Joseph Bonaparte - John S. C. Abbott

The Crown a Burden

The close of the year 1806 was rendered memorable by the victories of Jena and Auerstadt, and the occupation of Prussia by the armies of Napoleon. The war was wantonly provoked by Prussia. Napoleon wrote to Joseph from St. Cloud, on the 13th of September:

"Prussia makes me a thousand protestations. That does not prevent me from taking my precautions. In a few days she will disarm, or she will be crushed. Austria protests her wish to remain neutral. Russia knows not what she wishes. Her remote position renders her powerless. Thus, in a few words, you have the present aspect of affairs."

A few days after he wrote again to Joseph from St. Cloud:

"MY BROTHER,—I have just received the tidings that Mr. Fox is dead. Under present circumstances, he is a man who dies regretted by two nations. The horizon is somewhat clouded in Europe. It is possible that I may soon come to blows with the King of Prussia. If matters are not soon arranged, the Prussians will be so beaten in the first encounters, that every thing will be finished in a few days."

Napoleon cautioned his brother against making the contents of his letters known to others, saying, "I repeat to you, that if this letter is read by others than yourself, you injure your own affairs. I am accustomed to think three or four months in advance of what I do; and I make arrangements for the worst."

England, Russia, and Prussia entered into a new alliance to crush the Empire in France. The armies of Prussia, two hundred thousand strong, commenced their march by entering Saxony, one of the allies of Napoleon. Alexander of Russia was hastening to join Prussia, with two hundred thousand men in his train. England was giving the most energetic co-operation with her invincible fleet and her almost inexhaustible gold. Upon the eve of this terrible conflict, Napoleon, in the following terms, addressed Europe, to which address no reply was returned but that of shot and shell.

"Why should hostilities arise between France and Russia? Perfectly independent of each other, they are impotent to inflict evil, but all-powerful to communicate benefits. If the Emperor of France exercises a great influence in Italy, the Czar exerts a still greater influence over Turkey and Persia. If the Cabinet of Russia pretends to have a right to affix limits to the power of France, without doubt it is equally disposed to allow the Emperor of the French to prescribe the bounds beyond which Russia is not to pass.

"Russia has partitioned Poland. Can she then complain that France possesses Belgium and the left banks of the Rhine? Russia has seized upon the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the northern provinces of Persia. Can she deny that the right of self-preservation gives France a title to demand an equivalent in Europe. Let every power begin by restoring the conquests which it has made during the last fifty years. Let them re-establish Poland, restore Venice to its Senate, Trinidad to Spain, Ceylon to Holland, the Crimea to the Porte, the Caucasus and Georgia to Persia, the kingdom of Mysore to the sons of Tippoo Sahib, and the Mahratta States to their lawful owners, and then the other powers may have some title to insist that France shall retire within her ancient limits."

It was important to prevent the union of these mighty hosts, now combined to overthrow the new system in France. As Napoleon left Paris, to strike the Prussian army before it could be strengthened by the arrival of the Russians, he wrote to Joseph:

"Give yourself no uneasiness. The present struggle will be speedily terminated. Prussia and her allies, be they who they may, will be crushed. And this time I will settle finally with Europe. I will put it out of the power of my enemies to stir for ten years."

In his parting message to the Senate, he said, "In so just a war, which we have not provoked by any act, by any pretense, the true cause of which it would be impossible to assign, and where we only take arms to defend ourselves, we depend entirely upon the support of the laws, and upon that of the people, whom circumstances call upon to give fresh proof of their devotion and courage."

The Prussian army was overwhelmed at Jena and Auerstadt, and then Napoleon, pressing on to the north, met the Russians at Friedland, and annihilated their forces also.

The atrocities perpetrated by the Italian bandits were so terrible, that the exasperated soldiers often retaliated with fearful severity. Joseph, by nature a very humane man, endeavored in every way in his power to mitigate this ferocity. The revolt in Calabria was attended with almost every conceivable act of perfidy and cruelty. The wounded French were butchered in the hospitals; the dwellings of Neapolitans friendly to the new government were burnt, and their families outraged; treachery of the vilest kind was perpetrated by those acting under the mask of friendship. The crisis, which Napoleon had been continually anticipating and warning his brother against, had come. The case demanded rigorous measures. It was necessary to the very existence of the Government that it should prove, by avenging crime, that it was determined to protect the innocent. Still the amiable Joseph was disposed to leniency. Napoleon wrote him:

"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 Piacenza 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."

