Joseph Bonaparte - John S. C. Abbott

Scenes in Early Life

The island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, sixty miles from the coast of Tuscany, is about half as large as the State of Massachusetts. In the year 1767 this island was one of the provinces of Italy. There was then residing, in the small town of Corté, in Corsica, a young lawyer nineteen years of age. He was the descendant of an illustrious race, which could be traced back, through a succession of distinguished men, far into the dark ages. Charles Bonaparte, the young man of whom we speak, was tall, handsome, and possessed strong native powers of mind, which he had highly cultivated. In the same place there was a young lady, Letitia Raniolini, remarkable for her beauty and her accomplishments. She also was of an ancient family. When but sixteen years of age Letitia was married to Charles Bonaparte, then but nineteen years old.

About a year after their marriage, on the 7th of January, 1768, they welcomed their first-born child, Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte. In nineteen months after the birth of Joseph, his world-renowned brother Napoleon was born. But in the mean time the island had been transferred to France. Thus while Joseph was by birth an Italian, his brother Napoleon was a Frenchman.

Charles Bonaparte occupied high positions of trust and honor in the government of Corsica, and his family took rank with the most distinguished families in Italy and in France. Joseph passed the first twelve years of his life upon his native island. He was ever a boy of studious habits, and of singular amiability of character. When he was twelve years of age his father took him, with Napoleon and their elder sister Eliza, to France for their education. Leopold, the grand duke of Tuscany, gave Charles Bonaparte letters of introduction to Maria Antoinette, his sister, who was then the beautiful and admired Queen of France.

Leaving Joseph at the college of Autun, in Burgundy, the father continued his journey to Paris, with Napoleon and Eliza. Eliza was placed in the celebrated boarding school of St. Cyr, in the metropolis, and Napoleon was taken to the military school at Brienne, a few miles out from the city. The father was received as a guest in the gorgeous palace of Versailles. Joseph and Napoleon were very strongly attached to each other, and this attachment continued unabated through life. When the two lads parted at Autun both were much affected. Joseph, subsequently speaking of it, says:

"I shall never forget the moment of our separation. My eyes were flooded with tears. Napoleon shed but one tear, which he in vain endeavored to conceal. The abbe Simon, who witnessed our adieus, said to me, after Napoleon's departure, 'He shed only one tear; but that one testified to as deep grief in parting from you as all of yours.'"

The two brothers kept up a very constant correspondence, informing each other minutely of their studies, and of the books in which they were interested. Joseph became one of the most distinguished scholars in the college of Autun, excelling in all the branches of polite literature. He was a very handsome young man, of polished manners, and of unblemished purity of life. His natural kindness of heart, combined with these attractions, rendered him a universal favorite.

Autun was in the province of Burgundy, of which the Prince of Condé, grandfather of the celebrated Duke d'Enghien, was governor. The prince attended an exhibition at the college, to assist in the distribution of the prizes. Joseph acquitted himself with so much honor as to attract the attention of the prince, and he inquired of him what profession he intended to pursue.

Joseph, in the following words, describes this eventful incident:

"The solemn day arrived. I performed my part to admiration, and when we afterward went to receive the crown, which the prince himself placed on our heads, I was the one whom he seemed most to have noticed. The Bishop of Autun's friendship for our family, and no doubt also the curiosity which a little barbarian, recently introduced into the centre of civilization inspired, contributed to attract the prince's attention. He caressed me, complimented me on my progress, and made particular inquiries as to the intentions of my family with respect to me. The Bishop of Autun said that I was destined for the Church, and that he had a living in reserve, which he would bestow upon me as soon as the time came.

"'And you, my lad,' said the prince, 'have you your own projects, and have you made up your mind as to what you wish?'

"'I wish,' said I, 'to serve the king.' Then seeing him disposed to listen favorably to me, I took courage to tell him that it was not at all my wish, though it was that of my family, that I should enter the Church, but that my dearest wish was to enter the army.

"The Bishop of Autun would have objected to my project, but the prince, who was colonel-general of the French infantry, saw with pleasure these warlike dispositions on my part, and encouraged me to ask for what I wanted. I then declared my desire to enter the artillery, and it was determined that I should. Imagine my joy. I was proud of the prince's caresses, and rejoiced more in his encouragement than I have since in the two crowns which I have worn.

"I immediately wrote a long letter to my brother Napoleon, imparting my happiness to him, and relating in detail all that had passed; concluding by begging him, out of friendship for me, to give up the navy and devote himself to the artillery, that we might be in the same regiment, and pursue our career side by side. Napoleon immediately acceded to my proposal, abandoned from that moment all his naval projects, and replied that his mind was made up to dedicate himself, with me, to the artillery—with what success the world has since learned. Thus it was to this visit of the Prince of Condé that Napoleon owed his resolution of entering on a career which paved the way to all his honors."

