What was the Napoleonic Code?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Napoleonic Code (Code Napoléon in French) is a code of law ratified in France in 1804. Among other things, it abolished class privileges based on birth and granted freedom of religion.

Prior to Napoleon Bonaparte's rise, law in nation-states around Europe was largely based on feudal precedents, noble birth, and wealth or land-ownership. Bonaparte sought a broader, more fair set of laws, and set up a commission to draft law based on Roman laws, which he perceived as being both easily understood and open for anyone to study and question. Attempts to codify this law were unsuccessful until Bonaparte gained power in 1799; his Constitution of the Year VIII gave him essential dictatorship over France, and he quickly formed the group of four who drafted the Napoleonic Code.

This set of laws, focusing on honesty, clarity, and equality, became very influential. Among its innovations were: more legal freedom for women; prohibition of judges from writing and/or passing law directly; prohibition of ex post facto (application of new law to prior events); and procedures for publishing laws publicly before they could be placed into effect. The method of a base set of laws that are interpreted by judges in court was adopted by many other countries, including the United States.

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