Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey
Amiable and obliging, Joseph Bonaparte was in many respects the opposite of his younger brother Napoleon. Joseph was fond of literature, gardening and entertaining. He was perfectly happy to spend his days pottering about his estate. Napoleon, however, had grander plans for his brother, most notably the Spanish throne. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Joseph fled to the United States, where he is credited with bringing European culture to the locals.
Joseph Bonaparte was born in Corte, Corsica, on January 7, 1768. He was the oldest of Charles and Letizia Bonaparte’s eight children (for the complete list, see Napoleon’s family tree), and a year and a half older than their second child, Napoleon. Napoleon became closer to Joseph than to any of his other siblings. They spent their early childhood together in Ajaccio. In late 1778, they together left Corsica to go to school in France. Joseph had been marked for the priesthood, so he began classical studies at a college in Autun, while Napoleon went to the military school in Brienne.
Joseph Bonaparte didn’t want to be a priest. He, like Napoleon, wanted to be an artillery officer. When Charles Bonaparte was dying, he made Joseph promise to give up any thought of following a military career and instead return to Corsica to devote himself to family duties. Upon his father’s death in early 1785, Joseph became head of the family. He looked after the farm and vineyard and helped Letizia support his younger siblings. In 1787, on the advice of his great-uncle, Joseph left for Tuscany to enrol at the University of Pisa. The following year he graduated with a law degree. This enabled him to acquire a job in the French-Corsican judicial system.
Joseph and Napoleon worked together to advance family interests and the French Revolutionary cause in Corsica. In 1790, Napoleon – by then an army officer – helped Joseph get elected to the municipal council of Ajaccio.
After coming into conflict with Corsican nationalist leader Pasquale Paoli in 1793, the Bonapartes fled to France. Thanks to the help of a family friend, Joseph was able to get a job as a commissary of the army in the south of France. While staying in Marseilles, Joseph met Marie Julie Clary, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Though not physically attractive, Julie was intelligent and of good character. Letizia liked her and – with an eye on the young lady’s fortune – thought she would be a good match for her son. On August 1, 1794 Joseph and Julie were married.
Napoleon courted Julie’s younger sister Désirée, but her father decided that one Bonaparte in the family was enough. Napoleon in any case lost interest in Désirée once he became involved with Josephine. Désirée married General Jean Bernadotte. In one of history’s strange twists, she later became the Queen of Sweden.
Philip Dwyer, in his excellent biography of Napoleon, suggests that Napoleon may have shown an interest in Désirée only as means of bringing himself closer to Joseph, who favoured the match. (1) Napoleon certainly loved his brother. In June 1795 he wrote to Joseph:
In whatever circumstances you may be placed by fortune, you know well, my friend, that you cannot have a better or a dearer friend than myself, or one who wishes more sincerely for your happiness. Life is a flimsy dream, soon to be over. If you are going away, and you think that it may be for some time, send me your portrait. We have lived together for so many years, so closely united, that our hearts have become one, and you know best how entirely mine belongs to you. While I write these lines I feel an emotion which I have seldom experienced. I fear that it will be long before we see each other again, and I can write no more. (2)
As Napoleon’s fortunes rose, so did Joseph’s. He briefly accompanied Napoleon on the Italian campaign. In 1797, he was elected as a Corsican deputy in the Council of Five Hundred. Soon after, he was appointed French ambassador to the court of Parma, and then to Rome.
The brothers continued to be close. Napoleon charged Joseph with administering his wealth, looking after family interests and keeping an eye Josephine when he was away in Egypt. During the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon learned of Josephine’s affair with an officer named Hippolyte Charles. He wrote to Joseph:
You are the only person left to me in this world. Your friendship is very dear to me; if I were to lose this, or if you were to betray me, nothing could keep me from becoming a misanthrope. It is a sad state of affairs when all one’s affections are concentrated upon a single person. You will know what I mean. (3)
Joseph Bonaparte, by now a wealthy man, bought a townhouse on the Rue du Rocher in Paris. He also purchased the château and extensive lands of Mortefontaine, some 19 miles north of the city. Joseph and Julie had two daughters (a third died shortly after birth): Zénaïde, born July 8, 1801, and Charlotte (known as Lolotte), born October 31, 1802.
