The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter x.

Duty Can have Two Aspects

Had it been in the power of the Left at any moment to prevent the coup d’état?

We do not think so.

Nevertheless here is a fact which we believe we ought not to pass by in silence. On the 16th November, 1851, I was in my study at home at 37, Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne; it was about midnight. I was working. My servant opened the door.

“Will you see M. — — sir?”

And he mentioned a name.

“Yes,” I said.

Some one came in.

I shall only speak reservedly of this eminent and distinguished man. Let it suffice to state that he had the right to say when mentioning the Bonapartes “my family.”

It is known that the Bonaparte family is divided into two branches, the Imperial family and the private family. The Imperial family had the tradition of Napoleon, the private family had the tradition of Lucien: a shade of difference which, however, had no reality about it.

My midnight visitor took the other corner of the fireplace.

He began by speaking to me of the memoirs of a very highminded and virtuous woman, the Princess — — his mother, the manuscript of which he had confided to me, asking my advice as to the utility or the suitability of their publication; this manuscript, besides being full of interest, possessed for me a special charm, because the handwriting of the Princess resembled my mother’s handwriting. My visitor, to whom I gave it back, turned over the leaves for a few moments, and then suddenly interrupting himself, he turned to me and said —

“The Republic is lost.”

I answered —


He resumed —

“Unless you save it.”



“How so?”

“Listen to me.”

Then he set forth with that clearness, complicated at times with paradoxes, which is one of the resources of his remarkable mind, the situation, at the same time desperate and strong, in which we were placed.

This situation, which moreover I realized as well as he himself, was this:—

The Right of the Assembly was composed of about 400 members, and the Left of about 180. The four hundred of the majority belonged by thirds to three parties, the Legitimist party, the Orleanist party, the Bonapartist party, and in a body to the Clerical party. The 180 of the minority belonged to the Republic. The Right mistrusted the Left, and had taken a precaution against the minority.

A Vigilance Committee, composed of sixteen members of the Right, charged with impressing unity upon this trinity of parties, and charged with the task of carefully watching the Left, such was this precaution. The Left at first had confined itself to irony, and borrowing from me a word to which people then attached, though wrongly, the idea of decrepitude, had called the sixteen Commissioners the “Burgraves.” The irony subsequently turning into suspicion, the Left had on its side ended by creating a committee of sixteen members to direct the Left, and observe the Right; these the Right had hastened to name the “Red Burgraves.” A harmless rejoinder. The result was that the Right watched the Left, and that the Left watched the Right, but that no one watched Bonaparte. They were two flocks of sheep so distrustful of one another that they forgot the wolf. During that time, in his den at the Elysée, Bonaparte was working. He was busily employing the time which the Assembly, the majority and the minority, was losing in mistrusting itself. As people feel the loosening of the avalanche, so they felt the catastrophe tottering in the gloom. They kept watch upon the enemy, but they did not turn their attention in the true direction. To know where to fix one’s mistrust is the secret of a great politician. The Assembly of 1851 did not possess this shrewd certainty of eyesight, their perspective was bad, each saw the future after his own fashion, and a sort of political short-sightedness blinded the Left as well as the Right; they were afraid, but not where fear was advisable; they were in the presence of a mystery, they had an ambuscade before them, but they sought it where it did not exist, and they did not perceive where it really lay. Thus it was that these two flocks of sheep, the majority, and the minority faced each other affrightedly, and while the leaders on one side and the guides on the other, grave and attentive, asked themselves anxiously what could be the mewing of the grumbling, of the Left on the one side, of the bleatings of the Right on the other, they ran the risk of suddenly feeling the four claws of the coup d’état fastened in their shoulders.

My visitor said to me,-

“You are one of the Sixteen!”

“Yes,” answered I, smiling; “a ‘Red Burgrave.’”

“Like me, a ‘Red Prince.’”

And his smile responded to mine.

He resumed —

“You have full powers?”

“Yes. Like the others.”

And I added —

“Not more than the others. The Left has no leaders.”

He continued —

“Yon, the Commissary of Police, is a Republican?’


“He would obey an order signed by you?”


I say, without doubt.”

He looked at me fixedly.

“Well, then, have the President arrested this night.”

It was now my turn to look at him.

“What do you mean?”

“What I say.”

I ought to state that his language was frank, resolute, and self-convinced, and that during the whole of this conversation, and now, and always, it has given me the impression of honesty.

“Arrest the President!” I cried.

