A Brief History
On March 21, 1804, the Code Napoleon became the law of France, and went on to influence legal reforms in many other countries.
Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French, was somewhat more down to earth than the ego-maniacal image he is usually portrayed as.
The Code Napoleon, or Napoleonic Code (or Code Civil des Francais as they say in France) had modern rules popular with the masses, with such novel ideas as freedom of religion, no privilege based on birth, and government positions based on merit instead of wealth.
Of course, there was the law that a husband could divorce his wife because of her adultery, but a wife could only divorce a husband because of his adultery if his mistress had moved into the married couple’s home! Napoleon himself famously ended his marriage with his first wife after partaking in some of the most disappointing acts of adultery in history.
One of the laws that did not make it into the code was Napoleon’s idea that lawyers that brought a lawsuit would have to pay the defendant the amount he was being sued for if the plaintiff lost the case! Napoleon figured that would cut down on frivolous lawsuits, and it certainly would have! Shakespeare was not the only historical figure less than amused by attorneys!
The Napoleonic Code replaced a Hodge-podge of laws that varied from area to area in France with a unified system that was rational and easily understood. No longer could secret laws or laws enacted retroactively (ex post facto) to specifically railroad someone be enforced. Laws had to be legally drafted by a consistent process, promulgated to all the people and enforced in an even manner, regardless of wealth or “noble” heritage.
The roots of the Napoleonic Code were in the French Revolution, with its ideals of Fraternity, Equality, and Liberty, which in turn had taken some ideas from the newly formed United States Constitution.
Many other European countries relied on the Napoleonic Code as a basis to draft their own civil codes. Even Latin American countries borrowed from the Napoleonic Code to write their laws as well.
The Napoleonic Code precluded crimes based on “superstition” such as blasphemy and heresy, as religious freedom and freedom of thought were cherished ideals of the Revolution. One omission: Despite Napoleon’s initial desire to do so, slavery was not abolished, largely at the urging of Josephine, Napoleon’s wife!
Question for students (and subscribers): Should adultery be illegal? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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The following are among the best recent books published on this time period (we recommend reading them in the order listed below):
Conner, Susan P. The Age of Napoleon (Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900). Greenwood, 2004.
Markham, J. David. Napoleon For Dummies. For Dummies, 2005.
Zarzeczny, Matthew D. Meteors That Enlighten the Earth: Napoleon and the Cult of Great Men. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.