Napoleon and the Civil Code

Considered to be one of the most important plays of American theater in the twentieth century and certainly among the most famous, "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams portrays the slow degradation of New Orleans couple Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella, née DuBois. Early in this drama, Stanley asks if she has ever heard of the Napoleonic code. Facing her negative response, he begins to enlighten her on one of the fundamental principles of this system, community property. "In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa." Indeed, Louisiana operates on a different legal system from the rest of the United States. Thanks to "Streetcar" in addition to the French language, Mardi Gras and delicious cuisine, America knows that another peculiarity of Louisiana is our legal system, and that, according to tradition, because of Napoleon Bonaparte.


Only that's not quite true. What is called the civil code has its origins in the codification of Roman law under Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. Among his accomplishments, Justinian had reunited the Roman Empire from its capital at the time, Constantinople. Like him, Napoleon was able to create his empire under the aegis of a uniform system of laws that eliminated the regional differences that could affect the operation of trade and political life throughout the conquered territory. Okay, the Grand Army had a little to do with the unification of the various peoples, in the same way that Justinian took advantage of the military victories of his general Belisarius to gather his empire. Nevertheless, the idea that the primary law is written legislative expression, not the result of a long series of judgments and precedents, makes us stand out from the Anglo-Saxon world, that is to say the rest of the United States, Canada except for Quebec, the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth where common law reigns supreme. The majority of the other countries in the world use also a form of civil law.


Despite its nickname, our civil code owes more to the Custom of Paris and the Spanish Las Siete Partidas than the actual Napoleonic code which was issued on March 21, 1804, a year after the Louisiana Purchase. The first Louisiana code was the Civil Law Digest proclaimed on March 31, 1808, and written by Brown, Livingston and Moreau-Lislet. This digest is based on work that led to the Napoleonic Code, but it is not exactly the same. The first civil code after our entry into the American Union was published in English and French on April 12, 1824, ten years and one day after the death of the Petit Corporal.


The beauty of the code’s language in its clarity and precision was demonstrated by a master of style, Stendhal. In a letter to Balzac, himself not a bad writer of French, he said that every day while writing The Charterhouse of Parma he would read two or three pages of the code to emulate its style. Today, we must refer to the original French version in case of a dispute over the meaning of an article that was translated into English. French is not a technicality, which means a will or a contract written in French in Louisiana cannot be invalidated on the sole fact of it being written in French. If Louisiana laws must be enacted in English, they may and can also be in French, just like contracts and wills. French is the working language of CODOFIL. It is thanks to these traditions and laws that we can say that French has a legal and official status it does not have elsewhere in the United States.


Napoleon's shadow still weigh heavily on our present, from the Napoleon House in the French Quarter built in the hope of one day housing him, to the first motorized fishing boat, the Petit Corporal, you can still see my childhood town, Golden Meadow. And every year for the unconventional "Stella!" competition at the Tennessee Williams Festival, we can thank Stanley for his course on the Napoleonic code… with poetic license.

Categories: Theatre + Art