Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès

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Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès
Maurin - Cambaceres.png
Second Consul of France
In office
12 December 1799 18 May 1804
Preceded by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès
Succeeded byRepublic abolished
Personal details
Born18 October 1753
Died8 March 1824(1824-03-08) (aged 70)

Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, duc de Parme (18 October 1753 8 March 1824), was a French nobleman, lawyer and statesman during the French Revolution and the First Empire. He is best remembered as one of the authors of the Napoleonic Code, [1] [2] which still forms the basis of French civil law and French-inspired civil law in many countries.


Early life

Cambacérès was born in Montpellier, into a poor family of the legal nobility. [2] [3] (His brother, Étienne Hubert de Cambacérès, later became a cardinal.) In 1774, he graduated in law from the college d'Aix and succeeded his father (who later became mayor of Montepellier) as Councillor in the court of accounts and finances in Toulouse. [4] [5] He was a supporter of the French Revolution of 1789, and was elected as an extra deputy to represent the nobility of Montpellier (in case the government doubled the nobility's delegation) at the meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles. However, since the delegation was not increased, he never took his seat. In 1792, he represented the department of Hérault at the National Convention which assembled and proclaimed the First French Republic in September 1792.

National Convention

In revolutionary terms, Cambacérès was a moderate republican and sat left of center during the National Convention. [6] During the trial of Louis XVI he protested that the Convention did not have the power to sit as a court and demanded that the king should have due facilities for his defence. Nevertheless, when the trial proceeded, Cambacérès voted with the majority that declared Louis to be guilty, but recommended that the penalty should be postponed until it could be ratified by a legislative body. [2] This would later save him from being executed for regicide. During the Convention, many of his decisions (like the latter) were well thought out and calculated. Cambacérès made sure that he never committed himself to a certain faction. [7] His legal expertise made him useful to all parties; he was a friend to all and an enemy to none. [3] However, due to this, his fellow representatives at the convention did criticize him for sometimes fluctuating on some positions. [5]

Rise under Napoleon

Cambacérès was a member of the Committee of General Defence from 1793 until the end of 1794, and later became a member of its infamous successor, the Committee of Public Safety after the fall of Robespierre. [5] In the meantime he worked on much of the legislation of the revolutionary period. [2] During 1795, he was employed as a diplomat and negotiated peace with Spain, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Batavian Republic. His remarkable debating skills gave him a spot as a councilor of the Five Hundred from 1795-1799. [5]

Cambacérès was considered too conservative to be one of the five Directors who took power in the coup of 1795 and, finding himself in opposition to the Executive Directory, he retired from politics. In 1799, however, as the Revolution entered a more moderate phase, he became Minister of Justice. He supported the coup of 18 Brumaire (in November 1799) that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power as First Consul, a new regime designed to establish a stable constitutional republic.

The Napoleonic Code

A portrait of the three Consuls, from left to right: Jean Jacques Regis de Cambaceres, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles-Francois Lebrun. 3consuls.jpg
A portrait of the three Consuls, from left to right: Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles-François Lebrun.

In December 1799, Cambacérès was appointed Second Consul under Bonaparte. He owed this appointment to his vast legal knowledge and his reputation as a moderate republican. His most important work during this period, and arguably during his entire political career, was the drawing up of a new Civil Law Code (later called the Napoleonic Code; France's first modern legal code). [8] The Code was promulgated by Bonaparte (as Emperor Napoleon) in 1804. In the end, the Napoleonic Code was the work of Cambacérès and a commission of four lawyers.

The Code was a revised form of Roman law, with some modifications drawn from the laws of the Franks still current in northern France (Coutume de Paris). The Code was later extended by Napoleon's conquests to Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, western Germany and Spain, and indirectly to the Spanish colonies in Latin America. Cambacérès' work has thus been enormously influential in European and American legal history. Versions of the Code are still in force in Quebec and Louisiana.

The Napoleonic Code dealt with Civil Law; other codes ensued for Penal Law, criminal procedure, and civil procedure.

