Jean Calas was one of a small group of Huguenots—Calvinist Protestants—left in Toulouse after a century of persecution, confiscation of property, and compulsory conversion to Catholicism. The law of France not only excluded Protestants from public office, it declared them ineligible to be lawyers, or physicians, or apothecaries, or midwives, or booksellers, or goldsmiths, or grocers. If they had not been baptized they had no civil rights whatever. If they had not been married by a Catholic priest they were held to be living in concubinage, and their children were accounted illegitimate.37 Protestant services were forbidden; men found at such services were to be sent to the galleys for life; women so found were condemned to life imprisonment; and the officiating clergyman was put to death. These laws were not strictly enforced in or near Paris; the severity of their enforcement varied with distance from the capital.

Southern France was especially intense in its religious hatreds; there the struggle between Catholics and Huguenots had been most merciless; each side had committed atrocities that were yet warm in transmitted memories. In Toulouse, in 1562, the victorious Catholics had slain three thousand Huguenots, and the Parlement of Toulouse had condemned two hundred more to torture and death.38 Every year the Catholics of Toulouse commemorated that slaughter with grateful ceremonies and a religious procession. The guilds of craftsmen, the various grades of nobles and clergy, the “companies” of White Penitents, Black Penitents, and Gray Penitents marched solemnly through the city, carrying awesome relics—the skull of the first bishop of Toulouse, a piece of the Virgin’s dress, and bones of children killed in Herod’s legendary “slaughter of the innocents.” It was unfortunate for Calas that the approaching year was the bicentenary of the events of 1562.

The Parlement of Toulouse, which was as powerful in Languedoc as that of Paris was in central France, was now predominantly Jansenist—i.e., Catholic with a strong infusion of Calvinistic rigor and gloom. It lost no chance to prove itself more inflexibly Catholic than the Jesuits. On March 2, 1761, it condemned to death the Huguenot Pastor Rochette for conducting Protestant services, and it decreed death for three “gentlemen of the Comte de Foix” who had tried to free Rochette from the gendarmes.39 On March 22 it ordered the torture and execution of a Huguenot shopkeeper on the charge that he had killed a son who had proposed to become a Catholic.

It should be said, in fairness to fanatics, that Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion gave some ground for their belief that Calvinists considered it permissible for a father to kill a disobedient child. In times when law was still weak, and the family was the chief—almost the only—source of discipline, many societies gave the father the right of life and death over his children. Something of this patriarchal code may have been in Calvin’s mind when he wrote: “The Lord commands all those who are disobedient to their parents to be put to death.”40 Calvin referred to Deuteronomy xxi, 17–21, and Matthew xv, 4–6; those passages, however, merely allow the parents to accuse their son before “the elders of the city,” who then may condemn him to death; and doubtless this is what Calvin meant. But the excited Catholics of southern France suspected that Huguenot parents, unable to appeal to the “elders of the city,” would take that old law into their own hands.

It is against this dark background that we must see the case of Jean Calas.

He was a marchcend d’indiennes— dealer in linens—who kept a store on the main street of Toulouse, where he had lived for forty years. He and his wife had four sons and two daughters. For thirty years they had kept a Catholic, Jeanne Vignière, as governess of their children, even after she had converted one son, Louis, to Catholicism. Louis now lived as an apprentice in another street, and received a regular allowance from his father. Donat, the youngest son, was apprenticed at Nîmes. Two other sons, Pierre and Marc Antoine, lived with their parents. Marc Antoine, the oldest, had studied law, but when he was prepared to practice he found the profession closed to all but Catholics. He tried to conceal his Protestantism, and to secure a certificate of Catholicism; his deceit was discovered, and he faced a choice of abandoning Protestantism or letting his years of law study go to waste. He took to brooding, gambling, and drink. He liked to declaim Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide.41

On October 13, 1761, the Calas family gathered in their rooms over the store. Gaubert Lavaysse, a friend of Marc Antoine, had just arrived from Bordeaux; he accepted the father’s invitation to stay for dinner. After the meal Marc Antoine went down to the shop. Wondering why he did not return, Pierre and Lavaysse descended, and found him hanging from a bar that he had placed between two doorposts. They took him down, called the father, and sent for a doctor. They tried to revive him, but the doctor pronounced him dead.

