Monuments of Imperial Russian Law: Bentham’s Russian Project

Michael Widener


Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832). Papers Relative to Codification and Public Instruction: Including Correspondence with The Russian Emperor, and Divers Constituted Authorities in the American United States. London: Printed by J. M’Creery, 1817. Yale University Library

Bentham had genuine expectations of being invited to Russia to help codify the laws of the Russian Empire. The published translation of his work on codification had enjoyed the support of the Emperor himself, who was known to have read the work, and Bentham quietly lobbied his friends in London and in St. Petersburg to further this project.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia derailed the project. Bentham perhaps did not appreciate how deeply the Napoleonic wars had antagonized the Russian court towards anything French, including the example of the Napoleonic codes. Rightly or wrongly, Bentham was seen as being part of the French codification movement. Emperor Alexander I did not pursue Bentham’s intimations that he would welcome a return to the project, whereupon Bentham, partly in annoyance, published his correspondence and the Reply of the Emperor, together with collateral correspondence conducted along the same lines with American politicians and statesmen – for Bentham likewise entertained hopes of contributing to codification in the United States. Bentham’s correspondents in the United States included Simon Snyder (1759-1819), the Governor of Pennsylvania, and James Madison (1751-1836), late President of the United States.

Rather than pursue codification of law based on abstract principles and logic, Russia turned to its own historical traditions in law. In this Russia was influenced by the thinking of, among others, Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779-1861), a leading proponent of the historical method and severe critic of the Code system imposed on Europe by Napoleon. Savigny’s attack on codification was first published in 1814 and revised in 1828; for an English version, see Of the Vocation of Our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence, transl. A. Hayward (1831).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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