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I didn't know much of anything about Joseph Bonaparte until one day walking down the street in Philadelphia, I passed an unassuming townhouse. Out front, there was a historic marker that read:
"Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844). The elder brother of Napoleon and King of Naples and Spain lived here, 1815-16. The House was built about 1813. During Joseph's occupancy here, this was a place for Bonapartist refugees & other French Nationals."
I was curious and intrigued to find out how the brother of the most pivotal figure of the 19th Century ended up living as an "average Joe" in Center City. That started me on this look into the man the world mostly remembers as Napoleon's brother.
Joseph and Napoleon
In the 1790's, Corsica sought to break away from France, which was then stuck in the terror and chaos of the Revolution. Independence leader Pasquale Paoli allied himself with the British and briefly took control of the island.
Joseph and Napoleon had been friends with Paoli at one time, but were still serving in the French Army and considered themselves French. The Bonaparte family backed the French in this dispute and fled to mainland France when the other side took power.
Military and Diplomatic Career
Joseph, a dedicated advocate of the French republican cause, served along with his brother in the French army. In 1796 he and Napoleon fought together in the early part of his Italian campaign. Joseph then worked on the diplomatic negotiations to end hostilities. Later, Joseph joined the French expedition to recover control of Corsica and assisted in the reorganization of the island.
The French Directory in control of France at the time, took notice of Joseph's abilities and gave him more diplomatic posts. He was appointed to the court of Parma in 1797 and then to Rome. Later that year, he returned to Paris and became one of the representatives for Corsica in the Council of Five Hundred, the new French legislature.
The coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) finally brought his brother Napoleon to power. Never one to shy away from nepotism, Napoleon appointed Joseph to a number of important posts. He served as a member of the Council of State and of the Corps Législatif. In 1800, Joseph successfully negotiated a treaty with the United States, putting and end to the Quasi-War that had erupted under the old Directory government. He also negotiated the 1801 treaty with Austria and represented France in discussions with the British envoy, Lord Cornwallis, that led to the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
As Joseph and Napoleon pursued their careers in the military and politics they remained very close. There is a regular stream of letters back and forth between the brothers, often on a daily basis. While they had their differences of opinion, they maintained a deep and unbreakable family bond and always held a brotherly affection for one another.
Napoleon took the role of "First Consul" of France in 1802. After Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, tensions rose between the brothers. Joseph thought he should be Napoleon's heir, while Napoleon chose their nephew. But they continued to work together well as Joseph never lost the trust of his brother. In 1805, Joseph essentially ran the government in Paris while brother Napoleon was fighting wars in Germany.
King of Naples
Joseph in Naples
King Ferdinand IV and Queen
Carolina of Naples
King Joseph was quick to reform the government and its laws. He abolished feudal laws that kept the peasants in a state of virtual slavery. He reformed the monastic orders, shutting down most cloistered monasteries and ensuring priests served the people in parishes. A modern judiciary began trying and releasing many thousands of prisoners who had been held, sometimes for decades, without trial. Those remaining in prison suffered less, as prison conditions improved Joseph's military crushed rampant piracy and banditry. He instituted the region's first free public school system for children and restored funding for the University of Naples. A fairer and more systematized tax system replaced the old corrupt one that benefited only a few nobility. Land reform, took land primarily from the Church as well as some nobles, and made it available to small farmers. Public works projects put people to work and rebuilt infrastructure. Generally, the reforms seemed to be quite popular.
This is not to say everything was easy. Powerful nobility who had benefited under the old regime resisted the reforms. The British naval fleet continued to harass the kingdom along its shores. Land reform changes that had impacted holdings of the Catholic Church created a conflict that raised difficulties for the new king. Resistance and rebellion remained in some regions.
