Joseph Bonaparte and the Crown of Mexico

Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and the Indies, by François Gérard, 1808. The Indies included Mexico.

Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and the Indies, by François Gérard, 1808

When Joseph Bonaparte was King of Spain, he was also, by default, the ruler of Mexico, or New Spain as it was called at the time. The Mexicans didn’t like him. Did they then offer Joseph a crown when he was in exile in the United States and they were seeking independence from Spain?

Joseph Bonaparte and the Spanish throne

In 1808, Napoleon imprisoned the Bourbon rulers of Spain, Ferdinand VII and his father Charles IV, and forced them to renounce all claims to the Spanish throne. Napoleon then appointed his older brother Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain. Although Spanish bureaucrats recognized the new monarch, the people of Spain rebelled against Joseph and the French occupation, resulting in the Peninsular War.

Joseph’s full title was King of Spain and the Indies, the “Indies” being Spain’s overseas territories, including its colonies in the Americas. When news of the imprisonment of the Spanish monarch and the French invasion of Spain reached New Spain (Mexico), the colony’s leaders refused to recognize Joseph as king. They instead adhered to the junta, eventually based in Cádiz, which maintained a rebel government in the name of Ferdinand VII.

The Peninsular War continued until 1814, during which time many native-born Spanish Americans took advantage of the chaos in the mother country to begin the quest for self-government. Mexico’s war of independence started in 1810. Neither side in the struggle displayed any love for Joseph Bonaparte, who was regarded as Napoleon’s puppet. The royalists remained loyal to Ferdinand VII, and the patriots (those seeking independence) wanted separation from Spain regardless of whether it was ruled by the Bourbons or the Bonapartes.

In 1813, Joseph abdicated the Spanish throne and returned to France after being defeated by troops led by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria. In 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Joseph fled to the United States. He settled in the Philadelphia area, splitting his time between that city and his estate called Point Breeze in Bordentown, New Jersey. A number of Napoleonic officers wound up in the United States, seeking to avoid persecution by the government of King Louis XVIII. These included Charles Lallemand and his brother Henri, Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Antoine Rigaud, Emmanuel de Grouchy and Bertrand Clausel. They congregated in Philadelphia, where they socialized with each other, and with Joseph.

Rumours of Joseph Bonaparte and the Mexican throne

In the summer of 1816, there were several newspaper reports about conversations regarding Joseph Bonaparte and the throne of Mexico. In an item datelined France, July 24, 1816, the Baltimore paper Niles’ Weekly Register reported private communications as follows.

It is said that the unambitious character of Joseph, ex-king of Spain and the Indies, has been powerfully worked upon by a numerous body of generals, who regained their fame under Bonaparte, and who having fled to America for refuge, are uneasy at the state of inaction to which they have been reduced. These persons, we are told, have urged Joseph to resume his pretensions as king of the Indies, and have offered to unite their means with those of the Insurgents of Mexico, to drive the Spaniards from their colonies, and to establish a mighty empire on the shores of the Pacific. We are further informed, that nothing has prevented the immediate engagement in this enterprise, but the refusal, on the part of the government of the United States, to undertake any ostensible co-operation. (1)

The editor considered the story as “manufactured” – in other words, fake news. On August 26, the Morning Chronicle, a London paper, reported:

[W]e speak from creditable authority when we state that communications have taken place between the leading patriots and the military adherents at present with Joseph Bonaparte. That personage, it is to be recollected, was regularly crowned at Madrid King of the Indies. The commissions of many of the Captain-Generals in South America bear his signature, while the very circumstance of his being a foreigner, would probably have the effect of healing those intestine divisions that have too long existed between its various classes, as well of those who claim ascendancy from the commixture of European blood, as of the others, who feel degraded by such an unjustifiable, though, according to the Bourbon version, legitimate ground of superiority. In the revolutions of empires, nothing has disturbed the speculations of the philosophical politician more frequently than the apparent inadequacy of causes to the important events that have followed. Let us not be surprised to learn that the victims of Bourbon persecution in France have torn from the Spanish branch of Bourbon the Sovereignty of the Indies. (2)

