As Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Western Europe, he doled out the spoils of war to his friends and family, in a grand gesture of nepotism. Napoleon’s older brother Joseph, described by historians as an “idealist, mild mannered, and lacking in vigor,” had wanted to be a writer, but instead followed his father into a law career, due to family pressures. His brother, however, had even different plans for him, and installed him first on the throne of Naples and later, Spain.
King Joseph was reluctant to take each of the positions, and didn’t fill either one very well. He was no more than crowned in Spain, than a popular revolt against French rule began. Joseph suffered a string of defeats as he and French forces engaged what was left of the Spanish regular army, and he asked his brother if he could abdicate and return to Naples. Napoleon wouldn’t have it. He left Joseph to keep a tenuous grasp on his army (the generals under his command insisted on checking with Napoleon before carrying out any of Joseph’s orders) and kingdom. Unable to beat back the rebels and their English allies, Joseph abdicated his throne in 1813, after having ruled for just over five years.
After Napoleon’s defeat and forced exile, the Bonaparte name wasn’t winning Joseph any friends in Europe, so he fled to the United States under an assumed name, and with the crown jewels of Spain stashed in his suitcase.
He initially settled in New York City, then moved to Philadelphia, where his house at 260 South 9th Street became the center of activity for America’s French expatriate community. He eventually moved to an estate of more than 1000 acres in Bordentown, New Jersey, twenty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. It was called Point Breeze. There, Joseph Bonaparte, former King of Naples and Spain, brother of Napoleon I, Emperor of France, took the title of Comte de Survilliers and melted into quiet, suburban exile. His American neighbors and friends still called him Mr. Bonaparte and referred to his home as “Bonaparte’s Park”.
Bonaparte constructed a vast mansion for himself, with a large wine cellar, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, elaborate crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces and grand staircases. His library held the largest collection of books in the country at the time, numbered at eight thousand volumes. The Library of Congress at the time only contained 6500 volumes.
The land surrounding the mansion was elaborately landscaped and featured ten miles of carriage paths, rare trees and plants, gazebos, gardens, fountains and an artificial lake stocked with imported European swans.
Bonaparte’s home became a social hub for both his New Jersey neighbors, who liked to spend quiet afternoons browsing his library, and American and European elites. Among the distinguished guests who came through Point Breeze were John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Stephen Girard, a French banker from Philadelphia who was then the richest man in the U.S.
Bonaparte’s wife did not accompany him to America, and he did not see her for 25 years after he left. He did, however, have another frequent guest at the house, his mistress, Annette Savage. Bonaparte had met Annette, the then 18-year-old, French-speaking daughter of distinguished Virginia merchants, while he was shopping for suspenders at her mother’s shop in Philadelphia. During their time together, Bonaparte and Annette would have two daughters, Caroline Charlotte and Pauline Josephe Anne.
In January 1820, Bonaparte’s mansion caught fire and burned to the ground. His neighbors rushed to the house and managed to save most of the silver and his priceless art collection. Contemporary newspaper reports called the blaze accidental, but according to the gossip around town, an immigrant from Russia, set the fire as revenge for Napoleon’s invasion of her homeland.
Bonaparte was touched by his neighbors’ assistance, and expressed those feelings in a letter he wrote to one of the town’s magistrates:
All the furniture, statues, pictures, money, plate gold, jewels, linen, books, and in short, everything that was not consumed, has been most scrupulously delivered into the hands of the people of my house. In the night of the fire, and during the next day, there were brought to me, by laboring men, drawers, in which I have found the proper quantity of pieces of money, and medals of gold, and valuable jewels, which might have been taken with impunity.
This event has proved to me how much the inhabitants of Bordentown appreciate the interest I have always felt for them; and shows that men in general are good, when they have not been perverted in their youth by a bad education. … Americans are, without contradiction, the most happy people I have known; still more happy if they understand well their own happiness.
I pray you not to doubt of my sincere regard.
—Joseph, Count de Survilliers
Bonaparte rebuilt his mansion and remained in New Jersey. He took ill and returned to Europe in 1839. When he died in 1844, Point Breeze passed to his grandson, who sold it and most of its contents at auction three years later. Some of the furnishings and paintings are now in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
The Bonapartes had another American connection. Napoleon’s younger brother, Jérôme, visited the United States in 1803 and fell in love with Elisabeth Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. They married that same year, but Napoleon did not approve and ordered his brother back to France. Jérôme went home, annulled his marriage, remarried, and became King of Westphalia. But not before consummating his marriage to Elisabeth. She was already pregnant when Jérôme left the U.S. and gave birth to another American Bonaparte.
The stateside branch of the family tree produced some notable members, including Charles Patterson Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt, but petered out a few decades ago. Jerome-Napoleon Patterson Bonaparte, great-grandnephew of Napoleon I, was walking his dog in Central Park in 1943, when he tripped over the leash, cracked his skull open on the ground and died.