In 1784, Joseph, then sixteen years of age, returned to Corsica. During his absence he had entirely forgotten the Italian, his native language, and could neither speak it nor understand it. After a few months at home, during which time he very diligently prosecuted his studies, his father, whose health was declining, found it necessary to visit Paris to seek medical advice. He took his son Joseph with him. Arriving at Montpellier, after a tempestuous voyage, he became so ill as to be unable to proceed any farther. After a painful sickness of three months, he died of a cancer in the stomach, on the 24th of February, 1785. The dying father, who had perceived indications of the exalted powers and the lofty character of his son Napoleon, in the delirium of his last hours repeatedly cried out,

"Napoleon! Napoleon! come and rescue me from this dragon of death by whom I am devoured."

Upon his dying bed the father felt great solicitude for his wife, who was to be left, at the early age of thirty-five, a widow with eight children, six of whom were under thirteen years of age. Joseph willingly yielded to his father's earnest entreaties to relinquish the profession of arms and return to Corsica, that he might solace his bereaved mother and aid her in her arduous cares. Napoleon says of this noble mother:

"She had the head of a man on the shoulders of a woman. Left without a guide or protector, she was obliged to assume the management of affairs, but the burden did not over come her. She administered every thing with a degree of sagacity not to be expected from her age or sex. Her tenderness was joined with severity. She punished, rewarded all alike. The good, the bad, nothing escaped her. Ah, what a woman! where shall we look for her equal? She watched over us with a solicitude unexampled Every low sentiment, every ungenerous affection was discouraged and discarded. She suffered nothing but that which was grand and elevated to take root in our youthful understandings. She abhorred falsehood, and would not tolerate the slightest act of disobedience. None of our faults were over-looked. Losses, privations, fatigue had no effect upon her. She endured all, braved all. She had the energy of a man combined with the gentleness and delicacy of a woman."

Madame Permon, mother of the Duchess of Abrantes, a Corsican lady of fortune who resided at Montpellier, immediately after the death of Charles Bonaparte, took Joseph, the orphan boy, into her house. Madame Permon and Letitia Raniolini had been companions and intimate friends in their youthful days. "She was to me," says Joseph, "an angel of consolation; and she lavished upon me all the attentions I could have received from the most tender and affectionate of mothers."

Joseph soon returned to Corsica. Napoleon had just before been promoted to the military school in Paris, in which city Eliza still continued at school. Lucien, the next younger brother, had also now been taken to the Continent, where he was pursuing his education. The four remaining children were very young.

"My mother," says Joseph, "moderated the expression of her grief that she might not excite mine. Heroic and admirable woman! the model of mothers; how much thy children are indebted to thee for the example which thou hast given them!"

Joseph remained at home about a year, devoting himself to the care of the family, when Napoleon obtained leave of absence, and, to the great joy of his mother, returned to Corsica. He brought with him two trunks, a small one containing his clothing, and a large one filled with his books. Seven years had now passed since the two affectionate brothers had met. Napoleon had entirely forgotten the Italian language; but, much chagrined by the loss, he immediately devoted himself with great energy to its recovery. "His habits," says Joseph, "were those of a young man retiring and studious." For nearly a year the two brothers prosecuted their studies vigorously together, while consoling, with their filial love, their revered mother. After some months Napoleon left home again, to rejoin his regiment at Valence. During this brief residence on his native island, with his accustomed habits of industry, he employed the hours of vacation in writing a history of the revolutions in Corsica. At Marseilles he showed the manuscript to the abbé Raynal. The abbé was so much pleased with it that he sent it to Mirabeau. This distinguished man remarked that the essay indicated a genius of the first order.

Joseph decided, being the eldest brother, to remain at home with his mother, to study law, and commence its practice in Ajaccio, where his mother then resided. He accordingly went to Pisa to attend lectures in the law school connected with the celebrated university in that place. His rank and character secured for him a distinguished reception, and he was presented by the French minister to the grand duke. Here Joseph became deeply interested in the lectures of Lampredi, who boldly advocated the doctrine, then rarely heard in Europe, of the sovereignty of the people. There were many illustrious patriots at Pisa, and many ardent young men, whose minds were imbued with new ideas of political liberty. Freely and earnestly they discussed the themes of aristocratic usurpation, and of the equal rights of all men. Joseph, with enthusiasm, embraced the cause of popular freedom, and became the unrelenting foe of that feudal despotism which then domineered over all Europe. His associates were the most illustrious and cultivated men of the liberal party. At that early period Joseph published a pamphlet advocating the rights of the people.