Napoleon thought that his brother was not tough enough with those who resisted his reign. Take a look at these thoughts from a letter to Joseph:
"Put it in your calculations, that sooner or later you will have an insurrection. It is an event which always happens in a conquered country. You can never sustain yourself by opinion in such a city as Naples. Be sure that you will have a riot or an insurrection. I earnestly desire to aid you by my experience in such matters. Shoot pitilessly the lazzaroni who plunge the dagger. I am greatly surprised that you do not shoot the spies of the King of Naples. Your administration is too feeble. I cannot conceive why you do not execute the laws. Every spy should be shot. Every lazzaroni who plies the dagger should be shot. You attach too much importance to a populace whom two or three battalions and a few pieces of artillery will bring to reason. They will never be submissive until they rise in insurrection, and you make a severe example. The villages which revolt should be surrendered to pillage. It is not only the right of war, but policy requires it. Your government, my brother, is not sufficiently vigorous. You fear too much to indispose people. You are too amiable, and have too much confidence in the Neapolitans. This system of mildness will not avail you. Be sure of that. I truly desire that the mob of Naples should revolt. Until you make an example, you will not be master. With every conquered people a revolt is a necessity. I should regard a revolt in Naples as the father of a family regards the small-pox for his children. Provided it does not weaken the invalid too much, it is a salutary crisis."
Joseph had used military force and was far from a pushover. Napoleon, however, was clearly an advocate for military force, rather than diplomacy and political popularity. Joseph was more nuanced in his rule than Napoleon would have liked. When a rebellion in Calabria broke out, Napoleon argued for a harsh and unforgiving crack down:
"The fate of your reign depends upon your conduct when you return to Calabria. There must be no forgiveness. Shoot at least six hundred rebels. They have murdered more soldiers than that. Burn the houses of thirty of the principal persons in the villages, and distribute their property among the soldiers. Take away all arms from the inhabitants, and give up to pillage five or six of the large villages. When Placenza rebelled, I ordered Junot to burn two villages and shoot the chiefs, among whom were six priests. It will be some time before they rebel again."
Joseph, unlike his brother, focused more on developing political support and less on using the military as an instrument of terror to compel submission. In a letter to his wife Joseph, discussed his desire to make life better for the people of Naples.
"I work for the kingdom of Naples with the same good faith and the same self-renunciation with which, at the death of my father, I labored for his young family, whom I never ceased to bear in my heart, and all sacrifices were for me enjoyments. I say this with pride, because it is the truth. I live only to be just; and justice requires that I should render this people as happy as the scourge of war will render possible. I venture to say, notwithstanding their situation, that the people of Naples are perhaps more happy than any other people."
By most accounts, King Joseph's efforts were successful. Internal rebellions largely withered away. He enjoyed popular support among the people. Peace and prosperity grew throughout the Kingdom. While Joseph seemed happy to spend the rest of his life ruling Naples, Napoleon was not one to let success lead to complacency. In 1808, Napoleon gave the Kingdom of Naples to one of his top military offices Joachim Murat (who was married to their sister Caroline) and sent Joseph to Spain.
King of Spain
Spain had for many years tried to play a double game against the warring French and British. Not really able to take on either country militarily, Spain feared both French invasion, as well as the British Navy's ability to cut off Spain from her colonies in Latin America. As a result, Spain was always trying to maintain friendly relations, or at least avoid the wrath, of both countries.
|King Charles IV and his family|
By most accounts, Joseph was happy in Naples and did not want to go to Spain, but his brother was not known for taking "no" for an answer. So, Joseph headed off to Spain. He apparently made an effort to ingratiate himself, trying to learn Spanish, disciplining French troops over abuses, professing devotion to the Catholic Church. He even attended bullfights.
|King Joseph of Spain 1808|
The Spanish, however were not as accepting of this imposed monarch. It was not that he was a foreigner. Foreign Kings were not unusual in Europe. Ironically, King Charles had been born and raised in Naples before ascending the throne. His wife was also from Parma in modern Italy. Strong opposition of the Catholic Church, and support for rebels provided by Britain fomented full scale rebellion against the new King.
