Corday, Charlotte (1768–1793)
Corday, Charlotte (1768–1793)
Norman whose passion for justice so far exceeded the capacity or will of the Revolution to separate justice from politics that she individually indicted, judged, and executed the radical journalist Jean Paul Marat, by murdering him in his bath. Name variations: Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d'Armont. Born Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d'Armont at Champeaux in the Calvados of Normandy, France, on July 27, 1768; executed in Paris on July 17, 1793, for the murder of Jean Paul Marat, revolutionary journalist; daughter of Jacques-François de Corday (a minor aristocrat in serious economic decline) and a mother who died in childbirth when Charlotte was quite young; never married; no children.
Attended the convent school at Caen and read deeply in the plays of her ancestor, the tragedian Corneille, as well as Plutarch, Raynal, and Rousseau; inspired by the eruption of the French Revolution (1789), her sympathies came to be with the faction known as the Girondins; upon the fall of that faction from power in Paris (spring, 1793) and the arrival of several Girondin leaders in Caen, she sensed a major part for herself in the Revolution; traveled to Paris (July 1793) and murdered Jean Paul Marat, radical editor of Ami du Peuple, whom she blamed for the Girondins' fate.
Charlotte Corday, imprisoned after murdering Jean Paul Marat">
I have avenged many innocent victims, I have prevented many other disasters. The day will come when the people, undeceived, will rejoice at being delivered from a tyrant … rejoice at my fate. The cause of it is beautiful.
—Charlotte Corday, imprisoned after murdering Jean Paul Marat
Charlotte Corday, like several other assassins of prominent political figures, is known to history exclusively for the criminal act she performed. Also like others, including John Wilkes Booth, she acted to avenge the defeat of a cause she had passionately embraced. Having steeped herself in the accounts of the heroic deeds of republican Greece and Rome, and being a woman of both intellect and feeling, she saw in the death of Jean Paul Marat the salvation of both the Revolution and the Girondins, the moderate republicans of her time. She also sought the inevitable martyrdom that must follow upon her act. In her death, she would do for France what she could not do, as a woman, in the political assemblies in Paris. She would, by her sacrifice and by her example, turn her nation away from the murderous, divisive, and populist policies of the Jacobin regime and lead it back to moderate, rational, constitutional government by those of talent and position. Ironically, her violent act only intensified the terroristic policies of the Parisian regime and precluded any peaceful, legislative resolution of the political crisis of the time. One author, J. Mills Whitham, has even speculated that Corday's knife may have prevented moderate Jacobins like Jacques Danton from ending the Terror before they were themselves proscribed.
Corday was descended from an aristocratic French family in Normandy and could claim the prominent 17th-century dramatist, Corneille, as an ancestor. Her biographer Marie Cher believes that she was much like Corneille's ideal characters: pure, faithful, willful, and prone to fanaticism. When she was born in 1768, however, the family was struggling to make ends meet. Her father was the victim of primogeniture laws that effectively left him with insufficient acreage to play the aristocrat. Even so, he embraced politics, generally leaning toward a reformed France under a limited monarchy. Charlotte, one of five children, inherited little from her father but his pride and his devotion to affairs of state.
She was a quiet child, given to moods, studious and serious. Her modest, unremarkable childhood was ended, however, by a sharp blow when both her mother and sister died. Having lost, therefore, her only family support by age ten, she grew all the more introverted and detached. Eventually, she left her family and moved in temporarily with her uncle, the Abbe de Corday, who may have introduced her to classical literature. In the meantime, her mind turned to the attractions of doubt and disputation. Perhaps it was with the intent to counter this course that the Abbess of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen consented to take Charlotte into the abbaye (abbey) to educate and provide for her. This opportunity opened a new world for Corday, for it gave her access to the institution's library. It was a world she explored intently.
Charlotte was most interested in the accounts of the stern republicans of the world of antiquity. Apparently, her own proclivities to simplicity, virtue, and self-sacrifice were stimulated by Plutarch's biographies of communal heroes, men and women who preferred death over compromise of principle. Similarly, Rousseau's call for resistance to civilization's corruptions may have led her to renounce the attractions of sexual love. In any event, she appears to have had no intimates, male or female, but matured into a self-sufficient, dedicated, brisk young woman.
