Empire of Liberty: Keep to the Code

Excerpt from Harris Chandler’s “A History of Napoleonic France, Vol. I”, Random House Publishing, 2018.

As soon as he returned from the Italian campaign after the War of the Second Coalition Napoleon began the enormous task of reforming France’s legal codes. It is difficult to pinpoint any one reform or event that stands as Napoleon’s lasting achievement but many historians consider the Napoleonic Code to be his greatest legacy. In the pre-revolutionary world, the Ancien Régime utilized at least 366 local codes and France was divided into two fundamental spheres of legal influence. Northern France tended to follow customary law while southern France followed laws based on old Roman codes. Even worse, the revolutionary governments mucked up their own reform attempts. Since 1789 over 14,000 decrees had been made with 42 different regional codes in force. Many of the decrees and laws contradicted each other or provided redundant sections. In rural areas, it was effectively impossible to know what laws were actually upheld. Like many states of the early modern era, extensive reforms to standardize justice, adopt uniform weights and measures, and promote an internal economic market all became exceedingly necessary to function.

The initial work fell to Jean de Cambacérès, the secretary of the committee charged with overhauling the civil code back in 1792. So instrumental to the reforms was Cambacérès  that Napoleon once joked that if the Code somehow became lost they could simply find it all again in Cambacérès’ head. Cambacérès and Napoleon commissioned a whos-who of prominent French jurists and academics to begin the process. However this was no autonomous committee for which Napoleon receives credit. The Consul chaired at least 55 of the 107 plenary sessions and frequently delved into the details on issues such as family law and civil procedure. Napoleon spent many afternoons and nights buried in drafts, amendments, statute books, meetings with lawyers and lobbyists and other minutiae between his return from Italy and his departure to the Balkans. Despite all of this, ratification was no guarantee. The legislature rejected the initial bill 142-139 and the Tribunate rejected a similar proposal shortly after. Only Napoleon’s dogged will saw the Code finally adopted.

A compromise between ancient Roman law and common law, the Napoleonic Code created a rationally laid out body of laws, based on enlightenment principles that would be administered equally across all of France and its territories. In many ways the Code is the culmination of the French Revolution itself as it finally confirmed the end of ancient class privileges and ecclesiastical control over the many various aspects of civil society (save for education). The provisions are usually pithy and offer judges wide latitude for their rulings. Napoleon would later tell the Conseil:

“One should not overburden oneself with over-detailed laws. Law must do nothing but impose a general principle. It would be vain if one were to try to foresee every possible situation; experience would prove that much has been omitted.”

Like the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Code provides numerous protections taken for granted today but were downright revolutionary for the time. All Frenchmen were now equal under the law, the Code prohibited arbitrary arrests, the sanctity of legal contracts freely entered became paramount, and it guaranteed religious toleration (even for atheists). The Code guaranteed property rights to all adult men. Paterfamilias (fathers) gained near-totalitarian rights over their households in an effort to promote the family unit as a basic social institution. It required the due promulgation of laws, formal publication, and a ban on ex post facto laws. The revolutionary Code created the system of civil law many locations enjoy today. Under the Code (and in civil law jurisdictions) judges may make interpretations of the law for individual cases but may not make decisions on principles and establish case precedent as is seen in common law jurisdictions.

The Code is often lambasted by 21st century standards for its conservatism, especially its sexism to the modern eye. Indeed, fathers could jail their children for disobedience, possessed near-total control over the family’s property, and wives had exceedingly limited legal options to oppose their husbands. The Code very much reflects Napoleon’s mindset, “Women should not be looked upon as equals of men. They are, in fact, only machines for making babies.” Furthermore, to modern peoples, many aspects of the Code are not just offensive but downright draconian. Employers received the benefit of the doubt on almost every point of law. In 1802, a law passed requiring every worker to maintain a “passbook” which the employer would sign at the start and end of every work period. Failure to keep the passbook made the worker unemployable and was punishable by up to six months imprisonment. There was zero tolerance for worker strikes and unions, which Napoleon associated with the excesses of Jacobinism. In 1806, when construction crews went on strike, they were arrested in their sleep. When one remembers that Napoleon was actively working to rein what he perceived as the social excesses of Jacobinism the Code begins to make more sense. For example, Napoleon greatly empowered local prefects who ran local law enforcement efforts, rarely interfered with their actions (despite the prefecture system being highly centralized towards Paris), and in 1808 the Conseil d’Etat did away with jury trials in favor of chamber arraignments. These changes seem to run counter to liberal notions of fair trials and individual liberties but they make more sense when one remembers that for nearly a decade France had widespread problems with crime and brigandry. Napoleon actually favored jury trials (hence their brief implementation from 1805 to 1808) but his pragmatism and need to keep crime down trumped ideology.

