Bonaparte in America

Biographical, Regional History, Social History

The association of America with Napoleon Bonaparte for most people probably revolves round the purchase by the US of huge swathes of territory (the Louisiana Purchase) from Napoleon in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte (Italian: Nabulione Buonaparte) never came to the United States or to anywhere in the New World – although it was the core element of his Plan B in the event of his grand scheme to conquer Europe going pear-shaped (as it ultimately and irrevocably did in 1815)[1]. However Napoleon’s older brother Joseph (born Giuseppe), formerly King of Spain and the Indies, and before that, King of Naples and Sicily, did come to the American continent and moreover lived in the US for some 17 or more years after the Emperor’s fall from power.

King Joseph
Joseph succeeded in his getaway where Napoleon failed, slipping out of French waters and travelling incognito to New York, albeit narrowly avoiding detection by the British. In America Joseph styled himself the Comte de Survilliers … after living in New York and Philadelphia for a period Bonaparte purchased a palatial residence in Bordentown, New Jersey called “Point Breeze” – one of the finest country houses in the Delaware Valley. Joseph was able to afford (and subsequently vastly improve) one of the republic’s grand mansions because he had brought the Spanish Bourbons’ crown jewels with him which he had acquired when abdicating the Spanish throne. With his dubiously acquired riches Bonaparte made other land acquisitions in upstate New York on the Black River (a locale still known as Lake Bonaparte)[2].

‘Point Breeze’, Bordentown, NJ
Joseph AKA the Count of Survilliers largely led a quiet, uneventful and comfortable life in the US, taking no interest in a political role … when Mexican rebels and expat French supporters gave their backing to him to be made emperor of Mexico (1820), he demurred at the offer. In 1832 Bonaparte returned to Europe (although he did return briefly to the US and his much loved mansion ‘Point Breeze’❈ in 1839), living for a while in London and in Italy where he died in 1844. The ineffective, former ‘puppet’ king of Spain was never permitted to return to his native France again because of the French government’s concern that it might provoke a groundswell for a Bonapartist restoration[3].

Joseph was not the only Bonapartist to flee to America following his brother’s downfall in 1815. The return of the Bourbons with the ascension of Louis XVIII prompted a “witch-hunt” of Bonapartists in France. Many followers of Napoleon escaped to America to avoid arrest and recriminations … once there some of Napoleon’s loyal soldiers set up Bonapartist colonies in Alabama (Vine and Olive Colony) and Texas (Champ d’Asile) – which were uniformedly unsuccessful and short-lived[4].

PostScript: Napoleon’s “life in America”
A) Rescue plans – before and on St Helena
In the aftermath of the disaster of Waterloo rumours abounded about various plots and attempts to rescue Napoleon. One plot involved a mega-wealthy French-born banker Stephen (Étienne) Girard living in the US who supposedly hatched an elaborate plan to transport the deposed emperor to Virginia (claim made in the Baltimore American, 1902). According to some sources Girard played a role in the Louisiana Purchase machinations[5].

Napoleon’s island prison
By far the most bizarre plot involved a Brit of Irish parentage Tom Johnson, who as well as being a recidivist smuggler had a bit of a reputation as an escape expert. Johnson’s claim was that in 1820 he was offered £40,000 to rescue Napoleon from St Helena, using two primitive types of submarines he had designed as the “getaway” vessels. Johnson’s colourful account reads as highly fanciful and the plot was in any case never implemented … the one plausible element of the story being that Johnson’s underwater crafts (for which designs did exist) were inspired by Robert Fulton’s 1806 submarine – the American engineer and inventor had earlier worked for both Napoleon and the British government on armed maritime vessel projects (what is less certain is whether Johnson had actually met Fulton as he claimed)[6].

B) Exploring the “What If …” scenario for Napoleon
Devotees of alternative history have speculated lyrically about what might have happened had Napoleon made good his escape to the Americas. One of the early imaginative conjectures (1931) came from British historian HAL Fisher who hypothesised that the exiled emperor might have established a base in New York and then gone on to Spanish America to liberate the masses, finally drowning at sea whilst attempting to conquer India[7].

Outlawed in Europe after Waterloo, it would have been logical for Napoleon to gravitate towards America … the US had only recently engaged in hostilities with Britain (War of 1812), so the locals would probably have been disposed or at least neutral towards him, he would have been able to live as a free man. The US was a new country born of revolution (and one inspiring a revolution in his native France which promoted his own rise). An American base would position the ambiguous ex-monarch well to marshal his resources and launch an invasion of Central and South America which was ripe for revolution against the Spanish conquerors. One of Napoleon’s aide-de-camp in fact made the suggestion to him that he should make himself “emperor of Mexico”[8].

A recent alternative history (Shannon Selin, Napoleon in America) postulates three possible theoretical courses of action for Napoleon – settling on the eastern (Atlantic) seaboard, living peacefully, probably near his favoured brother Joseph (possibly biding his time, building up the necessary support for another go at overthrowing the French Bourbons and reclaim the throne either for himself or for his son); establishing a colony within the US peacefully (in fact Bonapartists later attempted to forge colonies in Alabama and Texas – both then controlled by Spain); and as with Fisher’s supposition, invading Spain’s American colonies and thereby securing a new throne[9].

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❈ as boys Frank and Charles Woolworth (the future retail empire giants) lived close to ‘Joe’ Bonaparte’s abandoned Bordentown mansion, spending lots of their leisure time playing at ‘Point Breeze’

[1] originally Napoleon and Joseph had laid plans for the two of them to seek refuge together in America in the likelihood of a worst-case scenario … a location in New Jersey was picked out as the optimum place for settling. Napoleon missed a real chance to escape to the US by stealth, having prevaricated too long waiting for anticipated passports which did not come, and then making the fateful decision to give himself up to the British authorities, CE Macartney & G Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, (1939), www.penelope.uchicago.edu (see also PostScript above)
[2] R Veit, ‘Point Breeze (Bonaparte Estate)’, (2015), www.philadelphiaencyclopedia.org; ‘Joseph Bonaparte at Point Breeze. New Jersey’s Ex-King and the Crown Jewels’, Flatrock, www.flatrock.org.nz
[3] ibid.
[4] ‘Bonapartist Refugees in America, 1815-1850’, www.napolun.com
[5] L Weeks, ‘What if Napoleon Had Come to America’, NPR, 10-Feb-2015, www.npr.org. Girard also underwrote the American war effort in the War of 1812.
[6] M Dash, ‘The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine’, Smithsonian Magazine, 08-Mar-2013, www.smithsonian.com
[7] H.A.L. Fisher, ‘If Napoleon had Escaped to America’, (Scribner’s Magazine, Jan. 1931), www.unz.org
[8] M Price, ‘How Napoleon Nearly Became a U.S. Citizen’, History News Network, 28-Dec-2014, www.historynewsnetwork.org
[9] Weeks, op.cit.