Jean-Paul Marat 1793

What is a Law?

Source: Le Publiciste de la République Française, No. 172, April 19, 1793;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2004.

“I ask,” said Brissot at the session of the 15th, “that the man who alone seems to be above the law, that Marat be forced to surrender himself to the Abbaye [prison].” I know full well that the scoundrels only want to hold me in prison, to forget me there, to suppress my writings by my captivity, and in this way distance me from the heart of the Convention, where they so fear my presence. But none of this suits me, and I won’t serve their wishes. Here is the place to treat of resistance to oppression, one of the most sacred and enduring rights of man.

They accuse me of raising myself above the law because I don’t obey their arbitrary and tyrannical orders. In order to demonstrate the absurdity of their accusation, it will suffice to show them what a law is.

What is a law? It’s an expression of the general will on an object of common interest. A law can thus never be anything but a deliberation taken with maturity for the common good after a tranquil, wise and in-depth discussion.

When the people cannot make laws itself, it does it through representatives. I won’t examine here whether in the current state of affairs, whether they who have concealed themselves behind imposter masks, who have played at patriotism and who have displayed love of liberty in order to better fool the people, capture their confidence and be named to the Convention and use its powers to satisfy their base passions — can be regarded as true national representatives. But I maintain that the henchmen of the ancien régime cannot be the deputies of the people under the new regime. Or rather I maintain that vile scoundrels, schemers and traitors to the fatherland who have shamelessly trafficked in the interests and rights of the people with the enemies of the republic cannot in any way be considered representatives of the nation. Such are the statesmen who voted the appeal to the people and the detention of Louis Capet in order to save the tyrant by lighting the torches of civil war; such are the statesmen who the traitor Dumouriez declared his accomplices by declaring that he was going to march on Paris to support them against the patriots of the Mountain. It is these men who rendered the decree against me. In not paying any heed to this decree I thus don’t violate the law, since they are, de facto — since the declaration of the traitor Dumouoriez — deprived of any right to represent the people they betrayed.

But even if they aren’t avowed traitors their decrees would still have no force in law.

A law, as I said, is a declaration taken with maturity for the general good after a tranquil, wise, and well-considered discussion. Who doesn’t know that almost all decrees that are now rendered are taken through force or ruse and, most often, without any prior discussion, amidst stormy altercations, the tumult of passions, uproar, insults and outrages? Who doesn’t know that the senate of the nation more often than not only offers the hideous spectacle of a gladiator’s arena, of a tobacco shop, of a gaming den where furious and drunk men give themselves over to all the excesses of ferocity and folly? What wise man hasn’t been revolted a hundred times by this sight? How then can the results of their altercations, of their evil passions, and perhaps of their plots, pass for laws? Is it for citizens who sorrow over these disorders and who are penetrated by contempt for their authors that the decrees rendered by statesmen can inspire respect or command obedience? I leave it to all thinking men to pronounce on this.

Thus, it is the faction of statesmen, unfortunately the largest in the Convention since the departure of our commissioners, who, in the midst of chaos and against the demands of the patriots of the Mountain, rendered the decrees against me; judge then if I should consider mandatory these acts of oppression and tyranny.

Let’s hide this no longer: since these evil decrees the counter-revolution has been accomplished in the heart of the Convention by the faction of statesmen, as it was accomplished in the army by Dumouriez. And if the entire people doesn’t rise up to wipe out that execrable faction, to make perish under the sword of justice this infernal horde, then liberty is done for: soon our frontiers will be delivered to the enemy. The Austrians, the Prussians, the English, the Spanish, the Piedmontese will arrive without hindrance in Paris; they'll slaughter without pity all the friends of the fatherland and, in concert with the infamous faction, they will establish despotism.

What, then, remains for the patriots of the Convention to do other than to openly declare that they can’t save the fatherland as long as the faction of statesmen is seated with them; to declare the fatherland in danger; to press the nation to rise up as a whole; to finally crush the criminal hordes of these cowardly enemies, of these faithless agents, of these traitorous and conspiratorial representatives. But there is a preliminary measure that they must hasten to take, and that’s to take from all the statesmen any hope of negotiating with the enemy on their own account, and force them to put the noose around their own necks, just as the patriots did in voting for the death of the tyrant. The infallible way of doing this is to call on them to put a price on the heads of the rebel and émigré Capets by rendering this decree by a voice vote that will be entered in the bulletin. In this way they'll be reduced to the alternative of exposing themselves to being immolated by the enemy — like the patriots — if freedom doesn’t triumph, or denouncing themselves to the vengeance of the nation if liberty does triumph. To work, patriots of the Mountain, there’s not a second to lose.