After only three months, rebels drove Joseph out of the capital. Joseph wanted to return to Naples, but his brother would not allow it. The French army used brute force to reinstate King Joseph. Napoleon personally led an army of 80,000 to put down the rebellion and attack British forces in the country as well. Napoleon's military might, not Joseph's political skills, imposed control. A guerrilla resistance effectively prevented the French from exerting any real control over the countryside. Joseph tried to abdicate on multiple occasions, only to have his brother refuse or ignore his abdication.
Finally, in 1813, as the French Empire began to feel the strain from Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Joseph left Spain and returned to Paris. He served as a General in the final months of Napoleon's reign, in charge of the defense of Paris against allied attack. He fled the city only hours before Russian Cossacks ravaged the city, taking Napoleon's wife and child to safety.
Once Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814, Joseph retired with his family to an estate in Northern France on the banks of Lake Geneva. He lived their quietly with his family. When Napoleon escaped exile and returned to power, Joseph joined him an Paris and assisted with his new reign as emperor.
Photo of Joseph's
townhouse in. Phila.
Joseph was a wanted man as well. He boarded a ship under a false name. Despite several British inspections, authorities did not recognize him. He arrived in New York City. After a short stay, he rented a townhouse in Philadelphia (260 South Ninth Street).
Joseph remained popular in the US, which was at war with Britain at the time. His home remained a popular stop for both American leaders as well as French expatriates. The Allies in Europe had confiscated all the property held by the Bonaparte family and banished them from ever returning. Joseph though, had the foresight to hide and smuggle several million dollars worth of jewels off the continent. Apparently, when he abdicated the Spanish Crown, he decided to keep the Spanish crown jewels as a "lovely parting gift." allowing his family to live in style. Well his daughters anyway - Joseph's wife Julie never came to America. She remained in Europe.
|Napoleon's Point Breeze Estate in New Jersey|
Joseph could have remained a force in politics had he so desired. In 1817, a faction of Mexicans proposed to make Joseph King of Mexico. This was not a crazy as it might sound today. A generation later, the French King Maximilian I would rule Mexico briefly, under the protection of Joseph's nephew, Napoleon III. Joseph, however, decided two Kingdoms were enough for one lifetime and declined.
Joseph was generous to many French expatriates now living in near poverty in America. The Marquis de Lafayette visited Joseph at his estate during his famous 1824 American tour. Joseph also attempted to use his wealth to provide some comforts to his brother Napoleon, but was prevented from doing so by his captors. His brother died impoverished on St. Helena in 1821.
After nearly two decades in the US, Joseph attempted to return to Europe in 1832. His nephew, Napoleon's son Napoleon II, was near death and he hoped to obtain permission to visit him and other family members. He made it as far as London, but the British still feared the effect of his return to the continent and prevented him from proceeding. As a relative of Napoleon he was also formally banished from France upon pain of death. Joseph remained in London for about five years before returning to his estate in New Jersey.
Tomb of Joseph Napoleon
Les Invalides, Paris
Listen to a podcast of this episode.
For a general outline of Napoleon and his era, you may find this site helpful:
Here is a New York Times Article on the archaeological excavation of Joseph's NJ estate:
An interesting anecdote about Joseph Bonaparte's encounter with the New Jersey Devil:
I found a few other interesting online sites devoted to Joseph Bonaparte specifically:
There is a good book on Joseph Bonaparte in the public domain, and available as a free download:
History of Joseph Bonaparte, king of Naples and of Italy by John Abbott (1897). This book is also available as a free Kindle download.
Also available as a free ebook is a book of correspondence between Napoleon and Joseph (translated into English: The confidential correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with his brother Joseph (by Joseph and Napoleon Bonaparte) (English publication, 1895).
If you want to learn more about Joseph Napoleon's life in America, I recommend The Man Who Had Been King The American Exile of Napoleon's Brother Joseph by Patricia Tyson Stroud (2005).
A more general read is The Gentle Bonaparte;: A biography of Joseph, Napoleon's elder brother by Owen Connelly (1968).