Whether or not the Code, which became law in 1804, should or should not be criticized by the standards of the present is a question beyond the scope of this work. It should be noted that the Code’s conservative provisions are standard for the early 19th century. Families were essentially the property of husbands/fathers across Europe and worker’s rights were still decades away from becoming a viable political movement. In 1812, the Bishop of Durham ordered the British army to violently break up a miner’s strike based on little more than his ecclesiastic authority. At least under the Napoleonic Code such an occurrence was illegal in France. Overall, the establishment of a legal system based on “modern” principles was surely better than the confused legal systems of medieval and ancient Europe where the state and the church exercised supreme unchecked authority with nominal options for redress and appeal.

The 1804 Code was just the start of Napoleon’s reform efforts. By 1810, a Code of Civil Procedure, a Commercial Code, a Code of Criminal Procedure and a Penal Code joined the Code. Slowly the Code crept across Europe and the Mediterranean. “The Romans gave their laws to their allies,” Napoleon wrote to his brother Louis. “Why should France not have its laws adopted in Holland?” Many regions of Europe saw adoption of the Code during the Napoleonic Era. Some places, like Naples, adopted the Code begrudgingly and shucked it away as soon as they could. Some German states would hold on to the Code for nearly a century. The recently restored Ottoman Sultan Selim immediately began looking for ways to apply the concept to Islamic jurisprudence and his reform efforts as he slowly dragged the empire into the modern era. It remains the basis of law in many locations to this day including many U.S. states. Several former-French territories (the Mascarene Islands and Guiana) instituted the Code shortly after their annexation into the United States in the early 19th century as a way to rid themselves of the ancien régime’s convoluted code and adopt something more rational that could still fit within the U.S. legal system. Louisiana and Santo Domingo entered the United States after Napoleon had already applied the Code to both territories (interestingly the U.S. District of New Orleans had to adopt the code after the fact so its laws synchronized before formal statehood). Today, only Quebec maintains a legal system with its roots in the laws of the ancien régime, roots that like medieval English common law many states have long since defanged and amended.

Law was one thing, society was another. Napoleon sought to apply his energies to the French language itself. In Languedoc, 129 parishes spoke Occitan rather than French. Several southern villages of the Occitan region even spoke Catalan. Flemish and Dutch were spoken in the northeast, German was widespread in Lorraine, Breton was heard in Brittany and a smattering of Basque, Catalan, Italian, Celtic and Languedoc patois were heard elsewhere. Out of 28 million people, six million did not speak French and another six million lived in regions where usage remained mixed. If anyone knew how important knowing the French language was, it was the Corsican Consul who never shook his thick accent but mastered French well enough that he could lead armies and the state itself. Napoleon made French the only permitted language of government and educational instruction. To promote language and academics in general, Napoleon revolutionized education in France. While primary education went back to the clergy (reversing revolutionary decrees from years before), secondary education was completely reformed. In May 1802 he passed a law establishing 45 lycees, or state-run secondary schools. By the end of his reign that number increased to 115. All eligible French children learned Greek, Latin, rhetoric, logic, ethics, mathematics and physics. Gifted students could obtain transfers to schools that taught modern languages and cutting edge sciences like biology and chemistry. In these schools religion was minimized and administration handled like the military. Discipline was strict, uniform standards precise and the students were organized into companies with their own “officers”. French secondary schools quickly became the best in Europe and the concepts they pioneered made their way to a diverse array of locales. To this day, lycees like Condorcet, Charlemagne, Louis-le-Grand, and Henri IV still count amongst the best schools in France. The education reforms did not end there. In 1808, Napoleon called for the creation of an Imperial University to oversee all education in France. Teachers would be members of faculties of theology, law, medicine, literature, and mathematics & physics. Another military-style hierarchy was created led by a former president of the legislative body acting as chancellor to a 30-man council who controlled all French secondary schools and universities. As with the Code, the widespread opportunities for female education were exceedingly limited. Throughout Napoleon’s reign the only time girls could find anything beyond the most basic education came through special schools and scholarships gifted to them from L’Empeurer when their father’s fell on his various campaigns.

