Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American Nephew
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was the son of Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme and Baltimore socialite Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson. As Napoleon had broken up his parents’ marriage before Jerome was even born, Napoleon never acknowledged the boy as a Bonaparte. Despite Betsy’s best efforts to raise her son as a European of rank and fortune, Jerome preferred life in the United States.
Raising a potential prince
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was born on July 7, 1805 in Camberwell, which was then a separate town south of London in the United Kingdom. His mother brought him to the United States a few months after his birth. Jerome spent his childhood under the care of Betsy and her father, the wealthy Baltimore merchant William Patterson. Betsy nicknamed Jerome “Bo.” She also called him “Cricket.” Though the Pattersons were Protestants, Betsy had Jerome baptized as a Catholic, hoping that the Bonapartes might one day acknowledge him in the imperial line of succession.
Betsy believed that Jerome should receive an education suitable to a person of high status. He took his early schooling at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. When Jerome was 14, Betsy moved to Geneva and placed him in a school there. One gets a sense of the boy’s life from a letter Betsy wrote to her father in April 1820.
The French Chargé at Amsterdam refused me a passport for [Bo] to travel through France.… [H]e said his resemblance to the emperor was so striking that it would expose me to great inconvenience in that country….
[T]his child has more conversation and better manners, a more graceful presentation than other children of his age…and I am constantly tormented with the fear of seeing him spoiled by the compliments paid him in society. … He has grown taller and much better looking; he is thought very handsome, but I do not myself think him by any means a beauty, and regret that others tell him so, as it is a kind of praise which never made any one better or happier. …
Bo has written to you for money to buy a horse, which I beg you not to send him. He pretends it will be more economical for him to keep a horse than for me to pay nine francs per week for riding lessons; but I prefer paying twice that sum rather than allow him to ride about the country. …
Bo has lessons of every kind. His hours of recreation are filled by dancing, fencing and riding…. He speaks French very fluently, as he takes all his lessons in this language, the knowledge of which I always considered highly important in his circumstances. (1)
Meanwhile, Bo was keen to get back to the United States. He wrote to his grandfather: “Since I have been in Europe I have dined with princes and princesses and all the great people in Europe, but I have not found a dish as much to my taste as the roast beef and beef-steaks I ate in South Street” (at his grandfather’s house). In another letter he added,
I never had any idea of spending my life on the continent; on the contrary as soon as my education is finished, which will not take me more than two years longer, I shall hasten over to America, which I have regretted ever since I left it. (2)
Betsy pinned her hopes for Bo’s future on his education and a good marriage, and on the Bonaparte connection. After Napoleon’s death in May 1821, it became Betsy’s project to get her son recognized by the Bonaparte family and thereby secure some funds for him. To this end she took Jerome to Rome for the winter of 1821-22, where he charmed his grandmother, Letizia Bonaparte, and his aunt Pauline Borghese. In December 1821 Jerome wrote to his grandfather:
I have been received in the kindest manner possible by my grandmother, my uncles, and aunts, and cousins, and all my nearest and most distant relations, who are in Rome. We mean to stay here during the winter.… I have been so much occupied in looking for apartments for mamma, making tight bargains, and seeing my relations that I have not had time to see anything of Rome, except St. Peter’s celebrated church, which I have seen but superficially. (3)
While Jerome was in Rome, the Bonapartes conceived the idea of marrying him to Joseph Bonaparte’s youngest daughter Charlotte. Here is Betsy’s take on the proposition, from a letter she wrote to her father in January 1822:
As I plainly see, it is the only sure way of relieving myself of the expense he occasions me and I can ill afford. … I do, indeed, regret that there is no one of the whole [Bonaparte] connection rich enough to allow me twelve hundred dollars a year for Bo’s maintenance. … He has resumed his family name, which piece of vanity may give me some trouble about his passports. … I can only say I have spent my time and money on this boy. (4)
Jerome wrote to his grandfather at the same time.
My grandmother and my aunt and uncle talk of marrying me to my uncle’s, the Count of Survilliers’ daughter, who is in the United States. I hope it may take place, for then I would return immediately to America to pass the rest of my life among my relations and friends. Mamma is very anxious for the match. My father is also, and all of my father’s family, so that I hope you will also approve of it. (5)
Just as he does in Napoleon in America, Jerome arrived in April 1822 at Joseph Bonaparte’s estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, with instructions to charm Charlotte and her father. Though Joseph liked the boy, whom he had met once before, he preferred to marry Charlotte to a cousin formally recognized as a Bonaparte.
A Bonaparte at Harvard
With a Bonaparte marriage off the cards, Betsy’s next plan for Bo’s advancement was to get him enrolled at Harvard. After eight months’ preparation under a tutor in Lancaster, Mass., Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was admitted to Harvard in February 1823. He requested and received an exemption from having to attend Protestant services in the college chapel.
I would appear very inconsistent, if, after having stayed away from their church for upwards of a year, I were to go there now; and as I have been brought up a Catholic, I would not wish to change my religion; and moreover, my grandmother and several of my father’s family being great devotees, they would think it a crime were I to enter a heretical church. (6)
Jerome was suspended for three months in 1824 for an incident involving drinking with members of his college club. He took advantage of the break in his studies to meet with the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then visiting Boston.
