The French journalist and political leader Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793) was an influential advocate of extreme revolutionary views and measures.
Jean Paul Marat was born in Boudry, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on May 24, 1743, the son of lower-middle-class parents. Of his early years very little is known. He acquired a medical education and for some years was a successful physician in both England and France. He also conducted scientific experiments in the fields of optics and electricity. But failure to achieve what he considered to be proper recognition for this work left him with a feeling of persecution.
Marat also published several books on philosophical and political themes, the most important of which was The Chains of Slavery, in which he voiced an uncompromising denunciation of royal despotism, a defense of the sovereignty of the people, and a sympathy for the poor and downtrodden which he never abandoned. The coming of the French Revolution in 1789 gave him his opportunity to pursue these themes, and before the year was out, he had begun to publish his journal, Ami du peuple (Friend of the People). In his opinion the moderate Revolution of 1789, although it had ended royal despotism, had left a new aristocracy of the rich in control, with the grievances of the poor still unsatisfied. Thus a radical revolutionary uprising was necessary, in his opinion, and he bluntly called time and again for popular executions and a temporary dictatorship to save the Revolution and bring about a regime of social justice.
Marat's radical views and the ferocity with which he voiced them won him great popularity among the lower classes in Paris and the provinces. But he was the object of particular fear and hatred to those who supported the moderate revolution that had produced the limited monarchy. The authorities frequently tried to silence him, but he avoided arrest by hiding with the aid of his supporters and published his journal at least intermittently.
When the moderate experiment with limited monarchy failed in the midst of disastrous military reverses, the King was deposed in August 1792, and less than a month later the September massacres, an outbreak of popular executions such as Marat had been urging, took place in Paris. These events inaugurated the radical phase of the French Revolution. The Paris voters elected Marat to the Convention, which was to serve France as a legislature for the next 3 years, and he sat and voted with the "Mountain," the left-wing Jacobin faction. But he was blamed by many for the September massacres, and his continued incitement to direct action and purges, plus his advocacy of an extensive program of social legislation, kept all but the most radical aloof from him. His extreme ideas and language were matched by his informality of dress and unkempt appearance, which was heightened by the evidence of a chronic skin disease.
Marat concentrated his invective during the early months of 1793 against the moderate Girondin party, and they responded in kind. They tried to silence him and persuaded the Convention to decree his arrest and trial. But he emerged from hiding and by a brilliant speech won a triumphant acquittal in April 1793. His Girondin opponents now came under attack from the Jacobin Mountain, and Marat reached the height of his influence as he led the attack in his journal. With the decisive aid of the Paris masses, the Convention was forced to unseat and then order the arrest of the Girondin leaders (June 2, 1793).
Marat's triumph led ironically to his own death. Charlotte Corday, an idealistic young girl of Girondin sympathies from the provinces, came to Paris to seek revenge and to rid her country of the monster Marat. By this time his health had so deteriorated that he was living and working in seclusion in his apartment under a regimen of medicinal baths. On July 13, 1793, she managed to gain admittance to his apartment, under the pretense of bringing information to aid him in his continued campaign against the Girondins, and stabbed him to death in his bath.
The best biography of Marat in English is Louis Gottschalk, Jean Paul Marat: A Study in Radicalism (1927). The author emphasizes the ideas of Marat rather than the detailed facts of his career. There has not been a more recent scholarly biography in English. A much older and very laudatory biography is Ernest Belfort Bax, Jean Paul Marat: The People's Friend (1900).
Germani, Ian, Jean-Paul Marat: hero and anti-hero of the French Revolution, Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1992.