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Report of Research on Newspapers During the French Revolution

Peter Chesney, Class of 2008

During my last week of winter break in January 2008, I traveled to Chicago, Illinois where I researched French newspapers from 1793. I was looking for coverage of the Marat-Corday Affair, a major incident in the French Revolution. Charlotte Corday was a moderate republican from the provinces who disapproved of the radical revolutionary message Jean-Paul Marat diffused through his newspaper, the Ami du peuple. She journeyed to Paris, where she assassinated him in his bathtub. Within four days, she faced trial before the Tribunal révolutionnaire and execution at the guillotine.

The revolutionary press followed the unfolding drama with inordinate attention. This coverage illustrates how readers exercised power over journalists, for example by demanding that newspaper stories develop clear narrative arcs. Journalism also empowered Corday as a woman whom journalists covered as a political actor and a citoyenne. The Marat-Corday Affair is a fruitful case study in the history of journalism, for it shows how journalism incorporated various individuals into the revolutionary political culture.

I could not have reached these conclusions about revolutionary journalism without the materials I found in the Newberry, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago Libraries. During the span of a week, I spent eight hours a day in the rare-book rooms, followed by several nighttime hours in the main stacks. Both in the rare-book rooms and the stacks, I found copies of revolutionary newspapers unavailable anywhere else outside of Europe. While I could have found even more sources in Europe, there were plenty in Chicago. I was so impressed by the collections I found there that Northwestern University is now my first choice for a PhD program in history. I realized that I was ready to spend the rest of my life researching history the first time I returned to my hostel at midnight, grimy with book dust, excitedly talking about the latest 1793 newspaper I had discovered. I even found a book pertinent to my research in which the original owner had copied an entire newspaper article reviewing the book. My fellow hostel denizens looked at me incredulously, but I was dead serious about how amazing it was to find these sources.

I have to thank the Vassar College history department and the Evalyn Clark Travel Fellowship for giving me this opportunity to do this work. Research clearly excites me, and without the guidance of my professors and my peers, it would never have become such an important part of my life at Vassar and my future career plans.