Cambacérès was born at Montpellier in southern France,
into a family of the legal nobility (noblesse de robe). In 1774
he graduated in law and succeeded his father as councillor in the
Montpellier court of accounts and finances. He was a supporter of
the French Revolution of 1789, and was elected to represent Montpellier
at the meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles, although he
was unable to take his seat. In 1792 he represented the département
of Herault in the Convention which assembled and proclaimed the
First French Republic in September 1792.
revolutionary terms Cambacérès was a moderate. 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, he voted with the majority which declared Louis to
be guilty, but recommended that the penalty should be postponed
until it could ratified by a legislative body.
1793 Cambacérès became a member of the Committee
of General Defence, but was not a member of its famous successor,
the Committee of Public Safety, until the end of 1794, after the
Reign of Terror had ended. In the meantime he worked on much of
the legislation of the revolutionary period. During 1795 he was
also employed as a diplomat, and negotiated peace with Spain.
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 Directorate 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) which brought Napoléon Bonaparte to power as First
Consul in a new regime designed to establish a stable constitutional
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 was the drawing up of a new
Civil Law Code, later called the Code Napoléon, France's
first modern legal code. The code was promulgated by Bonaparte
(as Emperor Napoleon) in 1804. It was the work of Cambacérès
and a commission of four lawyers.
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 Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, western Germany
and Spain, and indirectly to the Spanish colonies in Latin America.
Cambacérès's work has thus been enormously influential
in European and American legal history. Versions of the Code are
still in force in Québec and Louisiana.
Code dealt with Civil Law; other codes ensued for Penal Law, criminal
procedure, civil procedure.
It is widely believed that Cambacérès used the Code
Napoléon (or rather, the associated Penal Code) to decriminalise
male homosexuality, and the fact that he was himself homosexual
gives credibility to this belief. 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.
Napoléon is recorded as making a number of jokes on the
subject. During the Consulate, Bonaparte, Cambacérès
and Third Consul Charles-François Lebrun were known as
"Qui, Quae et Quod." (He, She and It).
the Revolution, sexual conduct had been regulated by mediaeval
ecclesiastical law. When the National Constituent Assembly abolished
ecclesiastical courts in 1791, it therefore in effect decriminalised
male homosexuality, although it is not clear that this was its
intention (a similar state of affairs occurred during the early
years of the Russian Revolution).
authors of the Code Napoléon had the option of reintroducing
a law against male homosexuality (as was eventually done in the
Soviet Union), but chose not to do so, presumably at least partly
as a result of the influence of Cambacérès. In this
sense Cambacérès can be credited with the decision
to make decriminalisation a permanent fact of French law. Recent
research by Michael Sibalis has shown, however, that Napoléonic
officials could and did repress homosexuality using other laws,
such as "offenses against public decency."
argues that while officials of the Napoléonic regime disliked
what they saw "crimes against nature," such offences
were seldom actually tried as such in the courts. He concludes
that despite police surveillance and harassment, "the Revolutionary
and Napoléonic period was a time of relative freedom,"
partially anticipating "contemporary legal toleration."
Cambacérès disapproved of Bonaparte's accumulation
of power into his own hands, culminating in the proclamation of
the First French Empire on 19 May 1804. But he retained high office
under Napoléon: Arch-Chancellor of the Empire and President
of the Senate. He also became a prince of the Empire and in 1808
was made Duke of Parma (French: duc de Parme). His duchy was one
of the twenty created as duché grand-fief (among 2200 noble
titles created by Napoleon)—a rare hereditary honor, extinguished
in 1824; even rarer, it was created in another part of the peninsula
then Napoleon's own Kingdom of Italy.
Napoléon, as under the revolutionary regime, he was a force
for moderation, opposing adventures such as the invasion of Russia
in 1812. As Napoléon 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. His taste for high living attracted hostile comment.
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 wars.
the Empire fell in 1814 Cambacérès retired to private
life, but was recalled during Napoléon's brief return to
power in 1815. After the restoration of the monarchy, he was in
danger of arrest for his revolutionary activities, and for a time
he was exiled from France. But the fact that he had opposed the
execution of Louis XVI counted in his favour, and in May 1818
his civil rights as a citizen of France were restored. He was
a member of the Académie française, and lived quietly
in provincial France until his death in 1824.