The Emancipation of Jews 1808

Report and Proposed Decree Requiring the Jews to Adopt Fixed First and Last Names

Source: Fondation Napoléon;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

The Jews known under the denomination of German Jews have no patronymic or family name.

A small number of names drawn from their sacred books is used indiscriminately for all individuals. They only add, or rather, the need to distinguish among them sees to it, that the cities in which they live is added for them. But when they change domicile this surname is found in default, and from this is born the first subject for misunderstandings. The Jews thus have the ability to change, and do in fact change their names as soon as an interest calls for it. It can easily be conceived how convenient this metamorphosis is for escaping both public charges and private obligations.

The minister proposes subjecting every Jew to adopting a name by a solemn declaration made before the mayor of the commune in which he is domiciled.

The need for this measure for public order is obvious. Its usefulness for the Jews is no less so.

Thus the most distinguished individuals of this belief, spread over Germany, have already solicited and obtained a similar regulation in some of the states of the Rhine Confederation.

But in France the old legislation presents no precise measures from which this regulation can be derived.

Under the first two dynasties the French bore only one name, as did all ancient peoples, the Romans excepted. This usage, which caused a strange confusion, caused us to lose the trace of filiations during this first period. Under the third dynasty the successions introduced in the seigneuries led to the names of lands being added to proper names. Those who did not possess lands attempted to share the benefits of this innovation. They took surnames drawn from their dignities, professions, habits, and personal qualities, until the modern usage of giving first names at baptism came and fixed in an excellent manner both the family succession and the distinctions among individuals.

The usage of first names given at baptism soon became general. The surname drawn from the land became less useful. It even appeared dangerous, and so the ordinance of 1629, article 211, prescribed that under penalty of nullification every gentleman was to take the name of his family and not that of his seigneurie for all acts and contracts.

The law of June 23, 1790 which has been much discussed, and that of 6 Fructidor, year II, which appeared so severe, did nothing but renew the measures of the ordinance of 1629: they didn’t even go as far as it, since they don’t, like the latter, pronounce the nullification of acts.

The law of 11 Germinal, year XI supposes that every Frenchman must have a last name and first name, since it designates those than can be taken and legislates the legal way to change it if the need arises.

Finally, when the Code Napoleon, article 54, prescribed the stating in the état civil of the first and last names of those denominated it also supposed that each of them is obliged to have a first and last name.

All of our laws have thus admitted this supposition, which is certainly justified by the facts. Nevertheless, the fact is the consequence of a simple usage, but one so ancient and so useful and general that if it lacks the solemnity of the law it yet has all of its force. It is here communis sponsio civitatis, and there is no doubt that we can, by a simple decree, oblige foreigners to conform to it. And this is all the more true as regards German Jews, since by the general measure of the third decree of last March 17 they are subject for ten years to a kind of trial period that the government can only exercise in their regard through regulations and administrative acts.

Let us now examine if the decree proposed by the minister fulfills the object it proposes.

By the first article the Jews are subject only to taking a patronymic, but there will result confusion of such a sort for parents and their children, and for the children among each other, that the decree will only have fended off a portion of the evil. If this usage of having only one name was able to last so long among us it is because social transactions were not complicated, they involved only a small number of families, and they almost all involved seigneuries.

The current constitution of society demands more.

It is necessary that the Jews follow this common usage, that they take a proper name characteristic of the family, common to all those who descend and will descend from the same father, but that each of the individuals distinguish himself by a first name.

Article three of the minister’s proposal correctly prohibits Jews from taking as patronymics those drawn from their sacred books and the names of cities.

The former are few in number, and since they will not fail to be adopted by all the Jews, the confusion of which we complain still remains. As for the names of cities, we here encounter the same difficulties, and what is more, a name taken from a city appears to indicate the domicile or the seigneuries and is no longer applicable when one or the other consideration ceases.

But every imperative measure requires a sanction, and the proposed decree pronounces no penalty against those Jews who will have neglected or refused to take a name during the prescribed period.

