All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1996

Victor Hugo: Liberty and Justice For All

Hugo's Literary Output Was a Leading Light for Liberty

Literary lion Victor Hugo inspired an outpouring of generous sympathy for wretched people oppressed by government. He chronicled the evils of police power. He spoke out against capital punishment. He denounced taxes and tyrants. He opposed war. He expressed confidence in the ability of free people to achieve unlimited progress.

He was a leading light for liberty during the nineteenth century because of his prodigious and often lyrical output: nine novels, ten plays, and about 20 volumes of poetry, plus essays and speeches. He broke away from the suffocating formality of classical French literature and achieved the immediacy of plain talk. He wrote with high moral purpose about dramatic events and created great heroes of world literature. He enjoyed popular acclaim like no previous author in history.

Hugo’s most beloved work, Les Misérables, nails government as a chronic oppressor. He shows poor people being helped not by government but by the charitable works of a private individual. He tells why a resourceful entrepreneur is an engine of human progress. He celebrates revolution against tyranny, while making clear why egalitarian policies backfire. His hero Jean Valjean does good voluntarily, peacefully.

Hugo fan Ayn Rand, whose novels about heroic individualism have sold more than 20 million copies, told biographer Barbara Branden: “Les Misérables was the big experience. Everything about it became important to me, holy, everything that reminded me of it was a souvenir of my love. It was my first view of how one should see life, wider than any concretes of the story. I didn’t approve of the ideas about the poor and the disinherited, except that Hugo set them up in a way that I could sympathize with; they were the victims of government, of the aristocracy, or established authority. The personal inspiration for me was that I wanted to match the grandeur, the heroic scale, the plot inventiveness, and those eloquent dramatic touches.”

To be sure, some contemporary friends of liberty weren’t as impressed. Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, thought Hugo an “unruly genius.” Lord Acton, among the most respected scholars on liberty, distrusted the blazing eloquence “that nobody but Hugo strives after now. . . . Some of these Frenchmen live on nothing else; and if one plucks them, or puts their thoughts into one’s own language, little remains.”

Hugo, though, courageously backed his convictions with action. In 1822, when he was 20, he defended Vicomte Francois- Réné de Chateaubriand, a famed French author who fell out of favor with the government. A childhood friend named Délon was hunted by police, presumably for his republican politics, and Hugo offered his house as a sanctuary. During the Revolution of 1848, Hugo went from one insurgent stronghold to the next, ducking gunfire all the way, urging an end to violence.

Hugo committed himself to the cause of liberty late in life, when he had the most to lose. As a youth, he had supported the French monarchy, and later he admired Napoleon Bonaparte for supposedly upholding the principles of liberty and equality. When Hugo was 49, he publicly defied tyrannical Emperor Napoleon III. As a consequence, Hugo lost his luxurious homes, his vast antiques collection, and splendid library of 10,000 books, but he emerged as an eloquent exile who championed liberty for people everywhere.

Like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, Hugo helped the poor by going into his own pocket. He started at home, providing for his estranged wife and his sons who didn’t earn much money on their own. He instructed his cook to feed beggars who showed up at his front door. Every other Sunday for about 14 years, he served “Poor Children’s Dinners” to about 50 hungry youngsters in his neighborhood. His diaries abound with examples of personal charity. For example, March 9th, 1865: “Soup, meat and bread for Marie Green and her sick child.” March 15th: “Sent a set of baby-linen to Mrs. Oswald who has just been brought to bed.” April 8th: “Sheets to Victoire Etasse who is lying in, and without bed-linen.” According to biographer André Maurois, personal charity accounted for about a third of Hugo’s household expenses during his peak earning years.

Hugo was such an idol that his portrait engraving was sold at practically every bookstall in Paris. He had an athletic figure about five feet, seven inches tall. His trademarks were a vast forehead and intense light brown eyes. Early in his career, his long brown hair was brushed back in waves. In later years, his hair turned white, he had it cropped short and grew a moustache with a neatly trimmed beard.