Standardized weights and measured were hardly immune to the rapid changes. The term setier, which measures volume (roughly 85 liters by today’s standards) had at least ten different, conflicting, definitions. Seteree, a measurement of area, had 50 different, conflicting, definitions and varied greatly on whether or not highland or lowland areas were being measured. With Dutch, Aragonese and Italian client states to concern himself with, that all used their own measurements, Napoleon quickly adopted the metric system that divided all measurements into units of ten. Indeed, Napoleon’s 1801 adoption of the system greatly assisted ongoing lobby efforts in the United States to adopt the system brought over and popularized by Antoine Lavoisier in the 1790’s. Some accounts credit the lobbying efforts in the late 1790’s that led to a swathe of northern states adopting the system (in an attempt to standardize regional trade) as the basis for Napoleon’s inspiration [1].

Napoleon even standardized French coinage. There would now be copper coins of two, three and five centimes; silver coins of one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters of a franc, and one, two and five francs; and gold coins of ten, twenty and forty francs. These organizational changes were necessary components of Napoleon’s broader effort to right the French financial ship, still very much in shambles from decades of mismanagement at the hands of Louis XVI and chaos of the revolution. Napoleon’s reorganization of the franc was greatly assisted by one of the few proactive moves made by the Directorie, the decision to recall the assignat and reissue the franc. Napoleon created a Ministry of Finance and a Ministry of the Treasury to help stabilize the situation and oversee the currency swap. He replaced the ancient (and corrupt) system of tax collection with a corps of nearly 800 professional tax collectors which streamlined the flow of money from the countryside to the treasury’s coffers. Roads, canals, and ports were constructed and modernized, measured that proved a boon to both the military and the economy. Initially forced to borrow from Paris’ richest bankers (sometimes at absurd interest rates), Napoleon was instrumental in creating the Banque de France and the above mentioned legal and administrative reforms were direct efforts to create a cohesive national system through which France could establish a modern economy. His efforts yielded considerable fruit. Not once during Napoleon’s reign did France have to devalue its currency, the national debt was eliminated by 1801, the runaway inflation of the preceding two decades came to a halt, and the government balanced its budget for the first time since 1738.

Yet, in one of Napoleon’s great ironies, his modernizing energies clashed with his need for control so that the French economy never took off like its British counterpart. For all his innovative ideas, Napoleon could not free himself from the historical French economic model pioneered by Louis XIV’s great finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. For the uninitiated, Colbertian economics combines state intervention and protectionism to stimulate economic growth and foster industries. Colbert remains a controversial economic figure because, historically, his efforts did improve the state of the 17th century French economy and likely prevented France from becoming bankrupt yet many of his state-run efforts proved unsuccessful and France became increasingly impoverished over the course of his ministry. Some economic historians blame the Sun King’s never ending wars and the resulting economic strain on the problems and failures of Colbertianism. Other historians argue that while the heavy-handedness of his ministry produced some growth by ruthlessly breaking up the stagnant medieval economic structures, that same ruthlessness (along with aristocratic compromises) prevented individual innovation and economic participation, especially amongst the lower and middle classes. While Colbertianism is generally seen as a net positive for France, it can be argued that his decisions led France down one economic path with a definite economic ceiling while its contemporary rivals like the Dutch and English pursued other economic paths that led to greater riches. Still, Colbertianism was a powerful influence on French society and Napoleon bought in. This is a leading reason in why Napoleon opted to pursue a system of government subsidies to channel economic energies into certain industries or establishing scholarships and technical prizes to encourage people to attend trade schools or invest their time in creating new products. These efforts yielding results but the organic commercial groundswell occurring in Britain never developed. Napoleon remained frustrated across the entirety of his reign by the fact that French bonds and interest rates could simply never match those of Britain. The closest France ever came to overtaking the British economy was in the immediate aftermath of the War of the Fifth Coalition and even then the difference can be seen in historic bond values. In 1814, a four percent French consolidated bond was quoted at 58 to 64 francs while a three percent British bond was spread between 63 and 72 francs [2]. The marked increases in the value of the French stock market and its bonds always seemed tied to Napoleon’s victories in battle and the successful conclusion of peace treaties whereas Britain’s economy increased organically and in spite of constant wartime setbacks. By the time of Napoleon’s death, France only achieved a level of industrialization Britain enjoyed in 1785.

It should also be noted that his use of tariffs stoked resentment across the empire. Trade barriers in Italy forced raw silk from the Piedmont to flow to Lyon instead of their historical market in Lombardy at the expense of the Piedmontese. Producers in Amsterdam had to pay duties on goods sold to France but not vice versa. Companies from Paris, Toulon and Marseille all received generous commercial grants to sell Algerian produce that netted them substantial profits but saw Algerian farmers making less under the supposed-enlightened occupation of the French than they had under the sovereignty of the dey.

