Today on March 21, 1804, the Napoleonic Code was formally ratified in France—one of the most influential legacies of the French emperor.
After years of revisions and debate, the Civil Code of the French, commonly known as the Napoleonic Code, was formally ratified. The French Consulate approved the final document, leading to a massive overhaul of the country’s entire legal system. From a legal perspective, post-revolutionary France still remained in chaos. The state had yet to establish a unified set of laws and still relied on a complex patchwork of old royal customs—many of which had sparked the French Revolution in 1789.
At the time, the provinces in Southern France continued to use Roman law, while the north had adopted various elements from feudal Germanic institutions. French laws were also influenced by different local customs, such as the Custom of Paris. This established a legal framework that was both confusing and contradictory for the average citizen. As Voltaire eloquently stated, a traveler in France would change laws as often as he changed horses.
On November 9, 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte seized total control over the French government at the Coup of 18 Brumaire. Shortly after, he commissioned a panel of four jurists to overhaul the state legal system. Jean-Jacques Regis de Cambaceres was enlisted to chair the committee—a man who already spent a decade working on French constitutional reform. Bonaparte was adamant that the Napoleonic Code be written entirely from scratch. He did not want another piecemeal of old legal documents. The committee held over 80 working sessions with Napoleon presiding over half of them.
Once finally ratified, the Napoleonic Code became the world’s first legal system that was based on rational thought— not on the prejudices of the medieval period. As a secular legal framework, it did not contain any religious mentions and was presented in the vernacular—the dialect spoken by ordinary citizens. For the first time, French law was not only accessible but truly understandable for all. This new coherent set of rules concerned personal property, colonial affairs, the family, and individual rights. However, the Napoleonic Code further made the authority of men over their families stronger, deprived women of individual rights, and reduced the privileges of illegitimate children.
“My real glory is not the forty battles I won, for Waterloo’s defeat will destroy the memory. What nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code.” — Napoleon, while exiled in Saint Helena.
From 1801 to 1803, Napoleon’s legislative council passed 36 individual statues. Those statutes were eventually consolidated and published as a single document on March 21, 1804. Bonaparte later introduced the Napoleonic Code to his newly conquered territories. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Monaco still heavily use the code to this day. Other countries across Europe and Latin America voluntarily adopted the foundations of the Napoleonic Code and made modifications as necessary. Later that same year, Napoleon would crown himself Emperor of France.