Modern history


“Terror Is the Order of the Day”

June 1793 – Frimaire An II (December 1793)


Following their expulsion from the Convention, the Girondin leaders were placed under house arrest in Paris. Many chose to stay where they were, deliberately defying their ostracism from the body politic. Others, however, attempted flight. Two of their number, Jérôme Pétion and the Breton Kervélegan, succeeded in escaping their guards, the latter by throwing himself from the second-story window of his house. A larger group, already assuming the worst after the insurrection of May 31, had departed early from Paris, intending to make good their threat to raise the provinces against the capital.

In the first week of June 1793, it seemed as though they might succeed. For while a majority of the Parisian sections were militantly Montagnard, the reverse was true in some of the most important provincial cities. In Bordeaux, Lucy de La Tour du Pin saw a thousand young men drilling on the slopes of the Château Trompette. Encouraged by such deputies as Boyer-Fonfrède and Roger Ducos and paid by the Girondin municipality, they were supposed to form the nucleus of a “federalist” army mobilized to resist the dictatorship of Paris. Lucy worried that the noise they made with cannon and in the theaters in the evening was not a reassuring sign of their fortitude under fire. In Marseille too, the sections had staged a revolt in May against the militant Jacobin municipality. A new regime was installed, dominated by supporters of the leading Marseillais Girondins, Barbaroux and Rebecquy, many of whom came from the mercantile and commercial elite of the port city, as indeed was the case at Bordeaux. The Jacobin clubs were closed, their central committee dissolved and leading members imprisoned.

While the immediate causes of these urban revolts sprang from the intensity of local politics, the motivation of the insurgents was virtually the same in Bordeaux, Marseille, Toulon, Montbrison, and in Lyon, where much the most serious uprising occurred on May 29. In all these cases, men who considered themselves the “natural” political and cultural leaders of the city – lawyers, merchants, officials; the luminaries of the academies; the brothers of the Masonic lodge; the officers of the National Guard – had been ejected from the city government following the fall of the monarchy, often by blatantly manipulated or intimidated elections. Resisted by the departmental authorities but supported by representatives of the Convention “on mission,” the local Jacobin regimes had then instituted little Terrors in the guise of house searches, forced loans on the rich, closure of opposing journals and societies, and selective arrests.

In Lyon, this militant offensive was directed by Joseph Chalier, whose histrionics were unsurpassed by any politician in the French Revolution. When he had brought one of the stones of the Bastille to the city, he organized a ceremony in which each of the devotees knelt to kiss the sacred stone. In a more sinister vein, Chalier threatened with the guillotine silk merchants who pleaded the depression as a reason for refusing their employees work. In early February he had convened a general assembly of the clubs, which began with a forced oath, on pain of death, to abide by the decisions the meeting was about to take. He then announced that there would be a revolutionary tribunal established in Lyon and that “nine hundred victims are needed for the patrie en danger. They would be executed on the Pont Morand and the bodies thrown into the Rhone.”

Chalier’s antics managed to alienate even those who had thought of themselves as orthodox Jacobins. Believing themselves to be on a potential list of proscribed “moderates,” they made common cause with the broader opposition in the sections, including, crucially, National Guards whom the representatives on mission, Albitte and Dubois-Crancé, had attempted to disarm. On May 29 the moderate sectionnaires and Guards stormed the town hall, taking Chalier and the municipality prisoner. What was striking about the federalist uprising at Lyon, as elsewhere, was that while the commercial and professional elite of the town led it from their command posts in the sections, they could not have succeeded without the armed support of many humbler citizens, often the very artisans whom the Jacobins assumed were on their side. While journeymen silk weavers may have stood aside, many masters of small shops participated in the rebellion and went on to serve in the federalist army. In Marseille and Toulon dock workers and arsenal workers supported the revolt. It was not, then, the simple class war of Jacobin historiography. Paradoxically, the same rhetoric which in Paris blamed moderate governments for continuing economic crisis – unemployment, the depreciation of theassignat, food shortages and price rises – could in the provincial cities be turned against the Jacobin municipalities. In Toulon, for example, a man was arrested in July for having said that “we need a king because under the monarchy bread was two sous [a pound].” The arsenal workers in the same city petitioned the National Convention in the same tone, demanding “peace in our towns and bread for our families. A declining paper money and your terrible political squabbles suggest we will not obtain either.”

The phenomenon of popular support for well-to-do moderates is only bewildering if one assumes that artisans and shopkeepers were really persuaded that the doctors, schoolteachers and hack writers who professed to be sans-culottes were somehow closer to their interests than the merchants and lawyers of the established elite. There is no reason to take at face value the Jacobin rhetoric that made this claim. But even had it been true, such imposed solidarity obviously would have been overriden by intense local loyalties and equally intense dislike of Parisian imperialism. Nothing was more damning to men like Chalier than to be stigmatized as “étrangers,” outsiders, especially when their power was propped up by representatives from the Convention. In this sense, the great centrifugal forces liberated by the revolution of 1789– 91 could only be thrown into reverse by the application of military force.