Joseph set about improving his estate. He would have been content to live the life of a country gentleman. As an early 20th century biographer put it:
He had an element of laziness in his character, a disposition to rest and quietly enjoy the good things he possessed in a dignified way. In the debates of the Five Hundred he took little part, and at the end of his term of membership he did not seek re-election. (4)
Napoleon, however, had other plans for his brother. Initially he used him as a diplomat, not because of Joseph’s negotiating skills, but because he could control him. He had Joseph conclude a convention with the United States at Mortefontaine (1800). Joseph also presided over negotiations leading to the Treaty of Lunéville with Austria (1801). He represented France in discussions with the British envoy, Lord Cornwallis, that led to the Treaty of Amiens (1802). Throughout the negotiations Napoleon corresponded with Joseph every day. He also made sure that Joseph had trusted aides who could help him out. Cornwallis said Joseph Bonaparte had
the character of being a well-meaning, although not a very able, man, and whose near connexion with the First Consul might perhaps be in some degree a check on the spirit of chicanery and intrigue which the Minister of the Exterior [Talleyrand] so eminently possesses. (5)
Joseph was not entirely happy with his brother’s constraints. The friction became intense once Napoleon became consul for life (1802) and then Emperor (1804). They clashed over the issue of whom Napoleon – then childless – would name as his successor. Joseph, as the eldest brother, claimed he should be recognized as heir. Napoleon wanted to recognize their younger brother Louis’s eldest son. Joseph refused Napoleon’s offer to make him King of Lombardy if he would waive all claim of succession to the French throne.
King of Naples, then of Spain
In 1806, Napoleon sent Joseph Bonaparte to expel the Bourbon dynasty from Naples and become King of the Two Sicilies. Neither Joseph nor Julie were keen on the idea. Joseph reportedly said to Napoleon:
Leave me to be King of Mortefontaine. I am much happier in that domain, the boundary of which it is true I can see, but where I know myself to be diffusing happiness. (6)
In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain. He offered Joseph the Spanish throne (after his brother Louis refused it). More accurately, he instructed Joseph to abdicate the throne of Naples (giving it instead to their sister Caroline and her husband Joachim Murat) and go to Spain. Joseph had strong reservations. He wrote to his brother from Vitoria:
I was proclaimed here yesterday. The inhabitants are strongly opposed to the whole thing. The men in office are terrified by the menacing aspect of the people and by the insurgents…. No one has yet told Your Majesty the whole truth. The fact is that not a single Spaniard is on my side, except the few who composed the Junta, and who travel with me. All the rest who preceded me here have hidden themselves, terrified by the unanimous opinion of their countrymen. (7)
The Spanish regarded the French as atheists and foreigners who deserved no mercy. They called Joseph Pepe Botellas (Joe Bottles) for his alleged heavy drinking (in fact Joseph was a light drinker). They also hacked French soldiers to pieces. Joseph tried to conciliate his new subjects through moderate policies, while trying to cope with Napoleon’s stream of contradictory orders from Paris. Napoleon divided Spain into six military districts. He allowed his marshals to exercise independent authority over the areas they controlled, thus undermining his brother’s rule. Joseph asked Napoleon if he could resign; instead, in 1812, he was made Commander-in-Chief of all the forces left in Spain.
On June 21, 1813, Joseph decided to engage the Duke of Wellington in a pitched battle at Vitoria, against Marshal Jourdan’s advice. The French lost. Joseph galloped for the frontier. He had to abandon his baggage train, which contained private papers, paintings removed from the Spanish royal palaces, and other valuables that belonged to the Spanish crown. These were scooped up by the British. You can see these splendid canvases in the collection at Wellington’s former residence, Apsley House, in London.
Joseph returned to Mortefontaine. Napoleon proposed that Ferdinand VII – of the Bourbon family he had removed to put Joseph on the throne – return as King of Spain and that friendship between the two countries be cemented by marriage between Ferdinand and Joseph’s daughter Zénaïde (then age 13). Joseph objected. Under strong pressure, Joseph acquiesced to the transfer of the Spanish crown to the House of Bourbon on the understanding he would retain his title of King Joseph (he never formally abdicated). Ferdinand VII returned to the throne, but Zénaïde was spared.
