Chapter 20

The Civil Code and Administration




Continuing the immense task that he had set himself to rescue France from the pitiful state it had fallen into, and to restore to all French citizens their taste for work, joie de vivre and hope, Napoleon set about drafting a code of laws designed to define, in just and equitable fashion, the relations between the members of the family and between the citizens of the nation.


This is the testimony that State Councilor Antoine Clair Thibaudeau (1765-1854) left in his memoirs: “As soon as he returned from Marengo, Bonaparte set up a committee composed of four of the most famous lawyers, Tronchet (1726-1806), Portalis (1746-1807), Bigot de Preameneu (1747-1825) and Maleville (1741-1824), to draw up a project for a civil code. This project was completed and printed on January 1, 1801. It was then submitted to the various groups of judges who added their comments to it. Finally, it was studied clause by clause by the Council of State. There were 90 meetings, over half of which were chaired by Bonaparte himself. The Code, with its 2281 clauses, passed into law in March 1804.


When Bonaparte became First Consul, he already enjoyed a very great reputation. But as great as this reputation was, it did not prevent the world from being amazed by the ease with which he took over the reins of administration and dominated every problem in the most varied of fields. The surprise was even greater when he was seen leading debates with the most distinguished lawyers and discussing clauses of the Civil Code. He played a very active role in these debates, sometimes stimulating them, sometimes supporting them and sometimes criticizing them. Unlike some professional speakers in the Council of State, he did not make a great rhetorical show; he spoke simply, just as he did in ordinary conversation. His knowledge of the subject in question was never inferior to that of any member of the Council of State. He even surpassed the most experienced among them with the ease with which he identified the core of a problem, by the precision and the common sense of his ideas and by the force of his arguments. Sometimes, to lighten the atmosphere and always in the best good humour, he made remarks about each of us. “Tronchet, I admire your intelligence and the strength of your memory. For a man of your age, it is exceptional and deserves to be pointed out. Roederer, today, I found you a little weak. Portalis, you would be the greatest of speakers if you only knew when to stop. Thibaudeau, you should adopt a more intimate tone in our discussions. You give the impression of being in a courtroom haranguing a crowd. Cambacéres, I sometimes suspect you of behaving like a talented lawyer who can defend a case or reject an idea without the slightest reference to his own personal feelings. Thank you Lebrun, you are the very best of writers and, thanks to you, our debates will be a monument for posterity.”

N.B. An idea of the intensity and seriousness of these debates can be gained from this word-for-word excerpt of the discussion on the “adoption” clause. We can only provide an excerpt, as Thibaudeau devotes eight pages of his memoirs to it.


The debate began with the presentation of a report by Berlier on the principle of adoption itself. Tronchet and Maleville were strongly opposed to it.

Bonaparte: You argue against adoption but your principal objection seems to be the form in which it has been presented to us. That means you are approaching the question from the wrong end. We have to start by studying the instances in which adoption is useful, even essential. We must also decide if unmarried people may be authorized to adopt a child. Who wants to plead the cause of single people? Could that be you, Cambacéres?


Cambacéres: “Thank you very much,” (laughter) - Cambacéres was a homosexual and did not hide the fact. “Single people should have the same right of adoption as married people. To refuse them this right is to come dangerously close to the doctrines of the Convention, which would have obliged single people to pay twice as much tax as married ones.”


Thibaudeau: I do not think that single people should be allowed to adopt a child. Adoption should complement a marriage; it should be a means of adding to a marriage by bringing a child into it.


Bonaparte: Much could be said in reply to the opinion of Citizen Cambacéres. Thibaudeau’s remarks seem to me to have the ring of common sense; adoption must remain a means of bringing one or more children into a sterile marriage; consequently, it should not be permitted for single people. Adopted children need to feel themselves to be a part of the family exactly as if they had been born to those who are now their fathers and mothers.


At the meeting of December 5, 1801, Berlier presented an amendment in accordance with which cases of adoption would be submitted to the local court, which would have the power to permit it or refuse it.


