Joseph Bonaparte - John S. C. Abbott

Last Days and Death

Joseph, finding himself in England in 1832, and his nephew, the Duke of Reichstadt, no longer living, took up his residence in London. He earnestly desired to join his wife and mother in Italy. But the jealousy of the Allies would not allow him, until he was absolutely sinking in death, to place his foot upon the Continent. His universally recognized virtues secured for him, from all classes of society, a cordial reception.

While Joseph resided in England, the celebrated Spanish chief, Mina, who had been one of the most formidable of the leaders of the guerrillas, made several visits to the ex-King, expressing the deepest regret that he had not sustained him. He stated to Joseph that his intercepted letters had so revealed his true character, that others of the leaders who had operated against him were now in his favor.

La Fayette wrote Joseph a letter of sympathy in view of his double affliction in the loss of his son-in-law, Napoleon Louis, and his nephew, the Duke of Reichstadt. The letter, from which we make the following extract, was dated La Grange, October 13, 1832:

"MY DEAR COUNT,—I am deeply affected by those testimonials of confidence and friendship which you kindly give me. And I merit them by all those affections which attach me to you. It is with profound sympathy that I share in your grief from the two cruel bereavements. I should immediately have written to you in London, had I not been informed that you were on the route to Italy. I have, however, since learned that your entrance into Rome has been interdicted to your filial piety by a base and barbarous policy."

La Fayette also expresses his deep regret that the Orleans Government persisted in the decree which banished the Bonaparte family from France. Joseph, in a reply dated London, Nov. 10, 1832, writes:

"MY DEAR GENERAL,—I have received your kind letter, and I thank you with all my heart. It is true that I love, as much as you do, the institutions of the United States. But I am near to France, and I do not wish to see it vanish from my eyes like a new Ithaca, I prefer France to the United. States as the residence for my declining years, and I rely upon your powerful co-operation to secure that for me. It only remains for me to hope to see my country as happy as that which I have just left—a country which I love above all others except my native soil. A day will come undoubtedly, in which France will have no occasion to envy even happy America. As soon as it shall be clearly understood that all ought to devote themselves to the happiness of all, the most difficult thing will be accomplished. May we live long enough to witness that, and may I have the happiness of renewing my long friendship in our common country, in sometimes speaking to you of the admiration and gratitude with which you are regarded in the New World."

Death of Napoleon II


The following letter from Victor Hugo reflects such light upon the reputation of Joseph Bonaparte, as to merit insertion here. It was dated Paris, Feb. 27, 1833:

"SIRE,—I avail myself of the first opportunity to reply to you. Monsieur Presle, who leaves for London, kindly offers to place this letter in the hands of your Majesty. Permit ice, sire, to treat you ever royally, vous traiter tourjours royalment.  The kings whom Napoleon made, in my opinion nothing can unmake. There is no human power which can efface the august sign which that grand man has placed upon your brow. I have been profoundly moved by the sympathy which your Majesty has testified for me upon the occasion of my prosecution for 'Le Roi S'amuse.'  You love liberty, sire. Liberty also loves you. Permit me to send you, with this letter, a copy of the discourse which I pronounced before the Tribunal of Commerce. I am very desirous that you should see it in a form different from the reports in the journals, which are always inexact.

"I should be very happy, sire, to go to London to clasp that royal hand which has so often clasped the hand of my father. M. Presle will inform your Majesty of the obstacles which at the present moment prevent me from realizing a wish so dear. I have very many things to say to you. It is impossible that the future should be wanting to your family, great as has been the loss of the past year. You bear the grandest of historic names. In truth, we are moving rather toward a republic than toward a monarchy. But, to a sage like you, the exterior form of government is of but little importance. You have proved, sire, that you know how to be worthily the citizen of a republic. Adieu, sire; the day in which I shall be permitted to press your hand in mine will be one of the most glorious of my life. While waiting for this your letters render me proud and happy."

