Yesterday was the anniversary of the death in 1792 of Jean-Paul Marat. He was in his bath tub when he died, where he typically worked and sometimes received guests, as he had a bad skin condition and sought relief for it there. He had agreed to an interview with Charlotte Corday, who produced a dagger and stabbed the defenseless Marat to death.
Jacques-Louis David’s depiction of the scene:
Marat had been a doctor and a favorite of French aristocrats, based in part on his success in curing cases of gonorrhea. He published works on eye diseases. In 1777, he was appointed physician to the bodyguard of the comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s youngest brother, who was to become king Charles X in 1824.
This position gave him the money needed to pursue various scientific studies, and he published works detailing experiments on “The Physics of Fire”, his responses to Newton’s ideas about the nature of light, and research on the nature of electrical force. He reached various conclusions that were accepted by official censors and the Academy of Science, but that were disputed by the likes of Lavoisier, e.g. that fire was an “igneous fluid”. Lavoisier demanded that the Academy repudiate the findings, and they ultimately did so, creating a rift between Marat and several important scientists of the day. It also soured Marat on the aristocracy.
Marat gave up science and medicine for politics in 1788, as the French Revolution was at hand. In 1789, he published his “Offering to a Nation”, detailing his thoughts on the Third Estate, i.e. the common people (The First Estate was the clergy, and the Second Estate was the aristocracy).
He had “radical” ideas, arguing that society should provide all its citizens the fundamental needs like food and shelter if they were expected to follow its laws, that the king was simply the “first magistrate” of his people, that the death penalty should be applied the same way for anyone regardless of class, and that every town should establish an advocate for the poor to ensure fair trials.
He started a newspaper called “The People’s Friend”, in which he railed against the various centers of influence in Paris and conservative revolutionary leaders. He was forced into hiding several times during this period and took refuge in the sewers of Paris.
Marat was elected to the National Convention in 1792. He thought that Louis XVI should be executed, but not actually accused of anything until he accepted the constitution of 1791. Marat was arrested and imprisoned in April 1793, on charges that he had called for widespread violence, but was acquitted at trial.
Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Caen, came to his apartment claiming to have information about the whereabouts of Marat’s opponents in Caen, the Girondists. Marat’s wife, Simone, objected to granting her an audience, but he saw her anyway. He talked to her for about fifteen minutes, at which point she pulled a 5″ knife from her clothing and stabbed him. His last words were to Simone, “Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!”.
Corday was from an aristocratic family who had been impoverished by the Revolution, and was a sympathizer of Marat’s antagonists. She was tried for her crime, and testified that, “I killed one man to save 100,000.”
She was guillotined on July 17th 1793.
Marat was gone, but the ideals he articulated for the Third Estate are as relevant now as they were then.
Yesterday, our president was in Paris on the occasion of Bastille Day. He read a speech which he was apparently seeing for the first time.
In it, he noted that our two nations are forever joined in the spirit of revolution. I would like to think that Tweety understands what the French Revolution was about, and the changes it brought to the dynamic between the Second and Third Estates. However, I’m certain he doesn’t have a clue, and that his ideas more closely resemble Corday’s than Marat’s.
He said that France is America’s first and oldest ally and that “a lot of people don’t know that”. Well, at least one person.