Bonaparte: There are three possibilities for legalizing an adoption. It could be decided by a notary, a court or an assemblée politique (town council).


Portalis: I reject the idea of entrusting adoption to the decision of a notary. I prefer the court or better, the town council.


Tronchet: Adoption cannot be decided by the town council. That would be against the Constitution.


Bonaparte: Citizen Tronchet, although opposed to Portalis, cited the practice of the Romans in the matter of adoption. The ceremony of adoption was conducted in the “Comitium” in the presence of the people. The objection based on our Constitution is not valid; what is not formally prohibited is tacitly permitted. Adoption is not a contract; one does not sign a contract with a child; it is a solemn act by which Society mitigates the insufficiencies of nature; it is a kind of new sacrament; the child becomes, by the will of Society, the issue of the flesh and blood of his new parents. It is the most significant act imaginable. It is crucial that the decision, for it to be irrevocable, be made by a high authority. The court can present the circumstances of adoption, but in fact it is the legislative body that must accept it or refuse it.


The Civil Code was copied in the countries of the whole world, where many of its clauses are still in force today. In addition to the Civil code, Napoleon had four other codes drawn up and adopted:


The Commercial Code

Introduced on April 3, 1801, the final version of this code was adopted in 1807. Napoleon was then far from Paris, defending France against the attacks of the fourth coalition, (England, Prussia, Russia). After his victories at Iena, Auerstädt, Eylau and Friedland and his meeting with Tsar Alexander at Tilsit (treaty of July 7, 1807), he returned to St. Cloud on July 27, 1807. On the very next day, July 28, that is, without taking a single day’s rest, he presided over the work of the commission of the Council of State charged with drafting the final version of the Commercial Code. In the three other sessions that he chaired on July 29 and August 1 and 8, he accelerated the progress of affairs, and the various laws were enacted in September, 1807.


The Criminal Code

This code was introduced in 1801 and completed in 1808. The juge d’instruction (examining magistrate) made his appearance for the first time. He is still there today, and has so much power that he can examine even the most important figures of state.


The Penal Code

The Penal Code of 1810 has survived in its essential form and has retained a strong influence on the legislation of most of the countries of the world.


The Civil Procedure Code

This was designed to complement the Civil Code in every matter concerning the application of laws.


We have already seen how Napoleon extended the authority of the State into the remotest communities. It was he who inaugurated the system of prefect, sub-prefect, mayor. His firm,  constant desire to improve the lives of French citizens also led him to become involved in many other domains.


The Bank of France

La Banque de France was created on February 13, 1800 and, after six years of various experiments, received its final status under the law of April 22, 1806. France needed a paper currency that was acceptable to all. The State also had to be based on a powerful financial institution, able to provide advances to the Treasury. After August 1800, the Bank was able to pay government salaries and pensions in cash. In 1801, it was able to grant advances to the Treasury.


The Stock Exchange (La Bourse)

In the great cleanup campaign that the First Consul undertook upon coming to power at the end of 1799, he first had to attend to the most pressing business: ensuring the proper functioning of the treasury department. It was only after 1802, when he had obtained external peace through the treaties of Lunéville and Amiens that he was able to reorganize the financial and commercial markets by regulating the stock markets. As always, Bonaparte’s ideas were marked by their simplicity:

  • Mistrust of speculators and manipulators of all kinds who wish to enrich themselves while producing nothing.
  • Equal mistrust of exchange agents who are often the accomplices of the speculators.


He created stock exchanges in all the great cities, with a precise set of rules that guaranteed the proper running of businesses while limiting abuses. It was also Napoleon Bonaparte who oversaw the construction of the Paris Stock Exchange that exists to this day.


The Court of Audit

The decree ordering the creation of the Court of Audit was signed by the Emperor on September 18, 1807.



