Cambacérès Manuscripts acquired by Montpellier

The bicentenary of the death of Napoleon will no doubt lead to many discussions of the emperor and his associates. One of the most important of these was Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès (1753-1824), a notable jurist, legislator, and political survivor. In November 2020, the municipality of Montpellier acquired the manuscripts of the Mémoires of Cambacérès

The manuscripts were presented in public in March, and are to be digitised to become publicly accessible. 1999 was the two-hundredth anniversary of Cambacérès becoming minister of justice and of his support of the coup d’état of dix-huit brumaire that brought Napoleon to power as First Consul, with Cambarérès as second consul. That year saw his hitherto unpublished Mémoires appear under the editorship of Laurence Chatel de Briancion. In the same year, a colloquium was held at his home town of Montpellier, where he had held minor judicial posts under the ancien régime and his father had served as mayor. Chatel de Briancion also edited the Actes of this colloquium. These ranged over his links with Montpellier, his role as a carrier of Enlightenment, his political role in the First Empire, and his work as a legislator.

Cambacérès is one of the most interesting and intriguing figures of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Born into a family of noblesse de robe in Montpellier, he managed not only to stay afloat, but even to swim successfully, in the troubled waters of the Revolution. At the same time, his brother Étienne-Hubert rose to become Archbishop of Rouen in 1802. It is worth noting that Cambacérès played an important role in negotiating the concordat with the papacy. Under the First Empire, he became Archichancelier in 1804 and Duke of Parma in 1808 in the Napoleonic peerage. From the Revolutionary period onwards he was important in the development of legislation in France and indeed produced three projets for codification of a united law in France between 1793 and 1796, later serving as minister of justice from 1799. It was under Cambacérès’s leadership that the Code civil des français was enacted, drafted by François Tronchet, Félix Bigot de Prémaneu, Jean Portalis, and Jacques de Maleville.

The assessment of the role of Cambacérès in legal history and the transition from the ancien droit to the nouveau droit starts with Jean-Louis Halpérin’s L’Impossible Code civil (1992), which has led to a reevaluation of the subject. But Cambacérès was also important in the history freemasonry in France (see Pierre-François Pinaud, Cambacérès – Le Premier Surveillant de la of Franc-Maçonnerie impériale (2016)), as well as as a politician.