France in the mid-eighteenth century was a nation with an official faith—Catholicism—which tolerated no rival. Huguenots (French Protestants) had faced nearly continuous persecution since the advent of the Reformation. Protestants were excluded from the major professions, such as medicine, law, and the pharmacy, and were required to be married by a Catholic priest in order for a marriage to be recognized.

In fairness, it must be said that Protestants proved to be just as vigorous persecutors as Catholics, perhaps more so. Calvinists, in their regions, went after every symbol of Rome they could lay their hands on; and their literal interpretations of (selected) scriptures could prompt them too to paroxysms of religious fanaticism.

Jean Calas was a Protestant textile merchant living in the city of Toulouse. This city’s Parlement was dominated by Jansenists, a Catholic sect known for its severity and fatalism. In 1761, we are told, the Parlement of Toulouse sentenced a Protestant man to death after he had been accused of killing a son who tried to convert to Catholicism.

Suspicions were in the air that Protestants were capable of committing murder to prevent conversion to Catholicism. Religious faith was then far more important to people’s lives than now. The death penalty for religious apostasy would in most of the world today be unthinkable, but in Europe in those days it was a matter of deadly earnest. It is only by appreciating this fact can we begin to understand the tragedy of Jean Calas.

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Calas and his wife had four sons, and employed a Catholic governess for his family. One of Calas’s sons had converted to Catholicism. Another son, named Marc Antoine, was a law student tormented by gambling debts, alcohol, and sectarian vacillations.

On October 13, 1761, Marc Antoine was found hanging by a rope in his father’s textile store. A doctor was called, but it was too late: he had died by hanging. We must here again set aside our modern mentality and understand that, in that era, suicide was viewed as a serious crime against one’s own body.

Under the law, the bodies of suicide victims were required to be desecrated by crowds, and then publicly hanged. Their property was also confiscated by the courts. Not wishing this fate for his son, Jean Calas contrived a plan to make the suicide look like either a murder or a natural death. It was an act of rash stupidity that would trigger a terrible sequence of events.

The authorities detained several family members and questioned them intensely. They changed their story of the cause of Marc Antoine’s death, and admitted that it had been a suicide. The problem was that no one believed them. As previously noted, feeling against Huguenots in Toulouse ran high, and it did not take much for the mobs to demand Calas’s head.

Marc Antoine now became a martyr in the eyes of the public, murdered by his father to prevent his conversion to Catholicism. The trial of the Calas family, conducted by twelve judges, was a muddled and pathetic affair, ending predictably in the conviction of Jean Calas, his wife, and a son. A friend of the deceased, named Lavaysse, was sentenced to slave labor in the galleys, and the Catholic governess received five years. She had testified as to the blamelessness of the family, but this testimony was discounted.

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On appeal to the Parlement of Toulouse, the sentence was affirmed in the case of Jean Calas; for the others, it was reversed. Calas refused to confess to any wrongdoing. He was subjected to miserable tortures: his limbs were stretched on the rack, and he was filled to the bursting point with water.

But no confession would come. So on March 10, 1762, Calas had his arms and legs broken publicly by an executioner, after which he was strangled; his body was then burned at the stake. His property was forfeited to the government, and his surviving relatives quietly fled the area.

And here is where the great Voltaire became involved. He was then the most influential writer in France, perhaps also in all of Europe. After hearing about the case, he conducted his own investigation by interviewing the key witnesses. Manifest inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and errors in the case were brought to light. These convinced him that Calas had been innocent.

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Voltaire

Only a man of his stature and keenness of mind could have done anything at this point. Stirred to outrage by the fanaticism and injustice of the Toulouse authorities, as well as by the smug silence of the Church authorities, he made the case a personal crusade. He hired lawyers to consult with him, and then raised funds to have the case reopened; it soon took on an international aspect as donations came in from notables and rulers from abroad.

Voltaire even arranged for the family to meet with officials of King Louis XV in March of 1763, after which the case was ordered to be reopened. To help prepare public opinion, Voltaire released a stirring work, a Treatise on Tolerance, which argued eloquently against fanaticism and bigotry.

Vindication came on March 9, 1765, when a royal decree came down annulling the conviction of Jean Calas. He was declared innocent, and his family was awarded 30,000 livres. It was one of Voltaire’s greatest triumphs, and one which would help inspire him later to adopt the rallying cry, “Écrasez l’infâme!,” or “Crush the infamy.”

Injustices and iniquities committed by fanatics are all around us. Some of them are glaringly obvious; others, less so. It is our duty to speak out against them when we can. And if this is not possible, we must refuse to associate with, or to assist, the forces of injustice.

To do anything less would be an abjuration of our responsibilities as moral men.

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