Charlotte Corday: A Woman Undeterred by Death
Can peace be born from violence, stability facilitated through chaos, or justice found in death? These conflicting ideologies have presented themselves time and time again in movements of dire consequence. The urgency for reform and progression can manifest in the most violent of manners, with many utilizing the pursuit of justice to rationalize brutality.
The French Revolution marked a period of immense growth within France, and subsequently, around the world, as democratization and the universality of human rights was developed and pursued. This journey was by no means peaceful, or free from cruelty or corruption (as the goals may suggest). With an abundance of ambitious yet clashing forces hoping to influence the future of the nation, growing dissent ironically facilitated tyrannical governance under those who had once intended to liberate. In many cases, the morality of significant yet violent decisions is simply be a matter of perspective, requiring one to assess what behavior they deem necessary or unjust when pursuing concepts as innate as the sanctity of life or the abolition of slavery. Despite centuries of enormous progress since the French Revolution, the conversation regarding whether the ends truly justify the means is still highly relevant to today’s social climate and is seen on both a small and large scale (through individual activism and global affairs).
Charlotte Corday was a significant figure who emerged from the political turmoil of the French Revolution. Born on July 17th, 1769, in Écorchés, Normandy, Charlotte belonged to an impecunious aristocratic family, with the notable playwright, Pierre Corneille, being an ancestor within her lineage. In her youth, her sister and mother had died. As a result, Charlotte’s father sent her to live in Caen. As she grew up, Corday attended political rallies led by the Girondins. She quickly became loyal to their cause, deeming them and their ideologies to be the future of France.
The Girondins were a political group established and dissolved (through being hunted and executed) during the French Revolution. While they shared the Jacobin sentiment of ending the monarchy and establishing a government for the people, the Girondins acknowledged the violent trajectory of the Jacobin movement. This sparked significant conflict between the two political groups, threatening the authority of the Jacobins and rendering the Girondins as wanted individuals, constantly at risk of execution. Charlotte, who was extremely loyal to the Girondins, set out to undermine the Jacobins and bring stable justice to France.
Corday headed to Paris, intending to protect the future of the Girondins and France by murdering a man named Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was an extremely influential politician and journalist who contributed immensely to the violent nature of the French Revolution. Marat believed the death of all who opposed the established government was crucial to ensuring liberty and democracy within France. Marat’s writing is commonly acknowledged to have laid the groundwork for the Reign of Terror. This unforgiving approach made him a strong enemy to many, the Girondins included, who may have agreed with the goal of liberty and justice but asserted that Marat and his Jacobin counterparts would jeopardize the integrity and future of the nation with their violent practices (Silva, 2010).
Once arriving in Paris, Charlotte attempted to find Marat within multiple social settings, however, he was infrequent in his public appearances. Therefore, it was decided that she needed to acquire a private meeting with Marat. Understanding she could use her affiliation to the Girondins to her advantage, Corday wrote to Marat, stating she would disclose the identity and location of individuals who opposed Marat. This tactic worked, and Charlotte was given entry to Marat’s home. On July 13th, 1793, Corday entered Marat’s bathing room, where he was reclining in the bath, and stabbed him in the chest, killing him almost instantaneously (Towle, 2012).
It is important to note that no records indicate that Charlotte attempted to flee following the death of Marat. This, paired with statements made prior to her execution, strongly suggest that Corday had accepted death the moment she had decided to murder Marat.
As seen within the famous painting, The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Paul was shown to be sickly (beyond the obvious depiction of him being deceased), bandaged within what is speculated to be a medicinal bath. At the time of his death, Marat was said to be suffering from an extremely painful and degenerative skin disease and was likely approaching death (Towle, 2012). Had Charlotte simply waited, she could have seen Marat’s death and kept her hands clean, preventing her own demise. This is a testament to how committed Corday was to her cause; the murder of Marat was both a revenge plot and a message to those who were aligned with him.