On September 5, the Cheltenham Chronicle provided this clarification:

Communications have taken place between the leading patriots of Mexico and the military adherents at present with Joseph Bonaparte in the United States; which have given rise, at Paris, to a report of Joseph being called to the throne of Mexico. … The success of Humbert and his companions, who are represented as the leaders of a numerous army in Spanish America, produces a general wish in the French officers on half pay to emigrate to that country. The editors of all the French papers have in consequence received orders to make no further insertions relating to the events in South America. (3)

A newspaper report that Joseph had been offered a Spanish American throne reached Napoleon in exile on St. Helena. He commented:

Joseph, although he has beaucoup de talent, et d’esprit, is too good a man, and too fond of amusement and literature to be a king. However, it would be of great [commercial] advantage to England…. Joseph would not, and indeed could not trade with either France or Spain…and South America cannot do without importing immense quantities of European goods. (4)

Charles Montholon – not the most reliable of memoirists – later wrote that in July 1816, Joseph wrote to Napoleon asking for his advice on the position he should take in response to offers made to him from various Spanish American states. (5)

The Lakanal papers

In 1817, more substantial evidence surfaced of a plot to make Joseph king of Mexico. While visiting Philadelphia in late August, France’s ambassador to the United States, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, came into possession of a package of documents addressed to “Monsieur le Comte de Survilliers, pour lui seul.” The Count of Survilliers was the title Joseph Bonaparte had adopted in the United States. The package was sealed with the insignia of the National Convention, the first government of the French Revolution. Surrounding the insignia were the words “Lakanal, Deputy to the National Convention.” Within the package were six documents, all in the same handwriting:

1) A four-page covering letter, headed “Ultimatum,” which, among other things, implied that the author had been in communication with Joseph Bonaparte before.

2) A 23-page “Report,” addressed to “His Majesty, the King of Spain and the Indies, by his Faithful Subjects, the Citizens composing the Napoleonean Confederation.” This laid out a plan to arm and equip 900 men as “flankers of the Independent Troops of Mexico.” One hundred and fifty men had already signed up; the remaining 750 would be recruited from “the Missouri Territory, the Illinois Territory, the District of Columbia, the Michigan Territory, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.” The new recruits would not be told the ultimate object of the enterprise, which was to “restore” Joseph Bonaparte as King of the Indies. Joseph was asked to contribute a total of 100,000 francs to the enterprise.

The certainty is thus afforded to Your Majesty of reconquering one of the first thrones in the universe, and of reestablishing Your Illustrious Dynasty! …

If Your Majesty, as worthy of reigning as you are capable of viewing a crown in its just lights, and which is so much beneath your personal virtues, do not wish to engage in anything decisive as relates to Your Majesty, may you deign not to lose sight of the import and interests of your children, and of the people who look up to you as a second father!

3) A “Petition,” in which Joseph was asked to confer upon the document’s author (presumed to be Lakanal) “a Spanish distinction,” by which was meant a title, as “this new mark of your gracious favor will give me a degree of political importance, in the eyes of your Mexican subjects, which I venture to assure Your Majesty will promote Your Majesty’s best interests.”

4) A vocabulary of the Indians on the Mexican frontier, towards Santa Fe.

5) A list of the Indian tribes in northern Louisiana.

6) A coded vocabulary, or cipher, with a Latin word corresponding to each letter. The key concluded with this rule:

Every partial correspondence should be headed with this word, ‘Oratio,’ a prayer, because it will appear merely to be an extract, whether in express terms, or in others equivalent, of the Lord’s Prayer, and because this innocent stratagem may have its effect upon the minds of the Spaniards, who are generally attentive to all religious forms. (6)

Hyde de Neuville was convinced that the documents were genuine, and that the handwriting was that of Joseph Lakanal.

Who was Joseph Lakanal?