Life with Napoleon (1804–1815)

Cambacérès disapproved of Bonaparte's accumulation of power into his own hands (culminating in the proclamation of the First French Empire on 18 May 1804) but retained high office under Napoleon: Arch-Chancellor of the Empire and President of the House of Peers from 2 June, to 7 July 1815. He also became a prince of the Empire and in 1808 was made Duke of Parma (French: duc de Parme). [2] His duchy was one of the twenty created as a duché grand-fief (among 2200 noble titles created by Napoleon)—a rare hereditary honor, extinguished upon Cambacérès' death in 1824. He was essentially second in command of France during the Napoleonic era.

Under Napoleon, he was a force for moderation and reason, opposing adventures such as the Spanish affairs in 1808 and the invasion of Russia in 1812. Nevertheless, Cambacérès was extremely trusted by Napoleon and was constantly consulted for advice; Cambacérès even sat as Council of State when Bonaparte was involved in other affairs. [6] As Napoleon became increasingly obsessed with military affairs, Cambacérès became the de facto domestic head of government of France, a position which inevitably made him increasingly unpopular as France's economic situation grew worse. As more and more of Napoleon's ministers proved themselves untrustworthy, Cambacérès' power continued to grow. [6] His taste for high living also attracted hostile comments. Nevertheless, he was given credit for the justice and moderation of his government, although the enforcement of conscription was increasingly resented towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

When the Empire fell in 1814, Cambacérès retired to private life but was later called upon during Napoléon's brief return to power in 1815. During the Hundred Days, the short period of time when Napoleon returned from exile, Cambacérès served as the minister of justice. [9] After the restoration of the monarchy, he was in danger of arrest for his revolutionary activities, and he was exiled from France in 1816. The fact that he had opposed the execution of Louis XVI counted in his favor, and in May 1818 his civil rights as a citizen of France were restored. From 1815 and on, Cambacérès used the title of Duke of Cambacérès (on the fall of the Empire, the Duchy of Parma passed to former Empress Marie Louise). He was a member of the Académie française and lived quietly in Paris until his death in 1824.

Private life

The common belief that Cambacérès is responsible for decriminalizing homosexuality in France is in error.

Before the French Revolution, sodomy had been a capital crime under royal legislation. The penalty was burning at the stake. Very few men, however, were ever actually prosecuted and executed for consensual sodomy (no more than five in the entire eighteenth century). Sodomites arrested by the police were more usually released with a warning or held in prison for, at most, a few weeks or months. The National Constituent Assembly revised French criminal law in 1791 and got rid of a variety of offenses inspired by religion, including blasphemy. Sodomy was not specifically mentioned but was covered under the umbrella of 'religious crimes'. Since there was no public debate, its motives remain unknown (a similar state of affairs occurred during the early years of the Russian Revolution). [10]

Cambacérès was a homosexual, his sexual orientation was well-known, and he does not seem to have made any effort to conceal it. He remained unmarried, and kept to the company of other bachelors. Napoleon is recorded as making a number of jokes on the subject. [11] Upon hearing that Cambacérès had recruited a woman for a mission, Napoleon responded with, "my compliments, so you have come closer to women?". [12] Robert Badinter once mentioned in a speech to the French National Assembly, during debates on reforming the homosexual age of consent, that Cambacérès was known in the gardens of the Palais-Royal as "Tante Urlurette". [13] [14]

In fact, however, Cambacérès was not responsible for ending the legal prosecution of homosexuals. He did play a key role in drafting the Code Napoléon, but this was a civil law code. He had nothing to do with the Penal Code of 1810, which covered sexual crimes.

The authors of the Penal Code of 1810 had the option of reintroducing a law against male homosexuality (as was eventually done in the Soviet Union), but there is no evidence that they even considered doing so. This had nothing to do with the influence of Cambacérès, as recent research has shown. However, Napoleonic officials could and did repress public expressions of homosexuality using other laws, such as "offenses against public decency". Nevertheless, despite police surveillance and harassment, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era was a time of relative freedom for homosexuals and opened the modern era of legal toleration for homosexuality in Europe. Napoleonic conquests imposed the principles of Napoleon's Penal Code (including the decriminalization of homosexuality) on many other parts of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and Italy. Other states freely followed the French example, including Bavaria in 1813 and Spain in 1822. [15]