Having finished his studies and taken his degree, Joseph returned to Corsica. He was admitted to the bar in 1788, being then twenty years of age, and commenced the practice of law in Ajaccio. Upon this his return to Corsica he met his brother Napoleon again, who, a few days before, had landed upon the island. Napoleon was then intensely occupied in writing a treatise upon the question, "What are the opinions and the feelings with which it is necessary to inspire men for the promotion of their happiness?"

"This was the subject of our conversations," says Joseph, "in our daily walks, which were prolonged upon the banks of the sea; in sauntering along the shores of a gulf which was as beautiful as that of Naples, in a country fragrant with the exhalations of myrtles and oranges. We sometimes did not return home until night had closed over us. There will be found, in what remains of this essay, the opinions and the characteristic traits of Napoleon, who united in his character qualities which seemed to be contradictory—the calm of reason, illumined with the flashes of an Oriental imagination; kindliness of soul, exquisite sensibility; precious qualities which he subsequently deemed it his duty to conceal, under an artificial character which he studied to assume when he attained power, saying that men must be governed by one who is fair and just as law, and not by a prince whose amiability might be regarded as weakness, when that amiability is not controlled by the most inflexible justice.

"He had continually in view," continues Joseph, "the judgment of posterity. His heart throbbed at the idea of a grand and noble action which posterity could appreciate.

"'I would wish to be myself my posterity,' he said to me one day, 'that I may myself enjoy the sentiments which a great poet, like Corneille, would represent me as feeling and uttering. The sentiment of duty, the esteem of a small number of friends, who know us as we know ourselves, are not sufficient to inspire noble and conscientious actions. With such motives one can make sages, but not heroes. If the movement now commenced continue in France, she will draw upon herself the entire of Europe. She can only be defended by men passionate for glory, who will be willing to die to-day, that they may live eternally. It is for an end remote, indeterminate, of which no definite account is taken, that the inspired minority triumphs over the inert masses. Those are the motives which have guided the legislators, who have influenced the destinies of the world.'"

It is remarkable that at so early a period Napoleon so clearly foresaw that the opinions of political equality, then struggling for existence in Paris, and of which he subsequently became so illustrious an advocate, would, if successful, combine all the despots of Europe in a warfare against regenerated France. Joseph and Napoleon both warmly espoused the cause of popular liberty, which was even then upheaving the throne of the Bourbons.

At this time, June, 1789, the Constituent Assembly commenced its world-renowned session in Paris. As soon as the liberal constitution, which it adopted, was issued, Joseph, who was then president of the district in Ajaccio, published an elementary treatise upon the constitution both in French and Italian, for the benefit of the inhabitants of his native island. This work conferred upon him much honor, and greatly increased his influence.

The mayor of the city, Jean Jerome Levie, was a very noble man, and a particular friend of the Bonapartes. Very liberally he contributed of his large fortune to aid the poor. "Napoleon," says Joseph, "honored him at Saint Helena in his last hour, and left him a hundred thousand francs. This proves the truth of what I have often said of the kindness and tenderness of Napoleon's heart. It was this which led him in his last moments to remember the abbé Recco, Professor of the Royal College of Ajaccio, who in our early childhood, before our departure for the Continent, kindly admitted us to his class, and devoted to us his attention. I recall the incident when the pupils were arranged facing each other upon the opposite sides of the hall under an immense banner, one portion of which represented the flag of Rome, and the other that of Carthage. As the elder of the two children, the professor placed me by his side under the Roman flag.

Joseph and Napoleaon


"Napoleon, annoyed at finding himself beneath the flag of Carthage, which was not the conquering banner, could have no rest until he obtained a change of place with me, which I readily granted, and for which he was very grateful. And still, in his triumph, he was disquieted with the idea of having been unjust to his brother, and it required all the authority of our mother to tranquilize him. This abbé Recco was also remembered in his will."

On one occasion Napoleon accompanied Joseph on horseback to a remote part of the island, to attend a Convention, where Joseph was to address the assembly.

"Napoleon was continually occupied," says Joseph, "in collecting heroic incidents of the ancient warriors of the country. I read to him my speech, to which he added several names of the ancient patriots. During the journey, which we made quite slowly, without a change of horses, his mind was incessantly employed in studying the positions which the troops of different nations had occupied, during the many years in which they had combatted against the inhabitants of the island. My thoughts ran in another direction. The singular beauty of the scenery interested me much more."

Louis Napoleon, in an article which he wrote while a prisoner at Ham, upon his uncle, King Joseph, just after his death, says:

"Joseph was born to embellish the arts of peace, while the spirit of his brother found itself at ease only amid events which war introduces. From their earliest years this difference of capacity and of inclination was clearly manifested. Associated in the college at Autun with his brother, Joseph aided Napoleon in his Latin and Greek compositions, while Napoleon aided Joseph in all the problems of physics and mathematics. The one made verses, while the other studied Alexander and Caesar.'"

