1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cambacérès, Jean Jacques Régis de

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 5
Cambacérès, Jean Jacques Régis de by John Holland Rose

CAMBACÉRÈS, JEAN JACQUES RÉGIS DE, duke of Parma (1753–1824), French statesman, was born at Montpellier on the 18th of October 1753. He was descended from a well-known family of the legal nobility (noblesse de la robe). He was designed for the magistracy of his province; and in 1771, when for a time the provincial parlement was suppressed, with the others, by the chancellor Maupeou, he refused to sit in the royal tribunal substituted for it. He continued, however, to study law with ardour, and in 1774 succeeded his father as councillor in the court of accounts and finances of his native town. Espousing the principles of the Revolution in 1789, he was commissioned by the noblesse of the province to draw up the cahier (statement of principles and grievances); and the sénéchaussée of Montpellier elected him deputy to the states-general of Versailles; but the election was annulled on a technical point. Nevertheless in 1792 the new department of Hérault, in which Montpellier is situated, sent him as one of its deputies to the Convention which assembled and proclaimed the Republic in September 1792. In the strife which soon broke out between the Girondins and the Jacobins he took no decided part, but occupied himself mainly with the legal and legislative work which went on almost without intermission even during the Terror. The action of Cambacérès at the time of the trial of Louis XVI. (December 25, 1792–January 20, 1793) was characteristic of his habits of thought. At first he protested against the erection of the Convention into a tribunal in these words: “The people has chosen you to be legislators; it has not appointed you as judges.” He also 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 the cessation of hostilities, and that the sentence should then be ratified by the Convention or by some other legislative body. It is therefore inexact to count him among the regicides, as was done by the royalists after 1815. Early in 1793 he became a member of the Committee of General Defence, but he did not take part in the work of its more famous successor, the Committee of Public Safety, until the close of the year 1794. In the meantime he had done much useful work, especially that of laying down, conjointly with Merlin of Douai, the principles on which the legislation of the revolutionary epoch should be codified. At the close of 1794 he also used his tact and eloquence on behalf of the restoration of the surviving Girondins to the Convention, from which they had been driven by the coup d’état of the 31st of May 1793. In the course of the year 1795, as president of the Committee of Public Safety, and as responsible especially for foreign affairs, he was largely instrumental in bringing about peace with Spain. Nevertheless, not being a regicide, he was not appointed to be one of the five Directors to whom the control of public affairs was entrusted after the coup d’état of Vendémiaire 1795; but, as before, his powers of judgment and of tactful debating soon carried him to the front in the council of Five Hundred. The moderation of his views brought him into opposition to the Directors after the coup d’état of Fructidor (September 1797), and for a time he retired into private life. Owing, however, to the influence of Sieyès, he became minister of justice in July 1799. He gave a guarded support to Bonaparte and Sieyès in their enterprise of overthrowing the Directory (coup d’état of Brumaire 1799).

After a short interval Cambacérès was, by the constitution of December 1799, appointed second consul of France—a position which he owed largely to his vast legal knowledge and to the conviction which Sieyès entertained of his value as a manipulator of public assemblies. It is impossible here to describe in detail his relations to Napoleon, and the part which he played in the drawing up of the Civil Code, later on called the Code Napoleon. It must suffice to say that the skilful intervention of Cambacérès helped very materially to ensure to Napoleon the consulship for life (August 1, 1802); but the second consul is known to have disapproved of some of the events which followed, notably the execution of the duc d’Enghien, the rupture with England, and the proclamation of the Empire (May 19, 1804). This last occurrence ended his title of second consul; it was replaced by that of arch-chancellor of the Empire. To him was decreed the presidence of the Senate in perpetuity. He also became a prince of the Empire and received in 1808 the title duke of Parma. Apart from the important part which he took in helping to co-ordinate and draft the Civil Code, Cambacérès did the state good service in many directions, notably by seeking to curb the impetuosity of the emperor, and to prevent enterprises so fatal as the intervention in Spanish affairs (1808) and the invasion of Russia (1812) proved to be. At the close of the campaign of 1814 he shared with Joseph Bonaparte the responsibility for some of the actions which zealous Bonapartists have deemed injurious to the fortunes of the emperor. In 1815, during the Hundred Days, he took up his duties reluctantly at the bidding of Napoleon; and after the second downfall of his master, he felt the brunt of royalist vengeance, being for a time exiled from France. A decree of 13th May 1818 restored him to his civil rights as a citizen of France; but the last six years of his life he spent in retirement. He was a member of the Academy till the 31st of March 1816, when a decree of exclusion was passed. In demeanour he was quiet, reserved and tactful, but when occasion called for it he proved himself a brilliant orator. He was a celebrated gourmet, and his dinners were utilized by Napoleon as a useful adjunct to the arts of statecraft.

See A. Aubriet, Vie de Cambacérès (2nd ed., Paris, 1825).  (J. Hl. R.)