The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

The First Day — The Ambush.

Chapter i.


On December 1, 1851, Charras1 shrugged his shoulder and unloaded his pistols. In truth, the belief in the possibility of a coup d’état had become humiliating. The supposition of such illegal violence on the part of M. Louis Bonaparte vanished upon serious consideration. The great question of the day was manifestly the Devincq election; it was clear that the Government was only thinking of that matter. As to a conspiracy against the Republic and against the People, how could any one premeditate such a plot? Where was the man capable of entertaining such a dream? For a tragedy there must be an actor, and here assuredly the actor was wanting. To outrage Right, to suppress the Assembly, to abolish the Constitution, to strangle the Republic, to overthrow the Nation, to sully the Flag, to dishonor the Army, to suborn the Clergy and the Magistracy, to succeed, to triumph, to govern, to administer, to exile, to banish, to transport, to ruin, to assassinate, to reign, with such complicities that the law at last resembles a foul bed of corruption. What! All these enormities were to be committed! And by whom? By a Colossus? No, by a dwarf. People laughed at the notion. They no longer said “What a crime!” but “What a farce!” For after all they reflected; heinous crimes require stature. Certain crimes are too lofty for certain hands. A man who would achieve an 18th Brumaire must have Arcola in his past and Austerlitz in his future. The art of becoming a great scoundrel is not accorded to the first comer. People said to themselves, Who is this son of Hortense? He has Strasbourg behind him instead of Arcola, and Boulogne in place of Austerlitz. He is a Frenchman, born a Dutchman, and naturalized a Swiss; he is a Bonaparte crossed with a Verhuell; he is only celebrated for the ludicrousness of his imperial attitude, and he who would pluck a feather from his eagle would risk finding a goose’s quill in his hand. This Bonaparte does not pass currency in the array, he is a counterfeit image less of gold than of lead, and assuredly French soldiers will not give us the change for this false Napoleon in rebellion, in atrocities, in massacres, in outrages, in treason. If he should attempt roguery it would miscarry. Not a regiment would stir. Besides, why should he make such an attempt? Doubtless he has his suspicious side, but why suppose him an absolute villain? Such extreme outrages are beyond him; he is incapable of them physically, why judge him capable of them morally? Has he not pledged honor? Has he not said, “No one in Europe doubts my word?” Let us fear nothing. To this could be answered, Crimes are committed either on a grand or on a mean scale. In the first category there is Caesar; in the second there is Mandrin. Caesar passes the Rubicon, Mandrin bestrides the gutter. But wise men interposed, “Are we not prejudiced by offensive conjectures? This man has been exiled and unfortunate. Exile enlightens, misfortune corrects.”

For his part Louis Bonaparte protested energetically. Facts abounded in his favor. Why should he not act in good faith? He had made remarkable promises. Towards the end of October, 1848, then a candidate for the Presidency, he was calling at No. 37, Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne, on a certain personage, to whom he remarked, “I wish to have an explanation with you. They slander me. Do I give you the impression of a madman? They think that I wish to revivify Napoleon. There are two men whom a great ambition can take for its models, Napoleon and Washington. The one is a man of Genius, the other is a man of Virtue. It is ridiculous to say, ‘I will be a man of Genius;’ it is honest to say, ‘I will be a man of Virtue.’ Which of these depends upon ourselves? Which can we accomplish by our will? To be Genius? No. To be Probity? Yes. The attainment of Genius is not possible; the attainment of Probity is a possibility. And what could I revive of Napoleon? One sole thing — a crime. Truly a worthy ambition! Why should I be considered man? The Republic being established, I am not a great man, I shall not copy Napoleon; but I am an honest man. I shall imitate Washington. My name, the name of Bonaparte, will be inscribed on two pages of the history of France: on the first there will be crime and glory, on the second probity and honor. And the second will perhaps be worth the first. Why? Because if Napoleon is the greater, Washington is the better man. Between the guilty hero and the good citizen I choose the good citizen. Such is my ambition.”

From 1848 to 1851 three years elapsed. People had long suspected Louis Bonaparte; but long-continued suspicion blunts the intellect and wears itself out by fruitless alarms. Louis Bonaparte had had dissimulating ministers such as Magne and Rouher; but he had also had straightforward ministers such as Léon Faucher and Odilon Barrot; and these last had affirmed that he was upright and sincere. He had been seen to beat his breast before the doors of Ham; his foster sister, Madame Hortense Cornu, wrote to Mieroslawsky, “I am a good Republican, and I can answer for him.” His friend of Ham, Peauger, a loyal man, declared, “Louis Bonaparte is incapable of treason.” Had not Louis Bonaparte written the work entitled “Pauperism”? In the intimate circles of the Elysée Count Potocki was a Republican and Count d’Orsay was a Liberal; Louis Bonaparte said to Potocki, “I am a man of the Democracy,” and to D’Orsay, “I am a man of Liberty.” The Marquis du Hallays opposed the coup d’état, while the Marquise du Hallays was in its favor. Louis Bonaparte said to the Marquis, “Fear nothing” (it is true that he whispered to the Marquise, “Make your mind easy”). The Assembly, after having shown here and there some symptoms of uneasiness, had grown calm. There was General Neumayer, “who was to be depended upon,” and who from his position at Lyons would at need march upon Paris. Changarnier exclaimed, “Representatives of the people, deliberate in peace.” Even Louis Bonaparte himself had pronounced these famous words, “I should see an enemy of my country in any one who would change by force that which has been established by law,” and, moreover, the Army was “force,” and the Army possessed leaders, leaders who were beloved and victorious. Lamoricière, Changarnier, Cavaignac, Leflô, Bedeau, Charras; how could any one imagine the Army of Africa arresting the Generals of Africa? On Friday, November 28, 1851, Louis Bonaparte said to Michel de Bourges, “If I wanted to do wrong, I could not. Yesterday, Thursday, I invited to my table five Colonels of the garrison of Paris, and the whim seized me to question each one by himself. All five declared to me that the Army would never lend itself to a coup de force, nor attack the inviolability of the Assembly. You can tell your friends this.”—“He smiled,” said Michel de Bourges, reassured, “and I also smiled.” After this, Michel de Bourges declared in the Tribune, “this is the man for me.” In that same month of November a satirical journal, charged with calumniating the President of the Republic, was sentenced to fine and imprisonment for a caricature depicting a shooting-gallery and Louis Bonaparte using the Constitution as a target. Morigny, Minister of the Interior, declared in the Council before the President “that a Guardian of Public Power ought never to violate the law as otherwise he would be —” “a dishonest man,” interposed the President. All these words and all these facts were notorious. The material and moral impossibility of the coup d’état was manifest to all. To outrage the National Assembly! To arrest the Representatives! What madness! As we have seen, Charras, who had long remained on his guard, unloaded his pistols. The feeling of security was complete and unanimous. Nevertheless there were some of us in the Assembly who still retained a few doubts, and who occasionally shook our heads, but we were looked upon as fools.

1 Colonel Charras was Under–Secretary of State in 1848, and Acting Secretary of War under the Provisional Government.

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