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BRIA 15 2 a The Code Napoleon

Bill of Right in Action
Spring 1999 (15:2)


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The Code Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte created the first modern code of laws. The Code Napoleon unified French law and became the model for legal systems in most other nations in the world.

Napoleon rose to prominence during the French Revolution.  As a military officer, he drove the British from Toulon in southern France. Promoted to general, he crushed an attempt to restore the monarchy and led the French army to victories in Italy and Egypt. A military hero to the French people, he seized control of the French government in 1799 with two allies. He immediately ordered the drafting of a new constitution. This document guaranteed that all adult males could vote, but it did not provide any bill of rights. “What the French people want,” said Napoleon, “is equality, not liberty.” The Constitution of 1799 also created a complicated form of government called the Consulate. But Napoleon, as “First Consul,” held most of the power. Tired of revolutionary chaos and war, the French people overwhelmingly voted to approve the new constitution, which promised stability if not freedom.

Napoleon quickly set to work taking control of the country by appointing cabinet ministers, provincial governors and councils, police commissioners, mayors, and judges—all loyal to him. To his credit, Napoleon selected appointees who generally proved to be efficient and honest.

Napoleon also established France’s first public education system and financed many public-works projects including the beautification of Paris. To end a violent conflict with the Roman Catholic Church brought on by the revolution, Napoleon negotiated a pact with the pope. The church turned its lands over to the state. In return, the government paid the salaries of Catholic priests (France was mostly a Catholic country).

In 1800, Napoleon led his army over the Alps to defeat the Austrians in Italy. A few months later, he reached agreement with Spain to return Louisiana to France. In 1802, a vote of the people made him “First Consul for Life.” That same year, he signed peace treaties with several countries. The short period of peace that followed allowed Napoleon to complete his plans for unifying the French nation. This included writing a new code of laws to apply equally to all French citizens regardless of class.

The Civil Code

By Napoleon’s time, a confusion of customary, feudal, royal, revolutionary, church, and Roman laws existed in France. Different legal systems controlled different parts of the country. The French writer Voltaire once complained that a man traveling across France would have to change laws as often as he changed horses.

Determined to unify France into a strong modern nation, Napoleon pushed for a single set of written laws that applied to everyone. He appointed a commission to prepare a code of laws. Napoleon wanted this code to be clear, logical, and easily understood by all citizens. The commission, composed of Napoleon and legal experts from all parts of France, met over a period of several years. Enacted on March 21, 1804, the resulting Civil Code of France marked the first major revision and reorganization of laws since the Roman era. The Civil Code (renamed the Code Napoleon in 1807) addressed mainly matters relating to property and families. But these areas of law greatly affected people’s lives.

The Civil Code writers tried to achieve a compromise between the past and the revolution. The Civil Code eliminated feudal and royal privileges in favor of all citizens’ equality before the law. It included some rights such as freedom of speech and worship along with public trial by jury. It allowed individuals to choose their own occupation. But it banned worker organizations, and the employer’s word was to be taken over that of his employee.

Most of the 2,281 articles in the Civil Code dealt with the right of property. This was defined as “the right to enjoy and to dispose of one’s property in the most absolute fashion.” Since the Industrial Revolution had not yet taken hold in France, property mainly referred to land. Although the right to landed property was considered “absolute,” some limitations applied. For example, only the legitimate children of a landowner could inherit his land. Furthermore, the landowner’s children had to share equally in the inheritance. The Civil Code also adopted the old feudal law that a wife could not inherit her dead husband’s land because the “blood family” would then no longer own it.

The Civil Code retained the revolution’s law that a civil authority must conduct marriages. (It did not recognize church marriages as legal.) It based many other family laws on traditional and even ancient Roman law. The father ruled his children. A father could veto his son’s marriage until age 26 and that of his daughter until 21. Fathers even had the right to imprison their children at will.

Like other legal systems of the time, the Civil Code made the wife legally inferior to her husband: “The husband owes protection to his wife, and the wife owes obedience to her husband.” Without her husband’s permission, a wife could not conduct any business. Moreover, she could not make contracts. The Civil Code did provide for the idea of community property. This means that a married couple jointly owns all the wealth they accumulate during their marriage, and in case of divorce, they must divide it equally. But the code limited this progressive (although very old) idea. The husband alone legally controlled all family assets during the marriage, including any property his wife possessed before getting married.