In 1800, France had 1000 kilometres of navigable canals. By 1814, it had 1900 additional kilometres. Furthermore, major improvement work was carried out on rivers, particularly the Seine, the Marne, the Aube, the Yonne and the Aisne. This primarily involved maintaining and repairing embankments and towpaths.



Napoleon ordered immense constructions that considerably changed the appearance and increased the capacities of the ports of Anvers, Brest and Cherbourg, where he had a great dike constructed. In addition, practically every port under his control, from Italy to Holland, benefited from some useful development, both for the merchant marine and the Navy.



From 1800 to 1814, thousands of kilometres of roads were constructed or improved. There were 14 first-class roads. The most important of these were:


  • no. 2 - from Paris to Amsterdam via Brussels and Anvers
  • no. 3 - from Paris to Hamburg via Liège, Wesel, Munster and Bremen
  • no. 4 - from Paris to Mayence and Prussia
  • no. 6 - from Paris to Rome via the Simplon Pass and Florence
  • no. 7 - from Paris to Milan via Mont-Cenis and Turin
  • no.11 - from Paris to Bayonne and Spain


Worthy of special mentioning are the three roads constructed through the Alps. These are the Simplon, Mont-Cénis and Mont-Genèvre Passes. It was also Napoleon who ordered that all roads be bordered by trees, in order to procure shade. This resulted in a considerable beautification of the countryside throughout France and the entire Empire.


Urban Development

Napoleon’s achievements in the area of urban development greatly improved the surroundings and living conditions of city dwellers. In 1800, whole city neighbourhoods still existed in the unhealthy conditions of the Middle Ages. The streets had a central ditch in which excrement and pestilential waste accumulated. By 1814, this was a thing of the past. It can be truly said that it was Napoleon who brought the cities from the Middle Ages into modern times.

Every city benefited from his decisions, the aims of which were not only hygienic but aesthetic. He extended his plan throughout France and the Empire, most notably in Bordeaux, Lyon, Lille, Marseilles, Rome and Venice. But it was above all in Paris that he accomplished his greatest achievements in urban development. Napoleon wanted the most beautiful capital in the world, and he got it.


Assisted by the best architects and engineers, he decided to construct wide thoroughfares and eradicated unhealthy neighbourhoods. Among his realizations should be noted the rue de Rivoli – as straight as an arrow – that runs along the edge of the garden of les Tuileries with wide sidewalks and arcades offering shelter against the weather. This same architectural order was applied to the rue des Pyramides and rue Castaglione, which together with the rue de Rivoli and the rue de la Paix, formed a first-rate monumental ensemble, at the centre of which is Place Vendôme (which ought to be called the Place de l’Empereur) with its column erected to the glory of the Grande Armée.


It is also to the Emperor that we owe the system of plaques bearing street names and house numbers (even numbers on one side and odd on the other); a system that was copied throughout Europe. It was also Napoleon who decided the shape of the pavement, slightly convex with gutters along the edges of the sidewalks.


In 1800, the overwhelming majority of the population was still dependent on the costly services of water carriers. Napoleon ordered the construction of hundreds of drinking water fountains, most of which were installed in the most elegant monuments.


It is also to Napoleon that we owe:

  • the beautification of the Palais de Luxembourg with its magnificent gardens
  • the enlargement of the Louvre, the transformation of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and the decoration of Les Invalides,
  • the construction of les Halles and of covered markets
  • the brigade of firemen, with their golden helmets
  • the abbatoirs, which put an end to the disgusting practice of butchers killing animals in front of their shops.
  • the construction of the great cemeteries of Père-Lachaise, of Montmartre and Montparnasse
  • the Arts, Cité, Austerlitz and Iena bridges
  • streetlighting. In 1814 Paris was the best-lit city in the world, and on many accounts deserved its reputation as the City of Light.


This rapid overview covers only a tiny portion of Napoleon’s accomplishments in the short space of less than fifteen years. Fifteen years during which he was the constant target of attacks by England, Austria, Russia, and Prussia. We can only dream about what he might have achieved if he had been able to work in peace, which had always been his most ardent desire.




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