Corday was convinced that her actions would lead her martyrization, strengthening her cause and undermining her oppositions. However, this did not come to fruition, with Marat becoming a beacon of reignited commitment to his political pursuits. His body was even paraded around the streets of Paris for the public to mourn (which seems to have been a common practice within the city when a notable figure fell).
After stabbing Marat, Corday was quickly apprehended and brought before a court. With a state assigned representative, Charlotte stood by her actions, asserting that Marat was a tyrant who deserved to die. With that being said, in a letter sent to her father before her death, Corday acknowledged the inhumanity of her actions and begged for forgiveness, while maintaining no regret regarding her actions and subsequent consequences.
On July 17th, 1793, Corday arrived at the Place de Grève, now known as the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, and was brought upon the scaffold. Dressed in red under a purple sky, Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.
A Feminist Forged in Blood
Following the death of Marat, many of those actively advocating for women’s rights condemned the actions of Corday, asserting that her vigilante pursuits undermined their feminist goals and discredited the progress made towards expanding women’s role within society. Furthermore, Charlotte never expressed feminist intentions prior to or following the murder of Marat. I by no means intend to idolize or romanticize murder. However, due to the expectations of women to be submissive and delicate, and Corday’s commitment to the future of France, it is challenging to not consider Charlotte as a symbol of female empowerment.
An autopsy was conducted to assess whether Charlotte had taken a lover, as it was believed that she could not have committed murder without the aid of a man. Despite the persistent villainization of Corday, the relentless misogyny would not even allow her ownership over her crimes. Even in artistic representations, such Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting entitled Charlotte Corday (The Assassination of Marat), Corday is still depicted to be weak and passive despite having killed a man. With that being said, beyond those who criticized her effect on feminism, (as previously acknowledged) some applauded her for acting like a man. While sexist by today’s standards, this statement was highly progressive for the time, promoting the acceptance of women being dominant, a trait historically assigned to men.
Corday was an independent woman who identified an oppressive regime burgeoning before those who vociferously advocated for liberty and justice. While her methods were questionable, Charlotte was committed to her cause, and welcomed death as an unavoidable facet to the fruition of justice within France.
While our modern social climate goes through periods of being highly reactive, as seen through the renewed commitment to certain movements (such as Black Lives Matter in 2020), it is fair to state that Revolution Era France significantly exceeded the instability and injustices we perceive today. Therefore, it is immensely challenging to assess whether certain acts are unjustified or inhumane when we are perceiving it through the lens of today’s standards. This concept can also be applied to current events, as those within privileged positions cannot understand the experiences of marginalized and oppressed individuals, therefore, rendering them unable to fully judge the actions which result from said injustices (within reason).
Was the death of Jean-Paul Marat necessary? Questions such as this are always challenging to address as one can never truly assess what the alternate outcome would have been had certain actions not been taken. Charlotte Corday deemed Marat’s death to be imperative to the protection of liberty within France and the prevention of further injustices. However, adverse effects followed, and Marat’s murder intensified the tyranny of Corday’s oppositions.
Corday highlighted that in times of extreme political and social conflict, radicalism inevitably manifests and can become necessary to ensuring progress. Charlotte Corday stated, following the assassination of Marat, “to save your country means not noticing what it costs.” One can ruminate extensively over whether well intentioned crimes can be justified. At the time of his death, Marat was idolized. However, merely two years later, the nation realized how victimized they had become by his words. While Charlotte considered herself to be a utilitarian martyr, she had been so villainized that her vigilante actions were never fully appreciated for what they represented. This was likely influenced by the fact she was a woman within a society unprepared to celebrate the strength and influence of an individual expected to be feeble and submissive. It was not until decades later that Corday was seen as a heroine.
