Preliminary Address on the First Draft of the Civil Code

Note

[1] Preliminary Address delivered on the occasion of the presentation of the draft of the government commission, on 1 Pluviôse IX (21 January 1801).

Promulgated on 21 March 1804, the Civil Code of France still stands today as a towering monument in French legal history. Some jurists under the Old Regime dreamed of unifying the old French private law, which was divided between regions with customary law and regions with statute law. The Constituent Assembly had promised a new, unified Code. To carry out that dream Cambacérès presented three successive drafts (1793, 1794 and 1796), but the revolutionary assemblies failed to pass them. With the encouragement of Bonaparte, and supported by a number of jurists drawn to the new power, the Consulate successfully completed its codification project. Resumed soon after the coup of Brumaire, the task of drafting the code was given to a government commission whose four members - Tronchet, Portalis, Bigot de Préameneu and Maleville - worked on it for five months. After the courts reviewed and commented on the draft, it was reworked by the Council of State over almost a hundred sessions, half of which were chaired by Bonaparte himself, who frequently intervened in the debates, and then submitted to the Tribunate and the Legislative Corps.

The Preliminary Address could be considered the preamble to the draft Civil Code produced by the government commission between August 1800 and January 1801. Although bearing the signatures of all four commission members, the Preliminary Address is actually the work of Portalis, whose moderate spirit inspired the drafters of the Code. According to Portalis, legislators should remain modest: a code should not try to say everything; it must leave room for interpretation by the courts and jurists. This principle led to the well-known saying, "the codes that govern peoples are created over time; but, in reality, we do not create them." Apart from its significance and value as a document of legal history, the Preliminary Address is also a magnificent piece of propaganda that presents the future code as a synthesis of new ideas and the law of the Old Regime while at the same time exalting the peacefulness of the Consulate after the Revolution.

Despite its great importance and near-legendary status, the text of the Preliminary Address (Discours préliminaire) can be difficult to find in French and, to our knowledge, did not exist in English. Thus, we thought it would be useful to make it available to everyone on the Internet in both English and French.

© The International Cooperation Group
Department of Justice of Canada
May 2004

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