The Worlds Famous Orations. Continental Europe (3801906). 1906.
In Defense of His Son
Victor Marie Hugo (180285)
Born in 1802, died in 1885; to his great career as an Author is to be added the fact that he was exiled from France in 1851, remaining absent until 1870, and that he was elected a Life Member of the French Senate in 1876.
GENTLEMEN OF THE1 JURY:If there is a culprit here, it is not my sonit is myselfit is I!I, who for these last twenty-five years have opposed capital Punishmenthave contended for the inviolability of human lifehave committed this crime, for which my son is now arraigned. Here I denounce myself, Mr. Advocate General! I have committed it under all aggravated circumstancedeliberately, repeatedly, tenaciously. Yes, this old and absurd lex talionisthis law of blood for bloodI have combated all my lifeall my life, gentlemen of the jury! And, while I have breath, I will continue to combat it, by all my efforts as a writer, by all my words and all my votes as a legislator! I declare it before the crucifix; before that victim of the penalty of death, who sees and hears us; before that gibbet, to which, two thousand years ago, for the eternal instruction of the generations, the human law nailed the Divine!
In all that my son has written on the subject of capital punishmentand for writing and publishing which he is now before you on trialin all that he has written, he has merely proclaimed the sentiments with which, from his infancy, I have inspired him. Gentlemen jurors, the right to criticize a law, and to criticize it severelyespecially a penal lawis placed beside the duty of amelioration, like a torch beside the work under the artisans hand. This right of the journalist is as sacred, as necessary, as imprescriptible, as the right of the legislator.
What are the circumstances? A man, a convict, a sentenced wretch, is dragged, on a certain morning, to one of our public squares. There he finds the scaffold! He shudders, he struggles, he refuses to die. He is young yetonly twenty-nine. Ah! I know what you will sayHe is a murderer! But hear me. Two officers seize him. His hands, his feet, are tied. He throws off the two officers. A frightful struggle ensues. His feet, bound as they are, become entangled in the ladder. He uses the scaffold against the scaffold! The struggle is prolonged. Horror seizes on the crowd. The officerssweat and shame on their browspale, panting, terrified, despairingdespairing with I know not what horrible despairshrinking under that public reprobation which ought to have visited the penalty, and spared the passive instrument, the executionerthe officers strive savagely. The victim clings to the scaffold and shrieks for pardon. His clothes are tornhis shoulders bloodystill he resists.
At length, after threequarters of an hour of this monstrous effort, of this spectacle without a name, of this agonyagony for all, be it understoodagony for the assembled spectators as well as for the condemned manafter this age of anguish, gentlemen of the jury, they take back the poor wretch to his prison. The people breathe again. The people, naturally merciful, hope that the man will be spared. But nothe guillotine, tho vanquished, remains standing. There it frowns all day in the midst of a sickened population. And at night, the officers, reinforced, drag forth the wretch again, so bound that he is but an inert weightthey drag him forth, haggard, bloody, weeping, pleading, howling for lifecalling upon God, calling upon his father and motherfor like a very child had this man become in the prospect of deaththey drag him forth to execution. He is hoisted on to the scaffold, and his head falls! And then through every conscience runs a shudder.
Note 1. Hugos son, Charles, was put on trial in Paris on June 11, 1851, charged with disrespect to the laws, in that he had severely criticized the sentence and execution of one Montcharmant. Charles Hugo was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of five hundred francs. [back]