Two hundred and fifty years ago last Thursday night, cries were heard from a house on a quiet street in the French city of Toulouse. Always known as a hotbed of anti-Protestant feeling during the civil wars of the Reformation, Toulouse at the time was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of the magnificent slaughter of 4,000 unarmed Protestants on a single day, commemorated with annual parades and fireworks ever since. The cries came from the home of the cloth merchant Jean Calas, age 63, one of the few Protestants thick-skinned enough to make his home in Toulouse. Jean was never a trouble-maker; he employed a Catholic maidservant for decades, and offered no protest when one of his younger sons chose to convert to Catholicism. His eldest son, though, was a difficult case. Moody and depressed, Marc-Antoine Calas had been barred from practicing law because of his Protestant faith. At the age of 29, going nowhere fast, Marc-Antoine became obsessed with the literature of suicide, especially the soliloquy of Hamlet. On the night of October 13, 1761, his lifeless body was found hanging in a storeroom after a family dinner. A crowd gathered, and a rumor quickly self-generated that Marc-Antoine may have been killed by his father, no doubt because he must have been planning to convert to Catholicism like his brother had.
Not a scintilla of evidence supported any part of this conjecture, including the rumored conversion; a mountain of circumstance and consistent testimony pointed to suicide. Didn’t matter. The chief magistrate, David de Beaudrigue, knew how evil Protestants were, and knew that the French Protestant champion John Calvin had taught that parents of apostate children were supposed to punish them by death. He also knew how much his superiors in Paris appreciated firmness in dealing with heretics. So the entire Calas family – including the Catholic maid – was clapped into prison that very night, charged with the murder of Marc-Antoine.
The local hierarchy jumped into the controversy with both feet. The first step was to prejudge the case by giving Marc-Antoine a magnificent funeral in the cathedral, honoring what was proclaimed to be a martyr’s death. (Suicides were not allowed to have funerals at all.) Prayers seeking Marc-Antoine’s intercession were said to have resulted in the working of miracles. Then the Church published a “monitory,” ordering all Catholics to come forward with evidence to prove “this crime of detestable character,” on pain of excommunication.
Some 150 witnesses came forward, but none had any evidence other than hearsay, and none of their stories matched. Under the bizarre French law of the day, though, it was possible to aggregate “half-proofs,” “quarter-proofs,” etc. into a full-blown proof to establish guilt. De Beaudrigue also succeeded in frightening off the lawyer who had been appointed to defend the family, forcing him to make public repentance for agreeing to take the case. No witnesses favorable to the family were permitted to testify. “I take all the responsibility,” de Beaudrigue said. “It is in the cause of religion.”
After months dragged by without discovering any useful evidence, and with his fellow magistrates beginning to express doubts, de Beaudrigue finally rammed through a solution: Jean Calas would be subjected to unspeakable torture, known as “breaking on the wheel,” during which he would confess the guilt of his co-conspirators before being released to death. The torture part of the program proceeded smoothly, for hours on end. But Calas steadfastly refused, right up to his dying breath, to say anything other than that his son had committed suicide. A frustrated de Beaudrigue then had to acquiesce in the release of the remaining family members.
That would have been the end of that, but for involvement of the great humanist author Voltaire, who was then entering what he thought was going to be a comfortable retirement. When Voltaire first learned of the Calas case, he was unimpressed. He despised the Puritanism of the French Calvinists even more than he did Catholicism, which could be quite agreeably decadent. His first reaction was that Jean was probably guilty. Then he met the youngest Calas son, who had escaped arrest by not being in the house that night. Voltaire was moved by his demeanor, and investigated further; his contacts in Toulouse assured him that the Jean Calas they knew could not possibly have murdered his son. After he interviewed another Calas son who had been present at the house and endured the months of imprisonment, Voltaire became convinced that a horrible injustice had been done.
A law school dropout, Voltaire had failed to learn his limitations. (Clarence Darrow later remarked that “Even Voltaire’s father could not make a lawyer out of a genius.”) Without any basis or precedent, Voltaire began demanding that the case be reopened by the central government in Paris, so that the honor of the Calas family could be restored. Toulouse responded, probably correctly, that Paris had no authority to overrule its decisions, even had there been any matters still in dispute, which there were not.
Realizing he could never win on the technicalities, Voltaire took the battle to the court of public opinion: “It is only the voice of the public that can help us to obtain justice, the forms of which have been invented to ruin innocents.” Over the decades Voltaire had developed a vast network of contacts all over Europe; at his behest people as powerful as the king of Prussia, the king of Poland, the queen of England, and the czarina of Russia began pressuring the French government about how such an injustice could be allowed to stand. “All possible means must be combined, all voices joined in unison,” Voltaire insisted. One of his most telling arguments was that the verdict as a whole could not possibly be correct: if Jean were guilty and the rest of his family innocent, that meant that a frail 63-year old had managed to subdue and kill by hanging a strapping 29-year old, all by himself. “Let them produce the procedure; all the nations are interested.”
Voltaire even wrote a book, his Treatise on Tolerance, tracing the history of religious persecution to soften the public mood: “Tolerance has never yet excited civil wars, whereas its opposite has filled the earth with slaughter and desolation.” It was promptly banned.
Most of the French establishment wanted Voltaire to butt out. The Duc de Choiseul, the king’s principal minister, responded that “When one arrives at a certain age, it is wise to use one’s wits for the furthering of one’s own happiness and that of one’s friends. So I say to you, let the world wag its own way, since it is not your responsibility to change the order of things.” But nothing official Paris could do would shut him up. After nearly a year of pestering, including a decisive victory in winning over the powerful mistress of the king, Voltaire finally got the King’s Council to agree to review the case. The review was delayed for months because of Toulouse’s reluctance to turn over a copy of the transcript; when the magistrates whined about the expense of preparing the copy, Voltaire offered to pay the cost himself.
On March 9, 1764, a Paris tribunal by a vote of 40-0 voted to reverse the verdict and declare the entire Calas family “perfectly innocent” and grievously wronged, while demanding that the annual celebrations of the 1562 massacre cease. The king himself made a gift of money to Calas’ widow, in partial compensation for her lost income. Jean Calas became the last Frenchman ever “broken on the wheel.” David de Beaudrigue lost his sanity and jumped to his death. The back of officially-sanctioned discrimination against French Protestants was broken; so was the mystique of God, the church, and the government working hand in hand. The Calas affair didn’t produce the French Revolution all by itself, but it certainly helped set the stage. As for today’s Catholic Church, here is what the online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say:
But there are weighty reasons to doubt the father’s innocence (Barthélemy). Voltaire cannot be considered an impartial historian of the case, owing to his preconceived desire to present a strong indictment against the Catholic Church, rather than to state the facts in their true light. The responsibility of the condemnation in no way rested with the ecclesiastical authorities.