Saturday, June 27, 2009

Napoleon's Civil Code and New Orleans

Napoleon Bonaparte did more than leave behind a legacy of war and glory. He also created a code of laws which last to this day in many parts of the world. In 1804 Napoleon assembled a small body of jurists who devised the Code Civil. This was a revolution in the history of law. Now law was for the common man, not just for the elites. The code was the will of the legislature, and it set out in clear terms how society would be governed in matters relating to persons (such as marriage), property (including community property which gave greater rights to women) and to obligations (contracts or the aquisition of property).
The Code Civil was based on ancient Roman Law, and it was different from the British Common Law. Furthermore, it reflected the spirit of the more egalitarian French Revolution.
Long after his defeat at Waterloo and his demise at St. Helena, Napoleon's Civil Code endured. It became the basis for many laws in the state of Louisiana in the USA. (All the other states in the United States use law based on British Common Law, but Louisiana is based on Napoleon's Civil Code.)
The term worked its way into New Orleans history also through literature. There is a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams where Stanley Kowalski says, "Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what's known as the Napoleonic Code..." Stanley was so right; we are so different down here.
(In the photos above we see a painting of Napoleon at the battle of Jena with his Imperial Guard. There is a street in New Orleans named for this battle, Jena. We see a photo of a page from the French Civil Code. Finally, we see a photo of the title page from my copy of the Louisiana Civil Code -- which was given to me by my sister and my brother-in-law many years ago. All three photos relate to the influence of Napoleon on New Orleans. The photos of Jena and the French Code are from Wikipedia Commons and in public domain. I took the photo from my Louisiana Code.)


  1. Thanks for your comment.

    By the way, speaking of Texas, there is a fascinating historical link between New Orleans and the battle at the Alamo. Part of the defenders at the Alamo were volunteer soldiers called the New Orleans Greys (because they wore grey uniforms). They fought alongside the Texians, siding with Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, and died at the Alamo. Other New Orleans Greys were in other battles in the Texas Revolution including San Jacinto siding with Sam Houston. I hope to do an article about the New Orleans Greys in the near future. Thanks!