In Defense of His Son by Victor Hugo
Gentlemen of the Jury:—If there is a culprit here, it is not my son—it is myself—it is I!—I, who for these last twenty-five years have opposed capital punishment—have contended for the inviolability of human life—have committed this crime, for which my son is now arraigned. Here I denounce myself, Mr. Advocate General! I have committed it under all aggravated circumstances—deliberately, repeatedly, tenaciously. Yes, this old and absurd lex talionis—this law of blood for blood—I have combated all my life—all 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 punishment—and for writing and publishing which he is now before you on trial—in 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 severely—especially a penal law—is placed beside the duty of amelioration, like a torch beside the work under the artisan’s 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 ho finds the scaffold! He shudders, he struggles, he refuses to die. He is young yet—only twenty-nine. Ah! I know what you will say—”He 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 officers—sweat and shame on their brows—pale, panting, terrified, despairing—despairing with I know not what horrible despair—shrinking under that public reprobation which ought to have visited the penalty, and spared the passive instrument, the executioner—the officers strive savagely. The victim clings to the scaffold and shrieks for pardon. His clothes are torn—his shoulders bloody—still he resists.
At length, after three-quarters of an hour of this monstrous effort, of this spectacle without a name, of this agony—agony for all, be it understood—agony for the assembled spectators as well as for the condemned man—after 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 no—the 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 weight—they drag him forth, haggard, bloody, weeping, pleading, howling for life—calling upon God, calling upon his father and mother—for like a very child had this man become in the prospect of death—they drag him forth to execution. He is hoisted on to the scaffold, and his head falls! And then through every conscience runs a shudder.
1-Hugo’s 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.