Code Napoleon and Napoleon Bonaparte: A Study of the Napoleonic Code of 1804 and Its Author

Code Napoleon and Napoleon Bonaparte: A Study of the Napoleonic Code of 1804 and Its Author

I.         Introduction

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            The highly influential Napoleonic Code, which was formed under Napoleon I, was drafted and implemented on 21 March 1804.  While it was preceded by three legal codes in European history—in Bavaria, Prussia, and Galicia, all in the mid- to late 1700s—the Napoleonic code is acknowledged as the first legal success in law code, and provided the landscape of the European legal system as a whole.  Many law historians and critics would often refer to the Napoleonic code as an example of a legal system that has made its mark on the entire world, because of its clarity and accessibility (Holtman, 1983).

            The legendary Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps the greatest leader of France, owing to his successes and influences on the country’s political system, that is still observed to this day.  He had absolute respect and consideration of the French Constituent Assembly, as evidenced by the outcome of his military victories and the subsequent propagation of French ideals and concepts over the rest of Europe.  While Napoleon is historically known to be the ultimate symbol of the French Revolution, it was his concrete and unwavering principles on the governance of state and society that undeniably made his mark on European civilization (Lefebvre, 1969).

II.        History

            Napoleon I commissioned four jurists to compile the laws documenting and implementing what was to be the Napoleonic Code, which were largely the foundation of the final version.  This code brought in the French law of governing relationships and transactions, and is generally known to be the modern era’s answer to Roman law.  Overall, the Napoleonic Code is a combination of other systems, including German laws, that names its categories in terms of property rights, property acquisition, and personal status (Net Industries, 2008).  The Code operated along simple lines, the most basic of which was the regard for the role and function of the head of State, specifically indicated to be the Emperor.  Below him were several sub-governments, consisting of more sub-groups within each sub-group.  The heads of these smaller groups had enough authority to govern within their area of responsibility, with regular meetings conducted to answer to the greater authority (Chapman, 1961).

            The reasons for such principles are rooted in the system originally followed by ancient France, which relied heavily on the decision-making powers of the royalty that were usually protested against by the French law courts.  Because of this unending cycle of judicial negation, the Napoleonic Code specified a system that would relieve judges or law courts from law-making responsibilities, and transferred the power to the assigned heads of ministries and their sub-groups.  This way, legislative power prevailed over the judicial.

III.      The Napoleonic Code and the Effects on Society

            The Napoleonic Code, taking into consideration its more popular reputation as the legal system accompanying Napoleon’s ideal society of order and law, was actually a practical process that empowered the citizens in terms of legal rights to property and freedom.  Based on Roman law, the Napoleonic Code divided civil laws into the following:

            1.  Personal or individual status,

            2.  Property, and

            3.  Acquisition of property (The Napoleon Series, 1995-2002).

            Within the contexts of the Code, French citizens were given rapid and more efficient structures and systems of justice that had been nonexistent in the laws of ancient France.  The legal workings of the system were seen to work primarily to install order and efficiency, yet were representations of political authoritarianism that was the source of such a well-defined foundation.  The Code was also found to be socially conservative due to its preference to the patriarchal model of family, though its validation of equal and standardized justice and approval of divorce and civil marriage rendered it somewhat unacceptable to some European societies (Gregory, 2007).  Clearly, the Napoleonic Code was designed to answer the current concerns of France, as well as the underlying factors of culture and society, that the adoption of the same rules would not necessarily produce the same effects in other countries like Italy or Russia.  Several Greek politicians educated in France even tried to introduce the Code during the Greek War of Independence, yet failed to achieve the success of France due to the assimilation of the Roman law (Hatzis, 2002).  However, latter developments and modifications resulted in most of Europe embracing the Napoleonic Code, albeit transformed to suit their specific circumstances.

            Napoleon saw it fit to be directly involved in the implementation of the various of the Code, specifically in the area of financial reform.  He enforced the practice of professional auditing and efficient tax collection to ensure the remittance of the funds to the government, which, in turn, was required to create annual budgets.  There had been criticism regarding his seemingly burdensome rule on taxes, but were eventually proven to be sufficiently standardized and equitable.  The compilation of systematic and accurate land registers also resulted in a significant basis for tax calculation, and this became one of Napoleon’s greatest achievements.  Aside from these innovations, Napoleon is also credited for the establishment of the Bank of France in 1800, which provided the French government with a viable and dependable credit source.

            With these installed, including Napoleon’s reforms in higher education, France became a centralized state.  Academic institutions and the legal profession were reorganized, imposing stricter qualifications for military education and law professionals.  Bar studies and exams were put in place, which required those with intentions of pursuing law careers to pass certain standards defined by the government.  These new processes, working within the context of the Napoleonic Code, signaled France’s return to stability and progress (Broers, 1996).

