May 24, 1743: Jean-Paul Marat is born.
Jean-Paul Marat was one of the infamous and radical figures of the French Revolution. Born in Switzerland, he moved to Paris in 1776, two years after Louis XVI ascended the throne of France; there, he served as a doctor, and his reputation in his practice made him a sought-after physician among the aristocracy. Comfortably wealthy and endlessly opinionated, he criticized Newton, conducted scientific research that won him admirers that included Benjamin Franklin, and published works on judicial reform and philosophy.
As the French Revolution drew near, Marat directed his efforts toward another purpose: he started a newspaper — several, in fact, but the principal was L’Ami du peuple, or “The Friend of the People”, through which he remained a mostly non-aligned party dedicated to advocating the rights of the lower classes and exposing those he believed to be “the enemies of the people”. Those he attacked were often powerful, rich citizens and groups, and in 1790 Marat went into hiding in the sewers of Paris, where the conditions may have given him or aggravated the skin disease that would confine him to a bathtub for much of his later life. In 1792 he was elected (still party-less) to the National Convention; he harshly criticized and feuded bitterly with the less radical Girondist faction of the government, who attempted to bring him before the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was, and he was acquitted of all charges brought against him, to widespread celebration.
Marat helped to bring down the Girondins in a political purge in the summer of 1793, but he was soon after stabbed to death in his own bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer who confessed at her trial to killing “one man to save 100,000”; to her and the conservative Girondins, Marat symbolized the excesses and violent distortion of the Revolution, which would only worsen when the Reign of Terror began, with his calls for blood and for “the cutting off of heads”. To his supporters, Marat was a passionate and relentless champion of the rights of the lower classes. Marat’s assassination was immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (pictured center).