The revolt in Lyon took place on the same day as the purge of the Girondins in Paris. In turn, news of that event fed the momentum of resistance to the Mountain and not just in southern France. Rennes, in Brittany, was an important center of disaffection, and it looked as though some of the major towns in Normandy would join the movement. On June 10, the most influential group of Girondin fugitives showed up in one of those towns, the cathedral city of Caen in the Department of the Calvados. They doubtless chose that place to make their stand for its relative proximity to Paris and perhaps because one of their company, Buzot, was himself a Norman. Mme Roland’s lover, he arrived in the city with a bag full of her letters, locks of her hair, miniatures of her face – and his long-suffering wife. With him were other important figures such as Charles Barbaroux, Guadet, the journalists Gorsas and Louvet, the physician Salle, Lanjuinais and the two escapees Pétion and Kervélegan. Later in the week they were joined by a third group of deputies, and together they set up a political base in the Hôtel de l’Intendance in the center of Caen.

Their immediate aim was to raise a northern federalist force, commanded by General de Wimpffen, who had been one of the city’s deputies in the Constituent. A march on Paris was to be coordinated with similar mobilizations in the other federalist centers that would withstand and ultimately reverse the Jacobin ascendancy. Though the federalists were explicitly nonroyalist, the inability of the republican armies to suppress the Vendéan rebellion was, they believed, an added distraction in their favor. The capital and its satellites would be borne down on from the disaffected perimeter of France in a circle that extended west from Normandy and Brittany through the Vendée to the Gironde and southern Provence, up the Rhone Valley and to Lyon and the Franche-Comté, where Besançon too was leaning to federalism. Gradually, they hoped, this ring would tighten like a noose around the necks of the beleaguered Mountain.

In Caen itself the prospects for such an ambitious anti-Jacobin crusade seemed good. On the fifteenth a manifesto had been drafted by the Girondins and the authorities of the department. It denounced “the conspiratorial commune [Paris], engorged with blood and gold, which holds our representatives captive. It is amidst bayonets that it dares to dictate its will. The national representation no longer exists. Frenchmen! The home of our liberty has been violated. The free men of Neustria [the Frankish name for Northern France] will not allow this outrage and either those brigands will be punished or else we shall all die.” On the twenty-second a general assembly representing a substantial majority of the sections of Caen also adopted a motion against the continuation of “anarchy.” Recalled by the Convention, de Wimpffen replied that he would come to Paris at the head of sixty thousand men to restore justice and liberty.

For the time being, though, his force was more modest. On the seventh of July, a military parade took place on the Grande Cour of Caen with not more than twenty-five hundred federalist troops: eight hundred from the Eure and Calvados; five hundred from the neighboring Department of Ille-et-Vilaine; eight hundred from the Breton departments of Finistére and Morbihan; and the remainder from the Manche and Mayenne. Striding along to the sound of military bands, it was enough for a good show in the summer afternoon, but it was not enough for a civil war. Though the Girondins had hoped the spectacle would produce a flood of spontaneous volunteers, the afternoon yielded the meager harvest of just a hundred and thirty to add to the ranks.

Watching the parade was a strikingly good-looking woman of twenty-five named Charlotte Corday d’Armont. The house in Caen where she lodged was just a few paces away from the Intendance, where the Girondins had made their headquarters. Since often, from the balcony, they exercised their oratory on sympathetic crowds, she had heard them many times and on the twentieth had managed to be introduced to the eloquent and dashing Provençal Charles Barbaroux. She needed no conversion, however, for Charlotte Corday was already consumed with an intense, almost feverish hatred for the Jacobins, whose conduct on May 31 and June 2, she believed, had brought the Republic to the lowest level of degradation.

It was a republic she wished to see flourish. For although Charlotte had been born in a timbered manor house to a family of minor Norman gentry, she was by no means a royalist. On the contrary, like Mme Roland (who much admired her abrupt intervention in the history of the Revolution), she had read deeply in Rousseau and the standard Roman histories and imagined the Revolution as dedicated to bringing about an exalted moral transformation. She became an assassin not to avenge Louis XVI – indeed, at her interrogation she explicitly repudiated any comparison with Pâris, the royal bodyguard who had murdered Lepeletier – but to help the Girondin and federalist cause. Her deed, she would write to Barbaroux from prison, had surely done more to help General de Wimpffen than any battle.