The celebrated Duchess of Abrantes, wife of Marshal Junot, sent her Memoirs to King Joseph by the hands of M. Presle. The following extracts from the letter of the duchess to M. Presle shows the enthusiastic attachment which Joseph won from his friends. The letter is dated Paris, 1833.

"Will you be so good, sir, as to have the kindness to take charge of the book which I send with this, and also of the letter which I address to his Majesty, King Joseph? I earnestly desire that both should be transmitted to him as promptly as possible. I very much wish, sir, I could have the pleasure of seeing you. My attachment for King Joseph is so profound and so true, of such long-standing, so established upon bases which can never crumble, that I would give days of my life to talk a moment with persons loving him as I do, and speaking to me as I speak of him and think of him. As for me, to see him for one moment would be now the fulfillment of the most ardent of my wishes.

"With these feelings, you will perceive, sir, how happy I shall be to have him soon receive this letter, which I entrust to you. It contains my wishes for the new year. And I can truly say that there is not another heart in France more sincerely devoted to his happiness—his true happiness and his glory. Ah I sir, I assure him that in France there is one being who is warmly attached, sincerely devoted to him, as are all hers. My children have been cradled in the name of Napoleon, and that without concealment. The misfortune of their father has been an additional tie to attach them to the memory of the Emperor, and to all those who bear his revered name. The bust of the Emperor is in my alcove, by the side of the font in which I place my lustral water. There I every morning and evening repeat my prayers. Why should I not say this? I do it because my love for my country constrains me to fall upon my knees before that name which constituted its glory and its happiness for fifteen years."

On the 28th of July, 1833, the Louis Philippe Government, in reluctant concession to the almost universal voice of the French people, restored the statue of Napoleon to the Column of Austerlitz, in the Place Vendome. It is scarcely too much to say that as that statue rose to its proud eminence, the whole French nation raised a shout of joy. A Parisian journal, The Tribune, intending perhaps to reflect upon the Government, expressed surprise in not seeing a single member of the Bonaparte family shaking the dust of exile from his feet, and coming, in the broad light of July, claiming a "just reparation." Joseph wrote to the editor from London a letter containing the following sentiments:

"I have read in your journal of July 29th the article in which you give an account of the solemnity which took place on the 28th at the foot of the Column of Austerlitz, upon the inauguration of the statue of the Emperor Napoleon. You attribute the absence of his brothers to very strange sentiments. Are you ignorant, then, that an iniquitous law, dictated by the enemies of France to the elder branch of the Bourbons, excluded these brothers, out of hatred to the name of Napoleon? Would you wish that, in defiance of a law which the National Majesty has not yet repealed, we should bear the brands of discord into our country at the moment when it re-erects the statue of our brother? Every thing for the nation, was the motto of our brother. It shall be ours also.

"Instead of speaking, as a hostile journal would have done, in casting the blame upon patriots proscribed, who wander over the world the victims of the enemies of their country, would it not have exhibited more of courage and of justice on your part, sir, to recall to the electors of France that Napoleon has a mother who languishes upon a foreign soil, without it being possible for her children to speak to her a last adieu? She shares with three generations of her kindred, including sixty French, the rigors of an exile of twenty years. They are guilty of no other crime than that of being the relatives of a man whose statue is re-erected by national decree.

"The name of Napoleon will never be the banner of civil discord. Twice he withdrew from France, that he might not be the pretext for the infliction of calamities upon his country. Such are the doctrines which Napoleon has bequeathed to his family. It is because the French people know well that his pretended despotism was but a dictatorship, rendered necessary by the wars which his enemies waged against him, that his memory remains popular Is it just, is it honorable that his family should still be condemned to endure the anguish of exile, and to hear even his ancient enemies reproach the French with the injustice of their proscription?"

This law of proscription, dictated by the Allies on the 12th of January, 1816, and re-affirmed by the Government of Louis Philippe, was as follows:

"The ascendants and descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte, his uncles and his aunts, his nephews and his nieces, his brothers, their wives and their descendants, his sisters and their husbands, are excluded from the realm forever."