Joseph Lakanal

Joseph Lakanal

Joseph Lakanal was born in Serres-sur-Arget, France on July 14, 1762. He studied theology and was ordained as a priest, but never served a parish. Instead he joined a Catholic teaching order. In 1792, Lakanal was elected to the National Convention, in which capacity he voted for the execution of King Louis XVI. He also became a member of the Committee of Public Instruction and proposed a fundamental reform of France’s education system, aimed at promoting republican morals. In 1795, he was elected to the Council of Five Hundred.

After opposing Napoleon’s coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire, Lakanal was removed from office and retired to a professorship at the École Centrale at Paris. He became a member of the Institut National (later the Institut de France). In 1809, he was made inspector of weights and measures for four French departments, with headquarters in Rouen.

When the Bourbons returned to power in 1815, Lakanal was proscribed as a regicide. In early 1816, he sailed to the United States, accompanied by his wife Marie-Barbe François and their daughter Alexandrine. They settled on a farm in Gallatin County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River, nearly opposite the French settlement at Vevay, Indiana.

The Marquis de Lafayette had provided Lakanal with a letter of introduction to Thomas Jefferson. On June 1, 1816, Lakanal wrote to Jefferson:

In this pleasant retreat I shall divide my time between the cultivation of my lands and that of letters. I propose writing the history of the United States, for which I have been collecting materials for the past ten years. The spectacle of a free people supporting with obedience the salutary yoke of law will lessen the grief which I feel in being exiled from my country. She would be happy if your pacific genius had guided her destinies. The ambition of a single man [Napoleon] has brought the enraged nations upon us. My country, prostrate, but struck by the wisdom of your administration, wishes for such as you of the new world to raise herself from her ruins. (7)

In March 1817, the US Congress granted the French exiles land in Alabama, near the present site of Demopolis. This became known as the Vine and Olive Colony. Lakanal received 500 acres, but did not move to the colony.

The American government’s response

Hyde de Neuville took the Lakanal papers to John Quincy Adams, who had just become Secretary of State in President James Monroe’s administration. Adams compared the handwriting with that in other letters by Lakanal and agreed that they were the same. He brought the documents to the attention of President Monroe, who asked William Lee, formerly the secretary of the American legation in Paris and Consul General at Bordeaux, to find out whether there was anything to the purported plan.

After talking to some of the Napoleonic exiles, Lee reported in late September that the Lallemand brothers were at the head of the scheme. He claimed they had already engaged 80 French officers and 1,000 men. The Mexican revolutionaries were reportedly eager for aid from the French exiles, and two wealthy Mexican mine owners had offered to provide funds and Mexican troops. A mercantile house in Charleston had offered money and two well-armed brigs, and some merchants in Philadelphia, New York and Boston were also involved. Charles Lallemand intended going up the Red River with his officers and about 400 men to form a base for collecting together all his forces. Although they had ample funds in Mexico, they were in want of funds in the United States. To obtain money, they planned to sell their shares in the Vine and Olive Colony to French merchants in Philadelphia. According to Lee, “all the French officers of distinction except the Lallemands” disapproved of the project. Lee also cleared Joseph Bonaparte of any involvement.

It appears certain that Joseph B. has pointedly refused all aid and assistance to this and the like schemes; that he has been solicited in every way and all means used to induce him to patronize these adventurers without success, on which account they are liberal in their epithets against him. (8)

Lee confronted Charles Lallemand in person.

I laid before him in as strong terms as I am master of, a picture of the mischief his projects were calculated to heap upon his countrymen and their friends in the U. States; the pain it would cause to the administration, to find him sacrificing his reputation by violating our laws and that hospitality and protection they had afforded him. He promised me not to prosecute his plan of attacking Mexico until next winter, when he was well assured by some influential members of Congress something would be done by that body in favor of the Spanish patriots, declaring that all he had hitherto done was under the expectation and a firm belief that this Government wished well to the revolution in Spanish America, and that his brother and himself had determined not to engage in anything of this nature if disagreeable to them. (9)

Lee later sent Adams another report which suggested that plans had changed and the expedition was actually destined for Peru.

