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Napoleonic Code  1804

Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica on August 15, 1769 and was the second of eight children. He was well educated and eventually attended the Ecole Militarie in Paris where he received his military training. He received his artillery commission just in time to take part in the French Revolution. In eight-years he was promoted to General for his excellent tactical work in the battle of Toulon which removed the remaining vestiges of the hated British from the Continent. However, after the coup de Thermidor, in 1794 Napoleon’s stock dropped precipitously and he was summarily thrown in bastion. He his release became a great leader and was able to inspire his men with such slogans as “honor, glory and riches.”  However, in spite of the massive public relations campaign, Napoleon, the man that many had said would go into battle prepared with over 200 different options, he was not always successful and literally gave up his army career after being clabbered in Syria by the British as the 18th century drew to a close.

Ultimately, Napoleon who in spite of his loses had become a folk-hero became the de facto ruler of France and consolidated his hold on the office by winning the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. Napoleon was made Consul for life by a weary French population that had tired of war, having been at it for a decade without reprieve. He pulled the economy out of a recession, realigned the bureaucracy to be more functional and created a rapprochement with the Vatican in 1801. He was determined to crown himself emperor and invited the Pope to personally do the honors. However, while the Pope held the crown in anticipation of anointing Napoleon, the Crown was taken out of his hands and Napoleon placed it on his own head to clearly show who was in charge.

However, it wasn’t to much longer that Napoleon was back on the battlefield, racking up one victory after another. In the meantime, he was also involved in making a dramatic shift in the French Legal Code. Napoleon appointed French legal expert, Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis to create a fair and equitable series of laws for the country. Interestingly enough, Napoleon himself attended almost half of the commission’s 87 meetings. After years of preparation what later became known as the Napoleonic Law went into effect in 1804. This was a Herculean task as there were some 14,000 new laws put onto the books after the French Revolution. He had to take those worth incorporating and massage them. They had to broken down into much more distinct categories and refined. It was divided into five sections: the Civil Code, the Code of Civil Procedure (finished in 1806), the Code of Criminal Procedure (finished in 1808) and Penal Code (finished in 1810), and the Commercial Code (finished in 1807).

The laws were extremely well thought out and indeed represented the spirit of the French Revolution. It created religious tolerance, public trials, created redistribution the land and all in all was a fair minded document which only left out a few things. There was also an attempt to create what would be termed the Rural Code as well which would deal with the rights of farmers but eventually, the commission determined that they were well covered by what had preceded it. In the meantime, by this time, Napoleon was cooling his heals on Elba and could not provide any inspiration. 

It was not particularly kind to women and it created an almost second class of citizenship for them. They could not vote, the could not own property and they could not witness legal documents. Moreover, men could cohabit with another woman for years before that would become a legal issue where with the fair sex, it was one strike and they were out. And God forbid that she was in the sack with another man, this gave the husband the unalienable right to do the old girl in. However, if the situation was reversed, she could easily lose her head over it. Besides shortchanging women, minors, had little or no rights and illegitimate children had no right of inheritance.

The Napoleonic Law was deemed an enlightened act and today more than 70 governing bodies have modeled their own laws to reflect what had been created. The State of Louisiana follows the code almost precisely. The particular areas that it addresses are:

1.                   Equality of all in the eyes of the law.

2.                   No recognition of privileges of birth.

3.                   Freedom of religion

4.                   Separation of the church and the state

5.                   Strengthening the family by:

a.       Placing emphasis on the husband and father as the head of the family

b.       Restricting grounds for divorce to three reasons: adultery, conviction of a serious crime, and grave insults, excesses or cruelty; however divorce could be granted by mutual agreement, as long as the grounds were kept private

c.        Defining who could inherit the family property.”[26]

Napoleon deserves credit for any number of advancements to the French culture including the creation of a massive public works project which specialized in the recreation of classical architecture. Among other things, Napoleon created the Are de triomphe de l’Etaile, the Vendome Column and the façade of the Chamber of Deputies. However, few remember his achievements in creating Paris as the cultural center of the universe at that time and his military victories were more often enigmatic than reality based, however, his laws will probably stand forever as a great achievement. The Napoleonic or Civil Code created was eventually copied by twenty other nations. Early advocates, willingly or unwillingly were Holland, the Duchy of Warsaw and many of his thoughts were incorporated into the Spanish constitution of 1812. Moreover, the Napoleonic Code became somewhat of a rallying cry for revolutionaries.



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