At this point the father made a tragic error. He knew that a law then in force required that a suicide be drawn naked through the streets, be pelted by the populace with mud and stones, and then be hanged; and all his property was to be forfeited to the state. The father begged, and persuaded, his family to report the case as a natural death.42 Meanwhile the cries of Pierre and the arrival of the doctor had brought a crowd to the door of the shop. An officer came up, heard the story told him, saw the rope and the mark it had left on the dead man’s neck, and ordered the family, Lavaysse, and Jeanne Vignière to the Hotel de Ville. There they were locked up in separate cells. On the next day each of them was questioned. All abandoned the claim of a natural death, and testified to a suicide. The commandant of police refused to believe them, and charged them with having killed Marc Antoine to prevent his becoming a convert. The accusation was taken up by the populace and by many members of the Toulouse Parlement. A frenzy of revenge closed the minds of the people.

It seems incredible to us now that anyone should believe in the murder of a son by his father to prevent a change of faith; but that is because we are thinking as individuals, and after two centuries of decline in religious faith. The people of Toulouse thought en masse, as a crowd; and crowds can feel but they cannot think. The frenzy was fed by a ceremony which the White Penitents staged in their chapel; over an empty coffin a skeleton was suspended, holding in one hand an inscription, “Abjuration of Heresy,” and in the other a palm branch, symbolizing martyrdom; below was the name “Marc Antoine Calas.” Assuming that the youth was not a suicide, they buried the corpse with great pomp in the Church of St. Stephen. A part of the clergy protested in vain against this anticipation of a verdict of murder.43

The trial of the Calas family took place before the twelve judges of the municipal court of Toulouse. An admonition was sent out, to be read on three successive Sundays in every church, summoning to the witness stand all who knew anything about the death. Several persons appeared. A barber testified that he had heard a cry from the Calas house on the fatal evening: “Ah, mon Dieu, they are strangling me!” Others claimed to have heard such cries. On November 10, 1761, the municipal court pronounced Jean Calas, his wife, and Pierre guilty, and sentenced them to be hanged; it condemned Lavaysse to the galleys, and Jeanne Vignière to five years’ imprisonment. The Catholic governess had sworn to the innocence of her Protestant employers.

The decision was appealed to the Parlement of Toulouse, which appointed a panel of thirteen judges. Sixty-three additional witnesses were heard. All the hostile evidence was hearsay. The trial dragged on for three months, during which the Calas family and Lavaysse were kept in separate confinement. The final decision condemned only the father. No one explained how a man sixty-four years old, unaided, could have overcome and strangled his mature son. The court hoped that Calas, under torture, would confess. He was subjected to the question ordinaire: his arms and legs were stretched until they were pulled from their sockets. He was repeatedly exhorted to confess; he repeatedly affirmed that Marc Antoine had committed suicide. After half an hour’s rest he was put to thequestion extraordinaire; fifteen pints of water were poured down his throat; he still protested his innocence; fifteen further pints were forced into him, swelling his body to twice its normal size; he still maintained his innocence. He was allowed to expel the water. Then he was taken to a public square before the cathedral; he was laid upon a cross; an executioner, with eleven blows of an iron bar, broke each of his limbs in two places; the old man, calling upon Jesus Christ, proclaimed his innocence. After two hours of agony he was strangled. The corpse was bound to a stake and burned (March 10, 1762).44

The other prisoners were freed, but the property of Calas was confiscated by the state. The widow and Pierre crept into hidden retirement at Montauban. The two daughters were sent to separate convents. Donat, finding his position at Nîmes endangered, fled to Geneva. Voltaire, hearing of the tragedy on March 22, invited Donat to meet him at Les Délices. “I asked him,” wrote Voltaire to Damilaville, “if his father and mother were of violent character. He told me that they had never beaten any of their children, and that there were no parents more tender and indulgent.”45 Voltaire consulted two Genevan merchants who had lodged with Calas at Toulouse; they confirmed Donat’s statement. He wrote to friends in Languedoc; “both Catholics and Protestants replied to me that the guilt of the family was beyond reasonable doubt.”46 Voltaire communicated with the widow; she sent him a statement so manifestly sincere that he was moved to action. He appealed to Cardinal de Bernis, to d’Argental, to the Duchesse d’Enville, to the Marquise de Nicolaï, to the Duc de Villars, to the Duc de Richelieu, to beg the King’s ministers, Choiseul and Saint-Florentin, to order an investigation of the trial. He took Donat Calas into his family, brought Pierre Calas to Geneva, and persuaded Mme. Calas to take lodging in Paris, where she could be available for examination. He engaged lawyers to advise him on the legal technicalities of the case. He published a pamphlet, Original Documents concerning the Death of Sieur Calas,47 and followed this up with further publications. He appealed to other authors to lend their pens to the effort to rouse the conscience of Europe. He wrote to Damilaville: “Cry out yourself, and let others cry out; cry out for the Calas family and against fanaticism.”48 And to d’Alembert: “Shout everywhere, I beg you, for the Calas family against fanaticism, for it is l’infâme that has caused their misery.”49 He solicited funds to help him bear the expense of the campaign, which he had thus far paid himself. Contributions came from a hundred quarters, including the Queen of England, the Empress of Russia, the King of Poland. A prominent Paris lawyer, Élie de Beaumont, agreed, without fee, to prepare the case for presentation to the Council of State. The daughters of Calas were moved to Paris to join their mother. One of them brought a letter from a Catholic nun appealing for the Calas family.50 On March 7, 1763, mother and daughters were given audience by the King’s ministers. The verdict was unanimous that the case be examined. All relevant documents were ordered from Toulouse.

