1784: Anton Joseph Suter, Appenzell politician 1997: The last execution in Ukraine

1762: Jean Calas, intolerably

March 10th, 2012 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

In the 1760s, Toulouse was no place for a Huguenot, not even for an affable, prosperous paterfamilias like Jean Calas. The whole southwestern region of France barely tolerated Protestants.

The Calas household included two adult sons, Louis, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, and Marc-Antoine, their sisters, as well as their parents, Jean Calas and his wife, and a longtime maid who was Catholic. Monsieur and Madame Calas and their daughters were Protestant, as was Marc-Antoine. Friends and associates described the ménage as placid, except for occasional outbursts of misbehavior by elder son Marc-Antoine.

Jean Calas was a textile dealer. On October 13, 1761, young Marc-Antoine Calas was found hanged in his father’s shop. Wishing to spare the family’s reputation from the stigma of suicide as well as his son’s corpse from the mutilation which was customary for suicides, Jean Calas at first claimed to the authorities that an intruder killed his son.

An ugly rumor swept Toulouse: Marc-Antoine was murdered by his own parents, because he planned to convert to Catholicism. (Never mind that Jean Calas kept his Catholic son Louis in the bosom of his family and employed a Catholic servant.) Jean Calas was arrested and subjected to a trial that was anything but fair; by this time, he had admitted, too late, that his son had hanged himself, probably over gambling debts.

No dice. The appellate court of Toulouse condemned Jean Calas to death on March 9, 1762. The execution was set for the following day.

Murder of a family member was held to be a particularly hideous crime, and hideous was the penalty: breaking on the wheel. Jean Calas was tied to a cartwheel in the main square of Toulouse. His limbs were broken with iron rods. He proclaimed his innocence until the executioner finally strangled him to death.

L’affaire Calas inspired Voltaire to new vigor in his fight for religious toleration. In 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance, a landmark document which remains well-read today.

O different worshippers of a peaceful God! if you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words, “Love God and your neighbor,” you have burdened that pure and holy law with false and unintelligible disputes, if you have lighted the flames of discord sometimes for a new word, and sometimes for a single letter of the alphabet; if you have attached eternal punishment to the omission of a few words, or of certain ceremonies which other people cannot comprehend, I must say to you with tears of compassion for mankind: “Transport yourselves with me to the day on which all men will be judged and on which God will do unto each according to his works.

“I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in his presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men: Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.”

May all men remember that they are brothers! May they hold in horror tyranny exerted over souls, just as they do the violence which forcibly seizes the products of peaceful industry! And if the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate one another, let us not destroy one another in the midst of peace, and let us use the moment of our existence to bless, in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, [God’s] goodness which has given us this moment.

-Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance

As a result of Voltaire’s efforts, 50 French judges were appointed to a panel to review Jean Calas’s case. Their charge was to decide whether anti-Huguenot prejudice had cost Jean Calas his life. They reversed Calas’s conviction on March 9, 1765, the third anniversary of the poor man’s condemnation.

A few French books about Jean Calas

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wrongful Executions

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2 thoughts on “1762: Jean Calas, intolerably”

  1. Meaghan Good says:

    Too little, too late.

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