Commitment and Energy

If Hugo wasn’t an original thinker, he brought intense commitment and self-confidence to the cause of liberty. Literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve observed that when Hugo “grabs an idea, all his energy pushes at it and concentrates on it, and you hear arriving from afar the heavy cavalry of his wit and the artillery of his metaphors.” As Hugo himself declared, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Victor Hugo was born February 26, 1802, in Besancon, France. He was the third child of Sophie Trébuchet, a sea captain’s daughter. An admirer of Voltaire, the witty eighteenth-century French critic of religious intolerance, she apparently never had Victor baptized. His father, Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo, had quit school to enlist in the army of the French Revolution, displayed unusual ability, and became a major-general under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Victor Hugo experienced a tumultuous childhood. His parents went their separate ways, and there was a long, bitter custody battle as the children were shuttled back and forth in England, Italy, and Spain. After Napoleon’s downfall, the family had to scramble for a living.

Hugo dreamed of a literary career, but in 1821 his mother died. She left a mess of debts, and his father disapproved of his ambition which was likely to mean tough times. “I shall prove to him,” Victor told his older brother Abel, “that a poet can earn sums far larger than the wages of an Imperial general.” At the time, Hugo struggled to live on two francs a day.


Hugo worked in an austere room with plain rugs, plain draperies, and no wall decorations. He stood while writing at a polished wood desk secured to a wall. He started work soon after 8:00 in the morning and continued until 2:00 in the afternoon. After a substantial lunch, he wrote from 4:00 to 8:00. Then he changed clothes and did work-related reading for three hours. By 11:00 PM, he was ready for a light meal with his wife and friends. “My colleagues spend their days visiting each other, sitting and posing in cafes, and talking about writing,” he remarked. “But I am not like them. I write. That is my secret. What I achieve is done by hard work, not through miracles.”

Hugo’s first collection of poems was published in 1822. Then came a succession of poetic works which put Hugo in the forefront of the romantic movement, exploring emotions with melodrama and exuberant style. He ventured into politics with a poem saluting young French revolutionaries who, in July 1830, had toppled King Charles X after he began restricting individual rights.

Hugo became increasingly infatuated with heroic personalities, Napoleon above all. When Bourbon officials insulted three of Napoleon’s aging marshals, Hugo wrote “Ode a la colonne de la Place Vendome,” a poem bursting with patriotic fervor. It caused quite a stir. Then Hugo wrote a play that idealized Oliver Cromwell, England’s seventeenth-century Puritan military dictator who ordered the beheading of a king. The play wasn’t produced, in part, because it was an obvious target for censorship.

Hugo resolved to succeed in the theater. Censors interpreted his first play, Marion de Lorme, as a slap at Charles X, and the production was shut down. Hugo responded by writing Hernani, discreetly set in sixteenth-century Spain, about a heroic rebel against authority. A lyrical melodrama, it opened at the Comédie Francaise on February 25, 1830, and reportedly enjoyed the most enthusiastic reception since the acclaimed plays of Voltaire a century earlier. Government censors feared that closing it down would provoke an uproar. Two years later, censors did shut down Hugo’s next hit play, Le Roi s’amuse, which included an unflattering portrayal of Francois I, among the most famous of French kings. Giuseppe Verdi, Italy’s outstanding opera composer who had turned Hernani into an opera (Ernani), called Le Roi s’amuse “the greatest drama of modern times,” and it became the basis for his popular opera Rigoletto.

Hugo had already set his sights on writing fiction. His first novel, Bug-Jargal (1826) was a melodrama about blacks rebelling in Santo Domingo, and though critics considered it trash, the public loved it. Then, inspired by the novels of Englishman Walter Scott, Hugo wrote a medieval epic of his own: the anti-royalist Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) about the hunchback Quasimodo who falls in love with the gypsy heroine Esmeralda. The intensity of feeling and vividness of language captivated readers throughout the Western world. “Hugo,” wrote literary critic Théophile Gautier, “is the greatest of living French poets, dramatists and novelists. He has no peer.”

