Jean-Paul Marat

Jean-Paul Marat (May 24, 1743July 13, 1793), was a Swiss-born French physician, philosopher, political theorist and scientist best known as a radical journalist and politician from the French Revolution. His journalism was renowned for its fiery character and uncompromising stance towards the new government, "enemies of the revolution" and basic reforms for the poorest members of society. His persistent persecution, consistent voice, high intelligence and uncanny predictive powers brought him the trust of the people and made him the main bridge between them and the radical Jacobin group that came to power in June 1793. For two short months, leading up to the downfall of the Girondin faction in June, he was one of the three most important men in France, alongside Danton and Robespierre. He was stabbed to death in his bathtub by the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday.

Scientist and physician

Jean-Paul Marat (Mara) was born in Switzerland, at Boudry in the principality of Neuchâtel, on May 24, 1743, the eldest child of Jean Marat (Giovanni Mara), a native of Cagliari in Sardinia, and Louise Cabrol from Castres in France. His father was a Mercedarian "commendator" and religious refugee who converted to Calvinism in Geneva; his mother was a Huguenot. At the age of 16, aware of the limited opportunities for outsiders (his highly educated father was turned down for several teaching posts), Marat set off on his travels. Nobody knows exactly where and when he settled during ten years. Bordeaux? Paris? London?.

His first published work, written in English and later published in his native French in Amsterdam, was a Philosophical Essay on Man (1772), which demonstrates extensive knowledge of English, French, German, Italian and Spanish philosophers. His essay attacked the materialist philosopher Helvétius, who in his De l'Esprit ("On the Mind", 1758) reduced all Man's faculties to physical sensation alone and his actions as motivated by self-interest alone. His professed belief that philosophy had no need for science was refuted by Marat who argued that a knowledge of physiology could solve the eternal problem of the mind-body connection and the location of the soul, which he argued was found in the meninges. Voltaire's sharp critique (in defense of his friend Helvétius) brought the young Marat to wider attention for the first time and only helped reinforce Marat's growing sense of division between the materialists, grouped around Voltaire on one side, and their opponents, grouped around Rousseau on the other.

After London, Marat came in 1770 to Newcastle. Marat's first overtly political work Chains of Slavery published in Newcastle in 1774, was probably written there. By his own highly-coloured account, Marat had lived on black coffee and slept only two hours a night before completing the 65 chapters in three months - and had then slept for 13 days. The book is in English, which Marat knew well, though it relies heavily on earlier works. It purports to be: 'A work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of Despotism disclosed.' It earned him honorary membership of the patriotic societies of Berwick, Carlisle and Newcastle. The Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society Library possesses a copy, and Tyne and Wear Archives Service holds three presented to various of the Newcastle guilds.

An essay on gleets (gonorrhea) probably helped him to secure an honorary medical degree from St. Andrews University in 1775. On his return to London he published an Enquiry into the Nature, Cause, and Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes. In 1776, he moved to Paris via a brief stopover in Geneva to visit his family. Here his reputation as a highly effective doctor, along with the patronage of the Marquis de l'Aubespine, husband of one of Marat's patients, the Marquise, secured him a position as physician to the bodyguard of the comte d'Artois (afterwards Charles X of France) in 1777, which paid 2,000 livres a year plus allowances.

Marat was soon in great demand as a court doctor among the aristocracy and he used his new-found wealth to set up a laboratory in his mistress's house. Soon he was publishing works on fire/heat, electricity and light. Even Brissot, in his Mémoires, admitted Marat's influence in the scientific world of Paris. However, when he presented his scientific researches to the Académie des Sciences, they were not approved and he failed to be accepted as a member. In particular, the academicians were appalled by his temerity in disagreeing with the great (and hitherto uncriticized) Newton. Marat wrote to Benjamin Franklin who visited him on several occasions. Goethe always regarded his rejection by the academy as a glaring example of scientific despotism.

In 1780 Marat published a Plan de législation criminelle. In April 1786 he resigned his court appointment and, over the next few years, completed a new translation of Newton's Opticks (1787) and Mémoires académiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière. ("Academic memoirs, or new discoveries about light," 1788), a collection of essays including a study on the effect of light on soap bubbles.

The Friend of the People

On the eve of the French Revolution, Marat placed his career as a scientist and doctor behind him and took up his pen on behalf of the Third Estate. After 1788, when the Parlement of Paris and other Notables advised the assembling of the Estates-General for the first time in over 150 years, Marat devoted himself entirely to politics. His Offrande à la patrie ("Offering to the Nation") dwelt on much the same points as the Abbé Sieyès' famous "Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État?" ("What is the Third Estate?") When the Estates-General met, in June 1789, he published a supplement to his Offrande, followed in July by La constitution ("The Constitution") and in September by the Tableau des vices de la constitution d'Angleterre ("Tableau of the flaws of the English constitution") intended to influence the structure of a constitution for France. The latter work was presented to the National Constituent Assembly and was an anti-oligarchic dissent from the anglomania that was gripping that body.