Where there is this energy to punish crime, the good repose in safety. This apparent inhumanity may be, with a ruler who has millions to protect, the highest degree of humanity. When a lawless mob is rioting through the streets of a city, robbing, burning, murdering, it is not well for the Government affectionately to address them with soothing words. It is far more humane to mow down the insurgents with grape and canister.

The English fleet still menaced and assailed the kingdom of Naples at every available point. It held possession of the island of Capin, near the mouth of the gulf of Naples. There was a Neapolitan, by the name of Vecchioni, who had professed the warmest attachment to the new government, and whom Joseph had appointed as one of his counsellors of state. This man entered into a conspiracy with the English, to betray to them the King to whom he had perfidiously sworn allegiance. His treason was clearly proved. But he was an old man. His life had hitherto been pure. The tender heart of Joseph could not bear to inflict upon him merited punishment. He said compassionately, "The poor old man has suffered enough already. Let him go." To govern an ignorant, fanatical, and turbulent nation swarming with brigands, requires a character of stern mould. But for the energies communicated to Joseph by Napoleon, Joseph could not long have retained his throne. The Emperor at Saint Helena, speaking of his brother, said:

"Joseph rendered me no assistance, but he is a very good man. His wife, Queen Julia, is the most amiable creature that ever existed. Joseph and I were always attached to each other, and kept on good terms. He loves me sincerely, and I doubt not that he would do every thing in the world to serve me; but his qualities are only suited to private life. He is of a gentle and kind disposition, possesses talent and information, and is altogether a most amiable man. In the discharge of the high duties which I confided to him, he did the best he could. His intentions were good, and therefore the principal fault rested not so much with him as with me, who raised him above his proper sphere. When placed in important circumstances, he found himself unequal to the task imposed upon him."

On another occasion, the Emperor at Saint Helena, speaking of the different members of his family, said:

"In their mistaken notions of independence, the members of my family sometimes seemed to consider their power as detached, forgetting that they were merely parts of a great whole, whose views and interests they should have aided, instead of opposing. But, after all, they were very young and inexperienced, and were surrounded by snares, flatterers, and intriguers with secret and evil designs.

"And yet, if we judge from analogy, what family, in similar circumstances, would have acted better? Every one is not qualified to be a statesman. That requires a combination of powers that does not often fall to the lot of one. In this respect, all my brothers are singularly situated. They possessed at once too much and too little talent. They felt themselves too strong to resign themselves blindly to a guiding counsellor, and yet too weak to be left entirely to themselves. But, take them all in all, I have certainly good reason to be proud of my family.

"Joseph would have been an ornament to society in any country; and Lucien would have been an honor to any political assembly. Jerome, as he advanced in life, would have developed every qualification requisite in a sovereign. Louis would have been distinguished in every rank and condition in life. My sister Eliza was endowed with masculine powers of mind; she must have proved herself a philosopher in her adverse fortune. Caroline possessed great talents and capacity. Pauline, perhaps the most beautiful woman of her age, has been, and will continue to be to the end of her life, the most amiable creature in the world. As to my mother, she deserves all kind of veneration.

"How seldom is so numerous a family entitled to so much praise?. Add to this that, setting aside the jarring of political opinions, we sincerely loved each other. For my part, I never ceased to cherish fraternal affection for them all; and I am convinced that, in their hearts, they felt the same sentiments toward me, and that, in case of need, they would have given me proof of it."