Both Hyde de Neuville and the Spanish ambassador to the United States urged the American government to take action against the adventurers. The former intimated that the French government might demand the arrest of Joseph Bonaparte and the seizure of his papers. Adams responded that as long as there was no evidence of any overt act on the part of the suspected conspirators, the American government could do nothing. Hyde de Neuville then urged Adams to have the papers published, thus exposing the plan and bringing ridicule upon those connected with it. Adams observed “that the fact of the levy of men and of its motives had been mentioned as [Hyde de Neuville’s] allegation, and not as a positive fact… That even admitting the papers to contain, if authentic, evidence of criminal actions, this government had no evidence of their authenticity, but comparison of handwriting, which in the judicial tribunals upon criminal prosecution would not be admissible.” (10) Lakanal would probably deny authorship and sue the printer for libel. Hyde de Neuville admitted that “he could not compromit the dignity of his own government by entering into a controversy with [Lakanal] in the public prints.” (11)

Adams began to wonder whether Lakanal or a clever forger had written the documents “to obtain his own pardon, by entrapping or implicating in criminal enterprises a more important personage.” (12) He was also concerned about the effect that publication of the documents would have on Joseph Bonaparte. On October 8, Adams wrote to Monroe:

I see nothing in the papers…that tends to prove [Joseph Bonaparte] being accessory to any part of the project; and it seems hardly equitable that he should be made responsible before the public for any schemes by which madmen or desperadoes use his name without his knowledge or consent. Add to which that I could not altogether avoid the suspicion that the whole of this affair of the Napoleon confederacy has been somehow or other gotten up for that purpose; or to countenance the allied governments in their arbitrary detention of Lucien [Bonaparte] by refusing him passports to come to this country. I am unwilling to extend this suspicion to Mr. de Neuville himself; but if the papers purporting to be signed by Lakanal are genuine, the question still remains whose cause they were intended to serve, and by what real motive they were dictated? (13)

Charles Lallemand also took steps to derail any action against him. He sought an interview with Adams, in which he denied having any connection with any project contrary to the laws of the United States, and also denied knowing Lakanal. He had heard of some pretended letters from Lakanal to Joseph Bonaparte, but the latter had refused to receive them, which is why they were intercepted.

The administration initiated an investigation into levies in the West, which failed to turn up evidence of the army described in the Lakanal papers. Monroe asked his friend Nicholas Biddle to keep an eye on the movements of the Lallemands in Philadelphia. In February 1818, Biddle wrote that the two brothers had sailed from New York with two or three officers for Mobile or New Orleans. About the same time, a vessel had left Philadelphia with nearly 150 persons on board, mainly Frenchmen, to join the Lallemands. Funds for this had been raised from the sale of lands from the Vine and Olive Colony. Biddle thought the expedition was heading for Spain’s possessions in South America. It was actually heading for Texas, which was then part of Mexico, to found a short-lived Bonapartist military colony called the Champ d’Asile. Neither Lakanal nor Joseph Bonaparte took part in this expedition.

Instead Lakanal moved to New Orleans, where, in 1822, he became president of the Collège d’Orléans. The appointment was controversial. Many Creole families objected to having their sons educated by a regicide and married apostate priest. In July 1823, Lakanal resigned. He moved to Alabama, near Mobile. He returned to France in the mid-1830s, and died in Paris on February 14, 1845.

Was Joseph Bonaparte offered the crown of Mexico?

Did the Mexican patriots – who despised Joseph Bonaparte when he was King of Spain and the Indies – actually propose putting him on the throne of an independent Mexico? We may never know.

According to Joseph’s nephew Louis Napoleon (Emperor Napoleon III), while Joseph was living in Bordentown, “a deputation from Mexico came to offer him the Mexican crown.” 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. (14)

As Louis Napoleon (born in 1808) was a child at the time, and living in Europe, not the United States, there is no way he could have witnessed this himself. It is possible that Francisco Xavier Mina, a Spanish revolutionist who visited the United States in 1816 in search of aid for his ill-fated 1817 invasion of Mexico, met with Joseph in Philadelphia in July of that year, thus giving rise to the 1816 newspaper reports. Spanish diplomatic officials reported that Mina had received money from Joseph, but there is no evidence that Mina’s expedition in support of the Mexican insurgents was undertaken to aid Joseph’s ascension to the throne.

