When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte
In Napoleon in America, Louisa Adams – the English-born wife of then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams – listens with interest as Elizabeth Hopkinson talks about travelling with Napoleon and his older brother Joseph to upstate New York. That vignette is set in April of 1822. In real life, Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte in September of that year. Joseph was a ladies’ man who had already fathered two illegitimate children in the United States. Louisa was an elegant woman, comfortable in the courts of Europe, who liked to charm and be charmed. Here’s how the two of them got along.
Behaving like a fool
After spending the summer of 1822 in Philadelphia nursing her sick brother, Louisa Adams accepted an invitation to visit her friends Joseph and Emily Hopkinson in nearby Bordentown, New Jersey. The Hopkinsons were friends and neighbours of Joseph Bonaparte, who had fled to the United States after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Joseph owned a large estate called Point Breeze, on Crosswicks Creek near the Delaware River.
Louisa arrived in Bordentown on September 16, 1822. She met Joseph – who had once been King of Naples, and then King of Spain, but now called himself the Count of Survilliers – the next day.
[A]fter dinner we set out to walk to the spring. We had got about half way when we met the Count Survillier, who stopped and spoke to the Ladies, and was introduced to me: when he politely asked us to walk with him through his grounds to which I assented. I however as usual behaved very much like a fool on the occasion: for their Kings and no Kings place us in a very awkward situation; between the fear of wounding their feelings, and the natural antipathy which I have to courting, what the world call great folks, and of appearing to arrogate upon my own elevated station; which though, it may be transient, is while I possess it thought much of by others. I spoke sometime to him in English, but at last addressed him in French. He showed me two very fine paintings, and displayed all the beauties of his grounds with much attention, offering us flowers which he cut himself, and peaches which he selected and presented to each. As the evening was rapidly setting in, I was anxious to get home; but he was so urgent for me to see his daughter [Charlotte Bonaparte] that I consented to walk in, and was introduced to her little Ladyship, who I thought a very pleasing and well bred young woman. She is not handsome; though I think her countenance very expressive, and the style and character of her face pleased me, although in general it produces a contrary effect. She was urgent in her invitation to me, to stay; and expressed a desire to become more acquainted; to all of which I answered suitably declining her civility, on the plea of leaving Borden Town immediately.
The Count has a charming countenance, the form of the face very much like Napoleon’s, but the expression entirely different. He is friendly and unceremonious in his manners; in his person very much like the Emperor when I saw him, large and heavy, though he moves about with a good deal of activity. He performs the civilities he offers like a man who has been used to do so by proxy; and seems when he wishes to mark attention, to look round him, rather with a view of ordering it to be done, than with readiness to do it himself. But there is so much easy good humour about him, and he looks so much like a good fat substantial farmer, that were we not pre-acquainted with his history, no one would suspect he had ever filled a throne. In this little village he is adored; for he has made ‘the Widows heart to sing with joy,’ and has been [‘a father to the fatherless’ and tho’ a King has showered blessings around him, thus proving himself far more than a King—a good man!! General l’Almand [Henri Lallemand] accompanied him. He was riding in a common Jersey Waggon with two Horses. We returned home and I was lectured by the Ladies for my impoliteness in not having spoken French in the first instance, and not having been more courteous to his Majesty, whose peaches I refused upon the plea of ill health. I acknowledged my fault, and promised to behave better the first opportunity. (1)
That opportunity arose three days later, on September 20, at a party at Point Breeze.
The Count and Countess [Charlotte] received us in a very friendly and sociable way, and we chatted on various subjects, until we were called to what he terms Tea; that is a dinner in all its forms with the addition of tea and coffee.…
I had some conversation with the Count…. He told me he knew Mrs. Crawford; and was very inquisitive about Washington, which he said he heard was very brilliant in winter, and a pleasant residence.…
When we rose from the table he showed me his fine pictures, and regretted that I had not seen them by day light, entreating me to come again; and politely saying he would take no denial: after which we seated ourselves round a table, and examined his daughter’s drawings, and some curious paintings on copper of natural history, from all the known parts of the globe. We then talked of the Theatre, and he asked me if I had seen Talma; and I took the opportunity of hinting how much I should be gratified if he would read a tragedy to us, as I had heard that he piques himself upon his talent, having studied with La Rive, who he told me he had taken to Naples with him, and made him director of the French Theatre there. He seemed much pleased at the request, and immediately sent for his book, and chose the Tragedy of Andromaque. I was almost sorry for the choice as I could not help thinking that in the fate of Marie Louise, there was a little similitude; for both her Son and herself became hostages to Austria, though under different circumstances. He desired his daughter to read with him, and she took the parts of Andromaque, and Hermione, and it is long very long since I have had such a treat….
The Countess reads elegantly, and they have both the style and manner of Talma, with a little less energy; which he told me was more the manner of La Rive. To me however this was an improvement as I do not love to see the passions ‘torn to rags and tatters;’ and do by no means think ranting an embellishment, or an expression of true feelings. I am not connoisseur enough to say any thing more of the paintings, than that they are many of them in the finest style…. There is a Titian that is exquisite; some Vernets and Teniers and Murillos that are beautiful….
[The Count] told me that he had restored the fashion of bull fights in Spain, for which he had often condemned himself; but it was to court popularity with the people. Naples he cannot speak of without regret; but if he grieves for the change in his situation, it does not appear; for he looks the picture of happiness and content. We all laughed heartily when we got home; for intending to invite Miss Mease who is not handsome, but a most charming woman to stay the night; in English; he said ‘will you sleep with me.’ You may suppose this occasioned a complete squall among us we were all so diverted. (2)
Labouring hard to amuse
The following evening the Hopkinsons returned the favour by having Joseph and Charlotte over.