One event in particular violently alienated Charlotte from the Revolution. The Abbé Gombault, curé of Saint-Gilles in Caen, had given the last rites to Charlotte’s mother in 1782, when she died in childbirth. As a refractory priest, he had been successively dispossessed of his living, threatened with deportation, and in April 1793 had gone into hiding in the woods of La Delivrande outside the city to avoid arrest. A search party of tracking dogs hunted him down and he was executed on the fifth of April in the place du Pilori, the first of those to be guillotined at Caen. Later that month the department of the Calvados addressed the first of many letters to the Convention complaining of the tyranny of a small clique of Jacobins. “Your divisions are the source of all our troubles. It is a Marat, a Robespierre, a Danton who preoccupy you and incite you and you forget that an entire people is suffering…” These attacks on the Mountain were published and widely posted in Caen, and Charlotte is likely to have read them. One assault on the most notorious “sanguinary,” Marat, by Pézenas, a deputy from the Hérault, circulating in Caen may have struck her as particularly compelling, not least for the way in which it turned against Marat his own obsession with the political economy of decapitation.

Let Marat’s head fall and the Republic is saved… Purge France of this man of blood… Marat sees the Public Safety only in a river of blood; well then his own must flow, for his head must fall to save two hundred thousand others.

Charlotte Corday came to the conclusion that this task was her vocation. A direct descendant of the classical dramatist Pierre Corneille, she seemed to cast herself in one of his tragic roles. She would take on herself the mission of patriotic martyr, a woman who would be prepared to die in the sacred deed of ridding the patrie of a monster. On the ninth of July, in sultry afternoon heat, she dispatched a letter to her father in Argentan, begging his pardon for leaving Caen without his permission, and boarded the diligencefor Paris.

The object of her attention was meanwhile lying sick at his house in the rue des Cordeliers. Never particularly healthy, Marat had lately developed a crippling dermatological disorder which, on periodic eruption, would turn his skin into a roasting mess of scaly flakes and sores. The only relief for this arthritic psoriasis was to lie in a cool bath. When the attacks came on him, Marat would retire to his tiled bathroom and continue his work on a small table improvised from an upturned wooden box that stood by the side of his shoe-shaped tub. The torrid midsummer heat may have made this condition worse, for Marat had absented himself from the Convention for an unusually long time. On the twelfth of July, a day after Charlotte Corday arrived in Paris, two deputies came to inquire after his health. One of them was the painter Jacques-Louis David, who found him “writing his thoughts for the safety of the patrie” in his tireless manner, the right arm slung out of the bath. On the walls of the room were a map of the departments of the Republic, emblems of the Revolution and a pair of crossed pistols below which was written the legend “La Mort.” Perhaps struck by this alarming motto, David wished the Friend of the People a speedy recovery, to which he replied, “Ten years more or less in the duration of my life do not concern me in the least; my only desire is to be able to say with my last breath ‘I am happy that the patrie is saved.’” Charlotte Corday could not have put it better.

Laid low as he was, Jean-Paul Marat was then at the acme of his powers and influence. Since the abortive effort by the Girondins to convict him in April, everything had gone his way. On the day of his acquittal by the Revolutionary Tribunal, a woman had placed a crown of roses on his brow. A month later victory became even more fragrant as he saw his bitterest enemies proscribed and hounded from the Convention. The institutional machinery for the revolutionary dictatorship he advocated was now set in place, so that the chaotic brutalities of the street mobs would be replaced by the systematic machinery of state punishment. The enragés, whom he disliked almost as much as he did the Girondins, had failed to profit from June 2, and Varlet himself had even been excluded from the Jacobins. Marat was listened to in the Convention, respected in the Commune, showered with flattering attention in the sections. He seemed to have become one with the persona he had devised: Friend of the People; oracle of the Republic; unmasker of conspiracies; mortifier of hypocrites.

He had certainly come a long way from the itinerant medical and scientific man of letters who had traveled throughout Europe in search of recognition for his theories on optics, aeronautics and electrical therapy. Like Jacques-Louis David’s, his political life was the fruit of a bitter personal rejection. In David’s case the refusal of the Academy to exhibit the works of his favorite (and prodigiously gifted) student, Drouais, had persuaded him that it was in the grip of an aristocratic clique. From there it was but a short step to espousing its destruction as incompatible with revolutionary freedom, and a political engagement that had made the painter a deputy to the Convention and a member of the Committee of General Security. Marat’s failure to secure recognition from the Royal Academy of Science for his theories on the igneous fluids that he took to be the essential property of electricity was much more alienating since, unlike David’s dispute, it damaged his career. Before this crisis in 1780 he had been, at least nominally, physician to Artois and had a thriving practice in electrotherapy. Afterwards his clientele shrunk under the imputation that he was a quack, a disaster for which a prize conferred by the Academy of Rouen only inadequately compensated him.

