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Napoleonic Code: The Civil Code of 1804

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  • 0:02 Everywhere Laws!
  • 0:49 Napoleon's New Code
  • 2:57 Rights
  • 3:36 ...And Wrongs?
  • 4:52 The Code Migrates
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Civil Code of 1804, which is also called the Napoleonic Code. We will examine the code's development and content and see how it influenced the laws of other nations.

Everywhere Laws!

By 1800, France's legal system was a mishmash of old and new laws. The provincial laws left over from the days before the French Revolution were still intact in many places, with Roman law dominating in the southern provinces and medieval common law holding sway in the north. At the dawn of the Revolution, the French people could be subject to 400 different legal codes depending on where they lived.

On top of all that, the French Revolution had added its own laws to the mix. While revolutionaries overturned many of the older laws, they also introduced over 14,000 new pieces of legislation. Some lawmakers saw the need to meld all of these laws into a single code, but their attempts to do so failed.

Napoleon's New Code

When Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France as the powerful first consul in 1799, he decided that the French legal system required some vast revisions. There should be one law for everyone, Napoleon believed. In 1800, he appointed a commission to help develop a unified code of law that would apply to all French people in every part of France. Headed by legal expert Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, this commission met 87 times to discuss, design, and draft this new legal code. Napoleon himself took part in 36 of these meetings to make sure that the commission was including his own agenda and ideas.

By the second half of 1801, the commission was ready to draft the new code. Four writers worked on the project, led by lawyer Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis, who composed several key portions of the code, including the sections on marriage and property. By the end of the year, the code was finished, but its publication was delayed until March 21, 1804. On that day, France officially received its new Civil Code, which later became known as the Code Napoleon or Napoleonic Code.

The new code consisted of 2,281 articles in three books. The first book, Of Persons, dealt with civil rights, French citizenship, residence, marriage and family, and divorce. The second book, Of Property, and the Different Modifications of Property, focused on property rights and servitude. The third book, Of the Different Modes of Acquiring Property, concentrated on business, contracts, and inheritance. These books and articles applied to everyone equally. Gone were the days of various legal codes for various provinces. The French legal system was now unified.

Rights

The Civil Code retained many of the human and civil rights established during the French Revolution. French citizens, at least male citizens, were equal before the law and could freely exercise their rights. They could practice free speech and religious dissent, and they were entitled to property rights, including 'the right to enjoy and to dispose of one's property in the most absolute fashion.' Furthermore, the privileges of the aristocracy, including the feudal systems, were wiped out. All Frenchmen, at least in theory, had equal standing despite their class or wealth.

And Wrongs?

The Civil Code did, however, include sections that offend our modern sensibilities. For instance, women did not share in the legal rights outlined by the code. Husbands had full legal control over their wives, who, in turn, were to be submissive to their husbands. Wives could not conduct business or enter legal pleas in their own names. They had to have their husbands act for them or provide written permission. Husbands also controlled all the family's assets, even their wives' property from before their marriages. Wives had nothing they could call their own.

Fathers also had complete control over their children. They could veto their sons' and daughters' potential marriage partners and even imprison stubborn offspring. Illegitimate children were not protected under the law and could not inherit property from their fathers.

Further, the Civil Code opened the door for the return of slavery in the French colonies. While the code did not mention slavery explicitly, it did include clear statements about property rights. Slave owners were quick to argue that slaves were indeed property, and, therefore, they had the right to do with them whatever they wished.

The Code Migrates

Napoleon Bonaparte was proud of the Civil Code and considered it one of his most outstanding achievements. In 1804, the code was firmly in place in France and all of France's colonies. It remained in force even after Napoleon's defeat. The code also migrated to other European countries. Belgium, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, and sections of Germany all adopted versions of the French code.

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