The soil of Italy presented widely, upon its surface, impressive monuments of the past. The grand memories inspired by these creations of olden time tended to arouse the sluggish spirit of the degenerate moderns. To promote these ennobling studies, and to increase the taste for the fine arts, Joseph established "The Royal Academy of History and Antiquities," The number of members was fixed at forty. The King appointed the first twenty members, and they nominated, for his appointment, the rest. A museum was formed for the collection of antique works of art found in the excavations. An annual fund, of about. ten thousand dollars, was appropriated to the expenses of the institution. Two grand sessions were to be held each year, at which time prizes were awarded by the Academy to the amount of about two thousand dollars for the most important literary works which had been produced. The first sessions were held in the hall of the palace. The King wished thus to manifest his interest in the objects of the Academy, to co-operate in their labors, and to avail himself of the advantages of their researches. The clergy, and the medical and legal professions, were alike represented in this learned body.

It is an interesting fact, illustrative of the state of learning at the time, that of the twenty academicians first appointed by the King, eleven were ecclesiastics. Two only were nobles. This class, rioting in sensual indulgence, disdained any intellectual labor. Notwithstanding all these expenses, such system and economy were introduced into the finances, that they were rapidly becoming extricated from the chaos in which they had long been plunged.

In the midst of these incessant and diversified labors, letters were almost daily passing between Joseph and his brother the Emperor. On the first day of the year 1807, Napoleon was, with his heroic and indomitable army, far away amidst the frozen wilds of Poland. Joseph sent a special deputation to his brother, with earnest wishes for "a happy new year." Napoleon thus replied, under the date of Warsaw, January 28, 1807:

"MY BROTHER,—I have not received the letter of your Majesty and his wishes for my happiness without lively emotion. Your destinies and my successes have placed a vast country between us. You touch, on the south, the Mediterranean. I touch the Baltic. But, by the harmony of our measures, we are seeking the same object. Watch over your coasts; shut out the English and their commerce. Their exclusion will secure tranquillity in your states. Your realm is rich and populous. By the aid of God it may become powerful and happy. Receive my most sincere wishes for the prosperity of your reign, and rely at all times upon my fraternal affection. The deputation which your Majesty has sent to me has honorably fulfilled its mission. I have requested it to bear to your Majesty the assurance of my sincere attachment. Whereupon, my brother, I pray that God may ever have you in his holy and worthy keeping."

Some reference was made in one of Joseph's letters to the sufferings which the army in Naples endured. Napoleon replied,

"The members of my staff, colonels, officers, have not undressed for two months, and some for four. (I myself have been fifteen days without taking off my boots), in the midst of snow and mud, without bread, without wine, without brandy, eating potatoes and meat; making long marches and counter-marches, without any kind of rest; fighting with the bayonet, and very often under grapeshot: the wounded being borne on sledges in the open air one hundred and fifty miles.

"It is then ill-timed pleasantry to compare us with the Army of Naples, which is making war in the beautiful country of Naples, where they have bread, oil, cloth, bedclothes, society, and even that of the ladies. After having destroyed the Prussian monarchy, we are now contending against the rest of the Prussians, against the Russians, the Cossacks, the Cal-mucks, and against those tribes of the north which formerly overwhelmed the Roman empire. In the midst of these great fatigues, every body has been more or less sick. As for me, I was never better, and am gaining flesh.

"The Army of Naples has no occasion to complain. Let them inquire of General Berthier. He will tell them that their Emperor has for fifteen days eaten nothing but potatoes and meat, whilst bivouacking in the midst of the snows of Poland. Judge from that what must be the condition of the officers They have nothing but meat."

On the 26th of March, 1807, Joseph wrote, in a letter to his brother Napoleon, urging the promotion of Colonel Destrees, who, by his probity, had won the affections of the people.

"Here, sire, an honest man is worth more to me than a man of ability. When I find both qualities united in the same person, I esteem him of more value than a regiment. It is for this reason that I value so highly Reynier, Partouneaux, Donzelot, Lamarque, Jourdan, Saligny, and Mathieu; it is this which leads me to prize so highly Roederer and Dumas."