Smarting from this affront, Marat recast his identity. Instead of ingratiating himself with the fashionable aristocracy, he turned to snapping at its heels. Instead of hunting for publicity, he created his own by living in the area of the Cordeliers where he had easy access to printers. In England the career of John Wilkes had shown him how a mocking, combative journalism probing the limits of conventional decorum could actually create a new political public. But what Marat put together from other elements of metropolitan culture was distinctively French. From Linguet and Mercier he took an apocalyptic tone and the verbally violent polemics that tore into the vices of political fashion. In retrospect one can see that Marat’s peculiar family origins, combining Sardinian Jesuitry with Genevan Calvinism (the latter on his mother’s side), were a perfect training for this kind of hectoring messianism. From Rousseau he took the polemics of paranoia. This both concentrated his attack against liberal self-congratulation and ensured that when the counter-attacks came (from Lafayette, for example) he could turn that “persecution” into a political asset. Goading into action adversaries whom he depicted as traitors, conspirators, tyrants or poltroons, he could then pose as the champion of the freedom of the press. “The liberty of saying anything,” he once memorably remarked, “has enemies only among those who want to reserve for themselves the right to do anything.”

His chosen role, then, was that of an outcast – the man who abjured wit, elegance, the fashionable obsession with beauty for the imperatives of truth and virtue. Reason was itself suspect, for, as he wrote in June 1793, the Revolution had been nearly aborted by men who wanted philosophie rather than the passions to be its guide. Polite manners were, as Rousseau had seen, merely a form of corruption practiced by “charlatans.” “To pretend to please everyone is mad,” he wrote in 1793, “but to pretend to please everyone in a time of revolution is treason.” Displeasing as many people as possible, by the same token, was projected as a sign of his integrity. Marat made an art form of this kind of confrontational ugliness, for which his personal appearance was ideally suited. His eyes were not quite aligned but they glittered blackly from out of a broad, flattened face. Contemporaries who were much taken with zoomorphic analogies divided on which kind of bird Marat most resembled. His friends and admirers compared him with an eagle; his enemies with a scavenging crow. For his self-presentation Marat discarded the perfectly conventional attire he had worn for an appearance of ostentatious simplicity: bare-throated; unkempt black hair; an old ermine scarf sometimes thrown over his shoulders. It was not at all the attire of a true sans-culotte, but it was a suitably theatrical costume for a Friend of the People. He gloried in rudeness. Hunting Paris in October 1792 for Dumouriez, whom he wanted to confront, Marat burst in on a dinner party given by the actor Talma to harangue the General at table. He would seek out the truth; nothing was to evade him. His eyes were the eyes of surveillance; his voice lifted to wake the people from their deadly slumber.

Essential to Marat’s adoption of the personality of the revolutionary Jeremiah – dreamer, prophet, bringer of doom – was the challenge of martyrdom. Like Robespierre and many other Jacobins, he was constantly offering to die rather than compromise his principles; to sacrifice his own person to the vengeance of the “liberticides.” The fact that Marat often took to his heels when danger actually closed in did not seem to tarnish this image of proffered self-immolation. He habitually carried a pistol to the Convention – less, one suspects, to defend himself than as a stage prop. When the Girondins were working on his indictment, he pressed the pistol to his temples during a speech, declaring that “if, in the fury that has been shown towards me, the decree of accusation is carried, I will blow out my brains.” On other occasions he declared that he, the “voice of the people,” was being “smothered,” “strangled” or (still more frequently) “assassinated.”

At eight o’clock on the morning of July 13, Charlotte Corday walked from her lodgings near the rue des Victoires to the Palais-Royal. It was a Saturday and the gardens and galleries were more crowded than usual with people from outlying villages who had come to join the celebrations for Paris’s adhesion to the new constitution: a ceremony deliberately planned for July 14. Charlotte moved between columns decorated with tricolor ribbon and emblems of the new republic: the carpenter’s level signifying equality; the ubiquitous liberty bonnet. Under a brilliant sky, men and women were sipping lemonade to fortify themselves against the stifling heat that seemed to have stalled itself over the city. From a vendor she bought a newspaper that reported Léonard Bourdon’s demand in the Convention for the death sentence to be brought against the Girondins. At a shop in one of the arcades she stopped to replace her white Caennaise bonnet with a more sporty black hat decorated with green ribbons. After the deed, all the witnesses would remember that green headgear. Had she chosen it as the color of 1789, Camille Desmoulins’ token of freedom? Charlotte Corday would make it the color of counter-revolution, prohibited, to the ruin of drapers and haberdashers, from any public dress. At a cutler’s shop near the Café Février, she bought a wooden-handled kitchen knife with a five-inch blade, which she slipped beneath her dress.

