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Code Napoléon: 1804

The civil code of 1804, named after Napoleon himself in 1807, differs from other famous codes (such as Justinian's in the 6th century) in not codifying an existing body of law. Instead it sets out to provide a rational and general basis on which civil law may be established.

It of course confirms the main achievement of the revolution, finding feudal privileges contrary to justice, and it enshrines in broad terms the revolutionary ideal of individual liberty. But in principle this is a charter for the bourgeoisie; employers turn out to have more rights than employees. Jean Portalis, one of the lawyers drafting it, comments that 'the political and the social good is always found between two extremes'.

The first of its three books deals with the 'law of persons', meaning the rights of each individual and the relationships between individuals. The family is made the cornerstone of society, with the balance of advantage reserved for the role of husband and father. In the revolutionary years divorce has been easy for both partners; now much greater restrictions are placed on the freedom of the wife.

The second book is concerned with the 'law of things', dealing essentially with questions of property. The third covers the acquisition of rights, whether through wills or any form of contract.

The Code Napoléon is exported from France in its early years to the European territories already annexed by France (such as Belgium, the Rhineland, Savoy), to the 'sister republics' established in the Netherlands (Batavian Republic), Switzerland (Helvetic) and Italy (Cisalpine, Ligurian), and to the territories conquered by Napoleon in his campaigns from 1805. It is also taken as a model by many of the new nations in Latin America when they win their independence during the early 19th century.

Napoleon on St Helena, looking back on his achievements and failures, predicts that the civil code will be his most lasting memorial.

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