“Ideas Are My Sinews and Substance . . .”

Hugo was a shrewd observer of life around him. “Ideas are my sinews and substance,” he remarked. “I must use them to earn my living and to make my continuing mark in the world, so I husband them, and never fritter them away. An observation, a feeling, even a fleeting sensation, all these are the precious marrow which compels me to stand at my writing desk.”

Meanwhile, Hugo’s wife, Adele—they had been married in 1822—was bored with poetry, plays, novels, and their three children. By 1831, she had begun an affair with literary critic Sainte-Beuve. She refused to continue relations with Hugo, and he launched an extraordinary succession of affairs. Most were short-lived, but one—with actress Juliette Drouet—began in February 1833 and endured until her death a half-century later. Four years younger than Hugo, she had long black hair, violet eyes, a slim figure, and considerable knowledge of French literature. He paid her substantial debts, she became utterly loyal, copied his manuscripts, and performed other secretarial work. “I look on you,” he wrote, “as the most generous, the worthiest and the noblest of all. . . .”

He plunged into political controversies. He had already written Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (Last Day of a Condemned Man), a polemic against capital punishment. King Louis-Philippe named Hugo a peer, which meant he became member of the French Senate and could participate in political deliberations. The French Revolution of 1848 overthrew Louis-Philippe, and in December there was to be an election for President of France. Hugo and a newspaper he edited backed Louis-Napoleon, who had a magical name although apparently he wasn’t related to Bonaparte.

Having won, Louis-Napoleon conspired for absolute power. Government thugs smashed printing presses and newspaper offices. The government sent soldiers to Italy where they defended the Pope’s power against republicans. Hugo, who had romanticized charismatic leaders, recognized the evil of political power. He became the leading voice of opposition to Louis-Napoleon. He ridiculed the President as “Napoleon le Petit”—“Napoleon the Little.” Louis-Napoleon imprisoned Hugo’s sons Charles and Francois-Victor. In December 1851, Louis-Napoleon disregarded a law limiting the President to one term and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. Hugo formed a Committee of Resistance, but the Emperor’s soldiers crushed all opposition and went hunting for Hugo.


Juliette Drouet arranged a safe house, disguised him as a shabby laborer, provided a passport for a new identity, and on December 11th got him aboard a night train for Brussels. She followed two days later. By becoming a political exile, Hugo forfeited virtually all his assets. Moreover, his royalty income had exceeded 60,000 francs a year, and it was illegal for French publishers to continue sending him checks. He soon proved too controversial for the Belgians who were trying to maintain good relations with Napoleon III. Hugo and his entourage settled on the Channel Isle of Guernsey, and that became his home for the next 14 years.

Hugo earned good money from his political writings. Les Chatiments (Castigations), a 6,000-line poem, garnered him 75,000 francs, so he was able to pay 10,000 francs for Hauteville House. It was a magnificent four-story manor. He resumed his rigorous work routine in the solarium with unbleached linen curtains, a plain rug, and a slab of wood hinged to the wall for his standing desk. As a defiant exile, Hugo wrote in the tradition of intellectual rebels like Rabelais and Voltaire.

After a morning of intense work, Hugo had a “light meal” consisting of paté, omelet, or fish, then roast beef, lamb, pork, or veal with potatoes and several other vegetables, salad, English puddings, cheese, and a different wine with each course. He did his serious eating at dinner which included a dozen or two oysters, soup, fish, perhaps roast chicken, then a hearty meat dish like Beef Wellington, salad, and a rich dessert such as chocolate mousse, followed by perhaps a half-dozen oranges. He remained in reasonable shape because everyday, regardless of harsh weather, he spent a couple of hours hiking along Guernsey’s rugged coast.

From Guernsey came one literary triumph after another. In 1859, Hugo published La Légende des siecles (Legend of the Centuries), an epic poem about the struggle for liberty and human progress. He denounced French King Louis XIV as a tyrant, celebrated the English defeat of the Spanish Armada and portrayed Napoleon III as a frog.