Then he set forth that this extraordinary enterprise was an easy matter; that the Army was undecided; that in the Army the African Generals counterpoised the President; that the National Guard favored the Assembly, and in the Assembly the Left; that Colonel Forestier answered for the 8th Legion; Colonel Gressier for the 6th, and Colonel Howyne for the 5th; that at the order of the Sixteen of the Left there would be an immediate taking up of arms; that my signature would suffice; that, nevertheless, if I preferred to call together the Committee, in Secret Session, we could wait till the next day; that on the order from the Sixteen, a battalion would march upon the Elysée; that the Elysée apprehended nothing, thought only of offensive, and not of defensive measures, and accordingly would be taken by surprise; that the soldiers would not resist the National Guard; that the thing would be done without striking a blow; that Vincennes would open and close while Paris slept; that the President would finish his night there, and that France, on awakening, would learn the twofold good tidings: that Bonaparte was out of the fight, and France out of danger.

He added —

“You can count on two Generals: Neumayer at Lyons, and Lawoëstyne at Paris.”

He got up and leaned against the chimney-piece; I can still see him there, standing thoughtfully; and he continued:

“I do not feel myself strong enough to begin exile all over again, but I feel the wish to save my family and my country.”

He probably thought he noticed a movement of surprise in me, for he accentuated and italicized these words.

“I will explain myself. Yes; I wish to save my family and my country. I bear the name of Napoleon; but as you know without fanaticism. I am a Bonaparte, but not a Bonapartist. I respect the name, but I judge it. It already has one stain. The Eighteenth Brumaire. Is it about to have another? The old stain disappeared beneath the glory; Austerlitz covered Brumaire. Napoleon was absolved by his genius. The people admired him so greatly that it forgave him. Napoleon is upon the column, there is an end of it, let them leave him there in peace. Let them not resuscitate him through his bad qualities. Let them not compel France to remember too much. This glory of Napoleon is vulnerable. It has a wound; closed, I admit. Do not let them reopen it. Whatever apologists may say and do, it is none the less true that by the Eighteenth of Brumaire Napoleon struck himself a first blow.”

“In truth,” said I, “it is ever against ourselves that we commit a crime.”

“Well, then,” he continued, “his glory has survived a first blow, a second will kill it. I do not wish it. I hate the first Eighteenth Brumaire; I fear the second. I wish to prevent it.”

He paused again, and continued —

“That is why I have come to you to-night. I wish to succor this great wounded glory. By the advice which I am giving you, if you can carry it out, if the Left carries it out, I save the first Napoleon; for if a second crime is superposed upon his glory, this glory would disappear. Yes, this name would founder, and history would no longer own it. I will go farther and complete my idea. I also save the present Napoleon, for he who as yet has no glory will only have come. I save his memory from an eternal pillory. Therefore, arrest him.”

He was truly and deeply moved. He resumed —

“As to the Republic, the arrest of Louis Bonaparte is deliverance for her. I am right, therefore, in saying that by what I am proposing to you I am saving my family and my country.”

“But,” I said to him, “what you propose to me is a coup d’état.”

“Do you think so?”

“Without doubt. We are the minority, and we should commit an act which belongs to the majority. We are a part of the Assembly. We should be acting as though we were the entire Assembly. We who condemn all usurpation should ourselves become usurpers. We should put our hands upon a functionary whom the Assembly alone has the right of arresting. We, the defenders of the Constitution, we should break the Constitution. We, the men of the Law, we should violate the Law. It is a coup d’état.”

“Yes, but a coup d’état for a good purpose.”

“Evil committed for a good purpose remains evil.”

“Even when it succeeds?”

“Above all when it succeeds.”


“Because it then becomes an example.”

“You do not then approve of the Eighteenth Fructidor?”


“But Eighteenth Fructidors prevent Eighteenth Brumaires.”

“No. They prepare the way for them.”

“But reasons of State exist?”

“No. What exists is the Law.”

“The Eighteenth Fructidor has been accepted by exceedingly honest minds.”

“I know that.”

“Blanqui is in its favor, with Michelet.”

“I am against it, with Barbès.”

From the moral aspect I passed to the practical aspect.

“This said,” resumed I, “let us examine your plan.”

This plan bristled with difficulties. I pointed them out to him.

