Victor Hugo appeals for clemency for John Brown (version originale followed by translation) (after Bénét citation)

hugo-artFrom Christies’ 2012 auction from the estates of  Georges and Jean Hugo: Left: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Veiled profile.” Brown wash. 315 x 206 mm. Right: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Caricature of a Judge Wearing a Hat.” Brown wash. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012. Previously published on the Arts Voyager.

“John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave…but his truth goes marching on.”
— Stephen Vincent Bénét, “John Brown’s Body”

Quand on pense aux États-Unis d’Amérique, une figure majestueuse se lève dans l’esprit, Washington.

Or, dans cette patrie de Washington, voici ce qui a lieu en ce moment :

Il y a des esclaves dans les états du sud, ce qui indigne, comme le plus monstrueux des contresens, la conscience logique et pure des états du nord. Ces esclaves, ces négres, un homme blanc, un homme libre, John Brown, a voulu les délivrer. Certes, si l’insurrection est un devoir sacré, c’est contre l’esclavage. John Brown a voulu commencer l’œuvre de salut par la délivrance des esclaves de la Virginie. Puritain, religieux, austère; plein de l’évangile, Christus nos liberavit, il a jeté à ces hommes, à ces fréres, le cri d’affranchissement. Les esclaves, énervés par la servitude, n’ont pas répondu à l’appel. L’esclavage produit la surdité de l’âme. John Brown, abandonné, a combattu ; avec une poignée d’hommes héroïques, il a lutté ; il a été criblé de balles, ses deux jeunes fils, saints martyrs, sont tombés morts à ses côtés, il a été pris. C’est ca qu’on nomme l’affaire de Harper’s Ferry.

John Brown, pris, vient d’être jugé, avec quatre des siens, Stephens, Copp, Green et Coplands.

Quel a été ce procès ? Disons-le en deux mots :

John Brown, sur un lit de sangle, avec six blessures mal fermées, un coup de feu au bras, un aux reins, deux à la poitrine, deux à la tête, entendant à peine, saignant à travers son matelas, les ombres de ses deux fils morts prés de lui ; ses quatre coaccusés, blessés, se traînant à ses côtés, Stephens avec quatre coups de sabre ; la « justice » pressée et passant outre ; un attorney Hunter qui veut aller vite, un juge Parker qui y consent, les débats tronqués, presque tous délais refusés, production de pièces fausses ou mutilées, les témoins à décharge écartés, la défense entravée, deux canons chargés a mitraille dans la cour du tribunal, ordre aux geôliers de fusiller les accusées si l’on tente de les enlever, quarante minutes de délibération, trois condamnations à mort. J’affirme sur l’honneur que cela ne s’est point passée en Turquie, mais en Amérique.

On ne fait point de ces choses-là impunément en face du monde civilisé. La conscience universelle est un œil ouvert. Que les juges de Charlestown, que Hunter et Parker, que les jurés possesseurs d’esclaves, et tout la population virginienne y songent, on les voit. Il y a quelqu’un.

Le regard de l’Europe est fixé en ce moment sur l’Amérique.

— Victor Hugo
Hauteville-House, 2 december 1859 (extrait)

hugo-portraitFrom Christies’ 2012 auction from the estates of  Georges and Jean Hugo: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge in exile with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey, from where Hugo would send out his appeal for clemency for the abolitionist John Brown.  ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012. Previously published on the Arts Voyager.

Translation by  Paul Ben-Itzak:

When one thinks of the United States of America, a majestic figure comes to mind: Washington.

Yet consider what is taking place at this very moment in Washington’s homeland:

In the South, there are slaves — a fact which outrages, as the most corrosive of wrongs, the logical and pure conscience of the Northern states. These slaves, these Negros, a white man, a free man, John Brown, wanted to liberate. Certainly, if anything calls for the sacred obligation of insurrection, it is slavery. John Brown wanted to begin his holy crusade by freeing the slaves of Virginia. Puritan, devout, austere, infused with evangelism, Christus nos liberavit, he delivered to these men, to these brothers, the clarion call of enfranchisement. The slaves, numbed by servitude, did not respond to the call. Slavery produces a deafness of the soul. John Brown, abandoned, fought on; with a fistful of heroic men, he waged his campaign; he was riddled with bullets, his two young sons, martyred saints, fell dead at his side, and he was captured. This became celebrated as the battle of Harper’s Ferry.

John Brown, imprisoned, has now been judged, with four of his men: Stephens, Copp, Green, and Coplands.

What manner of trial was this? It can be resumed in a few words:

John Brown, laying on a thin cot, afflicted by six poorly sutured wounds, one bullet wound in the arm, one in the kidneys, two in the chest, two in the head, barely able to hear, bleeding through his meager mattress, the shadows of his two dead sons hovering close by; his four co-accused, wounded, lying at his side, Stephens with four saber wounds; the forces of “justice” pressing forward regardless; an attorney, Hunter, who wanted to expedite things, a judge, Parker, who consented, mangled arguments, just about every delay refused, falsified or mutilated evidence, witnesses dismissed, the defense impeded, two loaded machine-gun canons pitched in the courtyard of the court, with the jailers under order to mow down the accused if anyone tried to liberate them, 40 minutes of deliberation, three death sentences. I swear on my honor that what I’ve just described did not take place in Turkey, but in America.

In the civilized world, one does not commit such acts with impunity. The universal conscience is an open eye. That the judges of Charlestown, that Hunter and Parker, that the slave-owning members of the jury and the entire population of Virginia take note: The World is watching.

And the regard of Europe is riveted in this moment on America.

Extract of open letter addressed by Victor Hugo to the United States of America via the intermediary of the European free press. From “Pendant l’Exil, 1852-1879,” by Victor Hugo. Published by Nelson, Éditeurs, Paris, London, Édinburg, and New York.

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