The Bonapartes in America

Napoleon, played by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s latest movie, was fascinated by America. Although he never actually went there, his curiosity began as a student at the Ecole Militaire in Paris in 1784-1785, when he discovered the accounts of his tutor, Louis Silvestre de Valfort, who had fought alongside Lafayette in the American Revolution. Napoleon’s interest in the United States was shared by several of his brothers and descendants, particularly Joseph, who lived in New Jersey for many years.
Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s Napoléon. © Apple TV+

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, followed by his abdication on June 22, 1815, forced the Bonaparte family into exile in Switzerland, Austria, England, and the United States. For some time, the ousted emperor considered moving to America. He purchased a series of astronomical and meteorological instruments and asked his librarian, Antoine Barbier, to compile a selection of works about the country. His elder brother Joseph, the former king of both Naples and Spain from 1808 to 1813, joined him on Ile d’Aix, just off the Atlantic coast, and offered to sail with him on a specially chartered American brig. After considering various escape plans, including hiding in a barrel, Napoleon eventually surrendered to the English and hoped that they would treat him kindly. Abandoning the American route, he instead boarded the Bellerophon on August 9, 1815, and set sail for Saint Helena.

Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, the British ship that took him to Saint Helena in 1815. © Courtesy of the Tate Britain

Jérôme Bonaparte, the Pioneer

Jérôme, who was 16 years the Emperor’s junior, planned to move to the United States. Like the rest of his family, he had an intense military and political career and a busy love life. As a teenager, his brother Napoleon urged him to join the navy and sent him to the West Indies in December 1801. From Saint Domingue, he took advantage of a trip to New York City in the summer of 1803 to visit his sister Pauline. He was only 19 when he met Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy Irish ship-owner. It was love at first sight, and the pair were wed on December 24, 1803, by the bishop of Baltimore.

In their haste, the lovers did not ask permission from the Bonaparte family. Much to their dismay, Napoleon had other plans for his brother. He wanted him to join the network of European kingdoms and duchies under his control, and so he annulled their wedding! A defeated Jérôme agreed to follow his elder brother’s wishes. He returned to France in the fall of 1804 after just a few months in America, accompanied by a pregnant Betsy, whom he quickly left to marry Catherine of Württemberg, the daughter of King Frederick I. Jérôme Bonaparte was the only one of the Emperor’s seven siblings to see out his days in France, where he died in 1860.

Jérôme-Napoléon Patterson II, a Bonaparte at West Point

In July 1805, Jérôme Bonaparte and Elisabeth Patterson’s short marriage produced a son, Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte-Patterson, nicknamed “Bo.” He was born in England, as the Emperor had refused to allow the undesirable Betsy to set foot on French soil. Betsy never belonged to the “Bonaparte clan,” although she called herself Madame Bonaparte for the rest of her life. When Bo reached the age of 14, she sent him to live with his uncle, Joseph Bonaparte. Napoleon’s elder brother had moved to Philadelphia after Waterloo, and she convinced him to further his nephew’s education.

Bo married an American woman, Susan May Williams, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant, and this marriage produced his first son, Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte Patterson II. He joined West Point in 1848 and served in the U.S. Army, before moving to France to serve Napoleon III. He quickly rose through the ranks, fighting in the Crimean War, but the death of his father, which made him the new head of the family, forced him to step down in March 1871. On his return to the United States, he threw himself into managing the immense farming estate that his wife had given him as a dowry, and died in 1893. He left two children: Louise-Eugénie Bonaparte and Jérôme-Napoléon Charles Bonaparte.

Joseph Bonaparte, an Ambassador for European Art Exiled in America

Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, the deposed king of Naples and Spain, left France on July 25, 1815, and landed in Philadelphia on August 28, accompanied by his daughters, Charlotte and Zénaïde. His wife, Julie Marie Clary, was in fickle health and had decided not to attempt the crossing. History has remembered Joseph Bonaparte as weak and lacking in courage, and even Napoleon called him an “ornament of society.” This expression, which reflects the emperor’s disappointment with his brother’s inglorious reign in Spain, is quite apt in light of the eldest Bonaparte’s life in the United States. “Joseph will start a great institution in this country,” Napoleon once said. “You’ll see, he will become an American bourgeois and will spend his fortune tending gardens!”