Again he wrote to his brother on the 29th of March:

"Sire, as I see more of men and become better acquainted with them, I recognize more and more the truth of what I have heard from your Majesty during the whole of my life. The experience of government has confirmed the truth of that which your Majesty has so often said to me. I hope your Majesty will not regard this as flattery. But it is true; and I never cease to repeat, and particularly to myself; that you have been born with a superiority of reason truly astonishing, and now I recognize fully that men are what you have always told me they were. How many abuses, which I confess still astonish me, have I encountered, in the journey which I have just made. A prince confiding and amiable is a great scourge from heaven. I am instructed, sire, and I hope ere long to be a better ruler by not giving the majority of men the credit for that spirit of justice and humanity which I hope your Majesty recognizes in me. I have assembled the notables of this province. How docile these people are! but they are very badly governed. I have dismissed the prefect, the sub-prefect, the general, the commandant, a set of rascals who were here the instruments and the agents of an honest prince. This province, the most tranquil in the realm, had become, in the opinion of notables, the most disaffected and the most ready, to desire the arrival of the enemy. I journeyed from village to village, and speedily repaired the evil. These people have so much vivacity of spirit and ardor of soul, that both good and evil operate easily upon them. Their inconstancy is not so much the result of their character as of their topographical and military position.

"I am aware, sire, that I have not, as your Majesty has, the art of employing all kinds of men. I need honest men, in whom I can repose some confidence. Sire, I am in that mood of mind, which your Majesty recognizes in me, in which I love to say whatever I think right. Your Majesty ought to make peace at whatever price. Your Majesty is victorious, triumphant everywhere. You ought to recoil before the blood of your people. It is for the prince to hold back the hero. No extent of country, be it more or less, should restrain you. All the concessions you may make will be glorious, because they will be useful to your peoples, whose purest blood now flows; and victorious and invincible as you are, by the admission of all, no condition can be supposed to be prescribed to you by an enemy whom you have vanquished.

"Sire, it is the love which I bear for a brother who has become a father to me, and the love which I owe to France and to the people whom you have given me, which dictates these words of truth. As for me, sire, I shall be happy to do whatever may be in my power to secure that end."

This strain of remark must have been not a little annoying to the Emperor. While Joseph did not deny that the Emperor was waging war solely in self-defense, he assumed that he was now so powerful that he could make peace at any time upon his own terms. But dynastic Europe was allying itself, coalition after coalition, in an interminable series, with the avowed object of driving Napoleon from the throne, reinstating the Bourbons, re-establishing the old feudal despotisms, and of then overthrowing the regenerated kingdoms of Italy and of Naples, and all the other popular governments established under the protection of Napoleon. Against these foes the Emperor was contending, not for France alone, but for the rights of humanity throughout Europe and the world. As Napoleon left Paris for the campaigns of Jena and Auerstadt, he said to the Senate,

"In so just a war, which we have not provoked by any act, by any pretense, the true cause to which it would be impossible to assign, and where we only take up arms to defend ourselves, we depend entirely upon the support of the laws and of the people."

No man could deny the truth of this statement. Napoleon was driven to all the rigors of a winter's campaign in the wilds of Poland. To have received, by the side of his bleak bivouac, whilst thus struggling to defend the rights of humanity throughout Europe, a letter from his amiable brother, written in such a strain of implied reproach, must have been extremely annoying. One would look for an outburst of indignation in response. We turn to the Emperor's reply. It was as follows:

"MY BROTHER,—I have received your letter of the 29th of March, and I thank you for all that you have said. Peace is a marriage which depends upon a union of wills. If it be necessary still to wage war, I am in a condition to do so. You will see, by my message to the Senate, that I am about to raise additional troops."

Joseph had expressed the opinion that the Neapolitans truly loved him. Napoleon, in his reply, said,

"I am not of the opinion that the Neapolitans love you. It is all resolved to this. If there were not a French soldier in Naples, could you raise there thirty thousand men to defend you against the English and the partisans of the Queen? As the contrary is evident to me, I can not think as you do. Your people will love you undoubtedly, but it will be after eight or ten years, when they will truly know you, and you will know them. To love, with the people, means to esteem; and they esteem their prince when he is feared by the bad, and when the good have such confidence in him that he can, under all circumstances, rely upon their fidelity and their aid."

