When Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century, he didn’t create a monolithic empire that was centrally run out of Paris.
Well, he sort of did, but at least on paper, he didn’t. Rather, what he did was set up his family members as monarchs to rule in his place.
One of those family members who was set up as king ended up moving to New Jersey.
Learn more about Joseph Boneparte, the King of New Jersey, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Surprisingly, I haven’t talked very much about Napoleon on this podcast. It isn’t that there isn’t a lot to talk about, because there is, it’s just that I haven’t gotten around to many of those stories yet.
Probably one of the most interesting Napoleon stories has to do with his older brother, Joseph.
Just a bit of background, before I get into the weeds.
Napoleon, despite what you might think, actually wasn’t French. He was born on the island of Corsica, which today is part of France, but in the late 18th century was a republic that had become independent from Genoa. It was seized by France very soon after he was born.
The family originally immigrated to Corsica well over a century beforehand from Tuscany. In Italian, the family name would have been “Bona parte”, which roughly translates to “a sizable share” or “a good part”.
Napoleon’s first language was actually Italian and he didn’t learn French until he was 13 and sent to a military academy in Paris.
After the French Revolution, Napoleon saw a meteoric rise up the ranks of the French military. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that he really was a savant when it came to 19th-century warfare.
He was appointed to the rank of general in his 20s, won multiple impressive victories, became a national hero in France, and eventually in 1799, lead a coup against the French Republican Government.
In the aftermath of the coup, and ripping off a page from the Roman playbook, he appointed himself First Consul of the Republic. A few years after that in 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France as many people think)
As he was defeating armies all over Europe, he needed people he could trust to run things after he left….and who else can you trust more than your own family?
Enter into the picture Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph.
To use an analogy, if the Boneparte family were the Corleone Family in the Godfather, Napoleon would have been Michael, and Joseph would have been Fredo.
He had been described by historians as “idealist, mild-mannered, and lacking in vigor”.
Joseph initially wanted to become a writer, and then went into law to follow in the footsteps of his father. After that, he went into the family business of running Europe.
Joseph initially served as an advisor to Napoleon, but make no mistake, Joseph was no Napoleon.
When war broke out between France and Austria in 1805, the king of Naples, Ferdinand IV, violated a treaty of neutrality he had with the French and supported Austria.
In retaliation, he sent an army south and removed Ferdinand from the throne. On March 30, 1806, Napoleon issued a decree naming his brother Joseph as King of Naples and Sicily.
Joseph didn’t really want to be king, but, he wanted to please his brother, so King of Naples he was.
Joseph did try and he wanted to be liked by the people of Naples. When appointed, he instituted many Napoleonic reforms and eliminated many feudal institutions that were still in place.
He built colleges for women, hunted down bandits, and embarked on a series of public works programs to provide jobs for the poor.
After two years, he had become a reasonably popular ruler amongst the people of southern Italy.
However, eventually, duty called and Napoleon needed him somewhere else.
So, in June of 1808, Joseph Boneparte was replaced in Naples by his brother-in-law, and he became the new King of Spain.
Unlike his reign in Naples, Joseph was not at all popular in Spain. In Naples, he at least could claim to be Italian. In Spain, he was a total outsider.
His appointment sparked a nationwide revolt which became known as the Peninsular War.
Unlike most of Napoleon’s military campaigns, the war in Spain didn’t go that well. Joseph was a figurehead who had no control over the military. Any orders he gave to the French military in Spain were always double-checked with Napoleon before being enacted.
While he was King of Spain, Venezuela, New Grenada, and Mexico all took the opportunity to declare independence, and it sort of started the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire.
Eventually, as things went further south on the battlefield, he abdicated the Spanish throne in December 1813 and moved back to France.
He was placed in charge of Paris and given the title Lieutenant General of the Empire, but by this point, the writing was on the wall for the Boneparte family. When Napoleon fell, the family fell.
Joseph Bonaparte, former King of Naples and Sicily, former King of Spain, and Lieutenant General of the Empire, was now just Joe Bonapart.
While he wasn’t put into exile like his brother, he also wasn’t very welcome in many places in Europe. He did, however, still have a lot of money and he also absconded with many of the crown jewels of Spain.
So, with no prospects, he did what many Europeans did who were looking for a new start: he immigrated to America.
In 1817, he was smuggled into the United States while wearing a disguise. He paid the captain of a ship 17,000 francs to bring “an ordinary passenger” with a full entourage over to America.
He made a new home for himself in the United States and created a very comfortable life. He initially lived in New York City and Philadelphia, and he became the cultural center for French expatriates living in the country.
Eventually, he purchased property outside Bordentown, New Jersey overlooking the Delaware River, and built a 1,800-acre estate called Point Breeze.
Point Breeze was one of the largest homes in the country. It was filled with fine furniture, paintings from European masters, and had a library of over 8,000 books, which was probably the largest in the country at the time, as it was even larger than the Library of Congress.
It burned down in 1820, but many of his neighbors managed to salvage the furniture and art from the home. He immediately set out and built an even larger home on the property. It was 38,000 square feet, or 3,500 square meters, and employed hundreds of staff. It cost about the equivalent of $50 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.
It was called the second greatest house in the country….after the White House.
Joseph became a very popular figure in the country. America didn’t have a lot of royalty, so many prominent figures of the era would stop by when they were in the region. He entertained people such as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
His regal past would sometimes catch up with him. In 1820 he was offered the job of Emperor of Mexico but declined.
It is unconfirmed, but I’m personally guessing that as an Italian immigrant to New Jersey, he just told everyone his job was a ‘waste management consultant’.
Eventually, in 1832, Joseph Boneparte decided to return to Europe. He moved to London and traveled around the continent and occasionally returned to his estate in New Jersey.
Here I should note that Joseph wasn’t the only member of the Bonaparte family who was a king, and not the only one who immigrated to America.
Napoleon’s younger brother Louis was the King of Holland, his other younger brother Jerome was the King of Westphalia, and his sister Elisa was the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. He had two sisters named Maria Pauline and Caroline who both married into royal houses, and another brother Lucian who became the prince of Canino and Musignano.
His brother Jerome, the King of Westphalia, married an American woman by the name of Elizabeth Patterson. They had a child named Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte before their marriage was annulled by Napoleon because Napoleon didn’t want any Americans in the family when they could be off marrying European royalty.
Their child moved to Maryland and started his own American wing of the Bonaparte family which became rather distinguished in their own right. The family’s biggest claim to fame was probably Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who was both Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General under President Teddy Roosevelt. He also founded the organization which would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The buildings of the Point Breeze Estate have long since been destroyed. The location of the estate was going to be turned into a warehouse, but local preservationists have managed to get the site turned into a park.
Joseph Bonaparte died in 1844 in Florence, Italy. His body was interred in Les Invalides in Paris, near his younger brother.
In addition to having been the King of Naples and Spain, he is the closest thing we’ve ever had to a King of New Jersey.