In September 1789, Marat began his own paper, which was at first called Moniteur patriote ("Patriotic Watch"), changed four days later to Publiciste parisien, and then finally L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the People"). From this position, he expressed suspicion of all those in power, and dubbed them "enemies of the people". Although Marat never joined a specific faction during the Revolution, he condemned several sides in his L'Ami du peuple, and reported their alleged disloyalties (until he was proven wrong or they were proven guilty).

Marat often attacked the most influential and powerful groups in France, including the Corps Municipal, the Constituent Assembly, the ministers, and the Cour du Châtelet. In January 1790, he moved to the radical Cordeliers section, then under the leadership of the up-and-coming lawyer Danton, and was nearly arrested for his aggressive campaign against the Marquis de La Fayette, and was forced to flee to London, where he wrote his Denonciation contre Necker ("Denunciation of Jacques Necker"), an attack on Louis XVI's popular Finance Minister. In May he returned to Paris to continue the publication of L'Ami du peuple, and attacked many of France's most powerful citizens. Fearing reprisal, Marat was forced to hide in the Catacombs, where he almost certainly aggravated a debilitating chronic skin disease (scrofula). Marat, long a supporter of the abolition of the Bourbon Monarchy, subsequently attacked more moderate revolutionary leaders. In July 1790, he wrote:

Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom and happiness. A false humanity has held your arms and suspended your blows; because of this, millions of your brothers will lose their lives.


Marat placed his hopes in the Constituent Assembly, but lost faith in the actions of the Legislative Assembly.

Around March 1792, he married 27 year old Simone Évrard, the sister-in-law of Jean Antoine Corne, the typographer of L'Ami du peuple.

During that time, Marat was frequently criticized, and went into hiding until The August 10 Insurrection, when the Tuileries Palace was besieged and the Royal Family sheltered with the Legislative Assembly. This was partly caused by the proclamation by Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg which called for the crushing of the Revolution, and served to inflame sentiments in Paris.

The National Convention

Although still without party affiliation, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 to represent the people of France. When France was declared a Republic on September 22, Marat stopped printing L'Ami du peuple, and, three days later, began the Journal de la république française ("Journal of the French Republic"). Much like L’Ami du peuple, it criticized many of France's political figures, and made Marat almost uniquely unpopular with his fellow members of the Convention.

His stance during the trial of the deposed king Louis XVI was also unique. He declared it unfair to accuse Louis for anything anterior to his acceptance of the French Constitution, and, although implacably committed to his idea of securing the people's good through the monarch's death, he would not allow Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the king's counsel, to be attacked in his paper, and spoke of him as a "sage et respectable vieillard (wise and respectable old man). "

On January 21, 1793, King Louis was guillotined, an episode which created political turmoil; from January to May, Marat fought bitterly with the Girondins, whom he believed to be covert enemies of republicanism. The Girondins won the first round when the Convention ordered that Marat should be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. However, their plans were scuppered when Marat was acquitted and returned to the Convention with a greatly enhanced public profile and popular support.

Marat's death

The fall of the Girondins on June 2, provoked by the actions of François Hanriot, became one of Marat's last achievements. His letters to the convention received no attention, now that the Montagnards no longer needed his support against the Girondins. Marat had all but vanished from the political scene after his victory and Robespierre and other political leaders began to separate themselves from him now that he seemed to have outlived his usefulness, and accordingly, his influence. His skin disease was having negative effects on his life, and his last resort for alleviating the discomfort was to soak in a medicinal bath. Marat was in his bathtub on July 13 1793, when a woman claiming to be a messenger from Caen (where escaped Girondins were trying to gain a Normandy base) asked to be admitted to his quarters.

When she entered, he asked her the names of the offending deputies, and after recording their names said "They shall all be guillotined." The young woman, Charlotte Corday, then drew a knife, purchased earlier that day at a shop, and stabbed him in the chest. He called out, "À moi, ma chère amie!" ("Help me, my dear friend!"), and died. Corday was a Girondin. She came from a family that moved in royalist circles – her own two brothers were émigrés who had left to fight with the armies of the exiled princes of France. From her own accounts, and those of witnesses, it is clear that she had been inspired to admiration of the Girondin by their speeches, and to hatred of the Montagnards by their excesses and propaganda of both local and national moderates. Her actions on July 13 provoked reprisals in which thousands of the Jacobins' adversaries – both royalists and Girondins – were executed on supposed charges of treason. She was guillotined on July 17 1793 for the murder of Marat. During her four-day trial, she had testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000."