In a letter to Joseph, written a few days before this, the Emperor made the following striking remarks:

"Since you wish me to speak freely of what is done at Naples, I will say to you that I was not just pleased with the preamble to the supression of the convents. In referring to religion, the language should be in the spirit of religion, and not in that of philosophy. Why do you speak of the services rendered to the arts and the sciences by the religious orders? It is not that which has rendered them commendable; it is the administration of the consolations of religion. The preamble is entirely philosophical, and I think that it should not be so. It ought to have been said that the great number of the monks rendered their support difficult; that the dignity of the State required that they should be maintained in a condition of respectability: hence the necessity for reform, that a portion of the clergy must be retained for the administration of the sacraments, that others must be dismissed. I give this as a general principle."

Joseph was well aware how difficult it is for truth to reach the steps of the throne. In his tour through the provinces, he often, on foot, penetrated the crowd which surrounded him, and conversed with any one whose intelligence attracted his attention. He listened to every well-founded complaint, and avowed himself deeply moved in view of the oppression which the people had suffered even from his own agents. But for this personal observation, he would have remained in ignorance of these wrongs which he promptly and vigorously repressed. Joseph was a man of the purest morals, and, as a husband and father, was a model of excellence. While engaged in these labors at Naples, his wife, Julie, who was in delicate health, remained in Paris, occupying the palace of the Luxembourg. They exchanged daily letters. The following extract from one of Joseph's letters, written on the 26th of April, 1807, will give the reader some insight to the nature of this correspondence, and to the heart of Joseph.

"MY DEAR JULIE,,—I have received no letter from you to-day. I pray you not to fail to write to me. I can not but feel anxious when I receive no letter, since your correspondence is otherwise regular. I wrote you yesterday of the rumors which malevolence had set in circulation, but that facts will gradually destroy them. I can give you the positive assurance that you need have no solicitude upon that point.

"I have come to pass Sunday here. It is somewhat remarkable that fête  days are the seasons which I choose for a little recreation. This shows with what constancy I am employed on other days in the labors of the Cabinet. Moreover, the response to every accusation is the result which has already been attained here. Notes upon the Bank of Naples, which were twenty-five per cent. below par when I came here, are now at par. I have, with my own resources, conducted the war and the siege of Gaeta, which has cost six millions of francs ($1,200,000); I have found the means to support and pay ninety thousand men, for I have, besides sixty thousand land soldiers, thirty thousand men as marines, invalids, pensioners of the ancient army, coast guards, shore gunners; and I have fifteen hundred leagues of coast, all beset, blockaded, and often attacked by the enemy.

"With all this, I have not so much increased the taxes as to excite the discontent of the landed proprietors and the people. There is so little dissatisfaction that I can travel almost anywhere alone without imprudence; that Naples is as tranquil as Paris; that I can borrow here whatever one has to lend; that I have not a single class of society discontented; and it is generally admitted that if I do not do better it is not my fault; that I set the example of moderation, of economy; that I indulge in no luxuries; that I make no expenses for myself; that I have neither mistresses, minions, nor favorites; that no person leads me, and, indeed, that every thing is so well ordered here that the officers and other Frenchmen whom I am compelled to send away complain, when they are absent, that they can not remain in Naples.

"Read this, my good Julie, to mamma and to Caroline, since they are anxious, and say to them that if they knew me better, they would feel less solicitude. Say to them that one does not change at my age; remind mamma that at every period of my life, an obscure citizen, cultivator, magistrate, I have always sacrificed with pleasure my time to my duties. It surely is not I, who prize grandeurs so little, who can fall asleep in their bosom. I see in them only duties, never privileges.

"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.

"Be tranquil, then, my love, and be assured that these sentiments are as unchanging in my soul as the immortal attachment which I bear for you and for my children; if there be any sacrifice which they cost me, it is being separated from you. Ambition certainly would not have led me away two steps if I could have remained tranquil. But honor and the sentiment of my duty induce me, three times a year, to make the tour of my realm to solace the unhappy.

"Under these circumstances, I thank Heaven for having given me health and ability to bear the burden of affairs, and moderation which does not permit me to be dazzled by grandeur, and energy which does not allow me to slumber at my post; and a good conscience and a good wife to pronounce judgment upon what I ought to do. I embrace you all tenderly."