The penalty for violating this decree of banishment was death. Madame Letitia had been informed in Rome that the Louis Philippe Government contemplated abolishing the decree of exile, so far as she alone  was concerned. In response she wrote, April, 1834, to a distinguished gentleman in Paris, M. Sapey, as follows:

"MONSIER,—Those who recognize the absurdity of maintaining the law of exile against my family, and who wish nevertheless to propose an exception, do not know either my principles or my character. I was left a widow at thirty-three years of age, and my eight children were my only consolation. Corsica was menaced with separation from France. The loss of my property and the abandonment of my fireside did not terrify me. I followed my children to the Continent. In 1814 I followed Napoleon to the island of Elba. In 1816, notwithstanding my age, I should have followed him to Saint Helena had it not been prohibited. I resigned myself to live a prisoner of state at Rome; yes, a prisoner of state. I know not whether that was through an amplification of the law which exiled me with my family from France, or by a protocol of the allied powers.

"I then saw persecution reach such a pitch as to compel the members of my family, who had devoted themselves to live with me at Rome, to abandon the city. I then decided to withdraw from the world, and to seek no other happiness than that of the future life; since I saw myself separated from those for whom I clung to life, and in whom reposed all my souvenirs and all my, happiness, if there were any more happiness remaining for me in this world. How could I hope to find any equivalent in France, which was not already poisoned by the injustice of men in power who could not pardon my family the glory which it has acquired?

"Leave me, then, in my honorable sufferings, that I may bear to the tomb the integrity of my character. I will never separate my lot from that of my children. It is the only consolation which remains to me. Receive, nevertheless, monsieur, my thanks for the kind interest which you have taken in my affairs."

On the 15th of January, 1835, Joseph wrote to his brother Louis, the father of Napoleon III., as follows:

"MY DEAR BROTHER,—I have received your letter of the 27th of December. I am afflicted by the depression of spirits in which it was written. It is true that for many years fortune has been constantly severe with us. But it is something to be able to say to one's self that fortune is blind. And an irreproachable conscience and a good heart offer many consolations. They accompany us wherever we go, and prevent us from being too severe in our turn against fortune and her favorites of the day.

"It is indeed true that there are but few gleams of happiness to be met in this life. The least unfortunate have still their storms. There are but few privileged men. How many there are whom we must admit to be more unhappy than we are. And we do not sufficiently take into account the sufferings of dishonored men, whose conscience will at times awake and react upon those who have done it violence. Those who have borne arms against their country, against their benefactor, who have sold their services to foreigners, think you they can be happy? The consciousness of not having merited the abandonment of which you speak, is not that a happy sentiment? It is necessary then for us to perceive what we are in this life, and not what we could wish to be. Being men, we are destined to live, that is to say, to suffer. But we can preserve our own self-respect, and the esteem of the friends who appreciate us. So long as that continues, one is not absolutely unhappy. In that point of view, no person ought to be more satisfied than yourself, my dear Louis. All other evils over which we have no control are hard to endure, undoubtedly. But their necessity, in spite of ourselves, should lead us to bear them. We ought to submit to that which, we can not prevent.

"Still, I can say nothing upon this subject which you do not know as well as I do. But I am not writing a dissertation. I recount my sensations and my sentiments as they flow from my pen. The consciousness of not meriting the evil which one suffers greatly mitigates that evil. Adieu, my dear Louis. I love you as ever. We have not known any revolutions in our affections."

Soon after Joseph had established himself in London, he called his brothers Lucien and Jerome, and his nephew, Prince Louis Napoleon, to join him there. The acts of the Government of Louis Philippe and the intense opposition they encountered engrossed his meditations. Fully satisfied that the Government could not maintain itself in the course it was pursuing, Joseph deemed it important for the triumph of what he called the popular cause, to effect a cordial union between the Republican and Imperial parties. The Government thwarted this union by sending spies into the clubs, who, joining those associations, assumed to be earnest democrats, and strove in every way to promote discord, while they extolled in most extravagant terms the brutal deeds of Marat, St. Just, and Robespierre. Joseph could not act in harmony with such men, and the projected alliance was abandoned.