Jerome graduated from Harvard in 1826 with a law degree. Encouraged by his mother, he went back to Italy for another visit with the Bonapartes. This time he finally got to meet his father, with whom he had been in correspondence. Jérôme Sr. was not keen on the visit, fearing it that it might be construed by the royal courts of Württemberg and Russia as an attempt to invalidate Jérôme’s marriage to Princess Catharina of Württemberg. Despite this, the visit went well. Bo wrote to his grandfather in December 1826: “From my father I have received the most cordial reception, and am treated with all possible kindness and affection.” (7) Still, he pined for home. A month later he wrote:
I have now been three months with my father: two in the country, and one month at Rome. He continues always very kind to me; but I see no prospect of his doing anything for me. … My father is very anxious for me to remain with him altogether, but I cannot think for a moment of settling myself out of America, to whose government, manners, and customs I am too much attached and accustomed, to find pleasure in those of Europe, which are so different from my early education. … [W]ith my father I am living in a style which I cannot afford, and to which, if I once became accustomed, I should find it very difficult to give up; moreover, I am now of an age in which I must think of doing something for myself, and America is the only country where I can have an opportunity of getting forward. (8)
In 1827 Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte returned to the United States. In November 1829, to his grandfather’s satisfaction and his mother’s chagrin, he married a wealthy Baltimore girl, Susan May Williams (b. 1812). Her father was one of the founders of the first intercity railroad company in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Susan came with a $200,000 dowry. William Patterson gave the newlyweds Montrose Mansion.
Jerome’s father and the Bonaparte relatives congratulated Jerome on the marriage. Betsy reconciled herself to it.
I tried to give him the ideas suitable to his rank in life; having failed in that, there remains only to let him choose his own course. … When I first heard that my son could condescend to marry any one in Baltimore, I nearly went mad. Every one told me that it was quite impossible for me to make him like myself, and that, if he could endure the mode of life and the people in America, it was better to let him follow his own course than to break off a marriage where there was some money to be got, and leave him to marry a person of less fortune. I have no dislike to the woman he has married. … I must try and content myself by the reflection that I did all I could to disgust him with America. (9)
The American farmer
With his fortune now assured, Jerome devoted himself to the management of his large estate and the cultivation of his farm. An 1842 newspaper article noting Jerome’s chairmanship of a committee of a Maryland Agricultural Society (“to award premiums for the best show of horses”), dubbed him “the American farmer.” (10) He was, by all accounts, an amiable and polished man.
Jerome and Susan had two sons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, born on November 5, 1830, and Charles Joseph Bonaparte, born on June 9, 1851.
During the reign of King Louis Philippe, Jerome and Susan were allowed to visit Paris, but only under the name of Patterson. This they did in 1839.
When Jerome’s cousin Louis Napoleon (the son of Louis Bonaparte) ascended the French throne as Napoleon III, he invited Jerome and his eldest son to visit France. They arrived in Paris in June 1854 and dined with the Emperor at the Palace of Saint Cloud. Napoleon III restored the right of Jerome and his descendants to use the Bonaparte name; however, they were denied any rights of affiliation and continued to be excluded from the line of succession. Recognizing Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte as a true prince of the family would have made Jérôme Sr.’s children with Catharina of Württemberg illegitimate.
Napoleon III also invited Jerome’s son, Jerome Napoleon II, who had studied at the US Military Academy at West Point and served in Texas with the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, to join the French army. Jerome Napoleon II resigned from the US Army and proceeded to Crimea as a French lieutenant of dragoons. He also fought in Algeria, in Italy and in the Franco-Prussian War before returning to the United States. He was highly decorated for his services.
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte died of throat cancer on June 17, 1870, at the age of 64. One obituarist noted:
Efforts have been made to induce him to assert his claims to the family honors; but being of a modest and unambitious nature, he preferred to cultivate corn and cabbages to entering the arena of French politics. (11)
A later journalist observed:
Mr. Bonaparte was a gentleman of refined taste and culture. His late residence in Baltimore is probably the most interesting in the South, and in Napoleonic portraits, curiosities and relics, it is, perhaps, the most interesting in America. One room in the house is entirely devoted to Bonaparte. (12)
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore. His father had died in 1860, without making any provision for him in his will. His mother and his wife outlived him. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II married the granddaughter of Daniel Webster, had two children, and died in 1893. His younger brother Charles graduated from Harvard and served in President Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet as US Secretary of the Navy and, later, as US Attorney General. He helped create the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. Charles died childless in 1921.
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- Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), pp. 63-64.
- Ibid., p. 74.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Ibid., pp. 87-88.
- Ibid., p. 87.
- Ibid., p. 117.
- Ibid., p. 195.
- Ibid., p. 198.
- Ibid., p. 221.
- The North American And Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Nov. 2, 1842.
- Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), June 18, 1870, p. 2.
- “The Baltimore Bonapartes,” Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. X, No. 1 (May 1875), p. 8.
Since I have been in Europe I have dined with princes and princesses and all the great people in Europe, but I have not found a dish as much to my taste as the roast beef and beef-steaks I ate in South Street.
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte