Story type: Essay
Citizens: You see before you the widow of Marat. I do not come here to ask your favors, such as cupidity would covet, or even such as would relieve indigence–Marat’s widow needs no more than a tomb. Before arriving at that happy termination to my existence, however, I come to ask that justice may be done in respect to the reports recently put forth in this body against the memory of at once the most intrepid and the most outraged defender of the people.
—Simonne Evrard Marat, to the Convention
The French Revolution traces a lineal descent direct from Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These men were contemporaries; they came to the same conclusions, expressing the same thought, each in his own way, absolutely independent of the other. And as genius seldom recognizes genius, neither knew the greatness of the other.
Voltaire was an aristocrat–the friend of kings and courtiers, the brilliant cynic, the pet of the salons and the center of the culture and brains of his time.
Rousseau was a man of the people, plain and unpretentious–a man without ambition–a dreamer. His first writings were mere debating-society monologs, done for his own amusement and the half-dozen or so cronies who cared to listen.
But, as he wrote, things came to him; the significance of his words became to him apparent. Opposition made it necessary to define his position, and threat made it wise to amplify and explain. He grew through exercise, as all men do who grow at all; the spirit of the times acted upon him, and knowledge unrolled as a scroll.
The sum of Rousseau’s political philosophy found embodiment in his book, “The Social Contract,” and his ideas on education in “Emile.” “The Social Contract” became the Bible of the Revolution, and as Emerson says all of our philosophy will be found in Plato, so in a more exact sense can every argument of the men of the Revolution be found in “The Social Contract.” But Rousseau did not know what firebrands he was supplying. He was essentially a man of peace–he launched these children of his brain, indifferently, like his children of the flesh, upon the world and left their fate to the god of Chance.
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Out of the dust and din of the French Revolution, now seen by us on the horizon of time, there emerge four names: Robespierre, Mirabeau, Danton and Marat.
Undaunted men all, hated and loved, feared and idolized, despised and deified–even yet we find it hard to gauge their worth, and give due credit for the good that was in each.
Oratory played a most important part in bringing about the explosion. Oratory arouses passion–fear, vengeance, hate–and draws a beautiful picture of peace and plenty just beyond.
Without oratory there would have been no political revolution in France, nor elsewhere.
Politics, more than any other function of human affairs, turns on oratory. Orators make and unmake kings, but kings are seldom orators, and orators never secure thrones. Orators are made to die–the cross, the torch, the noose, the guillotine, the dagger, awaits them. They die through the passion that they fan to flame–the fear they generate turns upon themselves, and they are no more.
But they have their reward. Their names are not writ in water; rather are they traced in blood on history’s page. We know them, while the ensconced smug and successful have sunk into oblivion; and if now and then a name like that of Pilate or Caiaphas or Judas comes to us, it is only because Fate has linked the man to his victim, like unto that Roman soldier who thrust his spear into the side of the Unselfish Man.
In the qualities that mark the four chief orators of the French Revolution, there is much alloy–much that seems like clay. Each had undergone an apprenticeship to Fate–each had been preparing for his work; and in this preparation who shall say what lessons could have been omitted and what not! Explosions require time to prepare: revolutions, political and domestic, are a long time getting ready. Orators, like artists, must go as did Dante, down into the nether regions and get a glimpse of hell.
Jean Paul Marat was exactly five feet high, and his weight when at his best was one hundred twenty pounds–just the weight of Shakespeare. Jean Paul had a nose like the beak of a hawk, an eye like an eagle, a mouth that matched his nose, and a chin that argued trouble. Not only did he have red hair, but Carlyle refers to him as “red-headed.”
His parents were poor and obscure people, and his relationship with them seems a pure matter of accident. He was born at the village of Boudry, Switzerland, in Seventeen Hundred Forty-three. His childhood and boyhood were that of any other peasant boy born into a family where poverty held grim sway, and toil and hardship never relaxed their chilling grasp.
