Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

New Laws & New Liberties

During Napoléon’s time, French law changed dramatically. In many ways it expanded civil rights and empowered men and women, rich and poor alike. In other ways, it reinforced unequal treatment of women and children.

The Code Napoléon
One of the most lasting accomplishments of the Napoléonic period was the reform of French civil law, known as the Code Napoléon. These reforms were important because they created a unified, logical system of laws. Most importantly, no one, including political and military leaders, was above the law. The Code Napoléon is still the basis for French law. The province of Québec in Canada and the state of Louisiana have adopted it.

From Chaos to Code
Before the French Revolution, the system of laws in the country was chaotic. Part of the country based its laws on Roman law and part onGermanic Common Law. There were also hundreds of local laws and customs—so much so that Voltaire wrote, “When you travel in this kingdom you change legal systems as often as you change horses!” And that was a lot. The Revolution then added thousands of new laws but didn’t clean up the old ones. It took the leadership of Napoléon to finally bring some common sense to the French legal system. In 1804, the new Civil Code went into effect.

The Code Napoléon contains many principles that we in the United States hold dear:
• guarantees equality under the law;
• gives no special privileges for the wealthy or the nobles;
• protects the right of private property;
• assures freedom of religion;
• provides for a separation of church and state;
• makes marriage a civil ceremony (much to the distress of the pope); and
• allows husbands or wives to file for divorce.

Family Roles and Rights
Napoléon saw the family as the basis of social order and the father as the head of the family. As a result, the Code significantly increased the father’s authority over his wife and children. Women and children were probably the most affected by these changes in French law. According to the code, “The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.” Women were seen by most men at the time as weak, fickle, frivolous, and in need of protection by a man. Women could not vote, could not manage or sell their property, or sign legal documents. While women could file for divorce, the word of the husband was almost always taken over that of his wife.

Children had virtually no rights. The Code stated, “A child, at every age, owes honor and respect to his father and mother . . . He remains subject to their control until his majority or emancipation.” If children did not obey their father, he could throw them into jail for up to six months! Of course, most of the laws limiting the rights of women and children have been changed over time, but the Code Napoléon still emphasizes the importance of the father.

Despite some weakness and inequalities, the Code Napoléon was an important accomplishment during the Napoléonic period. It ended the special privileges that nobles and the clergy had enjoyed under the Old Order. It helped pave the way for our modern society based on the rule of law and equality under the law. It guaranteed civil liberties and preserved the most important social aims of the Revolution.

Napoléon understood this when he wrote from St. Helena, “My true glory is not to have won forty battles; Waterloo will efface the memory of any number of victories. What nothing will efface, what will live eternally, is my Civil Code.”

Dr. Kyle Eidahl
Department of History, Florida A&M University

Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011