In order to find the measure of this penalty we must go back to the ancient usage become common law that obliges every Frenchman to have a fixed first and last name, and recall that the legislation supposes the meeting of this obligation. Whoever fails to fulfill it cannot find a place a place in society, for thanks to his metamorphoses he would escape the action of the law.

From this is derived the need, and consequently the right, to exclude from society whoever does not have the common sign by which the law recognizes the individual, protects, and punishes him. This right, we repeat, is particularly applicable to German Jews, and is but the complement to the legislation’s efforts to raise these Jews to the dignity of other citizens of the Empire.

But after formally submitting to the common law, is there no reason to fear that the Jews, who have often been reproached their hardheadedness, won’t surrender to the old habit of changing their names, so that we will often find ourselves confused between the names they bear and those they should bear?

The law of 11 Germinal, year XI does not legislate the changes in first and last names that individuals individually allow themselves without having recourse to the authority of either tribunals or the government.

On this matter the former jurisprudence had only dealt with the usurpation of names and arms of important families.

But the appeals tribunal, by a decision of 18 Ventôse, decided that the act of stipulating under another name in an act was a forgery and as such was under the jurisdiction of the special tribunals.

In fact, presenting oneself for a public act, whatever it might be, or contracting a private obligation under a name other than one’s own, means attacking the act in its substance, means altering its matter, and consequently committing the crime of forgery.

This jurisprudence of the appeals court merits adoption. And the proposed decree will find its sanction in the measure that applies the penalty to forgers, against any Jews who, after having taken a first and last name, presents himself for a public act or contracts a private obligation under different names.

All of these measures appear to be appropriate in backing up the government’s foresight.

All of them are favorable to the Jews. Inspiring in them the family sprit that is enriched by the past advances their regeneration. Having them share the noble institution of names, which inspires in perishable man something personal to them and which must not perish with them, allows them to profit by the present and grab hold of their future.

The Section consequently proposes the following decree:

Proposed Decree

Napoleon, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine;

On the report of our minister if the interior;

Our Council of State having been heard;

We decreed and decree the following:

Art 1 — Those subjects of our Empire who follow the Hebraic cult and who, until now, have not had a fixed patronymic and first name shall be obliged to adopt one within three months of the publication of our present decree and then declare it at the town hall of the commune in which they are domiciled.

Art 2 — Those foreign Jews who will come to inhabit the Empire and who shall be in the case foreseen by Art 1 shall be obliged to fulfill the same formality within three months of their arrival in France.

Art 3 — No names drawn from the Old Testament or any name of a city shall be admitted as a patronymic. Nevertheless, names drawn for the Old Testament can be received as first names.

Art 4 — The consistories, in compiling a census of the Jews of their community, shall be obliged to verify and make known to the authorities if they individually fulfilled the conditions prescribed by the preceding articles.

They shall also be obliged to supervise and make known to the authorities those Jews of their community who will have changed their names without conforming to the clauses of the law of 11 Germinal, year 11.

Art. 5 — Shall be exempt from the clauses of this decree the Jews of our states or the foreign Jews who come to settle in them, when they have names and first names known in commerce and which they have consistently borne, even if said names are drawn for the Old Testament or the cities which they have inhabited.

Art. 6 — The Jews mentioned in the preceding article and who will wish to maintain their names and first names shall nevertheless be obliged to make a declaration of this; to wit, the Jews of our states at the town hall of the commune in which they are domiciled, and the foreign Jews, at the one where they propose to fix their domicile, all within the period laid out in Article 1.

Art. 7 — Those Jews who will not have fulfilled the formalities prescribed by the present decree within the period laid out shall be sent out of the territory of the Empire. As for those who in any public act or private contract will have changed their name arbitrarily and without conforming to the measures of the law of 11 Germinal, shall be prosecuted as forgers.

Art. 8 — Our high judge, minister of justice, and ministers if the interior and of cults are charged, each in their area, with the execution of the present decree.

June 23, 1808