Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The Assassination of Marat

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

As the Girondin party in Normandy stumbled and fell apart, a young girl from Caen, Charlotte Corday, headed to Paris, either to save or avenge those she considered martyrs of the Republic. She whipped up her enthusiasm herself by admiring the heroines in the plays of Corneille.

And believing that Marat was the genius behind despotism, anarchy, and murder, she had resolved to kill him. The evening of Sunday July 13, 1793 she insisted she be received by him. He was in the bathtub he stayed in much of the time, since an inflammatory illness devoured him. A plank placed across it held up the inkwell and the sheets of paper he still blackened with his ideas and his fever. She spoke a few words to him and stuck a knife in his heart. He gave out a cry, called for his companion Simone Evrard, and died.

Charlotte Corday, having made the sacrifice of her own life in order to sacrifice a life she judged villainous, didn’t even think of fleeing. Before the revolutionary tribunal she explained her act in a few clear words of a heroic and fatal simplicity that attested to the petty proportions she had reduced the problem of the Revolution. Beautiful, young, modest, and proud, wrapped for her journey to the gallows in the red shirt of parricides, she left in the eyes of the people a strange vision of nobility, heroism, and blood, and in many hearts an unknown disquiet. She had killed Marat, but above all she had killed the Gironde. Who could take seriously the Girondin declamations against the Maratists and the assassins? After the assassinated Lepeletier, the assassinated Marat. It was those denounced as murderers who were struck in the heart. Even among those who were prejudiced against Marat anger and hatred were succeeded by surprise and a kind of pity. One of the gears of Girondin propaganda was smashed.

The Convention and the people gave Marat a triumphant funeral. The pain of the poor and the workers was violent. They had lost a friend, an advisor who didn’t flatter them, who when the need arose knew how to warn them and speak to them harshly. Marat’s death was a great misfortune for the Revolution. Perhaps if he'd been able to live one year more he would have been able to prevent the fatal events that would occur. His sister said, “If my brother had lived Danton would not be dead.” What does this mean? Probably that he would have prevented the Hébertists violent campaign against Danton and reconciled Danton and Robespierre. But why suppose that he actually had this sovereign influence and nearly august prestige that death alone gave him? He would in all likelihood have been overwhelmed. In the days of June and July he seemed close to Hébert and his friends, but he would probably not have followed them to the bitter end. Become an obstacle to their impatient ambition, he too would have been slandered and probably left behind. Or perhaps, in order to remain in the vanguard of the movement and, with the worsening of the revolt in Lyon and the treason in Toulon, he would have been led to murderous follies and totally committed himself to Hébertist policies. It’s impossible to say with certainty whether he would have guillotined the Hébertists or been guillotined along with them.

Marat was barely dead when the Hébertists and the Enragés argued over his popularity and his name. Jacques Roux pretended to continue his newspaper. He brought out “l'Ami du Peuple by the Shade of Marat.” To be sure, he didn’t lack boldness. After the terrible article of July 4 Jacques Roux went to Marat’s house, as we learn from a police report from Greive to the Committee of General Security: “The Citizens Crosnier, Allain, and Greive, being at the home of Citizen Marat on the morning of Tuesday the ninth of this month, Jacques Roux arrived to demand from Marat the retraction of what he wrote concerning him in his newspaper, saying that he had left at his home his baptismal certificate that proved that his name wasn’t Renaudi, as Marat had said. Marat responded with the firmness characteristic of him... Roux answered him in the most mealy-mouthed of tones, in the falsest language, in a way that rendered him in our eyes as base as he was dangerous. As soon as Marat dismissed him, and before going down the stairs at the end of a long landing, he stopped for a moment and cast on Marat a prolonged vengeful gaze that is difficult to describe, such that it left with us the most profound impression. And so the moment we learned of Marat’s dreadful death our suspicions, especially those of Greive, immediately fell on the vindictive priest.”

And it was precisely at the moment when he was suspected of being Charlotte Corday’s accomplice that Roux assumed Marat’s name. He attempted to regain his standing at the Commune. He explained the famous address on July 19 saying that a few expressions that shocked listeners were the effect of a “petulant imagination.” He in this way sought to have consecrated the bold act by which he seized Marat’s political and popular heritage.

But at the same moment Hébert cried out at the Jacobin Club: “If a successor is needed for Marat, if a second victim is needed, he is ready and resigned to this: it is I! I will be only too happy as long as I carry to my grave the certainty of having saved my fatherland! But no more nobles! No more nobles! The nobles assassinate us!”

Marat’s embalmed heart hung like a relic in the vault of the Cordelier Club. Here was the sanctuary of the Revolution. Robespierre, irritated by the maneuver, protested against the excesses of the funereal honors. “Jealousy,” Bentabole shouted at him. But Robespierre knew that Hébertism was going to make Marat’s canonized heart speak in their fashion and he wanted to break the spell.