Under the direction of France’s most famous ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Napoleonic Code – the Code Napoléon – took force this week (March 21) in 1804. Napoleon’s goal was to reform the archaic and hopelessly confusing French legal system, first by doing away with the thousands of feudal laws – all based on local customs – that governed the many regions and localities that France comprised at the turn of the 19th century. Second, Napoleon unified France’s 42 different legal codes and simplified the more than 14,000 decrees and laws that had been passed by the various revolutionary governments that had held power, often briefly, during the French Revolution that began in 1789. Not surprisingly, given that virtually all of these revolutionary governments had come to power by doing away with previous revolutionary governments, many of these laws were contradictory.
In their place Napoleon set out to establish a single, uniform legal system, and the Napoleonic Code was so successful in achieving this goal that nations throughout Europe and the world, including in the Middle East, adopted it to varying degrees. The Code guaranteed legal equality to all Frenchmen. It guaranteed the sanctity of legal contracts, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and total religious toleration. It also prohibited the making or enforcement of secret laws, and also prohibited ex post facto laws – laws that apply retroactively to crimes committed before the laws were in place.
And more – all of which greatly improved the French legal system, and much of which is still found in legal systems worldwide, including America’s, even today.
All of that said, while the Napoleonic Code applied equally to all Frenchmen, it was a different story for French women. The Code stated, “A husband owes protection to his wife, a wife obedience to her husband,” yet the wife’s protection depended on circumstances. An adulterous wife got two years in prison, while an adulterous husband got a modest fine, and a wife could only sue for divorce if the husband attempted to include his mistress in the family household. A husband who killed his wife because he caught her in bed with another man would not be prosecuted, and neither married nor single men were required to support illegitimate children.
Women were forbidden from entering into legal contracts, nor could they be a party to lawsuits, or testify in court. Wives couldn’t engage in commerce without a husband’s written permission, and all property in a marriage was the husband’s.
Simply put, the Code was sexist, which reflected Napoleon’s own sexism. “Women should not be looked upon as the equals of men,” said the man who had at least 20 mistresses and fathered several illegitimate children. “They are, in fact, only machines for making babies.”
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.