Marat's memory in the Revolution

Marat's assassination led to his apotheosis during the following years. The French painter Jacques-Louis David was called in and led the task of organising a grandiose ceremony. David took up the task of immortalizing Marat, beautifying the skin that was discoloured and scabbed from his chronic skin disease in an attempt to create antique virtue out of a man filled with passionate rage towards the Revolution. The entire National Convention attended Marat's funeral and he was buried in the Couvent des Cordeliers. His heart was extracted and embalmed separately, and placed in an urn that hung from the ceiling overseeing the Cordeliers Club. His remains were transferred to the Panthéon on November 25, 1793 and his near messianic role in the Revolution was confirmed with the elegy: Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles, priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against these plagues of the people. . His eulogy was written by the Marquis de Sade, at the time a left-wing member of the National Convention and a Jacobin. De Sade would later resign as member of the Convention along with his other public posts due to Marat's death and his disgust with the ongoing violence.

On the 19 of November, the town of Le Hâvre de Grâce changed its name to Hâvre de Marat and then became Hâvre-Marat. When the Jacobins started their Deist Dechristianisation campaigns (setting up the competing Cult of Reason of Hébert and Chaumette and Cult of the Supreme Being of Robespierre), Marat was made a quasi-saint, and his bust often replaced crucifixes in the former churches of Paris.

By early 1795, however, Marat's memory had become tarnished. On January 13, 1795, Hâvre-Marat became simply Le Havre (the name it bears today). In February, his coffin was removed from the Panthéon and the various busts and sculptures were destroyed. His final resting place is the cemetery of the Church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

His memory was not deprecated in the Soviet Union, though. Marat was a common name there and the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk was renamed Marat in 1921. There is one of streets in the centre of Sevastopol, that was named after Marat on January 3, 1921, shortly after the Soviet power had been established in the city.

Marat's skin disease

Described during his time as a man "short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face, Marat has long been noted for physical irregularities. The nature of Marat's debilitating skin disease in particular has been an object of ongoing medical interest. Dr. Josef E Jelinek noted that his skin disease was intensely pruritic, blistering, began in the perianal region, and was associated with weight loss leading to emaciation. He was sick with it for the three years prior to his assassination, and spent most of this time in his bathtub. Jelinek's diagnosis is dermatitis herpetiformis.

Marat's bathtub

After Marat's death, his bathtub disappeared. Simone Évrard, Marat's wife, may have sold it to her journalist neighbour. It was included in an inventory of the journalist's possessions after his own death. The royalist M. de Sainte-Hilaire bought the tub, taking it to Sarzeau, Morbihan in Brittany. His daughter Capriole de Sainte-Hilaire inherited it when he died in 1805 and she passed it on to the Sarzeau curé when she died in 1862 without heirs.

A Le Figaro journalist tracked down the tub for an article published on July 15, 1885. The curé then understood that the tub could earn him money for the parish, yet the Musée Carnavalet director turned it down due to its lack of identification as well as the high price the curé proposed. The curé then approached Madame Tussaud's waxworks. The Tussauds agreed to purchase Marat's bathtub for 100,000 francs; however, the curé's response in accepting this offer was lost in the mail. After rejecting other offers, including one from Phineas Barnum, the curé sold the tub for 5,000 francs to the Musée Grévin, where it remains today.

Marat's works

Besides the works mentioned above, Marat wrote:

  • Recherches physiques sur l'électricité, &c. (1782)
  • Recherches sur l'électricité médicale (1783)
  • Notions élémentaires d'optique (1784)
  • Lettres de l'observateur Bon Sens a M. de M sur la fatale catastrophe des infortunes Pilatre de Rozier et Ronzain, les aéronautes et l'aérostation (1785)
  • Observations de M. l'amateur Avec a M. labb Sans . . . &c., (1785)
  • Éloge de Montesquieu (1785), published 1883 by M. de Bresetz
  • Les Charlatans modernes, on lettres sur le charlatanisme academique (1791)
  • Les Aventures du comte Potowski (published in 1847 by Paul Lacroix, the bibliophile Jacob)
  • Lettres polonaises (published in English only; disputed by French authorities)

Artistic and theatrical representations


  • "Nothing superfluous can belong to us legitimately so long as others lack necessities.
  • "To ensure public tranquility, two hundred and seventy thousand heads more should fall.
  • "Man has the right to deal with his oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts."


The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, in turn, gives the following references:

  • The Correspondance de Marat has been edited with notes by C. Vellay (2006)
  • Edited by Pôle Nord - Brussels:

    1) 1989-1995 : Jean-Paul Marat, Œuvres Politiques (ten volumes 1789-1793 - Text: 6.600 p. - Guide: 2.200 p.)

    2) Collection "Chantiers Marat":

    1997: Conner, Clifford D., "Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary" (Humanity Books)

    2001: "Marat en famille - La saga des Mara(t)" (2 volumes) - New approach of Marat's family.

    2006: "Plume de Marat - Plumes sur Marat" (2 volumes) : Bibliography (3.000 references of books and articles of and on Marat)

    External links

    • Summaries of the princeps edition's 10 volumes.

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