IV.      The Napoleonic System

            Napoleon’s concept of centralization was indeed built on the solitary function of the Emperor as the most important component in the system.  His idea of delegating authority and power among his branches of government made implementation and feedback efficient and foolproof, to a large extent.  However, this definition of control and power may be defined according to three assumptions:

1.  That Napoleon was the only party authorized to communicate with the rest of the European Empire,

2.  That his concept of departmental governance was the only recognized system of rule, and

3.  That the government sections he directly controlled constituted the most important entities of the system.

The five main branches under the Napoleonic System are as follows:

            1.  The civil administration, governed by the Ministry of the Interior, but headed by the prefect, or the Emperor

            2.  The Gendarmerie, governed by the Ministry of War

            3.  The civilian or administrative police, governed by the Ministry of General Police

            4.  The tax bureau, governed by the Ministry of Finance

            5.  The tribunals, governed by the Ministry of Justice

            Ideally, Napoleon heads and decides only for the civil administration, with the members of other branches authorized to correspond directly with their respective ministers.  However, this concept of centralization appeared to be ideal only in theory—the reality of the practice had the five different chains of command in competition with each other, often allowing rivalry and suspicion to rule their operations and relations with each (Broers, 1996).

            The Napoleonic Code has several sub-categories or codes that address specific areas of government:

            1.  Civil Code.  Regarded as the most impressive of Napoleon’s accomplishments, this code embodied an exhaustive codification and modification of French civil laws.  The Revolution was successful in overthrowing and dismissing over four hundred codes of laws installed in various French regions, and established the new Civil Code in their place.  In this new law, the patriarchal form of family and household rule was reinforced, which coincided particularly with several legal guidelines regarding property and contracts.

            2.  Penal Code.  There was already an criminal code concept introduced to the Constituent Assembly in 1791, by Louis Michel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau.  In this, crimes were classified as either “true” or “phony”, with the latter termed in reference to those produced by superstition, the tax system, feudalism, and despotism.  To be noted is the absence of then-acknowledged crimes of superstition such as heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, and witchcraft.  Under the Napoleonic Code, all these supposed religious crimes were not specified as such.

            3.  Code of Civil Procedure.  Represents the legal system and process accompanying the Civil Code, and was adopted in 1806.

            4.  Code of Criminal Procedure.  The abuse committed via the parlement system used prior to the French Revolution prompted Napoleon to establish a code specific to criminal courts.  Because the Revolution and its accompanying Declaration of Rights established a person suspected of a crime to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, Napoleon saw the need to safeguard an individual’s freedom before any trial takes place.  His major concern was still within the possibility of abuse of power, which way be implemented through arbitrary arrest or immediate imprisonment.  This resulted in a relative amount of criticism, with the concern focused on the default presumption of guilt.  But Napoleon’s established system proved the opposite—legal proceedings accorded each suspected individual were carefully administered to prevent foul play.

            4.  Commercial Code.  Focused primarily on economics and business, this code was adopted in 1807 (The Napoleon Series, 1995-2002).

V.        The Napoleonic Code in Europe

            The influence of the Code, resulting from the apparent effects on French society and politics, was soon seen in the legal systems in various countries across the continent.  Foremost were those under French occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, which eventually became the basis of Italy’s legal system.  Other countries that adopted the Code were Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, including some German territories.  However, the Napoleonic Code ceased to be used in the latter after the introduction in 1900 of the German civil code, in effect throughout the entire German Empire.  Romania, which adopted the Code in 1864, continues to follow its system to this day.

            Some countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, had their own specific codes and also managed to spread their own influence across Europe.  However, because of the parameters set by the Napoleonic Code in terms of codification, it can be assumed that these had also produced effects in the codes of the Swiss, Germans, and Austrians.

            Other areas that have acknowledged and mirrored the success of the Napoleonic Code are in the locales of Quebec, which is largely a Canadian province of French sensibilities.  Their civil code is patterned after the Coutume de Paris, literally meaning Paris customs, which refer to French laws and legal systems.  In the Americas, many of the laws of Latin countries also take after the Napoleonic Code, including the civil codes of Chile and Puerto Rico.  In the United States, the state of Louisiana uses a civil code that exhibits features that carry significant Napoleonic influence.  Because of this, the current legal standards and practices, including bar exams, are arguably different from those in effect in other states (Holmberg, 2002).

VI.      Women and the Napoleonic Code

            Napoleon may have brought on commendable reforms in French government and society via the code, but the discussion of traditionalism and patriarchy negates any suggested advancement the Code is supposed to have produced for the cause of women’s rights.  The Code’s conservative stance regarding the power of the father within the family unit suppressed the rights of women, even trashing the gains women had made previously in property and legal rights.