Exile in America
On March 30, 1814, when the allied troops reached Paris, Joseph Bonaparte and his family fled to Switzerland. He bought an estate at Prangins, between Geneva and Lausanne. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Joseph returned to Paris to join him. After Napoleon’s second abdication, when Napoleon was dallying at Rochefort wondering what to do, Joseph gallantly offered to change places with his brother so the latter could board the American brig – the Commerce, of Charleston – Joseph had chartered for his own escape. Joseph left for the United States only when he heard that Napoleon had surrendered to Britain’s Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon.
Although the Commerce was twice inspected by British boarding parties, Joseph’s false papers escaped detection. He arrived in New York on August 28, 1815 with his Spanish ordinance officer Unzaga, his interpreter James Carret (an American who had grown up in northern New York State), his cook Francois Parrot, and his secretary Louis Mailliard. It is said that Congressman Henry Clay vacated his hotel suite so Joseph would have a place to stay. Joseph left Julie and the girls in Paris. They later moved to Frankfurt and then to Brussels.
The Americans were impressed at having a king in their midst, but decided to officially ignore him. When Joseph set out for Washington with the intention of meeting President Madison, he was intercepted and told that a meeting could not take place.
Proceeding as far as the tavern twelve miles beyond Baltimore…a person met him there from Washington, semi-officially, to explain that his visit to the seat of government was not only unnecessary, but would not be acceptable. Mr. [James] Monroe, then desiderating the presidency, apprehended, it was said, that a Bonaparte or his followers welcomed at Washington might give umbrage, and, perhaps, prove prejudicial to a candidate. (8)
Trying to remain somewhat incognito, Joseph assumed the title of the Count of Survilliers, after a small property he owned near Mortefontaine. He was able to transfer a large part of his fortune to the United States, where he invested it. He rented a house in Philadelphia and bought an estate called Point Breeze in Bordentown, New Jersey. He also bought a large tract of land in upstate New York, to which he made extensive improvements. The latter contained a 1,200 acre lake which Joseph named Lake Diana, after the goddess of the hunt. It is now known as Lake Bonaparte.
Joseph’s homes became gathering places for other Napoleonic exiles, including Charles and Henri Lallemand and Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes. He contributed generously to the French exiles’ Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and the Olive.
As you can see by the guest list at Napoleon’s Point Breeze birthday party in Napoleon in America, Joseph developed friendships with many prominent Americans, including Charles Stewart (his house, “Old Ironsides,” was next door to Point Breeze), Joseph Hopkinson, Nicholas Biddle, Charles Ingersoll and Stephen Girard. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society, where he met more of America’s great and good.
Joseph Bonaparte was well thought of in his new country.
His manners were full of grace, elegance and blandness; his heart was full of humane feelings; his mind was well balanced, and all his views of life were moderate and cheerful. Wherever he was known, he was respected; and those who loved him once, loved him always. (9)
Although Joseph was rumoured to be involved in plots to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena, nothing specific was ever pinned on him. He similarly stayed clear of Charles Lallemand’s invasion of Texas and other intrigues. According to Joseph’s nephew Louis-Napoleon, while in Bordentown around 1820, Joseph was offered the Mexican crown by a deputation of Mexican revolutionaries. Joseph replied:
I have worn two crowns; I would not take a step to wear a third. Nothing can gratify me more than to see men who would not recognize my authority when I was at Madrid now come to seek me in exile, that I may be at their head; but I do not think that the throne you wish to raise again can make your happiness. Every day that I pass in the hospitable land of the United States proves more clearly to me the excellence of republican institutions for America. Keep them, then, as a precious gift from heaven. (10)
On January 4, 1820 Joseph’s house at Point Breeze was destroyed by fire. He was away at the time, and his neighbours rushed in to save as many of his possessions as they could, a fact that deeply touched Joseph.
Joseph rebuilt the house – modelling it after Prangins – and created an extensive park and gardens. He arranged to have much of his furniture, rugs, paintings, tapestries, sculptures, wine and household effects transported from Europe. It was said to be the most impressive house in the United States after the White House. Joseph’s library held the largest collection of books in the country– some 8,000 volumes.