Human Rights: Universalism vs. Cultural Relativism
There is a level of irony found in Corday withstanding the execution of the Girondins by murdering another. This seemingly never ending cycled continued when Charlotte was sent to the guillotine. As seen through the Reign of Terror, and the beliefs of Marat, execution became a core practice utilized to protect the rising regime. France eventually abolished the death penalty in 1981, claiming it violated human dignity. In comparison, within the United States of America, capital punishment is still legal in 27 states. Globally, the U.S is perceived to be a progressive nation that values and actively facilitates human rights. However, the death penalty is an extremely controversial topic, with widely dissenting opinions domestically. In regard to France, Corday and Marat had similar goals for the nation, but disagreed on the execution (in both senses of the word), which resulted in their deaths. This highlights the problem with universalism. If one nation cannot definitively develop a stance on a certain issue, how should one expect every global state to agree. This plays into the ideology of cultural relativism, which claims universalism neglects unique perspectives and potentially undermines aspects of certain cultures.
Cultural relativism holds that human rights should be determined by a nation. The issue with this concept is the assumption that the governing body will always rule in favor of the nation while protecting its cultural identity. This is idealistic and improbable. As seen through the French Revolution, the new culture evolving was jeopardized because those in power made decision to consolidate their positions, which inevitably caused conflict. A direct correlation between the democratization of a state and its commitment to human rights is widely acknowledged. And with “38 percent of the global population [living] in Not Free countries,” (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2022) the state power afforded through cultural relativism is highly concerning.
Furthermore, cultural relativism can promote the protection of potentially harmful behavior, leaving it up to state powers to determine the legality of certain actions. This is seen through Sharia law, the inhumane treatment of homosexuality within certain nations, and the Reign of Terror. While impossible at the time due to the revolutionary nature of the movement, the instability of France in the late 18th century highlights the need for universalism, ultimately placing the burden and power to enforce human rights on a global level rather than allowing a governing agency to pick and choose practices that benefit their agenda. It is a nuanced issue, but one can hope that with time, a consensus as to a universal standard of living can be established.
While the challenges of universalism are abundant, human rights are innately founded upon idealism, hope, and a commitment to progress. The French Revolution saw countless figures who dreamed of a future free from oppression and tyranny but never got to witness the outcome of their actions. Charlotte Corday murdered a man and embraced death for the heart of a nation that she never got to hear beating. Those who fight for human rights are not deterred by the behemoth that is institutionalized practices; they actively decide to be the change necessary, regardless of their own fate.
As a woman who intends to work within the field of International Relations, aiming to facilitate the global enforcement of human rights from within an intergovernmental organization, I appreciate how necessary it is to not only dream, but proactively pursue change, especially in instances where reform seems unlikely. While Charlotte Corday’s commitment prompted actions I would never remotely consider, I hope to one day contribute to the universalism of human rights, and honor those who fought and died for the standards we have today.
Baudry, P.-J.-A. (1860). Charlotte Corday (The Assassination of Marat) Nantes Museum of Arts.
David, J.-L. (1793). The Death of Marat Musée Oldmasters Museum.
Hauer, J.-J. (1793). Charlotte Corday Musée Lambinet.
“Expulsion of the Girondins,” LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOUTION, accessed April 19, 2022, https://revolution.chnm.org/d/429.
Pilkington, E. (2021, December 16). America’s death penalty divide: Why Capital Punishment is getting better, and worse. The Guardian. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/15/us-death-penalty-abolish-executions
Repucci, S., & Slipowitz, A. (2022). The global expansion of authoritarian rule. Freedom House. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule
Silva, M. A. (2010, January 1). Reflecting on the life of a revolutionary: Jean-Paul Marat. Inquiries Journal. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/146/2/reflecting-on-the-life-of-a-revolutionary-jean-paul-marat
Towle, S. (2012, July 31). Charlotte Corday and the bathtub assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. France Revisited – Life in Paris, Travel in France. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://francerevisited.com/2012/07/charlotte-corday-and-the-bathtub-assassination-of-jean-paul-marat/