The Civil Code permitted divorce on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, criminal conviction, or the mutual agreement of the spouses and their parents. The revolution had introduced divorce for the first time into France, and the Catholic Church bitterly opposed it. The law of divorce favored the husband. He could get a divorce if his wife committed one act of adultery anywhere. A wife, however, could secure a divorce on grounds of adultery only if her husband committed the act within the family home.

Between 1806 and 1810, Napoleon added a Code of Civil Procedure, Commercial Code, Code of Criminal Procedure, and Penal Code to the ground-breaking Civil Code of 1804. Although they covered a lot, the laws themselves did not go into great detail. Under Napoleon’s system, courts must sometimes use reason and logic to interpret how laws apply to certain cases. But the courts’ decisions generally do not apply to future cases. This is quite unlike common-law systems. In common-law countries like Britain and the United States, court decisions can become precedents with the force of law. In France, the codes that lawmaking bodies enact are supreme. When the codes need amending, the legislature periodically updates them. For example, the French Parliament established legal equality between husband and wife in the Code Napoleon following World War II.

The Legacy

Napoleon made his Civil Code the law in territories he conquered, such as parts of Italy and Holland. After his death, the Code Napoleon inspired many other nations to adopt similar law codes.

The Code Napoleon has even influenced the United States, a country steeped in the traditions of common law. In 1808, soon after President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon, American lawmakers in the new territory wrote a code of laws largely taken from Napoleon’s Civil Code. This territorial code remains as the foundation of Louisiana state law today.

The code’s influence is not limited to Louisiana. Legislators patterned the New York state civil and criminal codes, first completed in 1850, on the Code Napoleon. These codes served as models for similar codes in other states and in the federal government. The old common law was codified, placed in codes.

After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the British imprisoned him on a remote island. Thinking about his career as a general and leader of France, Napoleon remarked: “My real glory is not the 40 battles I won—for my defeat at Waterloo will destroy the memory of those victories. . . . What nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code.” Now approaching its 200th anniversary, the Code Napoleon continues to influence the lives of ordinary people in nearly all parts of the world. Napoleon was right. His most lasting legacy did not turn out to be his military conquests, but rather his foresight in realizing the unifying effect of a code of laws applying to all.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Why did Napoleon believe a new code of laws
     was necessary for France?

2. What features of the Code Napoleon do you agree
     with the most? What features do you agree with the
     least? Why?

3. What are some important differences between code
     law and common law systems?

For Further Information

French Revolution

The French Revolution Home Page—Links on the French Revolution

French Revolution 1789-1793 (moderate phase)—By a group of Modern European History students at Woodberry Forest School.


Sites Devoted to Napoleon

Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution at Florida State University

Napoleon Series a web site, or e-magazine, dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte and his times.

Encyclopedia Entries on Napoleon



Biographies of Napoleon

“Napoleon I: Emperor of France”  From the Lucidcafe

“Napoleon I”  Author unknown

“France During the French Revolution and Under Napoleon Bonaparte”  An annotated chronology of civil and military events by Richard R. Orsinger.

Napoleon and the Law

“The Louisiana Civil Code: A Humanistic Approach”  A Special Collection of the library at the Tulane Law School

“Women and the Code Napoléon”  By Louise Hicks Click on “Readers’ Articles” in the left frame.

ACTIVITY:  Advising Napoleon

In this activity, groups will role play advisers to Napoleon, recommending final changes in the Code Napoleon.

1. Divide the class into five groups, assigning each
    group one of the five provisions below.

2. Each group should (a) discuss its provision, answering
    the Questions below and (b) prepare to report the answers
    back to the class.

3. When the groups have prepared their answers, each group
    should report back and the class should discuss the

4. After all the groups have reported, the teacher as Napoleon
    decides what changes, if any, should be made in the provisions.

5. Hold a class discussion on whether this process, with one
    person making the final decision, is the best way to make laws.


1. What are the advantages in keeping this Code
     provision as written?

2. What are the disadvantages?

3. What changes might be made in this provision?

4. Should these changes be made? Why or why not?

Code Provisions

Provision #1: A father can veto his son’s marriage until age 26 and that of his daughter until age 21.

Provision #2: There can be no worker organizations (unions).

Provision #3: A married couple jointly owns all the wealth the two accumulate during their marriage, and in case of divorce, they must divide it equally.

Provision #4: Divorce is allowed on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, criminal conviction, or the mutual agreement of the spouses and their parents.

Provision #5: The husband alone controls all property during the marriage, including any property his wife possessed before getting married.