Most anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of world history knows about the French Revolution. The ten-year upheaval in France started in 1789 and was inspired by the American Revolution. It heralded egalitarianism, liberty, and brotherhood for all. But the average person may not be familiar with Charlotte Corday and the role she played in the French Revolution.
Who is Charlotte Corday? History has labeled her the "Angel of Assasination" and she is known to most casual students of history as the aristocrat who murdered French Revolution leader, Jean-Paul Marat, in his bathtub. Marat's death is most famously depicted in Jacques Louis David's painting "The Death of Marat."
Casual historians would label Corday's act as a tragic setback for the revolutionary cause in France at the time. But diving deeper into the story of this educated, young noblewoman reveals a fascinating and complex character in what is usually seen as black and white historical event. Here's everything your history teacher skimmed over in class about the cunning revolution assassin, Charlotte Corday.
Charlotte Corday was born to a minor Aristocratic French family from Normandy. An educated young woman, she was caught up in the fervor of the ideals of egalitarianism and liberty promoted by the French revolutionary movement. She supported the ideas the revolutionaries were fighting for, but as the cause pushed forward it split into opposing factions.
Her identity as a minor aristocrat put her into contact with the Girondins, a political party during that supported disbanding the monarchy but resisted the violent spiral the revolution was headed in. The Girondins started as a part of the larger group of Jacobins but eventually the two came to disagree on paths toward their shared goal of enlightenment and restoring power to the people of France. Jean Paul Marat, the man she would assassinate, led the Jacobin movement. Corday believed Marat would be the downfall of the movement.
Like other French Revolutionary women, Corday was involved in demanding rights for women. It was an ideal time for the movement as the overall goals of the revolutionaries involved human rights in general.
Though the term "feminist" had not yet been coined, Corday was certainly among those who could fit into a feminist prototype. It was Corday and other women with enthusiasm for female rights that would influence British author, Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote her powerful Vindication of the Rights of Women during this time period.
Chief among Corday's reasons for murdering Marat was she feared France was descending into civil war. She believed such a conflict would lead to far too many casualties, including of the Girondin friends she already knew to be in hiding from the blood-thirsty Jacobins.
Once caught and put on trial, Corday said that she "killed one man to save a hundred thousand" and hers was a politically calculated move to prevent a shift in the revolution. Little did she know the revolution was only beginning it's "Reign of Terror."
Charlotte Corday was immediately captured and arrested following her murder of Jacobin leader, Jean Paul Marat. A large number of French people were furious, heartbroken, and horrified at her actions. Clearly, to their minds, Corday cared nothing whatsoever for the French people, since she murdered one of their greatest champions.
She was written off as an aristocrat. Corday was devastated to be so misunderstood in her motives. Prior to her execution by guillotine, she wrote a long letter directed to the French people, in a last effort to explain and justify her actions. She may not have convinced anyone caught up in the fervor of the times, but history has shed light on the consequences of the extremism of the French Revolution.