His education was of the chance kind–but education anyway depends upon yourself–colleges only supply a few opportunities, and it lies with the student whether he will improve them or not.
The ignorance of his parents and the squalor of his surroundings acted upon Jean Paul Marat as a spur, and from his fourteenth year the idea of cultivating his mental estate was strong upon him.
Switzerland has ever been the refuge of the man who dares to think. It was there John Calvin lived, demanding the right to his own belief, but occasionally denying others that precious privilege; a few miles away, at beautiful Coppet, resided Madame de Stael, the daughter of Necker; at Geneva, Rousseau wrote, and to name that beautiful little island in the Rhone after him was not necessary to make his fame endure; but a little way from Boudry lived Voltaire, pointing his bony finger at every hypocrite in Christendom.
But as in Greece, in her days of glory, the thinkers were few; so in Switzerland, the land of freedom, the many have been, and are, chained to superstition. Jean Paul Marat saw their pride was centered in a silver crucifix, “that keeps a man from harm”; their conscience committed to a priest; their labors for the rich; their days the same, from the rising of the sun to its going down. They did not love, and their hate was but a peevish dislike. They followed their dull routine and died the death, hopeful that they would get the reward in another world which was denied them in this.
And Jean Paul Marat grew to scorn the few who would thus enslave the many. For priest and publican he had only aversion.
Jean Paul Marat, the bantam, read Voltaire and steeped himself in Rousseau, and the desire grew strong upon him to do, to dare and to become.
Tourists had told him of England, and like all hopeful and childlike minds, he imagined the excellent to be far off, and the splendid at a distance: Great Britain was to him the Land of Promise.
In the countenance of young Marat was a strange mixture of the ludicrous and the terrible. This, with his insignificant size, and a bodily strength that was a miracle of surprise, won the admiration of an English gentleman; and when the tourist started back for Albion, the lusty dwarf rode on the box, duly articled, without consent of his parents, as a valet.
As a servant he was active, alert, intelligent, attentive. He might have held his position indefinitely, and been handed down to the next generation with the family plate, had he kept a civil tongue in his red head and not quoted Descartes and Jean Jacques.
He had ideas, and he expressed them. He was the central sun below stairs, and passed judgment upon the social order without stint, even occasionally to argufying economics with his master, the Baron, as he brushed his breech.
This Baron is known to history through two facts: first, that Jean Paul Marat brushed his breeches, and second, that he evolved a new breed of fices.
Now, the master was rich, with an entail of six thousand acres and an income of five thousand pounds, and very naturally he was surprised–amazed–to hear that any one should question the divine origin of the social order.
Religion and government being at that time not merely second cousins, but Siamese twins, Jean Paul had expressed himself on things churchly as well as secular.
And now, behold, one fine day he found himself confronted with a charge of blasphemy, not to mention another damning count of contumacy and contravention.
In fact, he was commanded not to think, and was cautioned as to the sin of having ideas. The penalties were pointed out to Jean Paul, and in all kindness he was asked to make choice between immediate punishment and future silence.
Thus was the wee philosopher raised at once to the dignity of a martyr; and the sweet satisfaction of being persecuted for what he believed, was his.
The city of Edinburgh was not far away, and thither by night the victim of persecution made his way. There is a serio-comic touch to this incident that Marat was never quite able to appreciate–the man was not a humorist. In fact, men headed for the noose, the block, or destined for immortality by the assassin’s dagger, very seldom are jokers–John Brown and his like do not jest. Of all the emancipators of men, Lincoln alone stands out as one who was perfectly sane. An ability to see the ridiculous side of things marks the man of perfect balance.
The martyr type, whose blood is not only the seed of the church, but also of heresy, is touched with madness. To get the thing done, Nature sacrifices the man.
Arriving in Edinburgh, Marat thought it necessary for a time to live in hiding, but finally he came out and was duly installed as barkeep at a tavern, and a student in the medical department of the University of Saint Andrews–a rather peculiar combination.
