Why has thou forgotten,
To wail more light than minstrel’s throat,
Calas meek begotten?
His hair was crowned in brilliant white,
Before his son betrayed
And fleeing the family’s table bright
Perished in the way he laid.
Then the people and judges all,
Took his aged estate,
To satisfy bigotry’s call,
Killed Calas in life late.
To the wheel he innocent went,
And to his mockers shame,
Swore his vindication, then lent
A prayer to lift their blame.
But lest thou accord him no note soft,
Christ’s passion shall keep him
Justified until Counsel aloft,
Will trumpet truth not dim.
Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern
Jean Calas's death demonstrates that false charges based on hatred and partiality are the hallmarks of tyranny to individual liberty of conscious. When Jean Calas's son Marc-Antoine was found hanged in Calas's textile shop on October 13, 1761, the entire Roman Catholic population of Toulouse, France became incensed. Marc-Antoine had separated from his family's Huguenot (French Calvinist) faith, and converted to Roman Catholicism. His death proved the perfect excuse to kill some more French Protestants. Marc-Antoine had committed suicide, but Jean Calas was arrested, convicted for murdering his son on erroneous charges, and executed on the wheel on March 9, 1762. French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire took up the Calas cause and led a vigorous press campaign which led to the creation of a 50-judge panel to re-investigate the case. The panel ruled in favor of Calas's innocence on March 9, 1765, and gave an indemnity to the family. Voltaire's popularizing of the Calas affair led to great strides for liberty of conscious in France during the 1780s.
In his Treatise on Tolerance, Voltaire gives himself no direct credit for his efforts in reasoning with the French government, but rather presents his readers with a pitiful account of the injustice done to Calas and the effects that such an event had on Europe. With the facts of the case, Voltaire clearly establishes Calas's and his family's innocence of the alleged murder, and shows the bigotry and irrationality of their accusers. According to Voltaire, the judges believed that Calas, as a sixty eight year old man, would confess before the magistrates and in the cathedral under compulsion, but the faithful Calvinist would never lie before God. Voltaire writes, "They [the judges] were therefore somewhat abashed when he, with his dying breath, summoned God as witness to his innocence and asked that His forgiveness be extended to his misguided judges" (ibid). The judges were so convicted by Calas's faithfulness that they let his son Pierre off with banishment instead of death. This verdict, Voltaire argues, renders the court inconsistent; because if Pierre was guilty, he should have been killed with his father; if innocence, he should have suffered no punishment. Pierre was sent to a Dominican monastery to observe Catholic customs. "Part of their objective in so doing was to make him avenge their religion as the price of his father's blood; religious feeling was thereby appeased" (ibid). Calas's daughters were likewise taken to a convent, and their mother was left destitute. "As for this wretched woman, who had been virtually bathed in her husband's blood, who had held the body of her eldest son in her arms and seen another sent into exile, who had been robbed of her daughters and stripped of all her goods, she was now quite alone in the world, without subsistence or hope and almost dead with the weight of her misery" (ibid). She resolved to petition the King of France for grievances, and found Paris sympathetic to her plight.
From Paris, and with the help of Voltaire, the story spread all across the Continent, and "the whole of Europe was moved to pity by her plight and joined her in demanding justice" (ibid). Mrs. Calas still had enemies, but finally she was allowed the release of her daughters. The tragic story brought about temporary reforms in France during the 1780s, before the storm of Revolution whisked them away again. However, the story remains a beacon for truth, and a charge to stand as firm as the sixty-eight year old hero against impenetrable evil. Voltaire concludes that the corruption of Christian truth was to blame, "...the abuse of the most holy religion has resulted in a terrible crime. It is therefore in the interest of mankind to examine whether the true religious spirit is more consistent with charity or with cruelty" (ibid). This exhortation and the heroism of Jean Calas deserves to be sung in defiance to all those who would thwart liberty of conscience: the liberty to do and believe what is right.
Image of JeanCalas from Wikipedia