The influence of Jean-Paul Marat on the French Revolution
Jean-Paul Marat was a revolutionary leader who had an enormous impact on the direction of the French Revolution. Although he was only a leader of an influential group (the Jacobins) for part of the revolution, he was always a major force behind the actions of other groups such as the sans-culottes and the Enragés, who often appeared to be the main directors of the revolution.
Initially, Marat took a peaceful view of the revolution, as did most of the French people. He was an advocate of peaceful constitutional change, and believed that the revolution of 1789 would mark the beginning of a new, improved France. However, Marat began to see that this idealistic style of revolution would not be sufficient to effect the changes he desired. In fact, far from creating a new and equal society, the new system was creating a new privileged order, based on wealth instead of birth.
From this realisation onward, Marat saw himself as a champion of the people, and started a paper which he called L'ami du peuple (The Friend of the People). In this paper he attacked various targets including the Feuillants, the Ministry and the Assembly. However, at this stage of the revolution his views were not shared by many in France, and Marat was forced to flee to London.
In late 1791, Marat returned to Paris to find a society much more receptive to his revolutionary ideas. The constant wars engaged in by French revolutionaries were having an adverse effect on morale, and there was an all-pervading fear and hatred of counter-revolutionaries that made people suspicious of any behaviour that could be construed as working against the revolution. Because of this atmosphere of suspicion, the radical Jacobins and more moderate Girondins were constantly at odds, each accusing the other of being secretly in the pay of Louis XVIand harbouring counter-revolutionaries.
Marat loudly and forcefully condemned both groups and urged soldiers to murder their officers. In volatile France, Marat's constant exhortations to violence found ready ears. In August 1792, mobs of armed men made an attack on the Palace of the Tuileries armed with pikes and makeshift weapons. This marked a turning point in the revolution, as far more violent acts were to follow. Marat, although not the direct instigator of the attack on the Tuileries, was already becoming closely aligned with the sans-culottes in his advocacy of violence as a solution to the revolution's derailment.
From this time on, the atmosphere in Paris only became more suspicious and hostile toward counter-revolutionary sentiments. As a result, thousands of prisoners were held in jails for political reasons (that is, suspected of being counter-revolutionaries). Marat used his popularity with the sans-culottes to stir up feeling against these prisoners, suggesting that the prison system was insufficient and therefore hordes of counter-revolutionary criminals would soon escape, overrun France and confound the revolution. He claimed that killing these prisoners was the only way to save the country.
The September massacres followed soon after. The bloodlust and cruelty with which about 1,200 prisoners were murdered shocked France, and many of the murderers would later deny any involvement. Marat, on the other hand, never denied responsibility for the actions of the septembriseurs, as they became known. He was certain of the truth of his earlier statement that "two thousand heads must be chopped off" in order for the revolution to be saved, and he did not shy away from publicly supporting and encouraging violence.
However, at this time Marat became an important member of the Jacobins, eventually rising to the office of President. This may seem surprising considering his earlier condemnation of the group; it is significant that he did not enjoy any great popularity among its members, who tended to avoid him. Still, in this position he held a great deal of political power, and thus would have had much influence during the next crisis of the revolution: the arrest of the king.
The Jacobins wanted the king executed for his crimes against the revolution. Public opinion was also against the king; at least, public support for Louis was dangerous considering the violent tendencies of the sans-culottes and the even more radical Enragés. The Girondins, on the other hand, attempted to save the king's life with various political manoeuvres. The Jacobins proved stronger, and the king was executed with much rejoicing, dealing a savage blow to the credibility of the Girondins.
The Girondins tried desperately to regain their political power and influence. Seeing Marat as the cause of much of the bloodshed that had taken place in Paris, they arraigned him before the Revolutionary Tribunal. It was here that Marat's enormous popularity outside the Convention became clear. Because of his persuasive arguments in L'ami du peuple and his loyalty to his cause, the sans-culottes saw him as a hero and escorted him from the tribunal unscathed, saying that their heads would have to fall before Marat's. In retribution for Marat's arraignment, sans-culottes and Enragés attacked the Girondins until twenty-two of their members were arrested and brought before the tribunal, effectively ending their influence in the Convention.
Marat's popularity and idealism had led to the silencing of moderates in the Convention, and opened the way for the ideals of radicals. No doubt encouraged by their success in removing the Girondins, Enragés began attacking urban shops, demanding fixed prices and increased punishments for various people whose activities were at odds with the Enragés. The Committee of Public Safety was forced to accede to some of these demands, including the introduction of the death penalty for hoarders of food.
Even after Marat's active influence on the revolution had ended, he was far from uninvolved. On June 13th 1793, he was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathiser who believed that Marat's cause was damaging the revolution. Unfortunately for Corday, Marat was immediately seen as a martyr, with the Enragés claiming him as their patron saint. Busts of Marat replaced images of the Madonna as objects of worship and were paraded around during the Festival of Reason. Even after his death, Marat's revolutionary ideas lived on because of his success in communicating them to groups such as the sans-culottes; the Terror, in which thousands of people lost their lives, was largely inspired by hatred of counter-revolutionaries, which Marat had worked to foster.
Although Jean-Paul Marat is not one of the best-known leaders of the French Revolution, he was certainly among those who made the greatest impact. Through his fierce attacks on everything he saw as counter to the true aims of the revolution, he gained widespread popular support which helped him retain his political power. He was instrumental in the shift from a largely peaceful alteration of France's political structure to something of a bloodbath. His beliefs were fervent, and his followers so devoted that his influence on the revolution remained long after his death.
I wrote this essay for my Year 12 History Revolutions class.
I have no references to cite, as it was written under exam conditions and without notes; while I obviously used various sources for research, it was impossible to use footnotes or endnotes in the essay itself and whatever notess I made at the time are long gone.