In a brief sketch which Louis Napoleon, while a prisoner at Ham, wrote of his uncle Joseph just after his death, he says: "In general, Prince Louis Napoleon was in accord with his uncle upon all fundamental questions; but he differed from him upon one essential point, which offered a very strange contrast. The old man, whose days were nearly finished, did not wish to precipitate any thing. He was resigned to await the developments of time. But the young man, impatient, wished to act, and to precipitate events.

"The insurrection at Strasbourg, in the month of October, 1836, thus took place without the authorization and without the participation of Joseph. He was also much displeased with it, since the journals deceived him respecting the aim and intentions of his nephew. In 1837 Joseph revisited America. Upon his return to Europe in 1839 be found his nephew in England. Then, enlightened respecting the object, the means, and the plans of Prince Louis Napoleon, he restored to him all his tenderness. The publication of Les Idées Napoleoniennes  merited his entire approbation. And upon that occasion be declared openly that, in his quality of friend and depositary of the most intimate thoughts of the Emperor, he could say positively that that book contained the exact and faithful record of the political intentions of his brother."

It will be remembered that Louis Napoleon, after the attempt at Strasbourg, was sent in a French frigate to Brazil, and thence to New York, where he remained but a few weeks, when he returned to Europe to his dying mother. At New York, under date of April 22, 1837, he wrote the following letter to his uncle Joseph at London. The letter very clearly reveals the relation then existing between them.

"MY DEAR UNCLE,—Upon my arrival in the United States, I hoped to have found a letter from you. I confess to you that I have been deeply pained to learn that you were displeased with me. I have even been astonished by it, knowing your judgment and your heart. Yes, my uncle, you must have been strangely led into error in respect to me, to repel as enemies men who have devoted themselves to the cause of the Empire.

"If, successful at Strasbourg, and it was very near a success, I had marched upon Paris, drawing after me the populations fascinated by the souvenirs of the Empire, and, arriving in the capital a pretender, I had seized upon the legal power, then indeed there would have been nobleness and grandeur of soul in disavowing my conduct, and in breaking with me.

"But how is it? I attempt one of those bold enterprises which could alone re-establish that which twenty years of peace have caused to be forgotten. I throw myself into the attempt, ready to sacrifice my life, persuaded that my death even would be useful to our cause. I escape, against my wishes, the bayonets and the scaffold; and, having escaped, I find on the part of my family only contumely and disdain.

"If the sentiments of respect and esteem with which I regard you were not so sincere, I should not so deeply feel your conduct in respect to me; for I venture to say that public opinion can never admit that there is any alienation between us. No person can comprehend that you disavow your nephew because he has exposed himself in your cause. No one can comprehend that men who have periled their lives and their fortune to replace the eagle upon our banners can be regarded by you as enemies, any more than they could comprehend that Louis XVIII. would repel the Prince of Condé or the Duc d'Enghien because they had been unfortunate in their enterprises.

"I know you too well, my dear uncle, to doubt the goodness of your heart, and not to hope that you will return to sentiments more just in respect to me, and in respect to those who have compromised themselves for your cause. As for myself, whatever may be your procedure in reference to me, my line of conduct will be ever the same. The sympathy of which so many persons have given me proofs; my conscience, which does in nothing reproach me; in fine, the conviction that if the Emperor beholds me from his elevation in the skies, he would approve my conduct, are so many compensations for all the mortifications and injustice which I have experienced. My enterprise has failed; that is true. But it has announced to France that the family of the Emperor is not yet dead; that it still numbers many devoted friends; in fine, that their pretensions are not limited to the demand of a few pence from the Government, but to the re-establishment, in favor of the people, of those rights of which foreigners and the Bourbons have deprived them. This is what I have done. Is it for you to condemn me?

"I send you with this a recital of my removement from the prison of Strasbourg, that you may be fully informed of all my proceedings, and that you may know that I have done nothing unworthy of the name which I bear. I beg you to present my respects to my uncle Lucien. I rely upon his judgment and affection to be my advocate with you. I entreat you, my dear uncle, not to be displeased with the laconic manner in which I represent these facts, such as they are. Never doubt my unalterable attachment to you.