The onset of the French Revolution in 1789 was for Corday, as it was for all French, the beginning of profound changes. Fired by the news from Paris and other centers, and eager for every scrap of information, the young woman of 21 sought freedom outside the abbey. Taken in by Madame de Bretteville , a wealthy widowed cousin in Caen, Charlotte was soon preoccupied by the ebb and flow of the Revolution. As the early moderate phase of the insurrection was succeeded by foreign war and a swing toward popular egalitarianism, bitter internal factional struggles became the essence of the Revolution. Constitutional monarchists gave way to moderate
republicans, and they, in turn, criticized by urban populists, were discredited by defeat in foreign war after 1792. In August 1792, Louis XVI, the king of France, was over-thrown, largely by the force of Parisian radicals in the city government, the Commune, and the national political faction known as the Jacobins. A key figure in these events was Jean Paul Marat, the writer and editor of the popular newspaper, Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People). At that time, the leading faction in the Legislative Assembly was the Girondins, a loosely associated group of politicians from the provinces of France who resented the influence of Paris and its radical leaders over the Revolution. Marat and others, especially the rival faction, the Jacobins, believed the Girondins were actually monarchist and opposed to the ambitions of the common people. When a new assembly, the National Convention, was elected late in 1792, Marat and the Jacobins forced the trial and execution of Louis XVI and in June of 1793 expelled the Girondins from the national legislature. Some Girondins were executed, but some escaped to stimulate a number of so-called Federalist revolts in various parts of the country.
The Girondin collapse shocked Charlotte Corday in provincial Caen. Perhaps because of her aristocratic heritage and the prospect of her cousin's legacy, she had come to regard the Jacobins and the Parisian radicals as murderous oppressors of true liberty. Events like the September Massacres in Paris in 1792, when thousands of unarmed captives in Parisian prisons were slaughtered, seemed a degradation of the Revolution and its earlier ideals of personal liberty and constitutional government. Corday accepted accounts of Marat and the Jacobins as the cruel instigators of these mass murders. Should this monster, as she saw him, continue to promote such outrages, France would collapse and the Revolution, with all its opportunities for virtue's triumph, would be lost.
The young woman's sense of justice was deeply offended. Having seen the past of her imagination, of the righteous Romans and Spartans, seemingly come to life in the brave new world of France, she could not bear to see it sullied by the canaille or ignorant, filthy common inhabitants of the Parisian slums. She was sure the Jacobins, and especially Marat, had roused this barbaric element for their personal power and had used it against the true republicans, the men of talent and virtue of the Gironde. Patriots, she decided, must save the country. It was a time for a true Roman, a true Spartan, for someone willing to sacrifice herself for the salvation of the community.
Actually, the Jacobins were, in many respects, of the same views and social strata as the Girondins. Its leaders, however, such as Maximillien Robespierre and Jacques Danton, had been willing to embrace the urban radicals and some of their proposals to prevent defeat in the foreign war, prevent the return of royalist power, offset the centrifugal forces of internal separatism, and halt counter-revolution. To Corday, however, they were dangerous levelers and tyrants.
Her predilections to detest the Jacobins were reinforced by the political climate of Caen. Officials in the city, as in others, feared and protested the rising power of Paris and the move toward centralization of all authority in the capital. Thus, when the Girondins were proscribed in the Convention in mid-1793, some of their leaders, including the handsome Charles Barbaroux from Marseilles, made their way to Caen. Immediately, Corday made contact with them. They were intent on raising forces to march on Paris and overthrow the Jacobins. The prospect both repelled and intrigued the young woman. She certainly desired the destruction of the Jacobins, but she hated the thought of her beloved France sinking into civil war. There had to be a way to prevent it. In short order, ideas took form. If the archfiend Marat could be removed, the Girondins could rouse the French nation to unity and bring peace. It was her call. She must go to Paris and do the deed; she must kill Marat.
It appears irrational to think that the death of a single individual could change the fate of an entire nation. Whether irrational or not, the idea has motivated many assassins. To Corday, immersed in her books and obsessed with her own purity and sense of destiny, the act would not be murder as such, and, in fact, she denounced the prosecutor who described her as a murderess at her trial. She regarded the strike at Marat as an act of communal defense. That her own death must follow almost immediately, she knew and accepted with equanimity. Her demise would complete her contribution to France by providing the example for other patriots. Of course, for the example to have the greatest impact, it must be known that her actions were planned and carried out deliberately and earnestly. Hence, every step of the drama was recorded by Corday herself in letters to Barbaroux and her father and in a written testament she attached to her clothes on the day of the assassination. If vanity had its role in the affair, Corday, described as an attractive woman, was, for all her guarded virtue and alleged desire for anonymity, as flattered by personal attention as anyone.
