The Napoleonic Code.

Napoleon wasn’t the first French leader who saw the need to thoroughly overhaul and unify the laws of France. As early as the sixteenth century, a single law code was the dream of King Louis XI. In the centuries that followed, many others disillusioned jurists were perplexed by the legal mess of laws in France and hoped to get around to doing something about it. By the time the Revolution swept in 1789, its many Assembly’s tried to resolve the issue, with a “general code of clear and simple laws” but ultimately failed and shuffled its complexities underneath the carpet for someone else to deal with. That duty would fall upon Napoleon in August, 1800, who set about to find the most skillful and competent jurist in the whole of France.

It was without bias or reservation, no matter whether they were revolutionaries or royalists, that Napoleon personally picked the four men who would head the commission to codify the laws of France- Tronchet, Portalis, Bigot de Preameneu and Malleville. All four of these men were distinguished and well versed with individual qualities that gave the commission its collective strength. With its collectively strength, Napoleon advised the commission that the code was to be clearly written and accessible at its conclusion. The commission couldn’t afford to take its undertaking for granted. It was therefore after intense scrutiny that the Civil Code was finally enacted on March 21, 1804.

As impressive as the Civil Code appears in volume, Napoleon and his committee (of four) didn’t invent a new system, they were as some point out, merely compilers of all the laws that already existed in France. Even though there is little new law in it, the genius of the code exists is in its scope and arrangement. It successfully explained and made consistent all the private law of France and followed largely Justinian’s Roman laws in organizing the code into three books of Persons, Property and Obligations. It should be noted that like Napoleon, Justinian did the same thing in the sixth century, by largely compiling all Roman law into one digest, the Corpus Juris Civilis.


Interestingly, as a Byzantinist, I am thrilled by Napoleon genius to have borrowed from many of the principles and concepts of Justinian’s Code. But one has to ask how did Napoleon learn of Justinian’s Code? In fact how did he come to learn so much about law in general? Napoleon, quite simply was a man who just couldn’t keep still. Every spare moment he apparently put to use, by reading or talking to, and quizzing jurists in his tents while on campaign. While on the subject of Justinian, Napoleon came across a Latin copy of Justinian’s Code in a guardhouse, when he was confined for a few days for a trivial offense he committed as a lieutenant. He apparently used his memory of reading the digest to later quote Roman law during deliberations of the committee of the Council. Perplexed members of the Council apparently often asked: where did the First Consul get his knowledge of Roman law?

With that all said and done, the important question many of us would like to know is what was the Civil or Napoleonic Code based upon? It was in a nutshell based upon personal freedoms, civil equality, family life, the freedom to work, and religious tolerance to name a few. The Civil Code was also strong on respecting the principles of 1789, however it was tweaked a little by Napoleon in areas where he wanted to reinforce the ‘new’ society he wished to create. For example, laws were created that empathize the dominance of the husband over the wife and children. (Under Napoleon’s Civil Code women unfortunately had fewer rights than minors. Much to my personal disgust, this was considered the norm in Europe in the nineteenth century.) Divorce laws were tightened (no longer by mutual consent) and children outside of marriage were excluded from inheritance were also example of Napoleon’s ‘new’ society. 

Some commentators don’t give Napoleon very much credit and call his contributions to the Code trivial or not very important. But this is not true. For one, his vision prevented France from returning to the laws of the Ancien Regime, which he considered outdated. Secondly, Napoleon took part in presiding over 57 of the 102 meetings in his capacity as chairman. In these meetings, as one critic notes:

“…his contributions to the discussion were a series of splendid surprises, occasionally appropriate and decisive, occasionally involved in the gleaming tissues of a dream, but always stamped with the mark of genius and glowing with the impulses of a fresh and impetuous temperament.”

In what we know of his twilight years through his writings, Napoleon once said, “I will go down to history with the code in my hand.” He was boldly letting us know that he considered his Civil Code as his greatest achievement. He had come to the realization that none of his greatest military victories would be remembered, especially since his misfortune at Waterloo; but his Code would be remembered, influencing the world beyond France. Indeed, critics and historians mostly agree that the Code Napoleon is his greatest achievement. (In its broadest form, the Code still today serves and influences France and several other legal systems around Europe and the world.) It changed France forever!

Notes and Further Reading

Paul Johnson, Napoleon, Phoenix, 2003.

“……general code of clear and simple laws.”, Charles Sumner Lobingier, Napoleon and His Code, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Dec., 1918), p.116

“…his contributions to the discussion were a series of splendid surprises…”, Charles Sumner Lobingier, Napoleon and His Code, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Dec., 1918), p.123.

Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography, Arcade Publishing, 2011.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, Viking Press, 2014.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon The Great, Penguin Books, 2015.

Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life, Harper Perennial, 1998.

Photo Credit: The header image of the Napoleonic Code is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

2 comments on “The Napoleonic Code.

  1. I’m going to buy a new book about Napoleon and would like to ask you about that book, to see if you have read it. The name of the book is Napoleon A Life, by Andrew Roberts.
    Talk to you soon!!!

    • I am very familiar with Andrew Roberts. I have the book you have mentioned above concerning Napoleon and I have Napoleon the Great also written by him. His understanding of European and military history is second to none. In my opinion he is somewhat of an authority on Napoleon.

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