Marat, Jean-Paul

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MARAT, JEAN-PAUL (1743–1793), French revolutionary political journalist, physician, and leader of the Jacobin Mountain.

Jean-Paul Marat is best known to posterity for two things: first, his populist, not to say rabble-rousing, journal, L'ami du peuple (Friend of the people), which phrase he also adopted for his revolutionary sobriquet; and second, Jacques-Louis David's painting of his assassination, at the hands of Charlotte Corday, while lying naked in his oily bath, wherein he found slight relief from the eczema that covered his unsightly skin and exacerbated his already acerbic soul.

Born on 24 May 1743 in Boudry, Neuchâtel, and thus a francophone Prussian subject in his youth, Marat took only peripheral interest in politics prior to the convening of the Estates-General in May 1789. Medicine was his intended vocation. He began following courses in Paris in 1762 and in 1765 moved to London, where he treated venereal disease. The University of St. Andrews, Scotland, a diploma mill for higher degrees, awarded him a doctorate in 1775. Thereupon he returned to Paris and opened a general practice, not without some success. Among his clients was a noted lady, the marquise de Laubespine, and he was named physician to the Garde du Corps of the comte d'Artois, brother of King Louis XVI (and the future Charles X).

Two early writings, A Philosophical Essay on Man (1773) and Chains of Slavery (1774), were respectively philosophical and political. Denouncing tyranny, the latter gave a foretaste of what was to come. Such was the prestige of science in the late Enlightenment, however, that Marat thought to rise above minor bourgeois status rather through that route than through letters, medicine, or public affairs. Between 1778 and 1789 he sought election to the Paris Academy of Science and besieged it with a series of experimental memoirs on fire, heat, light, color, and electricity. Certain effects he produced by means of shining a beam of sunlight through a modified microscope were neither known nor empty, but they were of minor interest at best and held nothing of the cosmic and anti-Newtonian significance he claimed for them. Academic commissions reviewed the early submissions in correct if mildly dismissive fashion, after which the academy ignored him—for Marat made a pest of himself. Of paranoid disposition, he always attributed reverses to persecution and to plots. The chance for revenge came with the Revolution. His diatribe Les charlatans modernes (1791; The modern charlatans) excoriates his oppressors of the scientific establishment, fore-most among them Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Pierre-Simon Laplace. It had a major influence preparing public opinion for the suppression of the Academy of Science on 8 August 1793 in the wave of hostility to privilege and authority of every sort that accompanied the Terror.

Persecuted by the Academy of Science, Marat wrote not long before his death that he had welcomed the Revolution for the opportunity to reach a proper place in the world. Marat was a vivid writer and became a polemical journalist, externalizing his own resentments to champion the poor, the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth, in short, the proletariat. The first issue of L'ami du peuple appeared in September 1789. Marat opened with praise of the prospect for a just society. Such was his suspicious nature that successive issues soon took to denouncing the infidelity, indeed the perfidy, of the institutions and persons in power: the Commune of Paris and its mayor, Jean-Sylvain Bailly; the Constituent Assembly and its early spokesman, the comte de Mirabeau; the National Guard and its commander, the marquis de Lafayette; the royal family and its prospective treachery; the Legislative Assembly and its subservience to moderates and ministers of state; and the army and its initially victorious commander, Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez. Paranoids are not ipso facto wrong, however. Such was the irreconcilability of factions that Marat's suspicions were often accurate, as in the instances among others of the royal family, Mirabeau, and Dumouriez.

Marat owed his effect not to the cogency of his political ideas, banal in themselves, but to the brilliance of his style. His was an invective genius in a time of latent hatreds burst into the open. His inflammatory writing earned him several arrests and detentions. He frequently had to go into hiding while continuing to publish at irregular intervals. On two occasions he took refuge in London. There is no way to measure the extent of his influence in summoning the mob into the streets on the insurrectional days of October 1789, which brought the royal family from Versailles to virtual captivity in Paris; for the rising of 10 August 1792 that overthrew the monarchy; and for the massacres that followed in September. But there is no doubt that his incitement was an effective factor.

Only with election to the National Convention in September 1792 did Marat hold political office. In the struggle between the Gironde and the Jacobin Mountain that defined the first phase of that body's history, Marat sided polemically with the latter. So vicious did his attacks become, calling for something like a dictatorship of the people, that the Girondist faction, barely dominant throughout the winter and early spring of 1792 to 1793, voted his indictment for incendiary acts. Theirs was a Pyrrhic victory. Acquitted on 14 April, Marat was borne from the courtroom on the shoulders of the crowd. His triumph led directly to the rising of 31 May that forced the expulsion of the Girondist deputies from the Convention and opened the way to the Jacobin dictatorship of the Terror. On 13 July, the eve of Bastille Day, Charlotte Corday, daughter of a devout and royalist Norman family, gained access to Marat's dwelling and stabbed to death the incarnation of the godless Revolution.

See alsoFrance; French Revolution; Jacobins; Reign of Terror.


Coquard, Olivier. Jean-Paul Marat. Paris, 1993. Supersedes all earlier biographies.

Gillispie, Charles C. Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime. Princeton, N.J., 1980. 2nd ed., published as Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime, 2004. Includes a chapter (pp. 290–329) on Marat's scientific endeavors.

Charles C. Gillispie