Carefully, Charlotte Corday made her preparations, but she informed no one. She would not let anyone stop her. From Barbaroux, she obtained a letter of introduction to a Girondin still in the Convention by the name of Deperret. Through him, she hoped to gain admission to the Convention and to kill Marat on the spot. She expected to be torn to pieces immediately after assailing the hated journalist.
To associates in Caen, and to her father, Charlotte said she was going to England because she could no longer live in a country so torn by violence. After burning her papers. she took the coach to Paris on June 9 and arrived on June 11. On the way, according to her account, a young man made a proposal of marriage to her; she ignored him. In Paris, she took a room at the Hôtel de la Providence and then made her way to Deperret. She said nothing directly about her plans, but she did ask him if Marat normally attended the sessions of the Convention. The deputy read Barbaroux's letter but told her Marat was ill and confined to his lodgings. Apparently not interested in the young woman, he did not pay her much attention even when she warned him to leave Paris while he could. In fact, her pride was hurt by Deperret's indifference,
and her hopes for a public assassination were diminished, but having come so far, she would not turn back.
Early on the morning of Saturday, July 13, the day before the fifth anniversary of the storming of the royal fortress, the Bastille, Corday arose and went to the market area called the Palais Royale. There she paid 40 sous for a black-handled kitchen knife and concealed it in her clothing. Hiring a coach, she went straight to Marat's house in the Rue des Cordeliers. Marat's wife, Simonne Evrard, met Corday at the door and asked her business. Openly suspicious, Evrard stared at the well-dressed woman and told her Marat was not receiving visitors. Charlotte had expected such a reception, however, and had written a note, which she left with Simonne, declaring that she had vital information for Marat concerning certain Girondin conspiracies at Caen. She said that she would expect an answer from the Friend of the People.
After returning to the Hôtel de la Providence, Charlotte sent another letter to Marat seeking an interview. She also wrote diverse letters, apparently intended for all of France, explaining her motives and her proposed action. In one of these she wrote: "I can offer you nothing but my life, and I thank heaven that I am free to dispose of it; I desire only that … my head, carried through Paris, may be a rallying standard for all the friends of law."
In the evening, Corday again hired a coach and arrived at Marat's house a little after seven o'clock. She had her knife with her. At the door the visitor from Caen, dressed in a brown dress and a black hat, was blocked by two of Marat's housekeepers. Shortly, Simonne came to the door and saw the same woman whom she had spoken to that morning. She allowed Charlotte to wait in the dining room while she asked Marat if he would see her. He agreed, and Charlotte stepped into the bathroom to see a small, emaciated man of 50, suffering from a painful skin disease, seated in a shoe-like tub, wearing a loose dressing gown with a bandanna around his head. Wearily, he asked her to state her business. Well prepared, and exhibiting incredible self-control, Corday sat on a hard wooden chair and began to tell him of the machinations at Caen. Awaiting the departure of Simonne from the room, she gave him names of officials, Girondin refugees, and their sympathizers. Marat took up a pen to record the names on a paper on a board. Apparently content, Simonne left the room. At that moment, Marat said that all the persons named would soon be guillotined. Rising to her feet, Corday drew the knife and, with fanatical force, plunged it through the invalid's ribs into his lung and heart. Marat cried out in pain and sank back in the tub. He died within a minute or two.
The women rushed into the room, but Charlotte raced past them, heading for a door. Another visitor, Laurent Bas, one of the distributors of the Ami du Peuple, seized her before she could escape. One of the women, screaming in rage and grief, repeatedly struck Corday with her fists, and only the arrival of the police spared her from immediate death. Perhaps, Charlotte had meant to save her life after all, or, possibly, she sought martyrdom in the more public arena of the streets. In any event, she was roughly searched, and her testimony was found pinned to her clothes. Amid the commotion and recriminations, deputies from the Convention reached the Rue des Cordeliers to question her on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety. Stoically, she insisted that she had acted alone and refused to implicate the Girondins. All she asked was that she not be tortured before her inevitable ride to the scaffold.
As the shocking news of the murder spread across the city, thousands of indignant citizens took to the streets. Corday was taken by cab, under great security, to the Abbaye prison, but the poor, who adored Marat, surrounded the coach and cursed her and shrieked for her head. Only narrowly did the police keep her alive on the journey. Ironically, even as she was arrested, the Girondin rebellion, hatched at Caen, was being easily broken by Jacobin forces.
