Revolutionary assassin, French patriot
Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armont was born in St-Saturnin, Normandy in 1768. Little is known of her early life, but she spent many of her years in a convent. At her trial she would claim she had been a Republican long before the Revolution. At age 25, a young woman of striking beauty, she was lodged in Caen as the turbulence and violence of the Revolution rolled out around her. Caen was the center of the Girondist faction of the Revolution, a group of moderates that had driven France to war with Austria in the hope of uniting all the people behind the Revolution. Charlotte sympathised with this faction, though vehemently denied her strict identification with them at her trial. Opposed to them were the Jacobins, in favour of strict economic controls, radical democracy and an aggressive monopolisation of punitive violence by the state. On July 13, 1793, Charlotte asassinated Jean Paul Marat, yellow journalist and publisher of France's most popular radical paper, L'Ami du Peuple.
What could drive this young woman to murder? In Paris, Marat was a hero. His papers had always been popular among the sans-culottes ("without tights", ie. non-aristocratic) of Paris who he and the Jacobins idolised, because they encouraged the sort of punitive violence which is always popular in revolutions. He cast himself as the Friend of the People, tirelessly searching out and exposing traitors and enemies so that they might be excised from the body politic. This was perhaps a surprising role for the man who had once cast himself as international scientist and writer, travelling around publishing books on law, political theory, electrotherapy and physics. When the French Academy of Science rejected his theories on electricity he found his clientele shrinking as he was denounced as a quack. Impoverished and convinced there was an aristocratic conspiracy against him, Marat fell easily in with the radical revolutionary crowd. His papers were in tune with the Parisian mood, and he had contributed to creating the atmosphere that led to the overthrow of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 and the Paris prison massacres the following month. In these thousands of prisoners - from priests to boys as young as 12 - had been slaughtered by crowds of san-culottes, fearing that the existence of the criminal element at the heart of the body politic endangered the young Republic in its time of war.
Marat was elected to the Presidency of the Jacobins in the Spring of 1793. He regularly attacked the moderate Girondins in the National Convention, who were starting to fear that they would be overrun by the popular support enjoyed by the Jacobins. Moreover, they feared this support would express itself not in votes but in violent acts against their persons, as Maximilian Robespierre had recently implied that the people had the right to express the General Will with heavy artillery, as they would soon do. The Girondins decided it was time to test the mettle of their opponents, and so they moved for Marat's indictment. To do so they claimed he had damaged the integrity of the Convention by calling for violent acts against their persons, and that he planned to install a dictatorship. Marat was found innocent of all charges, and instead declared a hero by the judges - judges that the Girondins themselves at installed. The credibility of their faction collapsed and, moreover, so did its immunity from prosecution - they had set a precedent that would now be their undoing. Throughout May crowds of sans-culottes converged on the Convention to make demands to it, none of them favourable to the Girondins - and many people called for their expulsion from the assembly.
The Jacobins, concerned by sporadic violence coming from Parisians, had at first opposed any attempt to forcefully overturn the Constitution. But they suddenly gave huge impetus to an insurrection when they actively called for people to participate in it, and on May 31 a crowd entered the General Council and imposed demands on it. Among there were the arrrest of the Girondins. The Girondins, perhaps foolishly, believed they could win in the battle in the Convention, but on June 2 a crowd of perhaps 80,000 thought otherwise. Placed under house arrest, their faction was ruined and the ascendency of the Jacobins assured.
In Caen, Charlotte Corday was less than impressed. She believed the patrie was endangered by this disrespect for the Constitution and had no sympathies for the Jacobins' "unmasking" of supposed traitors. Meanwhile, in Normandy, she had witnessed the terrible regime imposed by radical officials. In particularly religious areas the Revolution had the most trouble making its mark - having failed to deliver the bread it had promised, its destruction of the local clergy and imposition of "constitutional priests" alienated the local populations. Charlotte had seen the priest who had given her mother the last rites hunted down by dogs and guillotined. Convinced the Jacobins and their machinations were to blame for the evils afflicted on herself and the Republic, she resolved that she would sacrifice her life to save those of others.
Like many protagonists of the Revolution, Charlotte was well aware of the historic nature of her actions. She had read Jean-Jacques Rousseau and classical histories, and she saw herself as a classical actor displaying Virtue in the dock of posterity. She was convinced that her death would aid the Girondin and federalist cause as well as providing histrionic glory for herself, for Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. So she set off for Paris. Marat was notoriously easy to gain access to, as befitted the Friend of the People. At the time of her visit on June 14th he lay ravaged by a skin disease that compelled him to work from a bathtub, and his illness was so severe that Charlotte was at first told to come back later. When she arrived a second time, armed with a kitchen knife hidden in her dress, she penetrated his apartments to the staircase before being challenged. Raising her voice, she claimed to have the names of people in Caen involved in a Girondin plot. Marat told those waiting on him to let her enter, and when they were left alone Charlotte struck the decisive blow.
Although a crowd wanted to rip her to pieces, Charlotte was brought to trial. She made it clear that she had acted alone in the interests of the patrie, and that she did not see it as murder to have killed the "monster" Marat. By his death she hoped to save others and make "other" Marats afraid. As it was clear she had committed the act she was condemned to a swift death after it was determined she acted alone, and on June 17th she was guillotined. Although hated for having killed the Friend of the People, it seems many men fell for her beauty and sacrifice. "For eight days," admitted Pierre Notelet, "I was in love with Charlotte Corday." But if infatuation for her was so short-lived, hagiography of Marat would continue for years. The Jacobins now had the excuse they needed to set up a police state of the sort Marat had always enthused over, and soon the Reign of Terror would begin in earnest. Like the Bolsheviks after them, the Jacobins knew just how to capitalise on martyrs. Just as Marat's endorsement and practice of violence did nothing to lessen his image, Corday's self-sacrifice is equally admired by posterity, even though it did express itself in an act of pre-meditated murder. An assassin yes - but true Patriot also.