We laboured hard to amuse them, and I fear did not achieve the enterprize; as I am sure I was devoured by ennui…. The Countess does not understand much English, and Joseph speaks it very little; and the Ladies of this family will not speak French. You may therefore imagine our difficulty; added to which the young Lady [Charlotte] looks for amusement from every body, without making the least exertion to amuse herself….
They left us at eleven o–clock, and we all felt relieved, as [Joseph] appeared in very bad spirits; there is a great deal of bonhomie about him, but his address is altogether awkward, though he makes every possible exertion to be gallant. (3)
Louisa was, nonetheless, flattered by Joseph’s attention. In the same letter to her husband (who remained in Washington), she wrote:
[M]ethinks I hear you say? ‘I hope my dear your head is not quite turned by all the fine things you meet?’ I answer I hope not, but almost fear to ask myself the question. (4)
Louisa and the Hopkinsons accepted an invitation to breakfast at Point Breeze the next day (September 22). After breakfast, they walked in the gardens, viewed paintings, and boated on Crosswicks Creek, where Joseph “ordered fishing tackle to be prepared and every thing made ready for that amusement, as he understood that it was [Louisa’s] favorite diversion,” until she objected and asked to land instead. (5)
On September 23, Louisa went over to say goodbye, as she intended to leave Bordentown the next day.
I asked for the Lady [Charlotte] intimating my wish to take leave—but she was taking her drawing lesson or rather sitting for her portrait, and I would not disturb her. She however made her appearance just as her father had invited us to see a Venus of Titian…which he keeps close to his bed; I could not affect modesty as I had said, that I had seen a number of fine pictures in Europe, and he put his hands over his eyes, as if very much shocked making grimaces, and hanging his head, saying that all the American Ladies were so distressed, and ashamed, that he was obliged to hide them. He showed me two beautiful miniatures of his mother, one of his wife, and one of his daughter; a number of superb guns: a manufactory of which he had established at Naples of a very light and beautiful kind: 1 of which he sent to Alexander; another to the King of Bavaria; and 1 to Napoleon. He is fond of shooting and an excellent shot. He likewise brought out some fine old books, with illuminated plates and some beautiful modern editions, and a number of knickknacks such as the French delight so much in—and a fine likeness of Napoleon. (6)
Extending her stay
Joseph prevailed upon Louisa to stay longer in Bordentown. She dined at Point Breeze again on the 24th. On the 25th, they all took a boat to Bristol in Pennsylvania to visit acquaintances, and on the 26th and 27th Joseph and Charlotte visited at the Hopkinsons. On the 29th, Louisa saw Joseph for the last time.
At four o’clock we went to Point Breeze, and immediately after a consultation took place to decide how we should amuse ourselves; and it was determined that the barge should be prepared, and that we should row down the creek for an hour or two previous to dinner. We walked into the grounds, and went to see some pictures in a house belonging to him, in which the strangers are lodged who visit him; and here one of the Miss Monges exhibited a scene which I confess astonished me a little. When he asked me to walk up stairs, he desired Miss Monges to see if her apartment was in a state to be seen; expressing his doubts upon the subject—and giving her time to make arrangements. On our entering the apartment which is very handsome, he observed that one of the window curtains was closed, and obscured the prospect; and went directly to it took the pin out of the curtain, and pulled out two gowns, and a dirty flannel petticoat, which Miss Cora had thus concealed, and gave them to her sister; when Miss Cora walked in, and on his speaking to her about her slutishness, she seized him by the collar of his coat and held her finger in his face, shaking it in a threatening attitude; so disgusting, that we could scarcely forbear expressing our indignation at her ill manners, and her vulgarity….
He avoids every thing like distinction, and says he wishes to be considered as an American gentleman only. We had a charming dinner and afterwards the Tragedy of Iphigenie of Racine, which he read in a fine style assisted by his daughter, Miss Monges, and Capt Sarry. Mr Hopkinson says he is a fine scholar; and he appears to me to be a man of taste and judgement, without parade and ostentation…. On parting I thanked him for his polite attention, as well as his daughters; and expressed a hope that I might be enabled to make some slight return at some future day—to which they replied they only wished that my stay could be prolonged among them, and that they regretted very much the necessity of my departure—Walked home with Gen [Lallemand]. (7)
Louisa returned to Philadelphia. A few days later, Joseph’s servant arrived with a small painting from Charlotte, “begging my acceptance of it as a remembrance, it being done by herself. I wrote my thanks and took the same opportunity of expressing my sense of her father’s attention.” (8)
On October 6, Louisa wrote to her son Charles, who was at Harvard with Joseph’s nephew Jerome Bonaparte.
I have passed a couple of weeks at Borden Town with Mrs. Hopkinson’s family and became acquainted with Joseph Bonaparte who was most kind and attentive to me during my stay. He told me that his nephew young Bonaparte was in college and I understood was your classmate. He is said to be a very fine young man and it would give me great pleasure if by your civilities to him you would in some measure repay my debt to his uncle to whom I fear I shall have no opportunity of returning the civilities which he literally showered upon me during my stay in his delightful neighbourhood. (9)
You might also enjoy:
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4164.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 19 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4165.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 21 September 1822 to 23 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4169.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 27 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4175.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 2 October 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4178.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to Charles Francis Adams, 6 October 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4181.
There is so much easy good humour about him, and he looks so much like a good fat substantial farmer, that were we not pre-acquainted with his history, no one would suspect he had ever filled a throne.