At the Abbaye, awaiting her trial, Corday was allowed to write and composed a letter to Barbaroux explaining her deed and, in a letter to the Committee of Public Safety, complained of the close guard attending her and her lack of privacy. Naturally, the letter never reached Barbaroux, but it is likely that Charlotte knew that would be the case and was consciously preparing her own eulogy. Poor Barbaroux, the handsome young Marseillaise. After the rebellion failed, he fled the encircling Jacobin forces but, close to capture in an open field, shot himself. Still alive, he was dragged away to be guillotined before he could die.
Charlotte Corday stayed only briefly at the Abbaye. Soon she was taken to the Conciergerie, the prison where political suspects were held to await trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal. To complement the record, the Committee of Public Safety sent an artist, Hauer, to sketch her, and the sketch would later be a full painting. She appears calm, even somewhat smug, in the final painting. If she betrayed any fear, much less remorse, the artist has not shown it to posterity. In her cell, she also wrote a last letter to her father, apologizing for not consulting with him concerning the use she had made of her life.
On July 17, Corday was escorted to the Revolutionary Tribunal. She asked for an old acquaintance, a certain Doulcet, as her counsel. He did not know of her arrest, however, and, meanwhile, the court appointed Chaveau de la Garde, a Jacobin, to defend her. Simonne Evrard was the first to give evidence, and she repeated the details of the crime. Asked by the prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, why she had killed Marat, Corday shouted that she was punishing his crimes. She denied she had rehearsed the act, saying only that she had intended to kill the writer at the Convention and to die at the hands of the mob. Did she suppose that in killing Marat, she had destroyed all who shared his views? She answered that in taking his life she would save France and the lives of thousands. Her defender could only suggest that fanaticism had driven the young woman to the desperate circumstances in which she now found herself. About noon, the tribunal found her guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced her to death on the guillotine.
At mid-afternoon, the public executioner, Sanson, appeared at Charlotte's cell with his assistants. They cut her hair far up the back of her neck, dressed her in a red shirt to symbolize her role as a murderer, tied her hands, and took her to a tumbrel, an open cart, for the ride across the city to the Place de la Revolution where the guillotine awaited her. She refused the ministrations of a priest, believing she had no sin to confess.
Night was coming on when Corday was brought to the scaffold. A huge throng turned out for the execution, and along the entire route she was cursed and condemned by the angry Parisians. Ignoring them, she conversed quietly with the man who would soon decapitate her. Told it was a considerable distance to the Place de la Revolution, she replied that they would, even so, surely get there. A brief rainstorm passed over the city, but the sky cleared when the cart stopped at the scaffold. Briefly, she hesitated; then she climbed the steps. Her shawl was removed, she was placed on the board, and the board was slid into place. Her head rested in the slot, and the blade fell. One of Sanson's assistants seized the severed head and slapped the pale face. Later, some claimed that the dead cheeks blushed.
Charlotte Corday achieved her goal. She killed Marat, the man she regarded as a monster who had betrayed the Revolution. Yet it is clear that her higher purpose, the ending of Jacobin control and the success of the Girondin cause was not accomplished. Indeed, the death of Marat intensified the suspicions of the Commune and the Jacobin Convention and ushered in an even bloodier phase of the political terror that did not end for another year. In the meantime, thousands died, including most of the Girondin leaders she had intended to redeem France. Sadly, one of the condemned Girondins exclaimed that Corday had "destroyed us, but she has taught us how to die." And, in fact, Charlotte Corday had never really known what to do but to kill her nemesis and then die. Her courage cannot be disputed, and her will to justice must impress any modern observer. Yet, as in many another attempt to alter the forces of history by wielding the assassin's weapon, Corday's attack actually strengthened the hand of her enemies. Her crime, undoubtedly a political one, was no less and no more a crime than the judicial murders perpetrated by her enemies at the tribunals of the Revolution. But her undertaking, like the greater drama of which it was a part, the Revolution itself, raises a fundamental question: can any society be positively changed in any permanent way by the use of willful violence against other human beings?
Cher, Marie. Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment. NY: D. Appleton, 1929.
Sokolnikova, Galina Osipovna. Nine Women Drawn from the Epoch of the French Revolution. Translated by H.C. Stevens. NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1932, reprinted 1969, pp. 35–63.
Whitham, J. Mills. Men and Women of the French Revolution. NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1933, reprinted 1968, pp. 152–184.
Gottschalk, Louis R., and Jean Paul Marat. A Study in Radicalism. Greenberg, 1927.
C. David Rice , Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri