100 heroes: Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès

The gay man who developed the rule of law in France.

100 heroes: Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès

Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, duc de Parme was a French lawyer and statesman during the French Revolution and the First Empire. He is best remembered as one of the authors of the Napoleonic Code, which still forms the basis of French civil law.

Early life

Cambacérès was born in 1753 in Montpellier.

In 1774, he graduated in law from the college d’Aix and succeeded his father as Councillor in the court of accounts and finances in Toulouse.

The Revolution

Cambacérès was a supporter of the French Revolution of 1789.

In 1792, he represented the department of Hérault at the National Convention which assembled and proclaimed the First French Republic in September 1792.

In revolutionary terms, Cambacérès was a moderate republican. His legal expertise made him useful to all parties.

Rise under Napoleon

As a member of the Committee of General Defence from 1793, Cambacérès worked on much of the legislation of the revolutionary period.

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.

Cambacérès was considered too conservative to be one of the five Directors who took power in the coup of 1795, but by 1799 he had been appointed as Minister of Justice.

In 1799, he supported the coup that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power as First Consul, forming a new regime designed to establish a stable constitutional republic.

The Napoleonic Code

In 1799, Cambacérès was appointed Second Consul under Bonaparte. He was effectively second-in-command of France during the Napoleonic era.

Cambacérès was charged with the drawing up of a new Civil Law Code – later called the Napoleonic Code, recognised as France’s first modern legal code. It came into effect in 1804.

Napolean’s conquests of Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, western Germany, and Spain meant that the legal code created by Cambacérès shaped the legal framework of much of Europe and Latin America.

Decriminalisation of homosexuality

Cambacérès has been credited with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in France. However, that doesn’t seem to be accurate.

Prior to the Revolution, sodomy had been a capital crime under royal legislation. The penalty was burning at the stake. Executions rarely happened, men caught having sex with other men were usually cautioned or imprisoned.

The National Assembly of 1791 removed a range of criminal offences that were religion-based, such as blasphemy. While sodomy wasn’t specifically mentioned in this context, it fell under the umbrella of religious crimes and so was effectively removed by the National Assembly at that time.

The Penal Code of France was updated in 1810. This would have been an opportunity to reinstate the criminalisation of sodomy and homosexuality if that was an issue. There is no evidence that any consideration was given to this.

Public decency offences were used to police public sexual encounters between men, but otherwise this appears to have been a period of relative freedom for gay men.

Restoration of the monarchy

After the restoration of the monarchy, Cambacérès was in danger of arrest because of his role in the revolution. In 1816, he was exiled from France. In 1818, his citizenship was restored and he returned to live in Paris.

Private life

Cambacérès was relatively open about his attraction to men. He remained unmarried and is noted as having been surrounded by unmarried young men.

Cambacérès died in Paris in 1824.

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