It had its grand hall and staircase; its great dining-rooms, art gallery and library; its pillars and marble mantels, covered with sculpture of marvelous workmanship; its statues, busts and paintings of rare merit; its heavy chandeliers, and its hangings and tapestry, fringed with gold and silver. With the large and finely carved folding-doors of the entrance, and the liveried servants and attendants, it had the air of the residence of a distinguished foreigner, unused to the simplicity of our countrymen. A fine lawn stretched on the front, and a large garden of rare flowers and plants, interspersed with fountains and chiseled animals in the rear. The park…was traversed by nearly twelve miles of drives and bridle-paths, winding through clustering pines and oaks, and planted on every knoll with statuary. (11)
In America Joseph indulged his fondness for reading, art, gardening and entertaining. The grounds of Point Breeze were often open, and he received visitors to the house with generous hospitality. He was especially fond of showing his art gallery, which contained, among other things, a version of the painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David and a copy of Canova’s sculpture of a reclining Pauline Bonaparte. The locals were apparently shocked by Pauline’s nudity. Hoping to encourage the fine arts in the United States, Joseph welcomed artists, neighbours and sightseers. He generously lent from his collection for exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and other places. It is said he was “one of the most significant catalysts in disseminating European culture and artistic knowledge to early nineteenth century Americans.” (12)
As Joseph’s friend Joseph Hopkinson wrote:
What dethroned monarch has been more fortunate than he to fall in such a way? Generally they have become beggars for aid, or pensioners or prisoners. This is a change rather than a fall. (13)
In 1818 Joseph wrote to Julie that he was unhappy because he was isolated. Around this time he took a mistress, Ann (Annette) Savage, a buxom shop girl. He installed her in a house near Point Breeze. Joseph had been a ladies’ man even before he left France – Julie was aware of and tolerated his affairs. Despite the tut-tutting of the locals, Joseph fathered two children with Annette: Pauline, born in 1819, and Catherine Charlotte, born in 1822. In December 1823, Pauline was killed by a falling jardinière in Joseph’s garden. Shortly after this tragedy Joseph dispatched Anna to Paris, paying her not to publish her memoirs.
Joseph’s and Julie’s daughter Charlotte – who apparently remained unaware of her father’s affair – came to visit him in early 1822. That same year Zénaïde married Lucien Bonaparte’s son, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an ornithologist. In 1823 they came to live at Point Breeze. Joseph built and decorated a separate house for them, known as the Lake House, connected by tunnel with the main house. Their oldest son, Joseph-Lucien-Charles-Napoleon, was born in Philadelphia on February 13, 1824, followed by a daughter, Alexandrine, on June 9, 1826.
Joseph began an affair with Emilie Lacoste. She was the young (born in 1798) wife of Frenchman Félix Lacoste, who was away in Saint-Domingue. He had left Emilie in residence at Point Breeze as a companion for Charlotte and Zénaïde. It is believed Joseph was the father of Emilie’s twin sons, born on March 22, 1825, of whom only one – Félix-Joseph – survived.
Return to Europe
Charlotte returned to Europe in 1824. In 1826 she married Louis’s son, Napoleon Louis Bonaparte. Charles and Zénaïde left for Europe in 1828. Joseph sorely missed his daughters and his grandchildren. He was tired of exile and still identified with France, having never abandoned the Bonapartist cause. After the July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew Bourbon King Charles X, Joseph pleaded for recognition of the claim of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, to the French throne. He purchased the French-language liberal American newspaper Le courrier des États-Unis and used it as an organ to promote his case.
Hoping to advance the Bonapartist cause in person, Joseph sailed to Europe in 1832. He gave many of his American friends works from his collection as farewell presents. When his ship docked at Liverpool on July 24, he sadly learned that his nephew, the Duke of Reichstadt, had died two days earlier. During his stay in London Joseph was visited by his former foe, the Duke of Wellington. He repaid the visit to Apsley House, where he was astonished to see Canova’s marble statue of Napoleon. In 1835, Joseph returned to the United States.