"Your tender and respectful nephew,


In 1840 the health of Joseph began to be seriously impaired. In London he had an attack of paralysis, which induced him to go to the warm baths of Wildbad, in Wurtemberg. He was somewhat benefited by the waters, and cherished the hope that he might join members of his family in Italy. But the Continental sovereigns so feared the potency of the name of Bonaparte upon the masses of the people that his request was peremptorily refused. Thus repulsed, he returned to the cold climate of England.

In 1841, the King of Sardinia, who was strongly leaning toward popular principles, allowed Joseph to take up his residence in Genoa. He was conveyed to that city in an English ship. He had been there but a few weeks, when the Duke of Tuscany, commiserating his dying condition, kindly consented that he should join his wife, his children, and his brothers in Florence.

In 1842 Joseph bequeathed to the principal cities of Corsica several hundred valuable paintings, which he had received as a legacy from his uncle, Cardinal Fesch.

In 1843, the Government of Louis Philippe, with marvellous inconsistency, voted to demand the remains of the Emperor Napoleon from the British Government, and to rear to his honor, beneath the dome of the Invalides, the monument of a nation's gratitude, while at the same time that Government persisted in banishing from France all the members of the Napoleon family.

A very earnest petition was sent at this time to the Government, numerously signed by Frenchmen, praying that the decree of banishment against the Bonaparte family might be annulled. But the Louis Philippe Government declared in council that the resolution of the Government to prolong the exile of the family of Napoleon was positive and unchanging. Joseph wrote a letter of thanks in behalf of the Bonaparte family to the signers of the petition, in which he said:

"The elder branch of the Bourbons, brought back to France by foreign bayonets, we have ever frankly treated as enemies. They did not conceive the hope of degrading us in our own eyes. It has been reserved for the younger branch to call artifice to its aid—to glorify the dead Napoleon, and to traduce, to proscribe his mother, his sisters, his nephews, fifty or sixty French people, charged with the crime of bearing his name.

"Were Napoleon living to-day, he would think as we do. He would recognize in France no other sovereign than the French people, who alone have the right to establish such a form of Government as to them may seem best for their interests. The too long dictatorship of Napoleon was prolonged by the persistence of the enemies of the Revolution, who endeavored to destroy in him the principle of national sovereignty from which he emanated.

"At a general peace, universal suffrage, liberty of the press, and all the guaranties for the perpetual prosperity of a great nation, which were in the plans of Napoleon, would have been unveiled before entire France, and would have made him the greatest man in history. His whole thoughts were made known to me. It is my duty loudly to proclaim them. He sacrificed himself twice, that he might save France from civil war. The heirs of his name would renounce forever the happiness of breathing the air of their native country, did they think that their presence would inflict upon it the least injury. Such are the principles, the opinions, the sentiments of all the members of the family of Napoleon, of which I am here the interpreter. Every thing for and by the people."

In the few remaining years of his life, nursed by the tender care of his wife Julie, who was to him an angel of consolation, Joseph remained in Florence, his mind entirely engrossed with the misfortunes of his family. He had become fully reconciled to his nephew, and keenly sympathized with him in his captivity at Ham. The glaring inconsistency of the Government of Louis Philippe in persisting to banish from France the relatives of a man whom all France almost adored, simply because they were that great man's relatives, often roused his indignation.

The thought that he was an exile from his native land—from France, which he had served so faithfully, and loved so well—embittered his last hours. Supported by the devotion of Julie, and by the presence of his brothers, Louis and Jerome, to both of whom he was tenderly attached, he awaited without regret the approach of death.

On the 23rd of July, 1844, Joseph breathed his last at Florence, at the age of sixty-six years. He left his fortune, which was not very large, to his eight grandchildren. He also requested that his remains should be deposited in Florence until the hour should come when they could be removed to the soil of his beloved France. Queen Julie survived him but a few months. Her remains were deposited by the side of those of her husband, and of her second daughter, the Princess Charlotte, who died in 1839.

