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Marie Charlotte de Corday Assassinates Jean-Paul Marat in the Bath: July 13, 1793

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.

[Georges Danton’s] attempts to bridge the split between the Girondins and the Mountain had again failed. The Girondin leaders would have nothing to do with the rough Danton, and even the Left did not unite behind him. On the Mountain were men like Robespierre and other Jacobins who, though despising the Girondins, might still be willing to come to a reasonable agreement with them. But then there were fanatics, like the Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat, who not only wanted to force the Girondins out of the Convention but also to bathe their own hands in Girondin blood. Such men only disgusted the high-toned Girondin leaders and made reconciliation between the factions even harder.

Danton knew the Girondins were in great peril. Their enemy, the Jacobins, had grown very strong. In addition to their clubs all over France, the Jacobins had been able to gain control of Paris’s city government, the commune, which controlled the National Guard. This gave the Jacobins a military force they could rely on. Marat was a powerful force among members of the working class of Paris, called the sans-culottes. And the Girondins had more extreme enemies even than Marat—the Enragés (madmen), who were provoking the sans-culottes in Paris to riot.


Triumph of Marat; citizens carry Marat on their shoulders after his acquittal before the National Convention.
Triumph of Marat; citizens carry Marat on their shoulders after his acquittal before the National Convention.

Though June 2 was a victory for the Jacobins, they could not be sure it would last. Several of the Girondin leaders had refused to flee Paris after receiving news of their arrest; men like Vergniaud would never consent to raise war against the republic. But not all the Girondins were like Vergniaud. Some had indeed fled to the departments, where they began to stir up rebellion against the Convention. The Jacobins were well aware that several departments would rebel over the arrest of the 31 Girondins.

To please the people, the Convention announced in June that it would soon introduce a constitution to replace the Constitution of 1791. This constitution, which had been promised nine months before, was presented to and adopted by the Convention on June 23, 1793.

Antoine de Saint-Just
Antoine de Saint-Just

A close friend of Robespierre, Antoine de Saint-Just, played a big role in writing this constitution. Like Robespierre, Saint-Just was zealously dedicated to the philosophy of Rousseau. Only 26, he was a handsome man and an eloquent orator. His dark eyes burned with a cold fanaticism that would allow nothing to stand in the way of his dreams of the perfect republic.

The Constitution of 1793 was perhaps the most democratic constitution ever adopted by any nation in history. It allowed the vast majority of citizens to vote, and it said all measures passed by the one-house national assembly had to be accepted by the majority of the departments of France before becoming law. Yet after passing the constitution, the Convention voted to suspend it for a time, and it never went into effect. The dangers threatening France called for a more powerful government than what the Constitution of 1793 would allow.

The dangers France faced were grim. By late June, the Prussian and Austrian armies had laid siege to the northeastern French cities of Condé and Valenciennes and the French-controlled German city of Mainz; meanwhile the Spanish, far to the south, had moved into French territory on the eastern and western ends of the Pyrenees Mountains. If the strongholds in northeastern France fell, the allies could easily march on Paris.

Then there were the Girondins who were stirring up rebellion against the French government in the northwest, in Brittany and Normandy, as well as in the south, in Provence and Languedoc. The southern port city of Marseilles had rebelled; and in south-central France, Lyons had come under the control of Girondins and royalists, who were using the city’s Revolutionary Tribunal to persecute Jacobins. The insurgents in the Vendée were laying siege to the important city of Nantes, while Vendean chieftains were threatening to tax, imprison, or kill anyone who refused to take up arms “for religion and the king.”

“Death of Marat,” by Jacques-Louis David
“Death of Marat,” by Jacques-Louis David

The Girondins found a champion in a young woman from the city of Caen in Normandy. Marie Charlotte de Corday, the daughter of a poor noble, was as committed to the ideals of the Girondin revolutionaries as Robespierre and Saint-Just were to the ideas of Rousseau. Seeking revenge for the arrest of the Girondins, Charlotte had come to Paris on July 11, where she obtained an interview with Marat. She arrived at Marat’s house on July 13 and stabbed him as he sat soaking in a bathtub to relieve the pain of his skin disease. Marat died, and Charlotte Corday a few days later became a Girondin martyr under the blade of the guillotine.

The death of Marat created new problems for the Jacobin-dominated Convention, for the Enragés’ new leader, Jacques Hébert, was even more radical and bloodthirsty than Marat had been. Hébert thought the Jacobins were not radical enough. He wished to stir up the Paris commune against the Convention.

The Convention did receive some good news in late June and early July. The Vendeans had been defeated at Nantes, and Cathelineau had been killed. The Girondin rebellions in Normandy and the west of France were dying out. Yet, despite these bright spots for the revolution, the Convention was still in trouble. The Vendeans had been defeated, but they were not destroyed. The counterrevolution in Marseilles and Lyons was still powerful, and in the east, the Prussians and Austrians still laid siege to Mainz, Valenciennes, and Condé. To meet these threats and save the revolution, stronger measures were needed.

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