But the Toulouse magistrates found a hundred devices for delay in gathering and remitting the papers. It was during that summer that Voltaire wrote and sent forth his epochal Traité sur la tolérance. To widen its appeal he adopted a tone of surprising moderation. Concealing his authorship, he spoke as a man of Christian piety, a believer in immortality; he praised the bishops of France as “gentlemen who think and act with a nobility that befits their birth”;51 he pretended to accept the principle, “Out of the Church there is no salvation.”52 The treatise was addressed not to philosophers but to the Catholic clergy itself. Even so, it had its audacities, for often he forgot his audience.

He began with an account of the trial and execution of Calas. He reviewed the history of toleration, exaggerating it in the case of Greece and Rome. He anticipated Gibbon by arguing that Roman persecution of Christians was immeasurably surpassed by Christian persecution of heretics, who were “hanged, drowned, broken on the wheel, or burned, for the love of God.”53 He defended the Reformation as a justified revolt against the sale of indulgences by a papacy lately disgraced through the amours of Pope Alexander VI and the murders perpetrated by the Pope’s son Caesar Borgia. He expressed his shock at reading a recent attempt to justify the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.II He admitted that Protestants too had been intolerant.III Nevertheless he recommended that Protestant worship be allowed in France, and that the banished Huguenots be allowed to return.

They ask only the protection of natural law, the validity of their marriages, security as to the condition of their children, the right to inherit from their fathers, and the enfranchisement of their persons. They ask not for public chapels, or the right to municipal offices and dignities.55

Despite this strategic limitation, Voltaire defined toleration:

Do I propose, then, that every citizen shall be free to follow his own reason, and believe whatever his enlightened or deluded reason shall dictate to him? Certainly, provided he does not disturb the public order.… If you insist that it is a crime not to believe in the dominant religion, you condemn the first Christians, your forefathers; and you justify those whom you reproach with persecuting them.… For a government to have the right to punish the errors of men it is necessary that their errors should take the form of crime. They do not take the form of crime unless they disturb society. They disturb society when they engender fanaticism. Hence men must avoid fanaticism in order to deserve toleration.56

Voltaire concluded with an address to the Deity:

Thou hast not given us hearts to hate, nor hands to kill, one another. Grant that we may aid one another to support the burden of this painful and transitory life! May the trifling differences in the garments that cover our frail bodies, in the mode of expressing our … thoughts, in our ridiculous customs and imperfect laws …—in a word, may the slight variations that are found amongst the atoms called men not be used by us as signals of mutual hatred and persecution! … May all men remember that they are brothers!57

We do not know what share this appeal had in leading to the edict of toleration issued by Louis XVI in 1787; nor whether it reached or moved the ministers of Louis XV. In any case, after delays that tried the souls of the Calas family and their defenders, the King’s Council, on March 9, 1765, declared the condemnation of Jean Calas annulled, and pronounced him innocent; and Choiseul obtained from the King a grant of thirty thousand livres as compensation to the widow and her children for the loss of their property. When the news of the verdict reached Ferney, Voltaire wept with joy.

Meanwhile (March 19, 1764) a municipal court at Mazamet, in south-central France, ordered Pierre Paul Sirven and his wife to be hanged on the charge of murdering their daughter Élisabeth to prevent her conversion to Catholicism. The judgment decreed that the two surviving daughters must witness the execution of their parents.58 The ceremony had to be performed in effigy, for the family had fled to Geneva (April, 1762), and had told their story to Voltaire.

Sirven was a Protestant living in Castres, some forty miles east of Toulouse. On March 6, 1760, the youngest daughter, Élisabeth, disappeared. The parents sought for her in vain. The bishop of Castres summoned them, and informed them that he had sent the girl to a convent after she had confided to him her desire to become a Catholic. French law, established under Louis XIV, allowed Catholic authorities to remove from the parents, if necessary by force, any child above the age of seven who asked for conversion. In the convent Élisabeth had delusions, spoke to angels, tore the clothes from her body, and begged to be flogged. The nuns, at a loss for ways to handle her, notified the bishop, who ordered her restored to her parents.