Joseph Bonaparte was a complex, cultured, and ambitious character. In America, he called himself the Comte de Survilliers, after the land he owned near Compiègne, and settled on a vast estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. While here, he indulged his passion for architecture and landscaping, building a residence on a promontory overlooking the Delaware River, buying up farms, orchards, and land, and even digging a lake. Between islands planted with rare shrubs, European swans and swan-shaped boats floated lazily across the water.

Charles B. Lawrence, Point Breeze, the Estate of Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte at Bordentown, New Jersey, 1817-1820. © Art Institute of Chicago

Joseph Bonaparte designed his Point Breeze estate inspired by El Escorial, the palace home to King Philip II of Spain. Roads and footpaths ran through the park between pines, oaks, stone bridges, belvederes, and marble statues. Local children were allowed to play hide-and-seek there, and skaters were welcome on the frozen lake in the winter. Servants would bring them baskets of oranges from Florida and Spain, which the former king of Madrid liked to roll across the ice to impress visitors. For his daughter Zénaïde, Joseph Bonaparte had a three-floor house built on the banks of the lake, decorated with works of art and complete with an underground passage to avoid bad weather.

From 1816 to 1839, Point Breeze was a rallying point for exiled Bonapartists and French officers who had served in Spain. Joseph Bonaparte hosted leading politicians, including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and even Lafayette, who passed through the region in 1824 on his final trip to the United States. The emperor’s elder brother also made a name for himself with his collection of European art, paintings, precious objects, and furniture. With more than 8,000 books, his library exceeded that of Congress, which only had 6,500 at the time, and he loaned out many of his paintings for exhibitions in Philadelphia, including David’s famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Meanwhile, a sculpture of his sister, Princess Pauline Bonaparte Borghese, depicted half-naked by artist Antonio Canova, never failed to shock prudish Quaker visitors!

Joseph Bonaparte influenced American high society with his eloquence, intelligence, and taste for painting and sculpture. He remained “a catalyst for European art and culture in early 19th-century America,” according to curator Wendy A. Cooper. He died in Florence in 1844 with his wife by his side, leaving his Point Breeze estate to his grandson, Joseph Lucien Bonaparte, who sold it to a certain Thomas Richards in 1847. A few years later, Richards sold it to Henry Beckett, a former British consul in Philadelphia. Beckett, an inveterate Francophobe, had it demolished and built a new one, which was destroyed by fire in 1985. The site now houses the seminary of the Society of the Divine Word, which trains missionaries for the Roman Catholic Church. [The property has since been acquired by a trust, which plans to use it to create a public park.]

Charles-Joseph Bonaparte Patterson, the Founder of the FBI

Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte Patterson had a second son, Charles-Joseph Bonaparte Patterson, who first served as Secretary of the Navy, then as Attorney General under President Theodore Roosevelt. He was behind the creation of the Bureau of Investigation (the future Federal Bureau of Investigation) in 1908. Few expect to find a portrait of a Bonaparte in the gallery at the Pentagon, but there it is! Charles-Joseph died in 1921 without an heir. He is buried in Baltimore.

The Murat Brothers, the Bonapartes’ American Nephews

The two Princes Murat, Napoléon-Achille Murat and his younger brother, Lucien, were nephews of Napoleon I and sons of his sister, Caroline Bonaparte, through her marriage to Joachim Murat. Their father, one of the most talented marshals in the imperial army, was appointed King of Naples in 1808 and executed in 1815.

Upon his arrival in the United States in 1822, Napoléon-Achille, aged just 20, became an American citizen. He settled in Florida and acquired an orange grove near Saint Augustine, where the Murat House can still be admired today. Napoléon-Achille was an eccentric who escaped the extreme heat by sitting naked in Moses Creek for hours with a mosquito net over his head! He also had a great love of alligator and rattlesnake meat. When war broke out with the Seminole tribes, he joined a militia led by Brigadier General Joseph Hernandez, before being elected alderman of the town of Tallahassee in 1824, and then mayor. During Lafayette’s “farewell tour” in 1825, the French marquis asked him to accompany him. While on the trip, Napoléon-Achille met a young widow, Catherine Daingerfield-Willis, the great-grandniece of George Washington, whom he married in 1826. He died in 1847 at the age of 46, leaving no descendants.

His brother, Lucien Murat, followed in his footsteps but instead chose the Baltimore region, where he arrived in 1825. His wealthy uncle, Joseph Bonaparte, lived there and was one of the main reasons for this decision. In 1831, he married Caroline Georgina Fraser. They had five children, four of whom were born in the United States and are the ancestors of today’s Princes Murat!

Article published in the January 2015 issue of de France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.