It was clear that the statesmanship of Napoleon was the controlling influence in Joseph's administration, for in reading the details of his interior policy, we find that the institutions of regenerated France were taken as the models. To invest with honor the profession of a soldier, no one who had been condemned for crime was permitted to enter the army. Degrading punishments were abolished; distinctions and rewards were accorded to eminent merit. Promotion depended no longer upon the accident of birth, but upon services rendered, so that every office of honor or emolument was alike within the reach of all. Joseph, in his tour through the provinces, received very touching proofs of the affections of the people. It was indeed manifest to all that a new era of prosperity had dawned upon Naples. Still no devotion to the interests of the people can save a ruler from enemies. Two assassins attempted the life of the King. They were arrested, tried, condemned, and executed.

Joseph in Naples


On the 14th of May, 1807, Joseph set out on a tour through the provinces of the Abruzzes, a mountainous region traversed by the Apennines. He found the government admirably administered under the authority of the French General, Guvlon Saint Cyr. The people were everywhere prosperous and happy. The region, abounding in precipitous crags and gloomy defiles, with communications often rendered impracticable by the rains and the melting snows cutting gullies through the soil of sand and clay, had become quite isolated.

The inhabitants spontaneously arose to celebrate the arrival of the King by constructing durable roads. Joseph promptly lent the enterprise his royal support. He appointed a committee of able men, selected from each of the capitals of the three provinces, with three road engineers, to secure the judicious expenditure of the money and the labor; and offered rewards to those communes which should push the improvements with the greatest vigor. A system of irrigation and drainage was also adopted which contributed immensely to the prosperity of the region, checking emigration by opening wide fields to agricultural industry.

During all this time Joseph kept up almost a daily correspondence with his brother. The letters of Napoleon were written hurriedly, in the midst of overwhelming cares, intended to be entirely private, with no idea that their unstudied expressions, in which each varying emotion of his soul, of hope, of disappointment, of irritation, found utterance, would be exposed to the malignant comments of his foes. The friends of Napoleon appeal triumphantly to this unmutilated correspondence, running through the period of many long and eventful years, to prove that Napoleon was animated by a high ambition to promote the interests of humanity; that he was one of the most philanthropic as well as one of the greatest of men. Joseph himself, whose upright character no intelligent man has yet questioned, says, in his autobiography, written at Point Breeze, New Jersey, when sixty-two years of age:

"Having attained a somewhat advanced age, and enjoying good health, disabused of many of the illusions which enable me to bear the storms of life, and replacing those illusions by that tranquillity of soul which results from a good conscience, and from the security which is afforded by a country admirably constituted, I regard myself as having reached the port. Before disembarking upon the shores of eternity, I wish to render an account to myself of the long voyage, and to search out the causes which have borne so high, in the ranks of society, my family, and which have terminated in depriving us of that which appertains to the humblest individual—a country which was dear to us, and which we have served with good faith and devotion.

"It is neither an apology nor a satire which I write. I render an account to myself of events, and I wish to place upon paper the recollections which they have left behind. There are some transactions which I now condemn, after having formerly approved of them; there are others of which I to-day approve, after having formerly condemned them. Such is the feebleness of our nature, dependent always upon the circumstances which surround us, and which frequently govern us—a thought which ought to lead every true and reflective man to charity.

"I venture to affirm that it is the love of truth which leads me to undertake this writing. It is a sentiment of justice which I owe to the man who was my friend, and whom human feebleness has disfigured in a manner so unworthy. Napoleon was, above all, a friend of the people, and he was a just and good man, even more than he was a great warrior and administrator. It is my duty, as his elder brother, and one who has not always shared in his political opinions, to speak of that which I know, and to express convictions which I profoundly cherish. I am now in a better situation to appreciate what were the causes foreign to his nature, which forced him to assume a factitious character—a character which made him feared by the instruments which he had to employ, in order to sustain against Europe the war which the oligarchy had declared against the principles of the revolution, and which the British Cabinet waged against that France whose supremacy it could prevent only by exciting against her Continental wars and civil dissensions, and those despotic principles of government which no longer belonged to the nation or the age in which we lived."