege, class-interest, and its malice, avenged themselves on the man who had cleared the memory of the great enemy of power and privilege by sentencing him to four months’ imprisonment. Since then M. Chevremont has untiringly worked in the same direction as his friend Bougeart. His two thick volumes on the Esprit politique of Marat, containing a verbatim reproduction of all that is most valuable in his political writings, is a monument of industry and of devotion to the memory of the “People’s Friend”. In addition to these two writers may be mentioned the Oeuvres de J.-P. Marat of the late M. Vermorel, containing an excellent collection of the more important articles in Marat’s journals, besides his placards and manifestoes. The researches of MM. Bougeart and Chevremont form the foundation of the present Life. All the three works mentioned are, I believe, out of print.

Of the older histories of the French Revolution, that of Villaume is the fullest and the fairest as regards Marat. The first to undertake the rehabilitation of Marat in this country was Mr. Bowen Graves, in an article in the Fortnightly Review for February 1874. It was followed, at an interval of rather more than three years, by an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine for November 1877, by the present writer, and a year later by a small volume on the same lines. This little book is also no longer obtainable, so far as I am aware. Since then articles have appeared in various periodicals, endeavouring to show Marat as he really was. Foremost amongst Marat’s vindicators in the English language must be mentioned Mr. Morse Stephens, both in the first two volumes of his excellent, but unfortunately unfinished History of the French Revolution, as well as in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th edition, article Marat), in the columns of the Academy, and in two articles in the Pall Mall Magazine for September and October 1896. I must not forget to mention also the eminent artist, M. Georges Pilotelle, who, although a Parisian, has resided in this country since 1875, and whose collection of Marat relics is perhaps the most complete and valuable existing. Through his kindness, some of these are reproduced in the present work. M. Pilotelle is a friend of M. Chevremont’s, and has imbibed a full measure of the latter’s enthusiasm for the “People’s Friend”.

The chief source of biographical as of other information concerning Marat is, of course, the collection of his political writings from 1789 till 1793, which may be consulted in the Bibliothèque Nationale. These have been carefully gone through by most of the authors mentioned, as well as by the present writer. The ordinary histories of the French Revolution are for the most part worthless, the portions treating of Marat reproducing, and in some cases, as with Michelet, even embellishing, the calumnies and slanders of his adversaries. References to Marat in the voluminous Memoires left by contemporaries of the Revolution are largely secondhand. The malignant fabrications of Barbaroux and Madame Roland have been sufficiently exposed, though their clumsiness and absurdity are such as to render this almost superfluous. The Memoires de Brissot, though from the pen of a vehement personal enemy, contain a few biographical facts which, if obviously presented in a light intentionally hostile to Marat, may not be altogether destitute of truth. Of the assassin, Charlotte Corday, enough and more than enough has been written. M. Vatel has collected probably all the available material about her. Dr. Cabanes, whose work, Marat inconnu, contains many interesting facts concerning the great “Montagnard”, has also made some researches on the subject. The “procès verbal” of the trial may still be seen. The facts concerning Charlotte Corday and the assassination have been brought together in a narrative form by M. Paul Gaulot in his Grandes Journées Revolutionnaires, pp.45-108. The reports of the debates in the Convention, the Moniteur, and other contemporary newspapers have also been consulted, together with the early numbers of the Musée Neuchâtelois, the latter for the few ascertainable biographical facts concerning Marat’s early life and that of his family at Boudry and Neuchâtel.

Last updated on 21.6.2003