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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

He writes several months ago Peter Calas


The

glorious and bloody annals of the French Reformation had passed through various phases; liberty, always precarious, even under Henry IV., and whilst the Edict of Nantes was in force, and legally destroyed by its revocation, had been succeeded by periods of assuagement and comparative repose; in the latter part of Louis XV.'s reign, about 1760, fresh severities had come to overwhelm the Protestants. Modestly going about their business, silent and timid, as inviolably attached to the king as to their hereditary creed, several of them had undergone capital punishment. John Calas, accused of murdering his son, had been broken on the wheel at Toulouse; the reformers had been accustomed to these sombre dramas, but the spirit of the times had marched onward; ideas of justice, humanity, and liberty, sown broadcast by the philosophers, more imbued than they were themselves aware of with the holy influences of Christianity, had slowly and secretly acted upon men's minds; executions which had been so frequent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused trouble and dismay in the eighteenth: in vain did the fanatical passions of the populace of Toulouse find an echo in the magistracy of that city: it was no longer considered a matter of course that Protestants should be guilty of every crime, and that those who were accused should not be at liberty to clear themselves. The philosophers had at first hesitated. Voltaire wrote to Cardinal Bernis, "Might I venture to entreat your eminence
to be kind enough to tell me what I am to think about the frightful case of this Calas, broken on the wheel at Toulouse, on a charge of having hanged his own son? The fact is, they maintain here that he is quite innocent, and that he called God to witness it. . . . This case touches me to the heart; it saddens my pleasures, it taints them. Either the Parliament of Toulouse or the Protestants must be regarded with eyes of horror." Being soon convinced that the Parliament deserved all his indignation, Voltaire did not grudge time, efforts, or influence in order to be of service to the unfortunate remnant of the Calas family. "I ought to look upon myself as in some sort a witness," he writes: "several months ago Peter Calas, who is accused of having assisted his father and mother in a murder, was in my neighborhood with another of his brothers. I have wavered a long while as to the innocence of this family; I could not believe that any judges would have condemned to a fearful death an innocent father of a family. There is nothing I have not done to enlighten myself as to the truth. I dare to say that I am as sure of the innocence of this family as I am of my own existence."

For three years, with a constancy which he often managed to conceal beneath an appearance of levity, Voltaire prosecuted the work of clearing the Calas. "It is Voltaire who is writing on behalf of this unfortunate family," said Diderot to Mdlle. Voland: "O, my friend, what a noble work for genius! This man must needs have soul and sensibility; injustice must revolt him; he must feel the attraction of virtue. Why, what are the Calas to him? What can awaken his interest in them? What reason has he to suspend the labors he loves in order to take up their defence?" From the borders of the Lake of Geneva, from his solitude at Genthod, Charles Bonnet, far from favorable generally to Voltaire, writes to Haller, "Voltaire has done a work on tolerance which is said to be good; he will not publish it until after the affair of the unfortunate Calas has been decided by the king's council. Voltaire's zeal for these unfortunates might cover a multitude of sins; that zeal does not relax, and, if they obtain satisfaction, it will be principally to his championship that they will owe it. He receives much commendation for this business, and he deserves it fully."


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