I’m one of those people that stops and reads historical markers. Which isn’t always ideal when your driving down 9th street in Philadelphia in the evening rush hour traffic and you glance up and catch a name on one of the many blue and yellow plaques that are liberally scattered around the older parts of the city. The name that caught my attention was Joseph Bonaparte.
Now somewhere in the whiskey-soaked brain cells, I think I recalled that Joseph had fled to America after the collapse of the Bonaparte family business — you know, conquering and carving up Europe and parceling out kingdoms, countries and duchies to sundry family members and close personal friends of Napoleon Bonaparte. To whit, there were Bonapartes placed on the thrones of Spain, Naples, Westphalia, and Holland, not to mention the Emperor himself, who sat not only on the newly created imperial throne of France but also styled himself King of Italy (this last title was passed on to his heir).
In all of this historic carve up, Joseph, Napoleon’s older brother, found himself installed first as him king of Naples (1806–1808), then later King of Spain(1808–1813). Joseph seems from all the evidence to have been the one of the least feral of the Bonapartes — certainly less so than his grasping and power-obsessed sisters Caroline and Pauline. (It was Caroline and her empty-headed cavalry general husband Joachim Murat who replaced Joseph on the Neapolitan throne).
It seems kingship did not sit easily with Joseph. He retained some of the republican ideals of the French revolution and as King of Naples he tackled the local ancien regime, the vestiges of feudalism among the aristocracy and the church, and introduced judicial, financial and educational reforms — which was par for the course with French revolutionary armies — the revolution was exported at the point of French bayonets. It seemed Joseph might have made a place for himself in Italy, becoming an enlightened monarch in the mode of another Joseph, Joseph II of Austria, but it wasn’t to be.
His brother Napoleon had other plans for him. He installed him as king of Spain. Unwelcome, unwanted and unsuccessful, Joseph struggled to assert himself and found himself totally reliant on French forces. Even that proved an illusion as Napoleon’s hard-riding, hard-bitten veteran commanders — Junot, Suchet, Ney and the rest — deferred not to Joseph but only to his brother. He had little control of the army and remained as little more than a figurehead of the French regime — a regime rejected by the vast majority of Spaniards.
As war on the Peninsular spread from Portugal and Spain and by 1813, threatened France itself, Joseph found himself a king without a country and he abdicated and returned to France. With the eventual defeat of Napoleon, Joseph fled first to Switzerland, then to America.
Joseph wasn’t exactly your poor immigrant arriving at Philadelphia with just the clothes on his back. Apparently he also carried a case of jewels and had hidden a cache of gold in Switzerland for recovery when he was settled.
(Interestingly he travelled under the name Lazare Carnot, Napoleon’s last minister of the Interior and the famous “Organizer of Victories” for French armies both revolutionary and imperial alike. Carnot was himself a fugitive from a vengeful restoration regime in Paris, so it seems odd that Joseph chose to use that name.)
Joseph initially settled in Philadelphia and it’s to that house to which the unsuspecting traveler on 9th street is directed by the historic marker. It certainly stands out from the typical Federal era houses of Philadelphia, giving off something of New Orleans or even Parisian vibe. Maybe that’s why Joseph rented it. (It’s also instructive to remember that the decorative iron work of New Orleans from the same period was forged in Pennsylvania foundries).
Joseph lived here while he was acquiring land and constructing a huge estate in Bordenstown, New Jersey. What’s interesting to me is the idea of a European king, albeit an arriviste one, remaking his life in the New World, the land of Second Chances. He certainly had many more advantages than the millions of emigrants who set out for the Americas seeking new lives — who can gainsay the power of looted Spanish jewels? Yet seeing Joseph remake himself in the style of a New World aristocrat, the holder of thousands of acres in New Jersey and in upstate New York, the builder of a New World palace in Bordenstown NJ, reminds me of the elegant Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina in Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. (The Prince is essayed wonderfully in the Lucino Visconti movie by the great Burt Lancaster).
Don Fabrizio, realizes that the old world of aristocratic power and privilege is gone and the new world of bourgeois democracy is replacing it. It is as his nephew Tancredi says, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. I think Joseph Bonaparte would have appreciated that sentiment and understood exactly what he meant.