Charlotte had been disappointed to learn of Marat’s sickness, since she had planned to kill him in the midst of the Convention itself in full view of the “representatives of the Nation.” But the Friend of the People was reputed to open his doors to anyone who needed his help or could suggest a denunciation, so she decided to do the deed in his own home. She must have wandered the streets for a while before taking a carriage, since by the time that she arrived outside Marat’s house in the rue des Cordeliers, it was nearly eleven thirty. At the foot of the stairs leading to his apartment, Catherine Evrard, the sister of his fiancée Simone, turned her away, saying that Marat was too ill to see anyone and she should wait until he was properly recovered. Frustrated, Charlotte wrote him a letter calculated to arouse his curiosity, suggesting she could inform him of the plots being hatched at Caen by the escaped Girondins. She asked for a response but in her nervousness forgot to add her address.

At seven o’clock in the evening she returned to Marat’s house, armed not just with the knife but with another letter imploring him to see her. Her arrival coincided with the delivery of fresh bread and the day’s newspapers, so that she was already up the stairs when she was stopped by Simone herself, who was suspicious of Charlotte’s determination to see Marat. As they argued, Charlotte deliberately raised her voice to let Marat know that she wanted to give him special information about the traitors in Normandy. “Let her in,” came the voice from the bath. She found him soaking, with the habitual wet cloth tied about his brow, an arm slung over the side of the tub. For fifteen minutes they talked about the situation at Caen, with Simone in attendance. Then Marat askedSimone to fetch some more kaolin solution for the water. To demonstrate her impeccable Jacobinism, Charlotte, in response to his request to name the plotters, recited a comprehensive list. “Good,” replied Marat, “in a few days I will have them all guillotined.”

Her chair was directly by the side of the bath. All she had to do was to rise, lean over the man, pull the knife out from the top of her dress, and lunge down hard and quickly. There was time for but one strike, beneath the clavicle on the right side. Marat shouted “A moi, ma chère amie” before sinking back into the water. As Simone Evrard ran into the room, crying “My God, he has been assassinated,” a jet of blood gushed from the wound where the carotid artery had been opened. “Malheureuse, what have you done?” was all she could say to the murderess. Laurent Bas, who worked for Marat distributing his newspaper, ran into the room, throwing a chair at Charlotte, missing and finally pinning her down, as he told the court, “by holding on to her breasts.”

The evening was hot and windows were open. Marat’s scream had carried across the streets. On hearing it and the cries that followed, Clair Delafonde, a dentist who lived opposite, dropped his work and rushed through the little courtyard and up the stairs. Lifting Marat from the tub, he attempted to stanch the bleeding with cloths and sheets. In a few minutes he was joined by Philippe Pelletan, an army surgeon also living nearby. But nothing the two men did could stop the blood flowing through the improvised bandages. Sanguinary imagery had featured prominently in Marat’s polemical vocabulary. “We must cement liberty in the blood of the despot,” he had often said. Now his own announced the beginning, not of freedom, but of Terror. When the local commissaire de police, Guellard, arrived, he followed the trail of blood to the bathroom and then to an adjoining bedchamber where Pelletan was standing by the body. The Friend of the People, he was told, was no more.

The deed done, Charlotte waited impassively for her own fate to unfold. Caught virtually in the act itself, she had no desire to evade its consequences, only to explain clearly and coolly her motives. She had her wish. To Guellard she calmly explained that “having seen that civil war was on the point of exploding throughout France and persuaded that Marat was the principal author of this disaster, she had wished to sacrifice her life for her country.” A committee of six further officials, including Drouet, the postmaster who had recognized Louis XVI at Saint-Menehould, continued the examination in Marat’s apartment while they sipped refreshments. To this group Charlotte Corday admitted having come to Paris from Caen with the premeditated design of killing Marat but insisted (to the obvious disappointment of the investigators) that the design was hers alone.

As news spread quickly through the faubourg Saint-Germain, enraged and anguished crowds gathered, wanting to tear the murderess to pieces. One woman even said that she would like to dismember the monster and eat her filthy body, piece by piece. Drouet could only dissuade them by reminding the crowd that they would lose “the links in the plot” if they killed the principal miscreant on the spot.

In the Abbaye prison – the site of the first of the September massacres – Charlotte was taken to a small cell that had previously housed both Brissot and Mme Roland. She sat on a straw mattress, stroked a black cat and wrote a letter to the Committee of General Security (the police committee of the Convention). As if she were anxious not to be robbed of sole responsibility, she protested against the rumored arrest of Claude Fauchet, the Girondin deputy and constitutional bishop of Caen, as an accomplice. Not only had they not concerted the plan, she insisted, but she neither esteemed nor respected the man, whom she had always thought a frivolous fanatic with no “firmness of character.” In contrast, at many points in her investigation, Charlotte stressed her own resolve and believed that the common delusion that women were incapable of such acts had played to her advantage. It was evidently a point of honor with her – and in deliberate repudiation of the revolutionary stereotypes of gender – to affirm that her sex was both physically and morally more than strong enough to commit acts of patriotic violence.