Marat’s sister and biographer, Albertine, tells us that Jean Paul was never given to the use of stimulants, and in fact, for the greater part of his career, was a total abstainer. And the man who knows somewhat of the eternal paradox of things can readily understand how this little tapster, proud and defiant, had a supreme contempt for the patrons who gulped down the stuff that he handed out over the bar. He dealt in that for which he had no use; and the American bartender today who wears his kohinoor and draws the pay of a bank cashier is one who “never touches a drop of anything.” The security with which he holds his position is on that very account.
Marat was hungry for knowledge and thirsty for truth, and in his daily life he was as abstemious as was Benjamin Franklin, whom he was to meet, know, and reverence shortly afterward.
Jean Paul was studying medicine at the same place where Oliver Goldsmith, another exile, studied some years before. Each got his doctor’s degree–just how we do not know. No one ever saw Goldsmith’s diploma–Doctor Johnson once hinted that it was an astral one–but Marat’s is still with us, yellow with age, but plain and legible with all of its signatures and the big seal with a ribbon that surely might impress the chance sufferers waiting in an outer room to see the doctor, who is busy enjoying his siesta on the other side of the partition.
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If it is ever your sweet privilege to clap eyes upon a diploma issued by the ancient and honorable University of Saint Andrews, Edinburgh, you will see that it reads thus:
“Whereas: Since it is just and reasonable that one who has diligently attained a high degree of knowledge in some great and useful science, should be distinguished from the ignorant-vulgar,” etc., etc.
The intent of the document, it will be observed, is to certify that the holder is not one of the “ignorant-vulgar,” and the inference is that those who are not possessed of like certificates probably are.
A copy of the diploma issued to Doctor Jean Paul Marat is before me, wherein, in most flattering phrase, is set forth the attainments of the holder, in the science of medicine. And even before the ink was dry upon that diploma, the “science” of which it boasted had been discarded as inept and puerile, and a new one inaugurated. And in our day, within the last twenty-five years, the entire science of healing has shifted ground and the materia medica of the “Centennial” is now considered obsolete.
In view of these things, how vain is a college degree that certifies, as the diplomas of Saint Andrews still certify, that the holder is not one of the “ignorant-vulgar”! Isn’t a man who prides himself on not belonging to the “ignorant-vulgar” apt to be atrociously ignorant and outrageously vulgar?
Wisdom is a point of view, and knowledge, for the most part, is a shifting product depending upon environment, atmosphere and condition. The eternal verities are plain and simple, known to babes and sucklings, but often unseen by men of learning, who focus on the difficult, soar high and dive deep, but seldom pay cash. In the sky of truth the fixed stars are few, and the shepherds who tend their flocks by night are quite as apt to know them as are the professed and professional Wise Men of the East–and Edinburgh.
But never mind our little digression–the value of study lies in study. The reward of thinking is the ability to think–whether one comes to right conclusions or wrong matters little, says John Stuart Mill in his essay, “On Liberty.”
Thinking is a form of exercise, and growth comes only through exercise–that is to say, expression.
We learn things only to throw them away: no man ever wrote well until he had forgotten every rule of rhetoric, and no orator ever spake straight to the hearts of men until he had tumbled his elocution into the Irish Sea.
To hold on to things is to lose them. To clutch is to act the part of the late Mullah Bah, the Turkish wrestler, who came to America and secured through his prowess a pot of gold. Going back to his native country, the steamer upon which he had taken passage collided in mid-ocean with a sunken derelict. Mullah Bah, hearing the alarm, jumped from his berth and strapped to his person a belt containing five thousand dollars in gold. He rushed to the side of the sinking ship, leaped over the rail, and went to Davy Jones’ Locker like a plummet, while all about frail women and weak men in life-preservers bobbed on the surface and were soon picked up by the boats. The fate of Mullah Bah is only another proof that athletes die young, and that it is harder to withstand prosperity than its opposite.
