Law and Disorder: The Calas Affair

In 1761, a controversial trial in Toulouse, France, provoked an uproar through the country. A Protestant, Jean Calas, was accused of murdering his own son, Marc-Antoine, because the latter was planning to convert to Catholicism. In an overwrought atmosphere of religious zealotry, Calas was quickly tried, found guilty, and executed.

Following the lead of a few early supporters of Calas, Voltaire, the famous Enlightenment philosophe, undertook a campaign to overturn the guilty verdict. The lynch pin of his effort was Treatise on Tolerance.

The “Affaire Calas” is widely considered the first modern effort to reverse a judicial decision and an exemplar of the moral duty to promote justice even—especially—in the face of religious bigotry.

Peter Conroy is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago where he taught French language and literature for 34 years and served two terms as department chairman. He has written four books of literary criticism, translated another about French history, published over forty articles in professional journals, and presented many papers at scholarly conferences in the US and Europe. He is a Friend of UUFDC and resides with his wife, Beverly Ann, in Fish Creek during the summer. Since his retirement he has taken up golf as well as writing essays and short stories.