On January 28, 2021, Foreign Law Specialist Nicolas Boring discussed the Napoleonic Code’s history, evolution, and legacy in an installment of the Law Library of Congress’ foreign and comparative law webinar series.
The webinar discussed the prehistory of the French Civil Code, its drafting and adoption, its contents, and the history of its immense influence on the laws of other nations around the globe.
In this post, I want to share with you a few images of early editions of the French Civil Code and the codes of law it influenced from the Law Library’s collections, including its first publication in France, and then its appearance in select other nations over time. These images–and more!–can be found in Nicolas’ webinar, which the Law Library has recorded and posted, and which you can now watch at your leisure!
As Nicolas mentions in his presentation, Napoleon Bonaparte introduced the French Civil Code in 1804 with the intention of enacting a unified synthesis of French law. French law before the revolution reflected a high degree of geographical variation, with regions throughout the kingdom upholding various customary legal systems. The laws of some of these regions were eventually compiled and edited in compilations known as coutumiers. (The Law Library owns a substantial collection of printed coutumiers from the 16th and 17th centuries representing comprehensive geographical coverage of this important legal literature.) In addition to this, legal systems in the southern part of France showed more influence from the medieval reception of Roman law than those in the northern part of the country did. Throughout the period of the Enlightenment, intellectuals frequently criticized the diversity of French law and wished to replace it with a more rationalistic and uniform legal code. During the early years of revolutionary France, several attempts were made to achieve such a reform, but the political instability of the regimes of the 1790s made it impossible to accomplish this goal.
After the Coup of 18–19 Brumaire (November 9–10, 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte was in a position to create a committee to reform the laws of France. In August 1800, Napoleon placed Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, a close advisor who played a major role in one of the earlier efforts to create a code of law, in charge of a commission of four well-respected jurists to create a draft of the code. These jurists were François Denis Tronchet, Félix Julien Jean Bigot de Préameneu, Jacques de Maleville, and Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis. Portalis had participated with Cambacérès in the failed attempt to create a code in 1796.
The commission drafted its proposed Civil Code in four to five months and then sent copies to all the courts of appeals of France, as well as to the Tribunal of Cassation, the predecessor of what is now called the Court of Cassation, for comment. The Conseil d’Etat, or Council of State, then took up discussion of the draft in July 1801. Over 107 sessions were dedicated to discussing the draft, with Napoleon himself presiding over 55 of them, despite having no legal training.
After a lengthy process in which the legislative assemblies adopted the code section by section in thirty-six separate laws, the Civil Code’s adoption was consolidated into one law on March 21, 1804. It was known as the Loi du 30 ventôse an XII, a name that reflected the so-called “republican calendar” that marked the year 1792 as year 1.
Nicolas points out that as Napoleon Bonaparte conquered countries throughout Europe, he spread the use of the Civil Code with him. Among these were Belgium and Luxembourg, which France annexed in 1804. Other nations, such as Germany and many countries in Latin America, used it as a model for their national codes over the course of the 19th century. Nicolas relates specifically the examples of Louisiana, Haiti, and Ethiopia, as well as the countries that experienced French colonization.