On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 August 1800

12A commission is set up to write the Civil Code

The members of the commission included the country’s leading jurists and politicians, such as Préameneu, Tronchet, Portalis and Maleville. Napoleon was heavily involved in the creation of the Code, chairing no fewer than 55 out of its 150 preliminary sessions and frequently intervening on matters of particular interest, such as divorce, adoption and the rights of foreigners. The two questions he most often asked about any new piece of legislature were: is this fair and is this useful? The Code reflected many of Napoleon’s believes, as well as his hard work. It truly deserved being called the Code Napoleon.

The new Code helped cement national unity by unifying the laws of France for the first time, providing stability after the chaos of the Revolution, and simplifying 40,000 decrees and laws that have been passed by various revolutionary governments. 42 regional laws were enforced into a single unified body. Essentially a compromise between Roman and common law, the Code confirmed the end of ancient class privileges and the ecclesiastical control over all aspects of French society except primary education. ‘Law must do nothing but impose a general principle,’ Napoleon said. ‘It would be vain if one would try to foresee every possible situation.’ The Code ensured that all were equal before the law and free from arbitrary arrest. Religious toleration was established, all adult men were allowed to engage in any occupation of their choosing and to own property.

Napoleon would bring the Civil Code to all his conquered territories. ‘The Romans gave their laws to their allies. Why should France not have her laws adopted in Holland?’ Napoleon wrote to his brother Louis. In some places, such as Naples, the Code Napoleon was unpopular. In others it was adopted eagerly and retained even after Napoleon’s fall. It survived in the Prussian Rhineland until 1900. Belgium, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Monaco and France still use it to this day. Aspects of it remain in a quarter of the world’s legal systems as far as Japan, Egypt, Quebec and Louisiana.

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