But knowledge did not turn the head of Marat. His restless spirit was reaching out for expression, and we find him drifting to London for a wider field.
England was then, as now, the refuge of the exile. There is today just as much liberty, and a little more free speech, in England than in America. We have hanged witches and burned men at the stake since England has, and she emancipated her slaves long before we did ours. Over against the home-thrust that respectable women drink at public bars from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End, can be placed the damning count that in the United States more men are lynched every year than Great Britain legally executes in double the time.
A too-ready expression of the Rousseau philosophy had made things a bit unpleasant for Marat in Edinburgh, but in London he found ready listeners, and the coffeehouses echoed back his radical sentiments.
These underground debating-clubs of London started more than one man off on the oratorical transverse. Swift, Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Garrick, Burke–all sharpened their wits at the coffeehouses. I see the same idea is now being revived in New York and Chicago: little clubs of a dozen or so will rent a room in some restaurant, and fitting it up for themselves, will dine daily and discuss great themes, or small, according to the mental caliber of the members.
During the latter part of the Eighteenth Century, these clubs were very popular in London. Men who could talk or speak were made welcome, and if the new member generated caloric, so much the better–excitement was at a premium.
Marat was now able to speak English with precision, and his slight French accent only added a charm to his words. He was fiery, direct, impetuous. He was a fighter by disposition, and care was taken never to cross him beyond a point where the sparks began to fly. The man was immensely diverting, and his size was to his advantage–orators should be very big or very little–anything but commonplace. The Duke of Mantua would have gloried in Jean Paul, and later might have cut off his head as a precautionary measure.
Among the visitors at one of the coffeehouse clubs was one B. Franklin, big, patient, kind. He weighed twice as much as Marat: and his years were sixty, while Marat’s were thirty.
Franklin listened with amused smiles at the little man, and the little man grew to have an idolatrous regard for the big ‘un. Franklin carried copies of a pamphlet called “Common Sense,” written by one T. Paine. Paine was born in England, but was always pleased to be spoken of as an American, yet he called himself “A Citizen of the World.”
Paine’s pamphlet, “The Crisis,” was known by heart to Marat, and the success of Franklin and Paine as writers had fired him to write as well as to orate. As a result, we have “The Chains of Slavery.” The work today has no interest to us except as a literary curiosity. It is a composite of Rousseau and Paine, done by a sophomore in a mood of exaltation, and might serve acceptably well as a graduation essay, done in F major. It lacks the poise of Paine and the reserve of Rousseau, and all the fine indifference of Franklin is noticeable by its absence.
They say that Marat’s name was “Mara” and his ancestors came from County Down. But never mind that–his heart was right. Of all the inane imbecilities and stupid untruths of history, none is worse than the statement that Jean Paul Marat was a demagog, hotly intent on the main chance.
In this man’s character there was nothing subtle, secret nor untrue. He was simplicity itself, and his undiplomatic bluntness bears witness to his honesty.
In London, he lived as the Mayor of Boston said William Lloyd Garrison lived–in a hole in the ground. His services as a physician were free to all–if they could pay, all right; if not, it made no difference. He looked after the wants of political refugees, and head, heart and pocketbook were at the disposal of those who needed them. His lodging-place was a garret, a cellar–anywhere: he was homeless, and his public appearances were only at the coffeehouse clubs, or in the parks, where he would stand on a barrel and speak to the crowd on his one theme of liberty, fraternity and equality. His plea was for the individual. In order to have a strong and excellent society, we must have strong and excellent men and women. That phrase of Paine’s, “The world is my country: to do good is my religion,” he repeated over and over again.
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In the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-nine, Marat moved to Paris. He was then thirty-six years old. In Paris he lived very much the same life that he had in London. He established himself as a physician, and might have made a decided success had he put all his eggs in one basket and then watched the basket.