This emerged strikingly from her three cross-examinations, two by the president of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Montané, and one by the court’s chief prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville. They all did their best to draw from her information that would prove the existence of an extensive Girondin plot to kill Marat. There was a recognizable undertow of sexual fear of the avenging gray-eyed fury, so apparently self-possessed. Surely she must have been put up to it by some controlling, masculine hand? “It has been mathematically demonstrated,” claimed Georges Couthon in the Jacobins, “that this monster to whom nature has given the form of a woman is an envoy of Buzot, Barbaroux, Salle and all the other conspirators of Caen.” Every line of questioning met with the same stubborn denials that had, after all, the consistency of being true. In a final exchange with Montané on the seventeenth she at least admitted to reading Girondin newspapers but took the opportunity of turning that acknowledgment into another statement of righteous indignation.

MONTANÉ: Was it from those newspapers that you learned that Marat was an anarchist?

CORDAY: Yes. I knew that he was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand. Besides he was a hoarder; at Caen they have arrested a man who bought goods for him. I was a republican well before the Revolution and I have never lacked energy.

MONTANÉ: What do you mean by “energy”?

CORDAY: Those who put their own interests to one side and know how to sacrifice themselves for the patrie.

MONTANÉ: Didn’t you practice in advance, before striking the blow at Marat?

CORDAY: Oh! The monster [i.e., Montané], he takes me for a murderer! (Here, [says the court record] the witness appeared violently moved.)

MONTANÉ: Nonetheless it was proven in the medical report that if you had struck the blow in this manner (demonstrating with a long motion) you would not have killed him.

CORDAY: I struck him just as you found. It was luck.

MONTANÉ: Who were the persons who counselled you to commit this murder?

CORDAY: I would never have committed such an attack on the advice of others. I alone conceived the plan and executed it.

MONTANÉ: But how are we supposed to believe you were not advised to do this when you tell us that you regard Marat as the cause of all the evils in France, he who never ceased to unmask traitors and conspirators?

CORDAY: It’s only in Paris that people have eyes for Marat. In the other departments, he is regarded as a monster.

MONTANÉ: How could you look on Marat as a monster when he only allowed you access to him through an act of humanity because you had written to him that you were persecuted?

CORDAY: What difference does it make that he showed himself human towards me if he was a monster towards others?

MONTANÉ: Do you think you have killed all the Marats?

CORDAY: With this one dead, the others, perhaps, will be afraid.

Duly convicted and condemned to a prompt death, Charlotte awaited execution in the Conciergerie, to which she had been transferred from the Abbaye. In both prisons she had been allowed to write letters, probably in the hope that they might incriminate others in the “Girondin plot” the authorities were sure had directed the murder. The day before her trial, she had written two letters, each in a different manner. To her father she reverted to the conventional role of obedient daughter, imploring his forgiveness for “having disposed of my existence without your permission.” There was no dishonor in what she had done, for “I have avenged many innocent victims and [more naively] I have prevented many other disasters… Adieu, my dear father, I beg you to forget me or rather to rejoice at my fate. The cause is good.” She concluded by presenting herself as one of their ancestor Corneille’s tragic heroines, dying in virtue. But the line she cited for her epitaph was, alas, not from the great tragedian Pierre but his second-rate brother Thomas:

Le crime fait la honte et non pas léchafaud (It is not the scaffold but the crime which makes the shame)

The other letter was to Charles Barbaroux. She had begun it in the Abbaye, representing herself as an unrepentant Norman Judith, but blessed with her due share of sensibilité. “I have never hated a single being… and I pray that those who regret my passing consider that one day they will rejoice to see me enjoy the repose of the Elysian Fields with Brutus and the ancients. For the moderns, there are so few patriots who know how to die for their country; everything is egoism; what a sorry people to found a Republic.” At her trial the next morning she would show the judges and jury “the value of the people of the Calvados since [they will see that] even the women of that country are capable of firmness.”

In a final extraordinary gesture of self-dramatization, Charlotte asked the court whether she might have her portrait painted before her execution. During the hearing she had noticed a National Guard officer sketching her likeness. As a citizen in good standing with the section (Théâtre-Français), the officer, Hauer, was allowed to return to the Conciergerie with her to turn the sketch into a painting. It took two hours, during which she made suggestions to him for alterations here and there. When they were finally interrupted by Sanson the executioner, she took the scissors from him, cut off a lock of her hair, and presented it to the painter as “a souvenir of a poor dying woman.”