“Count on the National Guard! Why, General Lawoëstyne had not yet got command of it. Count on the Army? Why, General Neumayer was at Lyons, and not at Paris. Would he march to the assistance of the Assembly? What did we know about this? As for Lawoëstyne, was he not double-faced? Were they sure of him? Call to arms the 8th Legion? Forestier was no longer Colonel. The 5th and 6th? But Gressier and Howyne were only lieutenant-colonels, would these legions follow them? Order the Commissary Yon? But would he obey the Left alone? He was the agent of the Assembly, and consequently of the majority, but not of the minority. These were so many questions. But these questions, supposing them answered, and answered in the sense of success, was success itself the question? The question is never Success, it is always Right. But here, even if we had obtained success, we should not have Right. In order to arrest the President an order of the Assembly was necessary; we should replace the order of the Assembly by an act of violence of the Left. A scaling and a burglary; an assault by scaling-ladders on the constituted authority, a burglary on the Law. Now let us suppose resistance; we should shed blood. The Law violated leads to the shedding of blood. What is all this? It is a crime.”

“No, indeed,” he exclaimed, “it is the salus populi.”

And he added —

Suprema Lex.”

“Not for me,” I said.

I continued —

“I would not kill a child to save a people.”

“Cato did so.”

“Jesus did not do so.”

And I added —

“You have on your side all ancient history, you are acting according to the uprightness of the Greeks, and according to the uprightness of the Romans; for me, I am acting according to the uprightness of Humanity. The new horizon is of wider range than the old.”

There was a pause. He broke it.

“Then he will be the one to attack!”

“Let it be so.”

“You are about to engage in a battle which is almost lost beforehand.”

“I fear so.”

“And this unequal combat can only end for you, Victor Hugo, in death or exile.”

“I believe it.”

“Death is the affair of a moment, but exile is long.”

“It is a habit to be learned.”

He continued —

“You will not only be proscribed. You will be calumniated.”

“It is a habit already learned.”

He continued —

“Do you know what they are saying already?”


“They say that you are irritated against him because he has refused to make you a Minister.”

“Why you know yourself that —”

“I know that it is just the reverse. It is he who has asked you, and it is you who have refused.”

“Well, then —”

“They lie.”

“What does it matter?”

He exclaimed —

“Thus, you will have caused the Bonapartes to re-enter France, and you will be banished from France by a Bonaparte!”32

“Who knows,” said I, “if I have not committed a fault? This injustice is perhaps a justice.”

We were both silent. He resumed —

“Could you bear exile?”

“I will try.”

“Could you live without Paris?”

“I should have the ocean.”

“You would then go to the seaside?”

“I think so.”

“It is sad.”

“It is grand.”

There was another pause. He broke it.

“You do not know what exile is. I do know it. It is terrible. Assuredly, I would not begin it again. Death is a bourne whence no one comes back, exile is a place whither no one returns.”

“If necessary,” I said to him, “I will go, and I will return to it.”

“Better die. To quit life is nothing, but to quit one’s country —”

“Alas!” said I, “that is every thing.”

“Well, then, why accept exile when it is in your power to avoid it? What do you place above your country?”


This answer made him thoughtful. However, he resumed.

“But on reflection your conscience will approve of what you will have done.”



“I have told you. Because my conscience is so constituted that it puts nothing above itself. I feel it upon me as the headland can feel the lighthouse which is upon it. All life is an abyss, and conscience illuminates it around me.”

“And I also,” he exclaimed — and I affirm that nothing could be more sincere or more loyal than his tone —“and I also feel and see my conscience. It approves of what I am doing. I appear to be betraying Louis; but I am really doing him a service. To save him from a crime is to save him. I have tried every means. There only remains this one, to arrest him. In coming to you, in acting as I do, I conspire at the same time against him and for him, against his power, and for his honor. What I am doing is right.”

“It is true,” I said to him. “You have a generous and a lofty aim.”

And I resumed —

“But our two duties are different. I could not hinder Louis Bonaparte from committing a crime unless I committed one myself. I wish neither for an Eighteenth Brumaire for him, nor for an Eighteenth Fructidor for myself. I would rather be proscribed than be a proscriber. I have the choice between two crimes, my crime and the crime of Louis Bonaparte. I will not choose my crime.”

“But then you will have to endure his.”

“I would rather endure a crime than commit one.”

He remained thoughtful, and said to me —

“Let it be so.”

And he added —

“Perhaps we are both in the right.”

“I think so,” I said.

And I pressed his hand.

He took his mother’s manuscript and went away. It was three o’clock in the morning. The conversation had lasted more than two hours. I did not go to bed until I had written it out.

32 14th of June, 1847. Chamber of Peers. See the work “Avant l’Exile.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56