But he didn’t. Franklin had inspired him with a passion for invention: he rubbed amber with wool, made a battery and applied the scheme in a crude way to the healing art. He wrote articles on electricity and even foreshadowed the latter-day announcement that electricity is life. And all the time he discussed economics, and gave out through speech and written word his views as to the rights of the people. He saw the needs of the poor–he perceived how through lack of nourishment there developed a craving for stimulants, and observed how disease and death fasten themselves upon the ill-fed and the ill-taught. To alleviate the suffering of the poor, he opened a dispensary as he had done in London, and gave free medical attendance to all who applied. At this dispensary, he gave lectures on certain days upon hygiene, at which times he never failed to introduce his essence of Rousseau and Voltaire.
Some one called him “the people’s friend.” The name stuck–he liked it.
In August, Seventeen Hundred Eighty-nine, this “terrible dwarf” was standing on his barrel in Paris haranguing crowds with an oratory that was tremendous in its impassioned quality. Men stopped to laugh and remained to applaud.
Not only did he denounce the nobility, but he saw danger in the liberal leaders, and among others, Mirabeau came in for scathing scorn. Of all the insane paradoxes this one is the most paradoxical–that men will hate those who are most like themselves. Family feuds, and the wrangles of denominations that, to outsiders, hold the same faith, are common. When churches are locked in America, it is done to keep Christians out. Christians fight Christians much more than they fight the devil.
Marat had grown to be a power among the lower classes–he was their friend, their physician, their advocate. He had no fear of interruption and never sought to pacify. At his belt, within easy reach, and in open sight, he carried a dagger.
The crowds that hung upon his words were swayed to rank unreason by his impassioned eloquence.
Marat fell a victim to his own eloquence, and the madness of the mob reacted upon him. Like the dyer’s hand, he became subdued to that in which he worked. Suspicion and rebellion filled his soul. Wealth to him was an offense–he had not the prophetic vision to see the rise of capitalism and all the splendid industrial evolution which the world is today working out. Society to him was all founded on wrong premises, and he would uproot it.
In bitter words he denounced the Assembly and declared that all of its members, including Mirabeau, should be hanged for their inaction in not giving the people relief from their oppressors.
Mirabeau was very much like Marat. He, too, was working for the people, only he occupied a public office, while Marat was a private citizen. Mirabeau and his friends became alarmed at the influence Marat was gaining over the people, and he was ordered to cease public speaking. As he failed to comply, a price was put upon his head.
Then it was that he began putting out a daily address in the form of a tiny pamphlet. This was at first called “The Publiciste,” but was soon changed to “The People’s Friend.”
Marat was now in hiding, but still his words were making their impress.
In Seventeen Hundred Ninety-one, Mirabeau, the terrible, died–died peacefully in his bed.
Paris went into universal mourning, and the sky of Marat’s popularity was darkened.
Marat lived in hiding until August of Seventeen Hundred Ninety-two, when he again publicly appeared and led the riots. The people hailed him as their deliverer. The insignificant size of the man made him conspicuous. His proud defiance, the haughtiness of his countenance, his stinging words, formed a personality that made him the pet of the people.
Danton, the Minister of Justice, dared not kill him, and so he did the next best thing–he took him to his heart and made him his right-hand man. It was a great diplomatic move, and the people applauded. Danton was tall, powerful, athletic and commanding, just past his thirtieth year. Marat was approaching fifty, and his sufferings while in hiding in the sewers had told severely on his health, but he was still the fearless agitator. When Marat and Danton appeared upon the balcony of the Hotel de Ville, the hearts of the people were with the little man.
But behold, another man had forged to the front, and this was Robespierre. And so it was that Danton, Marat and Robespierre formed a triumvirate, and ruled Paris with hands of iron. Coming in the name of the people, proclaiming peace, they held their place only through a violence that argued its own death.
Marat was still full of the desire to educate–to make men think. Deprivation and disease had wrecked his frame until public speaking was out of the question–the first requisite of oratory is health. But he could write, and so his little paper, “The People’s Friend,” went fluttering forth with its daily message.