Joseph was eminently calculated to embellish society and to adorn the arts of peace. His literary attainments were very extensive, and in the Tribune he was eminent, both as an orator and a ready debater. Familiar with all the choicest passages of the classic writers of France and Italy, and thoroughly read in all the branches of political economy, with great affability of manners and spotless purity of character, he would have been a man of distinction in any country and in any age. To say that he was not equal to his brother Napoleon is no reproach, for Napoleon has never probably, in all respects, had his equal. But Joseph filled with distinguished honor all the varied positions of his eventful life. As a legislator, an ambassador, a general, a monarch, and a private citizen, he was alike eminent.

From the commencement of his career until his last breath, he was devoted to those principles of popular rights to which the French Revolution gave birth, and which his more illustrious brother so long and so gloriously upheld against the combined dynasties of Europe. This sublime struggle of the people throughout Europe, under the banners of Napoleon, against the old regime of aristocratic oppression, profoundly moved the soul of Joseph. The honors he received, the flattery at times lavished upon him, did not corrupt his heart. "Under the purple," says Napoleon III., "as under the cloak of exile, Joseph ever remained the same; the determined opponent of all oppression, of all privilege, of every abuse, and the earnest advocate of equal rights and of popular liberty."

In his last days, Joseph, whose conversational powers were remarkable, loved to recall the scenes of his memorable career. With the most touching simplicity, and with a charm of quiet eloquence which moved all hearts, he held in breathless interest those who were grouped around him. With pleasure he alluded to the comparatively humble origin of his family, which had counted among the members so many kings. He was fond of relating anecdotes of the brother of whom he was so proud, and whom he so tenderly loved. One of these characteristic anecdotes was as follows:

"Joseph," said the Emperor to me one day, "Talleyrand has infinite ability, has he not? Well, do you know why he has never accomplished any thing great? It is because grand thoughts come only from the heart, and Talleyrand has no heart."

Though Joseph was a man of extraordinary gentleness of character and sweetness of disposition, the cruel treatment of his brother at Saint Helena he could never allude to without intense emotion. In speaking of the destitution of the Emperor in the hovel on that distant rock, his eyes would fill with tears, and his voice would tremble under the vehemence of his feelings.

The course pursued by the Government of Louis Philippe, the whole internal and external policy of that unhappy monarch, arresting the progress of popular rights at home and degrading France abroad, and especially its gross inconsistency in lavishing honors upon the memory of Napoleon, and yet persisting in banishing his descendants, roused his indignation. We can not conclude this brief sketch more appropriately than in the words of Louis Napoleon, written when he was a captive at Ham, and when his uncle Joseph had just died in exile at Florence.

"If there existed to-day among us a man who, as a deputy, a diplomatist, a king, a citizen, or a soldier, was invariably distinguished for his patriotism and his brilliant qualities; if that man had rendered himself illustrious by his oratorical triumphs, and by the advantageous treaties he had concluded for the interests of France; if that man had refused a crown because the conditions which it imposed upon him wounded his conscience; if that man had conquered a realm, gained battles, and had exhibited upon two thrones the light of French ideas; if, in fine, in good as in bad fortune, he had always remained faithful to his oaths, to his country, to his friends; that man, we may say, would occupy the highest position in public esteem, statues would be raised to him, and civic crowns would adorn his whitened locks.

"Well! this man lately existed, with all these glories, with all these honorable antecedents. Nevertheless upon his brow we see only the imprint of misfortune. His country has requited his noble services by an exile of twenty-nine years. We deplore this, without being astonished at it. There are but two parties in France; the vanquished and the vanquishers at Waterloo. The vanquishers are in power, and all that is national is crushed beneath the weight of defeat."

These words were written in the year 1844. The Empire is now restored. The decree of exile against the Bonaparte family is annulled. The heir of the Emperor sits upon the throne, recognized by all the nations in the Old World and the New. The time has come when the character of Joseph Bonaparte can be, and will be justly appreciated.