Bonapartists now saw Joseph Bonaparte as the rightful holder of the French throne. He did little to advance his claim. He was convinced that only a spontaneous popular movement could restore the Bonapartes. Joseph disapproved of his nephew Louis-Napoleon’s attempted coup at Strasbourg in October 1836. He thought this usurped his own dynastic rights and destroyed any possibility of the Bonapartes being allowed to return to France. When Louis-Napoleon was deported to the United States and attempted to visit Joseph, the latter responded:
You have broken the ties that attach me to you in thinking yourself capable of taking my place and that of your father. From now on I want you to leave me in peace in my retreat. (14)
Joseph Bonaparte went back to England in 1836-37. He returned to the United States for a final visit in 1837-39. He was in Philadelphia when he learned that Charlotte had died in March 1839. Joseph returned to England and rented a house in London’s Cavendish Square. In June 1840 he suffered a serious stroke which paralyzed his right side. He moved to Italy to spend his remaining days with Julie and his brothers. He had another stroke in August 1843. Joseph Bonaparte died on July 28, 1844, at the age of 77. He was buried in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.
After Joseph Bonaparte’s death
Julie died on April 7, 1845. In 1854, Zénaïde and Charles separated. Zénaïde died later the same year.
Joseph Bonaparte had left Point Breeze to his eldest grandson Joseph. The latter sold the estate’s contents in two spectacular auctions crowded with buyers. Many Americans have (or claim to have) items that belonged to Joseph Bonaparte. A number of local museums, including the New Jersey State Museum, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have some on display. The mansion itself was knocked down by a subsequent owner, as was Joseph’s house in northern New York.
In June 1862, Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III) had Joseph’s remains interred at Les Invalides in Paris in a ten minute ceremony. Though he had made up with Joseph before the latter’s death, Napoleon III did not bother to attend. The only Bonapartes present were several of Lucien’s daughters who happened to be in Paris.
In 1839, Joseph’s daughter with Annette Savage, Catherine Charlotte, married Zebulon Howell Benton in New York. Taken with the idea of being a king’s son-in-law and a nephew of Napoleon, Benton insisted on a lavish ceremony. He was known for wearing a cocked Napoleon-style hat turned sideways and liked to be photographed with his hand in his coat, emulating Napoleon. He soon exhausted the $30,000 dowry Joseph had provided. Caroline Charlotte, with their five children (two named Zénaïde and Charlotte), eventually left him and taught French in Philadelphia. She died in 1890.
Joseph told Julie, after the Spanish disaster:
In spite of the disagreements that have existed between the Emperor and myself, it is true to say my dear, that he is still the man I love most in the world. (15)
For his part, Napoleon, in exile on St. Helena in 1817 told the British doctor Barry O’Meara:
Joseph, though he has much talent and genius, is too good a man, and too fond of amusement and literature, to be a king. (16)
For more about Joseph Bonaparte’s time in the United States, see “Joseph Bonaparte’s American Retreat” by Patricia Tyson Stroud on Napoleon.org. Rick Wright has posted some photos of the Point Breeze grounds on his Birding New Jersey and the World website.
You might also enjoy:
- Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power (New Haven & London, 2007), pp. 160-161.
- The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph, Vol. I (London, 1855), pp. 4-5.
- Ibid., p. 40, July 25, 1798. This letter, in which Napoleon poured out his heart to Joseph, was intercepted by Admiral Nelson’s fleet and published in the London Morning Chronicle. The British – and the French, when they heard of it – made much fun of it.
- A. Hilliard Atteridge, Napoleon’s Brothers (London, 1909), pp. 48-49.
- Charles Ross, Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. III (London, 1859), p. 395.
- Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, Vol. V (London, 1833), p. 63.
- A. du Casse, ed., Mémoires et Correspondance Politique et Militaire du Roi Joseph, Vol. 4 (Paris, 1854), p. 343 (July 12, 1808).
- Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), p. 380.
- Charles Edwards Lester and Edwin Williams, The Napoleon Dynasty, or the History of the Bonaparte Family (New York, 1856), pp. 387-388.
- Napoleon III, The Political and Historical Works of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (London, 1852), p. 143.
- E.M. Woodward, Bonaparte’s Park, and The Murats (Trenton, N.J., 1879), p. 42.
- Wendy A. Cooper, Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840 (Baltimore and New York, 1993), p. 68.
- Burton Alva Konkle, Joseph Hopkinson, 1770-1842 (Philadelphia, 1931), p. 340.
- Patricia Tyson Stroud, The Man Who Had Been King: The American Exile of Napoleon’s Brother Joseph (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 188.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. 1 (New York, 1885), p. 221.
Joseph, though he has much talent and genius, is too good a man, and too fond of amusement and literature, to be a king.