Grimm’s Correspondance Littéraire 1763

The Calas Affair

Source: Correspondance litteraire, philosphique et critique, Vol III. Paris, Furne, 1829;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor 2011.

January 15, 1763

There has been brought together in quite a thick volume all that has appeared concerning the unfortunate Calas Affair. Aside from the “Observations” and the “Continuation,” which were published in Toulouse during that horrific trial, and independently of the papers we owe M. de Voltaire on this matter, you will find in this collection the memorials of three famous lawyers, one by Élie de Beaumont, the second by Mariette, and the third by Loyseau. All three attracted much attention, but the third is the most successful, for the author treated the cause in a manner more popular than scholarly. Despite these works by three skillful jurists one shouldn’t think that the subject is exhausted. Concerning this cause there are hundreds of secret methods they haven’t brought forward and which would be of great weight.

Let us see that we can take away from the death of the unfortunate, tortured old man. If this man, a lawyer would say, killed his son for fear that he would change religion, he is a fanatic, one of the most violent fanatics one could imagine. He believes in God, he loves his religion more than life, more than his son’s life; he prefers his son dead to his being an apostate. He should thus look on his crime as a heroic act and his son as a holocaust sacrificed to his God. In this case what should Calas’ discourse have been, and what was that of other fanatics in similar circumstances? Here is the answer: “Yes, I killed my son, and if I had to do it over again I would kill him again. Yes, I preferred to plunge my hand into his blood than to hear him deny his religion. If this is a crime, then I committed it; let me be taken to be executed.” Compare this speech with that of the unfortunate Calas. He protests his innocence, calling on God as his witness. He regards his death as the punishment for some unknown and secret error; if he is guilty of the crime of which he is accused he wants to be judged by his God as severely as he was by men. He calls the death dealt his son a crime and he encounters his judges at the tribunal in order to refute them. If he isn’t innocent he is lying before heaven and earth, he lies at his final moments, he calls down on himself eternal punishment. You will say he’s an atheist, that’s what he talks like. But if he is an atheist he is no longer a fanatic and he no longer killed his son. I would have said to the judges: Choose; if he is an atheist then why, as a hater of all gods and religions, would he have killed his son? Would the supposed change of religion have appeared a crime worthy of death to a man who despises all religions? If on the contrary Calas is a fanatic he might have killed his son, but it was through the most violent zeal that a madman could have in behalf of his belief. Can it be that upon dying he blushed for an action he should have regarded as glorious, as ordered by his God, as agreeable to his God? In disavowing it in a cowardly fashion did his dying mouth pronounce an imposture? Accused of an action he committed and which he should have been proud of, did he look on it as a crime? He himself thus apostatized and, tortured in this world he called down upon himself the punishment of the great judge of the other world? I write all of this without either order or heat, but under the pen of someone skillful and the master of the art of words these reasoning would take on the strongest colors.

Unfortunately, this method is of the kind that could only be utilized after the crime of the judges of Toulouse was consummated. There is another that the lawyers only lightly touched on, and which should have been the firmest shield of an old man accused of an unspeakable crime: it’s the probity of this man over a lifetime of sixty years. What is the use of a life honorably passed if it doesn’t protect us against the attacks of the wicked and the suspicion of a crime? In uncertain cases there is thus no distinction between a good man and a scoundrel? Nothing speaks in favor of one or against the other? They are both equally abandoned to their fate? But if the wicked defendant is half-convicted and judged on his past acts, why would the good man not be half-absolved by his? I am only asking for the latter the justice granted the wicked and which is dictated by natural equity. But any criminal code that doesn’t want to pass for cruel and barbaric must have as its first and uncontestable maxim that when unsure it is better that twenty guilty men escape the vigor of the law than that one innocent man be exposed to becoming its victim. It is thus the cause of recognized honor and virtue that should have been pleaded. When we see a father in the decrepitude of age torn from his family’s breast – where he lived honored, loved and in peace and where he should have died in peace – accused of a crime that makes nature shudder, led to the gallows on hearsay, everyone should tremble with horror at what the future reserves him. Virtue no longer has any weight; the good man no longer sees anything that can protect him against events. The example of Calas proves to him that his past conduct would address itself in vain to the protection of the law. And so Calas’ misfortune has become a public cause and his judges rendered themselves guilty of the crime of lèse-majesté in attacking the principle of the safety of all citizens.