So scrupulous was Marat in money matters that he would accept no help from the Government. He neither drew a salary nor would he allow any but private citizens to help issue his paper. He lived in absolute poverty with his beloved wife, Simonne Evrard.
They had met about Seventeen Hundred Eighty-eight, and between them had grown up a very firm and tender bond. He was twenty years older than she, but Danton said of her, “She has the mind of a man.”
Simonne had some property and was descended from a family of note. When she became the wife of Marat, her kinsmen denounced her, refused to mention her name, but she was loyal to the man she loved.
The Psalmist speaks of something “that passeth the love of woman,” but the Psalmist was wrong–nothing does.
Simonne Evrard gave her good name, her family position, her money, her life–her soul into the keeping of Jean Paul Marat. That his love and gratitude to her was great and profound, there is abundant proof. She was his only servant, his secretary, his comrade, his friend, his wife. Not only did she attend him in sickness, but in banishment and disgrace she never faltered. She even set the type, and at times her arm pulled the lever of the press that printed the daily message.
Let it stand to the eternal discredit of Thomas Carlyle that he contemptuously disposes of Simonne Evrard, who represents undying love and unflinching loyalty, by calling her a “washerwoman.” Carlyle, with a savage strain of Scotch Calvinism in his cold blood, never knew the sacredness of the love of man and woman–to him sex was a mistake on the part of God. Even for the sainted Mary of Galilee he has only a grim and patronizing smile, removing his clay pipe long enough to say to Milburn, the blind Preacher, “Oh, yes; a country lass elevated by Catholics into a wooden image and worshiped as a deity!”
Carlyle never held in his arms a child of his own and saw the light of love reflected in a baby’s eyes; and nowhere in his forty-odd volumes does he recognize the truth that love, art and religion are one. And this limitation gives Taine excuse for saying, “He writes splendidly, but it is neither truth nor poetry.”
When Charlotte Corday, that poor, deluded rustic, reached the rooms of Marat, under a friendly pretense, and thrust her murderous dagger to the sick man’s heart, his last breath was a cry freighted with love, “A moi, chere amie!”
And death-choked, that proud head drooped, and Simonne, seeing the terrible deed was done, blocked the way and held the murderess at bay until help arrived.
Hardly had Marat’s tired body been laid to rest in the Pantheon, before Charlotte Corday’s spirit had gone across the Border to meet his–gone to her death by the guillotine that was so soon to embrace both Danton and Robespierre, the men who had inaugurated and popularized it.
All Paris went into mourning for Marat–the public buildings were draped with black, and his portrait was displayed in the Pantheon with the great ones gone. A pension for life was bestowed upon his widow, and lavish resolutions of gratitude were laid at her feet in loving token of what she had done in upholding the hands of this strong man.
But Paris, the fickle, in two short years repudiated the pension, the portrait of Marat was removed from the Pantheon, and his body taken by night to another resting-place.
Simonne the widow, and Albertine the sister, sisters now in sorrow, uniting in a mutual love for the dead, lived but in memory of him.
But Carlyle was right–this was a “washerwoman.” She spent all of her patrimony in aiding her husband to publish and distribute his writings, and after his death, when friends proved false and even the obdurate kinsmen still considered her name pollution, she took in washing to earn money that she might defend the memory of the man she loved.
She was a washerwoman.
I uncover in her presence, and stand with bowed head in admiration of the woman who gave her life for liberty and love, and who chose a life of honest toil rather than accept charity or all that selfishness and soft luxury had to offer. She was a washerwoman, but she was more–she was a Woman.
Let Carlyle have the credit of using the word “washerwoman” as a term of contempt, as though to do laundry-work were not quite as necessary as to produce literature.
The sister and the widow wrote his life, republished very much that he had written, and lived but to keep alive the name and fame of Jean Paul Marat, whose sole crime seemed to be that he was a sincere and honest man, and was, throughout his life–often unwisely–the People’s Friend.
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