In July, 1761, the family moved to St.-Abby, fifty miles from Castres. There, one night in December, Élisabeth left her room, and did not return. On January 3 her corpse was found in a well. The people of St.-Abby were not inclined to charge the Sirvens with murder. Of forty-five witnesses called before the local court, all without exception expressed the opinion that the girl had committed suicide, or had fallen into the well by accident. The local prosecutor, Trinquier, sent notice of the case to the prosecutor general in Toulouse, who instructed him to proceed on the assumption that Sirven was guilty. This seemed improbable, for Sirven had been out of town on the night of Élisabeth’s disappearance. His wife was old and weak. One of the daughters was pregnant. It was hardly likely that these women could have pushed the girl into a well without a cry being heard. But on January 20 Trinquier ordered Sirven’s arrest.

Sirven knew that some two months previously the municipal court of Toulouse had condemned Jean Calas to death on a similar charge, and on dubious evidence. Ultimately his own case, if he submitted to arrest and trial, would come before the Parlement of Toulouse. Having no confidence in these courts, he led his wife and daughters, in midwinter, across France and over the Cévennes Mountains to Geneva, hoping that the defender of Calas would come to his aid.

Voltaire, still immersed in his campaign for Calas, thought it unwise to confuse the French mind with two causes at once. He contributed to the support of the family, whose property had been confiscated. But when the Toulouse authorities dragged their feet in responding to the demand for the Calas documents, Voltaire resumed the attack by beginning a campaign for Sirven. Again he appealed for help and funds; contributions came from Frederick II of Prussia and Christian VII of Denmark, and again from Catherine II of Russia and Stanislas Poniatowski, King of Poland. The Mazamet court refused Voltaire’s request for a copy of the trial record. We must not detail the struggle in this case; it went on till finally, in 1771, the Parlement of Toulouse reversed the verdict of the lower court, pronounced the Sirvens innocent, and restored their property. “It took two hours to condemn this man to death,” said Voltaire, “and nine years to render justice to his innocence.”59

Amid these labors he was alarmed to learn that he himself was involved in a case that had flared up at Abbeville on the Channel Coast. On the night of August 8–9, 1765, a wooden crucifix on the Pont-Neuf over the Somme was mutilated, and a crucifix in the Cemetery of St.-Catherine was smeared with ordure. When these profanations were discovered the clergy and people of the town were horrified. The bishop of Amiens came to Abbeville and, barefoot, led a procession which nearly all the population followed, begging forgiveness of God. A monitoire was read in all the churches decreeing severe penalties for all who could shed light on the mystery and failed to come forward. Magistrate Duval heard seventy-seven witnesses. Some of them testified that they had noticed three young men pass a Corpus Christi procession without either bending a knee or removing their hats. Others alleged that a band of youths in Abbeville, including Duval’s son, made a practice of burlesquing religious ceremonies and singing licentious songs.60 On August 26 warrants were issued for Gaillard d’Étallonde, for Chevalier Jean François Lefebre de La Barre, and for a youth of seventeen known to history only as Moisnel. D’Étallonde fled to Prussia, Moisnel and La Barre were arrested. Moisnel won partial pardon by confessing that he and the others were guilty of the acts alleged. He accused La Barre of having spat upon pictures of the saints, of having sung an obscene litany called “La Madeleine,” of having lent him the Dictionnaire philosophique andEpître à Uranie of Voltaire; and he claimed to have seen d’Étallonde strike the crucifix on the bridge and sully the cross in the cemetery.

La Barre was the grandson of an impoverished general. He confessed to being a heretic. A witness reported that La Barre, on being asked why he had not removed his hat before the Corpus Christi procession, had replied that he “regarded the Host as a piece of wax,” and could not understand why anyone would adore a God of dough. La Barre admitted that he might have said something of the kind; he had (he said) heard other young men express such sentiments, and thought he might harmlessly hold them, too. His library was examined; among his books were Voltaire’s Dictionnaire, Helvétius’ De l’Esprit, and other volumes satirizing religion. At first he disclaimed all knowledge of d’Étallonde’s desecrations, but when he learned that Moisnel had revealed them, he confessed that it was true. The final indictment charged La Barre with “uttėring blasphemies against God, the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Virgin, the religion and commandments of God and of the Church; singing two songs filled with execrable and abominable blasphemies, … rendering marks of adoration and respect to infamous books; profaning the sign of the cross, the mystery of the consecration of the wine, and the benedictions in use in churches and among Christians.”61