Cambacérès' colleagues also didn't fail to poke fun at his gluttony. When he met with the Council while Napoleon was away, everyone knew that the meeting would be over before lunch. [8] He was known for having the best dinners in France and for his extravagant lifestyle. According to him, "a country is governed by good dinner parties". His estate was worth around 7.3 million francs (around €50 million in 2015 euros) upon his death in 1824. [4] His body now lies in the cemetery of Père Lachaise where he was buried with military honors. [16]


Cambaceres was admitted to the lodge of "Les Amis Fidèles" in Montpellier in 1775. During Napoleon's reign, he was charged by the Emperor to monitor Freemasonry in France. From 1805 to 1815, he was the assistant of Joseph Bonaparte, Grand Master of Grand Orient de France, and managed the post-revolutionary rebirth of French freemasonry. During his term, more than 1200 lodges were created. [17] [18] [19] [20]

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  1. "Jean-Jacques-Regis de Cambaceres, duke de Parme | French statesman". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cambacérès, Jean Jacques Régis de"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 80–81.
  3. 1 2 Harper (1835). The Court and Camp of Bonaparte. New York: Harper and Brothers. p. 132.
  4. 1 2 Connelly, Owen (1985). Historical Dictionary of France: 1799–1815. Westport, CT: Greenwood. pp.  94–95. ISBN   9780313213212.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Richardson, Hubert (1920). A Dictionary of Napoleon and His Times. University of Michigan Library. p. 94.
  6. 1 2 3 Woloch, Isser (2002). Napoleon and His Collaborators. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 120–155. ISBN   978-0-393-32341-2.
  7. Lyons, Martyn (1994). Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. St. Martin's Press. pp. 36, 66.
  8. 1 2 Cronin, Vincent (1972). Napoleon Bonaparte; An Intimate Biography. pp. 176, 193, 283.
  9. Muel, Leon (1891). Gouvernements, ministères et constitutions de la France depuis cent ans. Marchal et Billard. p. 100. ISBN   978-1249015024.
  10. Sibalis, Michael (1996). "The Regulation of Male Homosexuality in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1789–1815". In Merrick, Jeffrey; Ragan, Bryant T. (eds.). Homosexuality in Modern France. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 80–101.
  11. Bory, Jean-Louis (1979). Les cinq girouettes ou servitudes & souplesse de son Altesse Sérénissime le Prince Archichancelier de l'Empire Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès duc de Parme. Paris: Ramsay. p. [ page needed ].
  12. Gueniffey, Patrice (2016). Bonaparte: 1759-1802. Paris: Gillimard. p. 603.
  13. Aldrich, Robert (2000). Who's who in Gay and Lesbian History. Routledge. p. 95.
  14. "Proceedings of the National Assembly, 2nd sitting of 20 December 1981" (PDF). p. 5371.
  15. Sibali, Michael (2006). "The Age of Enlightenment and Revolution". In Aldrich, Robert (ed.). Gay Life and Culture: A World History. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 117–119.
  16. Richardson, Hubert (1920). A Dictionary of Napoleon and His Times. London Cassell. p. 95.
  17. Saunier, Eric, ed. (2007). "La Franc-maçonnerie sous l'Emprire : un age d'or ?". La Franc maçonnerie et l'Etat napoleonien (in French). Dervy: 141.
  18. Faucher, Jean André; Ricker, Achille. Histoire de la franc-maçonnerie en France (in French). p. 231.[ full citation needed ]
  19. Pinaud, Pierre-François (1999). Cambacérès: Le Premier surveillant de la franc-maçonnerie impériale (in French). Editions maçonniques de France. p. [ page needed ].
  20. Delbert, Jean-Paul (2005). Cambacérès : Unificateur de la franc-maçonnerie sous le Premier Empire. Grands caractères. p. [ page needed ].
Political offices
Preceded by
Three Provisional Consuls
Napoleon Bonaparte
Roger Ducos
Joseph Sieyes
Head of State of France
Second Consul, along with:
Napoleon Bonaparte (First Consul)
Charles-François Lebrun (Third Consul)

Succeeded by
Napoleon I
(as Emperor of the French)