In September 1821, Mexico achieved its independence. On May 19, 1822, Agustín de Iturbide became the Emperor of Mexico. He ruled for only ten months. In 1861, under the rule of Napoleon III, France invaded Mexico and installed Maximilian (the son of Napoleon’s brother-in-law Archduke Franz Karl of Austria) as Emperor. In 1867, the Mexicans executed Maximilian.

If you would like to imagine what might have happened if Napoleon had sought a crown in the Americas, read Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

What happened to the Bonapartists in America? The story of Louis Lauret

General Charles Lallemand: Invader of Texas

Napoleonic General Henri Lallemand, Improving the US Artillery

Narcisse & Antonia Rigaud: Survivors of the Champ d’Asile

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes: Unhappy in Alabama

Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, a 19th-century Knight-Errant

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

James Monroe and Napoleon

What did Americans think of the Napoleonic exiles?

Fake News about Napoleon Bonaparte

  1. Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD), September 21, 1816.
  2. Morning Chronicle (London, England), August 26, 1816.
  3. Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham, England), September 5, 1816.
  4. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 232.
  5. Charles Montholon, Récits de la Captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, Vol. II (Paris, 1847), p. 97.
  6. Jesse S. Reeves, The Napoleonic Exiles in America: A Study in American Diplomatic History, 1815-1819 (Baltimore, 1905), pp. 51-60.
  7. Ibid., p. 31.
  8. Ibid., p. 65.
  9. Ibid., p. 65.
  10. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI (New York, 1916) p. 196.
  11. Ibid., p. 197.
  12. Ibid., p. 205.
  13. Ibid., p. 214.
  14. Napoleon III, The Political and Historical Works of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (London, 1852), p. 143. The quote originally appears in the French version of Louis Napoleon’s works: Ouevres de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Vol. II (Paris, 1848), p. 330. It has been repeated in many subsequent books.

6 commments on “Joseph Bonaparte and the Crown of Mexico”

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Very interesting article! I didn’t know that Joseph could have been considered to be king of Mexico. If so, I don’t see dear old Joseph very eager to accept; he loved too much living quietly in the US, especially after his Spanish “adventure”…
    I knew that French bonapartists immigrated in the US after the fall of the Empire but I recently discovered the story of Demopolis and the Vine and Olive colony after seeing an old Hollywood movie with John Wayne called The Fighting Kentuckian!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Marie-Noëlle. I’m glad you liked the article. I agree Joseph would not have been keen on being a king again. I will look for The Fighting Kentuckian – thanks for the tip! There’s some interesting commentary on the Vine and Olive angle in the movie here: https://alabamayesterdays.blogspot.com/2015/11/movies-with-alabama-connections-3.html.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Thanks for the link! What a disappointment! A Hollywood movie which doesn’t tell the truth?!?
    After seeing this movie, I did a quick research on the net: most of the pages I found told the story of French officers created Demopolis and the V&O Colony. Maybe it was more romantic than Haïtian refugees…
    But there is the Marengo county, you can’t be wrong with this one! 😉

  • Shannon Selin says:

    The name says a lot! There were definitely Napoleonic officers at V&O, most notably General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes (https://shannonselin.com/2014/06/general-charles-lefebvre-desnouettes-unhappy-alabama/). But I gather the people who stayed and did the hard work were mainly planters from Haiti. Would probably still make a good film.

  • Geoffrey says:

    Joseph was known in Spain as Pepe la botella, because of his drinking habits. I expect the nickname spread to the Indies as well.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    You’re right, Geoffrey. “Joe Bottle” was known as such in Mexico — an indication that he was not particularly high in local estimation.

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It is said that the unambitious character of Joseph, ex-king of Spain and the Indies, has been powerfully worked upon by a numerous body of generals, who regained their fame under Bonaparte, and who having fled to America for refuge, are uneasy at the state of inaction to which they have been reduced.

Niles’ Weekly Register