A bitter victory in the struggle for justice

July 21, 2008

FERNEY-VOLTAIRE, France – In a park near the center of this serene town on the Swiss border is a glass and concrete community center named for Jean Calas, an 18th Century merchant who was put to death for hanging his son.

Execution for murdering your child doesn’t normally qualify someone for municipal honors, but Jean Calas’ 1761 case was different: first, because he was innocent of the crime for which he was strapped to a wooden wheel and had his limbs shattered with iron rods before he was mercifully strangled; second, because the injustice he suffered was spawned by fanatical religious bigotry.

And third, because his cause was seized upon by the most famous French intellectual of the age, Voltaire, who spent nearly two years interviewing, gathering evidence and writing dozens of essays and appeals to win Calas exoneration and enable his disgraced family to return from exile.

Voltaire waged the campaign from his chateau near the site of the community center. It was an early instance of both the mobilization of conscience we see today in the efforts of human rights groups worldwide, and of the fierce application of fact to expose injustice that is at the core of contemporary investigative journalism.

Voltaire was 67 when he took up the Calas case. His long career as essayist, novelist and playwright had taught him the price of unpopular opinions. As a young man he was jailed a year in the Bastille for mocking a duke; in his 20s, he was forced into exile for two years in London because of a dispute with a leading French family. France had no proud tradition of dissent to shield him, and in siding with a Protestant infanticide Voltaire was meddling with one of his contemporaries’ deepest hatreds.

After a period of toleration Protestantism had essentially been outlawed by Louis XIV in 1685. The civil rights of “obstinates” were routinely denied, thousands were murdered and a quarter-million driven abroad. Between 1745 and 1762 eight pastors were hanged.

Indeed, Voltaire initially spurned the case. It seemed to him an archetypal  instance of Protestant zealotry:  The devout madman Calas driven to murder by his son’s plan to convert  –  he could not practice law unless he was Catholic.

It was nonsense. The son, despondent over a series of failures and mired in gambling debt, had hanged himself in their home in Toulouse. His parents and a visiting friend, devastated after finding the body, summoned police with their screams. Shamed by the suicide, they initially claimed the son had been murdered. They soon admitted the truth, but a determined prosecutor, heeding equally determined public outrage, nevertheless indicted the 63-year-old father.

The trial was a travesty. No defense witnesses were permitted. The post-mortem determination of suicide was disallowed. A magistrate who sought to plead for Calas was suspended from office. Calas was condemned by a secret proceeding driven by the prosecutor’s insistence that Protestants have a sacred duty to murder offspring to prevent conversion.

Only after Calas was publicly executed in March 1762, protesting his innocence to the end, did a visitor from Toulouse arouse Voltaire’s interest. He interviewed Calas’ family and friends, investigated the conduct of the case, and took on the cause. Through letters to cardinals, aristocrats and intellectuals, he stirred the embryonic French public sphere of salons and publications. He published essays. He formed committees of inquiry in Geneva to publicize the case throughout Europe, and flooded people of influence with entreaties.

Finally he brought Calas’ widow to Paris, where she met with ministers and was permitted to appeal for exoneration directly to Louis XV.

That November Voltaire published his “Treatise on Tolerance,” a classic excoriation of religious extremism, and the next spring Calas was exonerated by the Toulouse court, his family’s name “rehabilitated.” The prosecutor who engineered his conviction was stripped of his property.

In due course, the rights of Protestants were restored by Louis XV’s Edict of Toleration in 1787, an action ratified by the revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy in 1789.

Voltaire wasn’t responsible for that. Nor did he spawn the many campaigns to come – from ending the British slave trade, to freeing Alfred Dreyfus in France or avenging Emmitt Till in Mississippi. But the exoneration of Jean Calas is a notable moment in the quest for justice, worth honoring with more than a building in a small town in France.

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