The Beginning of Progressive Law in Europe and the World

On this day in 1804, the Napoleonic Code is brought into force in France and her possessions. It was the first consistent set of codes concerning criminal and commercial law, property, the family, colonial affairs, and individual rights, given like a gift by Napoleon to his people living in the post-revolutionary era. In replacing a vexatious patchwork quilt of arcane laws, the Code eliminated feudalism, supported religious tolerance and introduced other liberal reforms across Europe.

To create this progressive legal system, the French military commander and political leader was inspired by Roman law and principles of the French Revolution. In actual drafting, he turned to four preeminent French jurists, who ultimately derived what historians believe is one of the few documents to influence the entire world.

The Code has been generally considered a progressive system reflecting broad-minded values. It required transparency, accessibility, and an end to “secret laws.” Ex post facto laws were invalidated and procedures were required to make the application of the laws fair, but the Code bore unusual inconsistencies as well. The law made the authority of men over their families stronger, deprived women of any individual rights, reduced the rights of illegitimate children and permitted slavery in the French colonies.

The Code or its portions was modified and widely adopted outside of France in Europe and the Western Hemisphere in over 20 nations; it’s vestigial tail is present on our side of the Atlantic in modern South America, Louisiana and Quebec. Napoleon was pleased his new laws had been spread throughout the empire, and was said to remark at the end of his life “Waterloo will wipe out the memory of my forty victories; but that which nothing can wipe out is my Civil Code. That will live forever.”

An original copy of the Napoleonic Code is stored in the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer, Germany, and it is there our lesson endeth.

What say you, the people?