The remarkable speed with which Napoleon reordered society is stunning in hindsight. Napoleon’s societal reforms can be roughly broken into three “eras”. They also tend to intersect with the stretches he found himself in France. The busiest was the Consulate Era from 1800 to 1803. With the exhaustion of the Revolution still close in time and with an exceedingly talented and moderate Conseil d’Etat he accomplished many transformative reforms at breakneck speeds. This era, like his initial rise, the Egyptian Expedition and the brilliant Bosporus Campaign, saw Napoleon at his best. Youthful and innovative but also needing to act carefully while he consolidated his power, the Consulate might not have been Napoleon’s zenith in terms of absolute power, but it was his administrative zenith both politically and militarily. The second era, the Imperial Era from 1805 to 1809 saw the establishment of France’s empire but the expansion of many of these foundational ideas that Napoleon laid down during the Consulate. For instance, his various procedural expansions of the Code come mostly from this era. Lastly, the Congressional Era spans the Congress of Europe that occurred after the War of the Fifth Coalition until his death. This era saw considerable reform efforts as Napoleon attempted to standardize the empire but also root out corruption and reinvigorate the state from the stagnation of the late imperial era. It is the least busy (by Napoleon’s incredible standards) of the reform eras but also features some of the most eclectic reform efforts.

Much of the credit for the grand reforms of the Consulate Era stem from the Conseil d’Etat which combined many brilliant minds together to advise Napoleon on his efforts. The June 17, 1802 agenda of the Conseil demonstrates the sheer number and range of topics French leaders touched on in a given day. That day’s agenda covered examination of surgeons; organization of chemists; appointing sub-prefects to various arrondissements; the harvest; Maltese refugees; laws concerning the National Guard; roads; the government of the commissariat; pawn broking; the finances of larger communes’ gamekeepers; the chambers of commerce; the rights of emigres to return; election law; bridge construction; and foreplaning departmental divisions in anticipation of the imminent ratification of the Treaty of Nancy. These meetings could last hours, sometimes until nearly dawn the next day. True to form, Napoleon typically acted as the engine for the entire conseil and his military and political colleagues and subordinates were either energized, or pressed onward, by L’Emperur.

We should note that while Napoleon’s energies might be unmatched at this time, his rationality was hardly unique. Scientists and enlightenment thinkers called for standardized systems throughout the 17th and 18th century. Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal system of coinage, weights and measures to Congress in 1790. Portugal, seeing the value of the metric system, adopted it in 1814 and applied it throughout its empire. The United Kingdom would standardize its measurements across its territories in the 1820’s, though it utilized a system of imperial units rather than the metric system. Scotland even adopted a standardized set of measurements as far back as 1641. Indeed, Napoleon’s own press for uniformity was largely finishing the hopes of revolutionary efforts as the first introduction of metric standards began on a district-by-district basis in 1795.

Why even take the time to discuss seemingly boring trivialities like weights and measures in this history of Napoleon? An answer requires broad perspective on history and society. These schemes and attempts to standardize everything from weights to language are a critical, if often overlooked, part of the nationalist consolidation beginning in this era. While an in-depth examination of nationalism goes beyond the scope of this work, one cannot write a history of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning the importance this era played on nascent notions of nationalism and the development of the European nation-states. Napoleon’s efforts were not just intentionally good for his empire economically or politically but they were unintentionally standardizing what it meant to be French. The varied provincialism of the preceding centuries was giving way to something centralized, rational and national. France was leading the charge but was not alone. The British Empire and its centralization would spread imperial units, common law, and English just as much as the French Empire and Portuguese Empire did so for their languages, civil law, and the metric system. These early national systems acted as the precursor to coming small-scale efforts in places like Greece, Serbia and Holland, nationalist legacies that endured even once they became nation-U.S. states as the Chicago School sometimes refers to them [3]. They also foresaw the slower, more complex, efforts in the convoluted Germanies, diverse Ottoman Empire, or massive Russia.