During the meeting of the Convention at Bastin, above alluded to, the tidings came of the death of Mirabeau. By the request of the President, Joseph Bonaparte announced the event to the Convention in an appropriate eulogy. The two brothers had but just returned to Ajaccio when the grand-uncle of the Bonaparte children died. He had been a firm friend of the family, and was greatly revered by them all. A few moments before his death he assembled them around his dying bed, and took an affectionate leave of each one. Joseph was now a member of the Directory of the department. We have the testimony of Joseph that the dying uncle said to his sobbing niece,

"Letitia, do not weep. I am willing to die since I see you surrounded by your children. My life is no longer necessary to protect the family of Charles. Joseph is at the head of the administration of the country; he can therefore take care of the interests of the family. You, Napoleon, you will be a great man."

The French Revolution was now in full career. Napoleon returned to Paris, and witnessed the awful scenes of the 10th of August, 1792, when the palace of the Tuileries was stormed, the royal family outraged, and the guard massacred. He wrote to Joseph,

"If the king had shown himself on horseback at the head of his troops, he would have gained the victory; at least so it appeared to me, from the spirit which that morning seemed to animate the groups of the people.

"After the victory of the Marseillaise, I saw one of them upon the point of killing one of the body-guard; 'Man of the South,' said I, 'let us save the poor fellow.' 'Are you from the South?' said he. 'Yes,' I replied. 'Very well,' he rejoined, 'let him be saved then.'"

The French monarchy was destroyed. France, delivered from the despotism of kings, was surrendered to the still greater despotism of irreligion and ignorance. Faction succeeded faction in ephemeral governments, and anarchy and terror rioted throughout the kingdom. Thousands of the nobles fled from France and joined the armies of the surrounding monarchies, which were on the march to replace the Bourbons on the throne. The true patriots of the nation, anxious for the overthrow of the intolerable despotism under which France had so long groaned, were struggling against the coalition of despots from abroad, while at the same time they were periling their lives in the endeavor to resist the blind madness of the mob at home. With these two foes, equally formidable, pressing them from opposite quarters, they were making gigantic endeavors to establish republican institutions upon the basis of those then in successful operation in the United States. Joseph and his brother Napoleon with all zeal joined the Republican party. They were irreconcilably hostile to despotism on the one hand, and to Jacobinical anarchy upon the other. In devotion to the principles of republican liberty, they sacrificed their fortunes, and placed their lives in imminent jeopardy. Anxious as they both were to see the bulwarks of the old feudal aristocracy battered down, they were still more hostile to the domination of the mob.

"I frankly declare," said Napoleon, "that if I were compelled to choose between the old monarchy and Jacobin misrule, I should infinitely prefer the former."

General Paoli had been appointed by Louis XVI. lieutenant-general of Corsica. This illustrious man, disgusted with the lawless violence which was now dominant in Paris, and despairing of any salutary reform from the revolutionary influences which were running riot, through an error in judgment, which he afterward bitterly deplored, joined the coalition of foreign powers who, with fleets and armies, were approaching France to replace, by the bayonet, the rejected Bourbons upon the throne. Both Joseph and Napoleon were exceedingly attached to General Paoli. He was a family friend, and his lofty character had won their reverence. Paoli discerned the dawning greatness of Napoleon even in these early years, and on one occasion said to him,

"O Napoleon! you do not at all resemble the moderns. You belong only to the heroes of Plutarch."

Paoli made every effort to induce the young Bonapartes to join his standard; but they, believing that popular rights would yet come out triumphant, resolutely refused. The peasantry of Corsica, unenlightened, and confiding in General Paoli, to whom they were enthusiastically attached, eagerly rallied around his banner. England was the soul of the coalition now formed against popular rights in France. Paoli, in loyalty to the Bourbons, and in treason to the French people, surrendered the island of Corsica to the British fleet.

The Bonaparte family, in wealth, rank, and influence, was one of the most prominent upon the island. An exasperated mob surrounded their dwelling, and the family narrowly escaped with their lives. The house and furniture were almost entirely destroyed. At midnight Madame Bonaparte, with Joseph, Napoleon, and all the other children who were then upon the island, secretly entered a boat in a retired cove, and were rowed out to a small vessel which was anchored at a short distance from the shore. The sails were spread, and the exiled family, in friendlessness, poverty, and dejection, were landed upon the shores of France. Little did they then dream that their renown was soon to fill the world; and that each one of those children was to rise to grandeur, and experience reverses which will never cease to excite the sympathies of mankind.