It was early evening when she got into the tumbril that would take her to the guillotine. Refusing both the services of a juring priest and a seat, she stood upright, steadying herself over the cobbles by leaning her knees on the back of the cart. A large crowd, curious to see the virago who could have perpetrated such a crime, pressed into the rue Saint-Honoré to see her pass. Pierre Notelet’s house gave on to the street and he noted, as she passed, that the skies suddenly darkened and a summer storm shook heavy drops of rain into the dust. In seconds she was soaked, the scarlet shirt worn by assassins of the “representatives of the people” clinging to her body. “Her beautiful face was so calm,” he wrote, “that one would have said she was a statue. Behind her, young girls held each other’s hands as they danced. For eight days I was in love with Charlotte Corday.”

Infatuation with the assassin could be dangerous. A German Patriot who had fled the debacle at Mainz, Adam Lux, was bold enough to publish a poem comparing Charlotte Corday with Brutus. After some debate as to whether he was mad, Lux went to the guillotine in November. Marat, on the other hand, became the immediate object of a cult of veneration. After Charlotte had been taken away to the Abbaye, a notice was posted on the door of his house declaring, in tragic meter, what had happened:

People, Marat is dead: the lover of the patrie

Your friend, your succour, the hope of the afflicted

Has fallen beneath the blows of the withered horde [the Girondins]

Weep but remember that he must be avenged

Every so often a sans-culotte holding a pike would read the declaration to crowds in his most grandiloquent manner.

The morning following Marat’s death, in the Convention, the stoic drama became even more worked up. After the President, Jeanbon Saint-André, had made the announcement of Marat’s death, a representative of the section Contrat-Social, Guiraut, turned the moment into a theatrical performance:

    Where is he? A parricide hand has wrenched him from us.

    People! Marat is no more.

Turning to the portrait of Lepeletier that hung in the hall, Guiraut then exclaimed, “David, where are you; take up your brush, there remains one more painting for you to make.”

David, of course, rose to the occasion. Not only was he prepared to create an enduring image of the revolutionary martyr, but he set about designing the death rites as a great demonstration of patriotic devotion. Following the precedent of Lepeletier, the body would be embalmed and exhibited to the public for three days, after which there would be a solemn and elaborate funeral procession. The challenge for the artist was somehow to clean up Marat’s corpse enough to represent the idealized, sanctified figure he had in mind, but to leave enough evidence of violence to suggest the blood the hero had shed for the Revolution. We shall see that he was to achieve this simultaneous invocation of mortality and immortality in his painting by formal devices of brilliant inventiveness. But the immediate rites presented some serious technical problems. Lepeletier’s body had been displayed in mid-January, when the weather helped extend its period of natural preservation. Marat’s cadaver, on the other hand, almost immediately began to putrefy in the fierce midsummer heat.

For 7,500 livres (materials included) David hired Louis Deschamps, by general consent the genius of his art, to do the embalming. With his five assistants he worked quickly, but his task was complicated by David’s exacting specifications. The painter had a particular inspirational scene in mind: the martyr shown in repose on a Roman bed, his face displayed in an attitude of sublime peace. The upper part of his torso would be exposed to display the wound and his right arm would be extended, holding the iron pen that symbolized his tireless devotion to the people. It was a powerful concept but an embalmer’s nightmare. Marat’s alarming skin condition had to be carefully disguised cosmetically and the wound itself, which had begun to gape, sewn so that it provided just the right degree of shock. Since his head was propped up on a pillow, the ligature of the tongue had to be cut to avoid it lolling in a way unbecoming to martyrs. Worst of all, there had been some serious dislocation of the arm. The ci-devant Marquis de Créqui (not a sympathetic observer of the scene) claimed that to solve this problem, an arm from a different cadaver had been attached, but that one night, to the consternation of devotees, it had separated itself from the body and dropped to the floor still gripping the pen.

An anonymous painting suggests how successful the exhibition in the church of the Cordeliers was. The bed was set against tricolor draperies designed and provided by Patriot Palloy, who also supplied two stones from the Bastille engraved, respectively, with Marat’s name and “Ami du Peuple.” A crown of oak leaves, symbol of Marat’s immortal genius, was placed on his brow and flowers were thrown on his bier. Far below (for the platform on which he rested was much higher than suggested in the painting) were gathered the attributes of his martyrdom: the porphyry bath, the bloody robe, the box desk with its inkwell and paper. Displayed about the chapel were Marat’s writings.

