The capture of the Bastille was not merely a symbolic act and a blow against absolutism; it saved the Assembly from subordination to the King’s army at Versailles, and it saved the new government of Paris from domination by the environing troops. Quite unintentionally it preserved the bourgeois Revolution; but it gave the people of the capital arms and ammunition, permitting further developments of proletarian power.
It gave fresh courage and more readers to the journals that further excited the Parisians. The Gazette de France, the Mercure de France, and the Journal de Paris were old established newspapers, and kept an even keel; now appeared Loustalot’s Les Révolutions de Paris (July 17, 1789), Brissot’s Le Patriote français (July 28), Marat’s L’Ami du peuple (September 12), Desmoulins’ Révolutions de France (November 28) … Add to these a dozen pamphlets born each day, rioting in the freedom of the press, raising new idols, shattering old reputations. We can imagine their contents by noting the descent of the word libel from their name libelles—little books.
Jean-Paul Marat was the most radical, reckless, ruthless, and powerful of the new scribes. Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, May 24, 1743, of a Swiss mother and a Sardinian father, he never ceased to worship another native expatriate—Rousseau. He studied medicine in Bordeaux and Paris, and practiced it with moderate success in London (1765–77). The stories that were later told of the crimes and absurdities he committed there were probably concoctions by his enemies in the journalistic license of the times.20 He received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews—which, however, as Johnson put it, was “growing richer by degrees.”21 Marat wrote in English and published in London (1774) The Chains of Slavery, a fiery denunciation of European governments as conspiracies of kings, lords, and clergy to hoodwink the people and keep them in subjection. He returned to France in 1777, served as veterinarian in the stables of the Comte d’Artois, and rose to be physician to the Count’s Garde du Corps. He earned some reputation as a lung and eye specialist. He published treatises on electricity, light, optics, and fire; some of these were translated into German; Marat thought they entitled him to membership in the Académie des Sciences, but his attack on Newton made him suspect to the Academicians.
He was a man of intense pride, hampered by a succession of ailments that made him irritable to the point of violent passion. His skin erupted with an unmanageable dermatitis, from which he found temporary relief by sitting and writing in a warm bath.22 His head was too massive for his five feet of height, and one eye was higher than the other; understandably he courted solitude. Doctors bled him frequently to ease his pains; in quieter intervals he bled others. He worked with the intensity of a consuming ambition. “I allot only two of the twenty-four hours to sleep…. I have not had fifteen minutes’ play in over three years.”23 In 1793, perhaps from too much indoor life, his lungs became affected, and he felt, unknown to Charlotte Corday, that he had not long to live.
His character suffered from his ailments. His compensatory vanity, his fits of temper, his delusions of grandeur, his furious denunciations of Necker, Lafayette, and Lavoisier, his mad calls for mob violence, overlaid a fund of courage, industry, and dedication. The success of his journal was due not merely to the exciting exaggerations of his style but still more to his fervent, unremitting, unbribable support of the voteless proletaires.
Nevertheless he did not overrate the intelligence of the people. He saw chaos rising, and added to it; but, at least for the time being, he counseled not democracy but a dictatorship subject to recall, revolt, or assassination, as in Rome’s republican days. He suggested that he himself would make a good dictator.24 At times he thought that the government should be managed by men of property, as having the largest stake in the public weal.25 He viewed the concentration of wealth as natural, but he proposed to offset it by preaching the immorality of luxury and the divine right of hunger and need. “Nothing superfluous can belong to us legitimately as long as others lack necessities…. Most ecclesiastical wealth should be distributed among the poor, and free public schools should be established everywhere.”26 “Society owes to those among its members who have no property, and whose labor scarcely suffices for their support, an assured subsistence, the wherewithal to feed, lodge, and clothe themselves suitably, provision for attendance in sickness and old age, and for bringing up children. Those who wallow in wealth must supply the wants of those who lack the necessaries of life”; otherwise the poor have the right to take by force whatever they need.27
Most members of the successive assemblies distrusted and feared Marat, but the sansculottes among whom he lived forgave his faults for his philosophy, and risked themselves to hide him when he was sought by the police. He must have had some lovable qualities, for his common-law wife stayed with him devotedly to his end.