Napoleon III made a public appeal for French exiles to return, but Hugo defiantly responded: “I swore that I would remain in exile until the end, either my own or that of Napoleon le Petit.” The Times of London declared “We are proud that Victor Hugo elects to live on British soil, which is enriched and nourished by his presence.” The New York Tribune added, “His voice is that of free men everywhere.”

Hugo began speaking out more about liberty. He denounced the December 1859 execution of John Brown, who tried to foment slave revolts in Virginia. He encouraged the efforts of Giuseppe Garibaldi to establish a liberal democracy in Italy. “Liberty,” Hugo told a thousand people gathered on the Isle of Jersey, “is the most precious possession of all mankind. Food and water are nothing; clothing and shelter are luxuries. He who is free stands with his head held high, even if hungry, naked and homeless. I dedicate my own life, whatever may be left of it, to the cause of liberty—liberty for all!”

Les Misérables

Hugo turned to a project long simmering in his mind. This was a novel tentatively titled Miseres for which he started making notes in 1840. From 1845 until work was interrupted by another French Revolution on February 21, 1848, he pushed ahead with it, changed the tentative title to Jean Trejean and put aside the manuscript. On April 26, 1860, he went to the tin trunk where he had stored the manuscript and resumed work. “I have spent almost seven months in thinking over and clarifying in my mind the whole work as I first conceived it,” he noted, “so that there might be complete unity in what I wrote twelve years ago and what I am going to write now.” He suspended his twice-a-day feasts, and his pen was ablaze. He wrote about two-thirds of the book in 1861. He finished Les Misérables on May 19, 1862.

The book chronicles the phenomenal saga of Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and breaking free from prison. He manages to escape again, adopts a new identity, and redeems himself through peaceful commerce, creating a successful manufacturing business which helps an entire region prosper. He builds schools and distributes a substantial part of his wealth to the poor. He rescues Cosette, an impoverished girl, from a monstrously abusive foster father and raises her himself. Despite abundant good works, Valjean is trailed by ruthless police inspector Javert who is intent on returning him to prison. He flees with Cosette, the business closes, and the region plunges into depression. When Valjean finds himself in a position to kill his tormenter Javert, he lets the inspector go free. Meanwhile, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a revolutionary republican who becomes severely wounded amidst the failed Paris uprising of 1832. Valjean saves him from police by carrying him through the only available escape route—the dangerous sewers of Paris. Marius marries Cosette, Valjean confesses to Marius that he is an old convict, and the horrified Marius banishes him from the household, which brings on his final illness. But just before Valjean dies, everyone is reconciled as Marius learns the full story about the man’s saintly deeds.

While Les Misérables exudes generous sympathy for the most wretched among us, Hugo stood apart from the socialist trend of his time. He seemed to be countering the Marxist dogma of class warfare when he wrote “There has been an attempt, an erroneous one, to make a special class of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is simply the contented portion of the people. The bourgeois is the man who has now time to sit down. A chair is not a caste.”

Hugo pressed his attack: “Communism and agrarian law think they have solved the second problem [distribution of income]. They are mistaken. Their distribution kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation. And consequently labour. It is a distribution made by the butcher, who kills what he divides. It is therefore impossible to stop at these professed solutions. To kill wealth is not to distribute it.”

Hugo expressed confidence that private enterprise and peace would alleviate poverty: “All progress is tending toward the solution. Some day we shall be astounded. The human race rising, the lower strata will quite naturally come out from the zone of distress. The abolition of misery will be brought about by a simple elevation of level.”

Hugo decided to have Les Misérables brought out by Albert Lacroix, a Brussels publisher whom he considered a good businessman. The contract called for Hugo to receive a million francs—one-third upon signing, one-third in six years, and one- third in 12 years. The book was perhaps the first international publishing event, going on sale simultaneously in Amsterdam, Leipzig, London, Paris, New York, and other cities. Within a decade, it was published in some 40 countries. In 1874, full rights reverted to Hugo, and he authorized inexpensive editions. Altogether, some seven million copies of the book sold during the nineteenth century. With Les Misérables, Hugo earned more money than any author before.