This is how Demosthenes and Cicero would have defended this unfortunate, too celebrated cause; this is what earns the judges of Toulouse the execration of the centuries and should expose them to the harshest punishment if it is true, as appears to be the case, that they strayed from the formalities demanded of criminal proceedings. We are children, but we are cruel children, for we play with what is most sacred to men: their lives and their honor. We saw a famous Parisian doctor, Bordeu, accused in reports of having ten years ago stolen a watch and a golden snuffbox from a man he accompanied to the waters at Barège and who died along the way. This accusation was made by one of his confreres, Bouvart, and the faculty of medicine which, if the crime had been reported to it, should have done everything possible to hide knowledge of it from the public and save the honor of one of its members, on the contrary did all it could to give credit to the suspicions against M. Bordeu and to publicly dishonor him. Today it appears that this doctor’s only fault is that of not having a high idea of the science of his confreres and of having too large a practice in Paris. At least the affair of the watch and the box a clarified and the accused cleared, but far from the accuser having been punished with the greatest severity, Bordeu is not absolved, and no longer having to defend himself about the watch and the snuffbox, he must now prove that he didn’t steal the money that the dying man had in his pocket. This mass of baseness and infamies makes one shudder. I don’t know Bordeu; I never even saw him. But I ask if a random citizen, exercising a tolerated profession, can be lightly suspected of a vile and infamous act and if the accuser, more infamous than the thief, should be let off for having said: I heard this said and I'm only too happy it’s not true. There is no man of honor who shouldn’t tremble if it is permissible ten years after the fact to accuse someone of a crime or a base deed on the vague word of the dregs of the people. If calumny is allowed to use such methods with impunity, who would dare to take care of a dying man? In this way a universally sacred duty would become among us a means of destroying an innocent man or of weighing him down with odious suspicions. For I ask this: what if two or three people whose testimony was essential to Bordeu’s innocence had died during the span of ten years, as could happen in the ordinary course of affairs. How would this doctor have responded to his accusers. I ask if, among a civilized people, Bordeu can be absolved without Bouvart being sent to the galley? Until the former is convicted of the infamies he is charged with I say that his cause is that of all honest men; that public honesty and shame should plead in favor of any citizen attacked in this way. But to the shame of the national spirit, or perhaps of human nature, it must be admitted that as soon as a man is accused the majority of the public, with no real knowledge, without any personal interest in the case, lines up with his oppressors. And when, with great difficulty, he manages to justify himself the public, bored with the discussion, no longer has any heat to make him indignant towards the wretch who wanted to destroy an innocent man. Demosthenes would have said to us: “O Parisians! You do well to strengthen the winds of envy, to encourage the cry of wickedness without ever rendering justice to slander. Given the way you honor genius, the way you protect merit, one would say that they are equally odious to you. Inconsequent and frivolous people, who have the passion for glory and who only show favor and indulgence towards foolishness, your glory cannot fail to be lasting, for any man who dares to think is abandoned to the furies of hypocrisy and fanaticism, and the lives and honor of your citizens are in the hands of a base and infamous informer.”

April 1, 1763

The request of the unfortunate family of Calas was examined by and admitted to the royal council of state last month. Consequently, the parlement of Toulouse was ordered to communicate the proceedings of this horrific judgment. This affair will be the subject of lengthy discussion. At the end of the review they will perhaps reverse the parlement’s decree and rehabilitate the memory of the unfortunate victim of their fanaticism. But will they punish the judges who violated the sacred forms of their ministry, who attacked public safety by submitting an innocent to torture despite the safeguard of the laws? Will this crime, the most atrocious that can be committed against society, have been committed with impunity? This is what no one could dare predict. Whatever might happen, the glory will forever remain with M. de Voltaire. He dared take the defense of humanity and of every citizen. He drew all of Europe’s attention to this deplorable adventure, and if Calas’ judges aren’t sent to the galley, with the prosecutor David at their head, they will no less be the objects of the execration of all of humanity.

Not to long a ago a foreigner went to see M. de Voltaire, who said to him, “Sir, you see before you a man rejected by kings and the protector of the tortured.”

March 15, 1765

On the ninth of this month, at the request of the local authorities the sovereign issued a definitive decree that rehabilitates the memory of the unfortunate Calas, exonerates his widow, one of his sons, young Lavaysse and the servant of the accusation made against them, orders that the fines and expenses be returned, and that the decree posted wherever it needs to be, all this the responsibility of the royal procurator general. A decree was issued requesting that the king prohibit, by an express declaration, the anti-Calvinist procession that takes place every year in Toulouse and which maintains this barbaric animosity so contrary to the principles of Christian religion and charity. It was also decreed that the king would be written in the name of the company recommending the Calas family to the His Majesty’s bounty and to abrogate the usage of briefs interdits. This usage, preserved by the parlement of Toulouse in contravention of the criminal ordinance of 1670, consists in questioning witnesses, instead of listening to and receiving their deposition. Nothing is more likely than this method to have a witness speak or remain silent about everything judged appropriate.

This unfortunate family went to the prison with young Lavaysse and the servant a week before the judgment. They received there the visits of a great number of people of distinction and other honest people. The public looked on this cause as its own, and it was right in doing so. Those whose wealth allows them to assist this unhappy widow in her misfortune are fortunate. They will never feel luckier to be wealthy. The happiest of all men is M. de Voltaire. This unfortunate family owes him for the tardy justice that his tireless concern and his assistance today obtains. I would prefer to have carried out this act than have written the most beautiful of his tragedies. One trembles at the thought that it took three years of constant efforts and the outcry of all of Europe for justice to be done. One trembles even more at the thought that the horrible men who condemned Jean Calas will continue to dispose of the lives of citizens. Since his wife and family have been recommended to the bounties of the king, it is clear that they will not be allowed to press charges against the judges. All of Paris holds the name of the prosecutor David in horror. We have learned with joy that this bloodthirsty man has been removed from office by the king, not for his horrible conduct towards Calas, but for having wanted to have the English pay a ransom for the burial of one of their people who had died in Toulouse. But in the end it is not this madman who is guilty of the death of Calas; it is the councilors in parlement who against all forms pronounced his death sentence. They must answer for the blood of the innocent. The decree of the local authorities was rendered exactly three years, on the same day and at the same hour, that Calas died under torture. Nothing has caused me as much pain as this solemn puerility in a cause of this kind. It caused me to feel a horror it would be difficult for me to express. It’s as if I see children playing with daggers and instruments of execution. A few days before the decree there appeared several memorials that are impossible to read without crying. M. Mariette has published one, and M. Élie de Beaumont wrote another more extensive one. There is a bit of declamation in the latter, but not enough to diminish its strength. There has also been published a touching letter from M. de Voltaire in which we learn that another Protestant family of Languedoc suffered at about the same time a similar injustice on the part of the parlement of Toulouse. O fatal impunity! This family, which nears the name of Sirven, has also sought refuge with M. de Voltaire.