So many people crowded into the church on the fifteenth and the morning of the sixteenth of July that the viewing might have continued for many days. But the process of putrefaction was accelerating inexorably. Vinegar and perfume were periodically sprinkled on the body in attempts to disguise the increasingly pungent odor. In the circumstances there was nothing for it but to advance the funeral to the evening of the sixteenth. Possibly because of the haste with which the occasion was organized, there was a conspicuous absence of formal representation from the Convention and its committees. Instead, the funeral was very much an affair of the Cordeliers Club and the other popular societies and the sections. In a torchlight procession, to music and songs by Gluck, four women carried the bath; another, the bloodied shirt on the end of a pike. As the body passed through the streets, more women threw flowers on Marat’s heavily whitened face, but the prize relic was an agate urn containing the heart of the hero. Separately embalmed by Deschamps, it had been declared the “natural property of the Cordeliers” and was suspended from the vault of their meeting hall, forever swinging over the heads of the tribunes. The body was to have its repose in a rocky grotto, swiftly improvised by the architect Martin in the garden of the club.

As Jean Guilhaumou has emphasized, the funeral was orchestrated around the imperishability of the martyr. The immortality of his words and principles guaranteed that as long as the Republic lived, so would Marat. His copiously shed blood would not simply drain away from the patrie but actually nourish its vitality – the stuff of life rather than death. “May the blood of Marat become the seed of intrepid republicans,” proclaimed one orator, sprinkling an unidentified liquid from a chalice. This denial of death could not have been more categorically stated than by Jacques Roux (one of the claimants to Marat’s mantle) in his paper the Publiciste de la République Française. “MARATN’EST POINT MORT,” he insisted in capital letters. “His soul, released from its earthly casing, glides around all parts of the Republic all the more capable of introducing itself into the councils of federalists and tyrants.” Marat the eagle, then, had been set free to soar above the beleaguered territory of France, swooping and diving to harass its enemies or spy, invisibly, on their machinations. Oddly enough, this airborne version of the omniscient Patriot harked back to many of the themes Marat had himself anticipated in his visions of the politics of ballooning.

Thus ascending from the tomb, Marat naturally reminded hagiographers of another resurrection. Prostrating himself before the agate urn, the Cordelier Morel intoned:

O heart of Jesus, O heart of Marat… you have the same right to our homage. O heart of Marat, sacré coeur… can the works and benevolence of the son of Mary be compared with those of the Friend of the People and his apostles to the Jacobins of our holy Mountain?… Their Jesus was but a false prophet but Marat is a god. Long live the heart of Marat… Like Jesus, Marat loved the people ardently… Like Jesus, Marat detested nobles, priests, the rich, the scoundrels. Like Jesus, he led a poor and frugal life…

While this was an extreme example, the sacralization of Marat became a powerful tool of revolutionary propaganda. Indeed, Marat dead was perhaps more useful to the Jacobins than the unpredictable, choleric live politician. In his name Simone Evrard was mobilized to attack the enragés when the time came for their political elimination. To defend Paris and France against the “plots” that had destroyed him, the revolutionary dictatorship he had recommended had to be implemented in earnest. To identify with Marat rapidly became a testimony of revolutionary purity. Place names were altered so that Montmartre became Mont-Marat; the rue des Cordeliers, the rue Marat; and over thirty communes throughout the Republic incorporated the martyr in their new name. A bust of the great man replaced the statue of the Virgin on the rue aux Ours and a new restaurant opened in the rue Saint-Honoré called the Grand Marat. Songs like “La Mort du Patriote Marat” became instantly popular and at the Théâtre de la Cité, a play dramatizing his death was an immediate success. In September two married priests baptized an infant “in the name of the Most High Liberty” Brutus-Marat-Lepeletier. Even the young soldier Joachim Murat, who was to be the most flamboyant of Napoleon’s marshals and King of Naples, signed on as an adept of the cult by substituting an a for the u in his name.

Though prints of the hero and the way in which he met his end circulated in enormous numbers through France, many of them distributed by Jacobin clubs, they were all overshadowed by David’s masterpiece, completed in October. The public was admitted to David’s studio; a great feast was given in celebration by the section du Muséum and the painting, rather alarmingly, was carried in triumph, along with David’s Lepeletier, through the streets and to the Louvre, where it had pride of place in the first Salon of the Republic.

Every generation has seen the painting as a transfiguration; at once a startlingly realistic account of the murder and a revolutionary pietà. The blood of the martyr is there in abundance, rendered with shocking clarity. Marat bathes in it. Everywhere deep red and dead white are set together: blood staining the purity of the sheet; smeared on Corday’s letter; coating the knife, the handle of which David has altered from wood to ivory, the better to sustain the contrast. Near Marat’s hand are set the unanswerable documents of his saintliness. They are juxtaposed in glaring moral contrast. The murderess’s hypocritical letter implores, “It is enough that I am unhappy to have the right to your benevolence,” while papers on Marat’s desk reveal him to be the true Friend of the People. Beside an assignat David has a note in Marat’s hand bearing instructions for it to be given to a widow with five children whose “husband has died for the patrie.” At the moral heart of the painting, then, is a death within a death, lit by the cold steady light of immolation.

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