Hugo continued to focus on novels. In 1866, he produced Les Traveilleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), about a heroic fisherman who struggles against the elements. In 1869, Hugo wrote L’Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs), a historical romance about a kidnapped English boy reared by gypsies, who exposes the failure of ruling elites.

Hugo spoke out anew as Napoleon III intervened in the affairs of other countries. Napoleon’s military adventure in Mexico backfired. He got into a war with Prussia, and Prussian soldiers advanced toward Paris. Napoleon III abdicated September 4, 1870. Hugo gathered together his family and arrived in Paris the following day. He had gained some weight during his exile, there were circles around his eyes, and he sported a white beard, but his free spirit was still unmistakable.

Return to France

Thousands of people lined the streets as Hugo’s carriage made its way to his new residence. There were shouts of “Vive la République!” and “Vive Victor Hugo!” Vendors openly sold his polemical poetry, and popular actresses like Sarah Bernhardt held public readings of it, donating the proceeds to help defend France against the Prussian onslaught. Hugo wrote a prophetic letter to the Germans, which urged that they make peace and warned that humiliation of France would trigger venomous hatred and ultimate defeat of Germany. Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck disregarded Hugo’s appeal, Paris surrendered on January 29, 1871, and a half-century later embittered Frenchmen celebrated Germany’s ruin during the First World War.

In February 1871, Hugo was elected a Deputy to the National Assembly of the French Third Republic. He railed against the humiliating settlement which involved French surrender of most of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia, but it was ratified by a war-weary majority. Hugo denounced socialists who attempted a violent takeover and conservatives who struck back with fury.

Through all this, Hugo continued his disciplined writing. His most notable work in France—his last novel—was Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three), a drama focusing on the climactic year of the French Revolution. His hero Gauvain was a liberal republican who courageously opposed the Terror. Ayn Rand wrote an enthusiastic introduction to a reprint because the book was about individuals committing themselves to moral values, and because Hugo had inspired much of her own work.

During his last years, Hugo was depressed by the death of his sons, but in other respects he had a grand time. He continued to arise at dawn and write till midday. L’Art d’etre grand-pere (The Art of Being a Grandfather [1877]), his collection of sentimental poems, further enhanced his popularity. Hugo had more romantic adventures. His personal fortune surpassed $1,400,000, an enormous sum in those days. He entertained as many as 30 dinner guests nearly every night. As Hugo began his 80th year, February 26, 1881, he was honored with a National Festival, a celebration the likes of which had never been seen for a private individual—some 600,000 admirers paraded by his opulent residence, 130 Avenue d’Eylau, in the Champs Elysées quarter, leaving huge mounds of flowers.

Nothing, however, could restore his spirits after the death of his beloved Juliette, of cancer, May 11, 1883. She was 77. Then on May 15, 1885, Hugo got what seemed like a bad cold. It turned out to be pneumonia. He was wracked with fever and struggled to breathe. He died around 1:30 in the afternoon, May 22nd, at 83. He was placed in a pauper’s coffin, as he had requested, and set beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Then an estimated 2 million people watched as a mule cart carried him to his resting place at the Panthéon. He was buried beside Voltaire.

Since Hugo’s time, his reputation outside France has endured with a single novel—nearly all his other novels, plays and poems forgotten. But that novel, of course, is Les Misérables, which has touched more hearts than ever. In 1978, French composer Claude Michel-Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil began work on a musical production of Les Misérables. On October 8, 1985, it opened in London, and two years later, on March 12, 1987, it came to Broadway. “A thrilling musical experience,” declared Time magazine. Les Misérables has played in Australia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Poland, Singapore—22 countries altogether. Some 41 million people have seen this inspiring story of liberty and justice for all, Victor Hugo’s most precious gift to the world.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.