On February 28, 1766, the Abbeville court pronounced sentence. La Barre, and d’Étallonde if apprehended, were to be put to the torture to elicit the names of accomplices; they were to do public penance before the principal church of the city; their tongues were to be torn out by the roots, they were then to be beheaded, and their bodies were to be burned to ashes. The Dictionnaire philosophique of Voltaire was to be thrown into the same fire. The sentence was appealed to the Parlement of Paris. Some members pleaded for mitigation; Councilor Pasquier replied that a signal and frightening punishment was needed to stem the tide of godlessness that was threatening all moral and social stability; the real criminal, he argued, was Voltaire, but as that source of the evil was beyond reach of the Parlement, his disciple should suffer in his stead. Two members voted to commute the sentence; fifteen voted for its full execution. On July 1, 1766, it was carried out, except that there was no tearing out of the tongue. La Barre bore his fate without implicating any of his friends. The executioner severed the head with a well-directed blow, to the applause of the crowd.62

Voltaire was shocked by the severity of the punishment; this, he felt, was a barbarity worthy of the Spanish Inquisition at its worst. The bishop of Annecy wrote to the French court demanding that all the penalties prescribed in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes be applied to Voltaire. “That rascally bishop,” wrote Voltaire to d’Alembert, “still swears … that he will have me burned in this world or the other.… To escape being burned I am laying in a supply of holy water.”63 Fearing that he might be summoned before the Parlement of Dijon, he took the opportunity to try the medicinal waters at Rolle in Switzerland. Then he returned to Ferney, and resumed his efforts for Sirven.

Now he proposed to d’Alembert and Diderot that he and they and other philosophes leave benighted France and settle in Cleves under the protection of Frederick the Great. Neither they nor Frederick enthused over the plan. Frederick agreed that the punishment of La Barre was extreme; for his part he would rather have condemned the youth to read the entire Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas; this, he thought, would be a fate worse than death. Frederick proceeded to give Voltaire a bit of advice:

The scene which has occurred at Abbeville is tragic, but was there not some fault in those who were punished? Should we directly attack the prejudices that time has consecrated in the mind of nations? And if we wish to enjoy liberty of thought, must we insult established belief? A man who does not wish to make a disturbance is rarely persecuted. Remember Fontenelle’s saying: “If my hand were full of truths, I should think more than once before opening it.”64

As to the proposed colony of philosophes at Cleves, Frederick offered protection, but on condition that they keep the peace and respect the faith of the people. He added:

The average man does not deserve to be enlightened.… If the philosophers were to form a government, the people, after 150 years, would forge some new superstition, and would either pray to little idols, or to the graves in which the great men were buried, or invoke the sun, or commit some similar nonsense. Superstition is a weakness of the human mind, which is inseparably tied up with it; it has always existed, and always will.65

Voltaire persisted in his campaign. He sent forth a simple Narrative of the Death of the Chevalier de La Barre. He wrote to his royal friends asking them to intercede with Louis XV to have the dead youth in some way rehabilitated; and when these efforts failed he sent to Louis XVI (1775) a letter entitled “The Cry of Innocent Blood.” The judgment against La Barre was never reversed, but Voltaire had the satisfaction of seeing Turgot revise the criminal code that had sanctioned the execution of a youth for offenses that seemed to merit something less than decapitation. With an energy remarkable at his age, Voltaire continued to the end of his life to lead the crusade against the excesses of Church and state. In 1764 he secured the liberation of Claude Chaumont, who had been condemned to the galleys for attending Protestant services. When Comte Thomas de Lally, the French commander who had been defeated by the English in India, was beheaded in Paris (1766) on charges of treason and cowardice, Voltaire, appealed to by Lally’s son, wrote a 300-page volume, Historical Fragments on India, exonerating the Count; and he urged Mme. du Barry to intercede with Louis XV. The sentence was annulled in 1778, shortly before Voltaire’s death.

These labors exhausted the octogenarian warrior, but they made him the hero of liberal France. Diderot remarked, in Le Neveu de Rameau, “[Voltaire’s] Mahomet is a sublime work, but I would like better to have vindicated Calas.”66 Pomaret, a Protestant minister in Geneva, said to Voltaire: “You seem to attack Christianity, and yet you do the work of a Christian.”67 And Frederick, after all his cautions, joined in the tributes to the man who had made himself the conscience of Europe: “How splendid it is that a philosopher makes his voice heard from his refuge, and that the human race, whose spokesman he is, forces the judges to revise an unjust sentence. If nothing else spoke in favor of M. de Voltaire, this alone would be enough to earn him a place among the benefactors of mankind.”68

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