            The elimination of class distinction and the promotion of civil equality translated to equality in terms of inheritance, but still upheld the capacity of the father or husband over women in the family, including the right to property, contracts, and marriage.  The prime reform that the Napoleonic Code is famous for also presented areas of concern for women, since Article 1388 identified the husband or father as the sole head of any household; which meant he had the exclusive right to control his and his wife’s or daughters’ personal property.  The wife, in this scenario, had no power of her own property, even if these were legally established to be owned by herself and her husband.  Neither could she sell nor give away any of said property without prior approval from her husband.  Another specification in the Code, defined by Article 1124, even states that married women and children were not legally allowed to make or engage in contracts.  Women in business, even with the justification of the nature of their occupation, still had to seek their husbands’ consent before engaging in trade contracts.

            Surprisingly, the much-heralded innovation introduced by the Napoleonic Code concerning divorce by mutual consent was not exactly made in the spirit of equality.  Grave causes were in fact stated as bases for divorce, and these included cruelty, adultery, and conviction of a spouse for a particular crime.  Testimonies and evidences were required, as is commonly done to this day, but the concept of adultery in the Code held a clear double standard:  The husband could divorce his wife if she is proven as having committed a single act, but the wife can only divorce her husband if he brings in a permanent mistress into their shared home.  Incompatibility was not a major consideration for divorce, either—the Code detailed that a marriage should have been in effect less than ten years for mutual consent to be considered (Conner, 2002).

            Therefore, the running theme of the revolutionary Napoleonic Code of civil liberty, justice, and equality was completely limited to men, as previous rights already gained before the Revolution were ultimately controlled and suppressed.  When prior to the Revolution, women were already encouraged to take petitions and exercise freedom of choice and speech, even without the right to suffrage, the Napoleonic Code rendered them simply as the property of men.

VII.     Religion and the Napoleonic Code

            Within the contexts of the Napoleonic Code is a deep reverence for religion and the Church, as well as the knowledge of the influence of Catholicism among the people of France.  However, because the power of the Church in early France had been so great as to have been a prime voice in French society, Napoleon had no intentions of resuming all the privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church previously.

            What Napoleon eventually did was to sign into law the Concordat of 1801, which was an agreement between him and Pope Pius VII, reaffirming the status of the Roman Catholic Church as the religion of most of France—as opposed to the entire country.  The terms of agreement included the following:

            1.  That Catholicism is acknowledged to be the religion of the greater French majority, with due respect to other religious sects such as Protestants and Jews,

            2.  That the Pope had the right to depose bishops for cause,

            3.  That France would pay salaries to the clergy, who, in turn, would pledge allegiance to France,

            4.  That the Catholic Church had already given up its land claims on those confiscated beyond 1790, and

            5.  The re-declaration of the Sabbath as an official festival.

            It is also to be noted how Napoleon’s dealings with the Church eventually emerged as a means for self-glorification, by teaching an Imperial Catechism that centered on the supposed entitlement of the Emperor.  This teaching persuaded Christians of Napoleon’s religious mission as God’s soldier, and that they should love him and pay taxes, or suffer the consequences (Zarzecny, 2003).

            In the Napoleonic Code, specific restrictions were made concerning religion and the Church, under the pretense of promoting equality, regardless of class and other such distinctions.  But the reality was that Napoleon attempted to create a seemingly new world without prejudice and the former control of the Church, only to use the same successful methods employed by the Church to uphold his name, his laws, and his vision for himself and France.

Works Cited

Broers, Michael.  Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press,


Chapman, Guy.  The Third Republic of France.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1962.

Conner, Susan.  “Women and the Napoleonic Code”.  Greenwood Publishing Group,

            Inc., 2002.éon

Gregory, Timothy, ed.  “The Code Napoleon: French Legislation on Divorce”.

            Exploring the European Past:  Texts and Images, 2nd ed.  Mason:  Thomson,


Hatzis, Aristides N.  “The Short-Lived Influence of the Napoleonic Civil Code in 19th

            Century Greece”.  European Journal of Law & Economics Vol. 14 No. 3,

            November 2002.

Holmberg, Tom.  “Civil Code:  An Overview”.  Napoleon Series website, 2002.


Holtman, Robert.  The Napoleonic Revolution.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State

            University Press, 1983).

Lefebvre, Georges.  Napoleon:  From Tilsit to Waterloo 1807-1815.  New York:

            Columbia University Press, 1969.

Napoleon Series, The.  “The Civil Code”.  Napoleon Series website, 1995-2002.


Net Industries.  “Napoleonic Code”.  Law Library website, 2008.

Zarceny, Matthew.  “Religion in Napoleonic France”.  Napoleon Series website,



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