Of course, the eclectic American system tended to blend both worlds with the states often left to their own devices while an overarching Federal system provided uniform solutions and templates to bind the country together. The American system was complex but it allowed a working model for groups of common states and wildly different states to come together in a federal union. In this way, Quebec could speak French, utilize ancien régime law as its base legal code, and adopt the metric system while Jamaica could speak English, utilize common law and maintain imperial measurements and both work in the same country. Everyone agreed that what Quebecoise and Jamaicans did in their own state should be governed by their own customs. They also agreed that when the two states or their citizens came into contact at the federal level, federal rules governed the day. This meant in disputes the citizenry and the states deferred to Federal law (based on common law), the English language and a laissez faire interstate commerce law that largely deferred to the freedom of the individual to make contracts and pursue commerce (compared to the state intervention of Colbertianism). This attitude is largely why the metric system came to dominate the U.S. by the 1830’s when every state realized it had become the de facto measurement unit of commerce. It is also why, over time, English became the world’s linga franca. Most states spoke it, the federal government and military required it, commerce utilized it, and the U.S. expansion spread it around the globe where it became an even more useful intermediary (especially combined with spread thanks to the British Empire). Many have argued that while the early 19th century European attempts at creating national systems consolidated what it meant to be a part of those nations, the fatal flaw in their thinking was that the consolidation was too imperial. Perhaps this is a result of Europe’s common history of monarchy and Romanism whereby the Roman Republic/Emperor, or the regional monarch, sat at the center of the state and its frontiers. Napoleon’s efforts to centralize and standardize every facet of French life were his attempt to make the French strong and modern with every intention of France being the center of his empire. Attempts to standardize what it meant to be Italian or German might have had the tacit support of Napoleon but only as a way to foster military alliances and boost French trade and influence. Napoleon made little effort to ensure that the Kingdom of Italy or the Kingdom of Holland were peers to France or could operate in a common imperial system that benefited all parties, the intention was always for these entities to be subordinate to France and his dynasty.

Conversely the United States underwent this same modernizing consolidation but constitutional limitations on government ensured the rights and status of the states while allowing a more organic consolidation at the behest of the citizens/commerce rather than the instruction of the state. The more humanist influence of the enlightenment surely takes some credit here as well for the more equitable spread of consolidation across the states and diverse sets of citizens. Because the United States actively sought to create a system where the (nominally) sovereign states were equal peers, and every state’s citizens had equal rights, no state held an institutionally structured lead over the others nor was any state intentionally subordinate. While the U.S. had issues with overseas expansion and human rights, this commonality meant that U.S. federal standards slowly became national standards, except unlike the limited European and Asian nation-states, by the 20th century the nation of the United States was quickly becoming synonymous with humanity as a whole [4].


———- Author’s Notes ———–

[1]: The author does not go into it but in an effort to marry up the different standards of measurement a movement begins to push adoption of the metric system as a common “American System”. Brought over by the French emigres to Quebec (the in timeline books always credit Lavoisier) the system see’s state-by-state adoption throughout the 1790’s and 1800’s led by northern states, Quebec, and the French acquisitions after the Franco-American War. The southern states and English-speaking Caribbean hold out for a while because their agricultural goods tend to go primarily to Britain which means the old (i.e. our timeline’s current) standards work better for them.

[2]: I have fudged some of our-timelines numbers to reflect the change in this timeline where Britain and France are actually must closer economically than the sizeable gap from our timeline. In our-timeline, the closest France and Britain’s economies ever got was in 1802 immediately after the Peace of Amiens (and before the Continental System started wrecking both France and Britain). Then a five percent French consolidated bond was quoted at 48-53 francs while a three percent British bond was quoted between 66-79 francs. So in this timeline because the British economy and war effort routinely gets mucked up the economies are closer but Britain still holds a lead.

[3]: This is another reference in this timeline to Dr. Mark Gonzalez, an in-timeline 1920’s historian from the University of Chicago (“Chicago School”) who wrote several influential histories that highlight the forces of nationalism and their role in 18th-20th century history. Empire of Liberty routinely references one of his two most important works: “The Great Transition of Europe”.

[4]: The concept the author is discussing is hard for me to conceptualize for an our-timeline audience but it is basically this. Like our-timeline, Napoleon’s efforts to define what is “French” (but also Italian, Polish or German) for the benefit of his empire play a large role in unleashing forces of nationalism. His invasions also provide a consolidating rallying cry for nationalistic notions in Spain, Russia and Britain (nothing unites people like a common enemy). These notions developed slowly and intellectually over the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to modernizing technology and enlightenment principles and it can be argued Napoleon’s wars and administrative efforts officially let the genie out of the bottle. Nationalism, notions of “us versus them”, and the development of the nation-state have defined history since. In this timeline, Napoleon still plays this critical role. However, in this timeline the expanded United States, the constitution, and the unique set up of federal vs. state power provide an alternative to European imperial-nationalism. In the same way the setup of the U.S. in our timeline allows English units/English/common law/and a common American “culture” to organically develop, evolve, and incorporate many disparate peoples and locales, that same process happens globally in this timeline. Basically think about how we have the “melting pot” mentality in our timeline and expand it worldwide. That is what the author means when he says that all of this is laying the groundwork for the eventuality that the “nationalism of the United States” essentially equates to “a common human nation”.


Source Material

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

Stark, Nicholas. “Reforms Under Napoleon Bonaparte” The Napoleonic Society. Accessed September 29, 2018. http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/stark.htm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.