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Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples & Spain (1768-1844)

The eldest of the Bonaparte brothers, Joseph was born at Ajaccio on 7 January 1768.  He studied at the university of Pisa and intended to become a lawyers, but the invasion of Corsica by the English in 1793 compelled the whole family to seek refuge in France.

At that time their fortunes were at a low ebb and their prospects not much better. The all-decisive success of Napoleon, however, was at hand.  And when Napoleon ascended to the throne in 1804, Joseph was laden with both military and civilian honors. First awarded the Kingdom of Naples, he eventually followed Napoleon’s army into Spain to become king of that headache instead.

Joseph appears to have been sincerely devoted to his famous brother and to have been likewise held in high esteem. When Napoleon went off to the Austerlitz campaign of 1805, Joseph was entrusted with the Presidency of the Senate and with the direction of the government. These marks of confidence were but the precursors of a much higher dignity. An imperial decree announced that the King of Naples 'had ceased to reign' and Joseph was placed at the head of the army destined to invade that kingdom.

Though little resistance could be expected from perhaps the most cowardly people in Europe, he was accompanied by two able lieutenants, Marshals Massena and Gouvion St. Cyr.  The weak Ferdinand fled, the worthless soldiery disbanded themselves and the rabble, delighted with a change no matter what the sort welcomed the approach of the French with every demonstration of joy.

The country was conquered with scarcely any loss of blood, and the vacant crown conferred upon Joseph. If he had little ability he had probably also little taste for the duties of royalty. Plain in his attire, and still plainer in his manners, he was strongly attached to the enjoyments of domestic life, the only sphere for which nature had qualified him.

Whether he accepted the glitter and pomp of kingly rule with satisfaction is doubtful. He clearly saw that without the constant aid of his brother, and the implication of military force that went with it of course, he would be unable to maintain himself on the throne. And he knew enough of his brother's character to feel assured that he should never be more than the vassal of France.

Joseph and Julie Bonaparte's daughters Zenaide and Charlotte by Gerard

The government of the new king, or rather of the creation governed by Napoleon, was a compound of good and evil. He made some important alterations in the constitution and introduced as many elements of that of France as the people could bear. He suppressed the monastic orders, appropriated the revenues to his own use, abolished feudal rights and made many other changes injurious to the higher and favourable to the lower classes.

Joseph would, perhaps, have become popular, indeed any government after that of the contemptible dynasty which had fled, was likely to be hailed as a blessing had not his own necessities and still more the demands upon Naples by the Emperor compelled him to levy oppressive contributions on his subjects.

While some defects in his personal character exposed him to their ridicule. Too feeble to exert any moral force, he was the passive instrument of Napoleon's most unpopular measures; too idle to trouble himself with the affairs of his kingdom, he abandoned the reins to a set of needy and profligate ministers. The only occasions in which he shewed any thing like activity, were in upholding the pageantry of royalty, and in swelling the notes of revelry.

In 1808, from the peaceful enjoyment of the Neapolitan crown, Joseph was called to a more brilliant, but also more thorny destiny in Spain. He knew that the fierce Spaniard was somewhat more difficult to manage than the slavish Neapolitan, and he had the good sense to refuse the proffered dignity; but his inclinations were not thought worth consulting, and he was forced to pass the Pyrenees.

His reign at Madrid was not, as far as depended on himself, much unlike what it had been at Naples; the passive agent of his brother's will, he was neither oppressive nor cruel in his own character: the same idleness, the same incapacity, the same habits of dissipation, the same nullity, in short, rendered him with his new and high-minded subjects an object rather of ridicule than of hatred.

The military defense of his kingdom was entrusted to lieutenants who oftener despised than obeyed his commands. He was, indeed, the most shadowy of monarchs. One portion of the country was in everlasting insurrection; another was possessed by a powerful foreign enemy, so that his authority extended no farther than the space actually occupied by the French legions. Even there it was merely nominal; the real power was invested first with the emperor, next with the marshals.

Finding the sceptre too heavy for his feeble hands, Joseph more than once prayed to be relieved from the unwelcome load. Even the little authority he had was of all things the most insecure. Twice was lie compelled to abandon the capital; and twice he returned, not so much to inflict, as to witness the infliction of, a severe vengeance on the partisans of Ferdinand: the third time he fled never to return. He was closely pursued by the enemy, against whom he made a stand at Vittoria; but there he sustained a most decisive defeat; his treasures, sceptre, crown remained in possession of the victors, -- a fate which was near happening to himself.

He reached Bayonne in a state of utter destitution -- a just reward for his retention of an usurped crown, which he had worn in opposition to the will of the nation.  While the emperor was engaged in the campaign, the ex-king remained at Paris as lieutenant-general of the realm, and commandant of the national guards, both to relieve the empress in the cares of government, and to defend the capital in case it should be assailed. He reviewed the troops, and protested he would remain with them to the last.

No sooner did the allies reach Paris, than Joseph’s love of his own person prevailed over his duty to his brother: he fled, leaving Marmont to arrange the terms of capitulation. Joseph proceeded first to Orleans, next to Blois, and after the emperor's abdication, to Switzerland. There he bought a valuable estate, -- a proof that, however he had neglected public concerns, he had not been altogether unmindful of his own.

The return of Napoleon to Paris in 1815 brought with it that of the ex-king, who was again laden with dignities, but dignities soon to be laid aside. After Waterloo, Joseph, like his brother, hastened to Rochefort, with the hope of escaping to the United States. In September, he landed at New York; and soon established himself in the vicinity of Philadelphia, where he still remains under the name of Count Survilliers. He lives surrounded by a considerable number of French emigrants, owns a fine estate, and is believed to be very rich. The plunder which he carried away in his second flight from Paris was certainly great.

The private character of Joseph is said to be no less amiable than his talents are weak. His manners are doubtless mild and unassuming, and his disposition somewhat kind; he is stated to be an indulgent husband and father, and to Napoleon he was ever a faithful brother. But he was rapacious and dissipated, -- a plunderer, and a reveller. By the exile of St. Helena, however, he was said to possess a philosophic taste, and considerable stores of knowledge.

In 1799 he published a little novel, entitled Moina, of which a second edition appeared fifteen years afterwards; but as we do not remember to have seen it praised, even by the most enthusiastic worshippers of the Buonapartes, we suppose it is a production of which they are not proud. His character may be summed up in one sentence: he was a weak, voluptuous, easy-tempered man, without elevation of mind, dignity of manners, or generosity of sentiment.

Napoleon's elder brother. Had been destined for the priesthood, but after the death of his father he went to study in Pisa, and in 1788 became a lawyer in Bastia. When the Bonapartes were forced to leave Corsica he became a commissary with the Army of Italy. He married Julie Clary, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, on 1 August 1794. He undertook various diplomatic or political tasks between 1797 and 1806, when Napoleon made him King of Naples.

In 1808 he was placed on the throne of Spain, and found himself in the middle of the most savage conflict of the period. He abdicated on 7 January 1814. During the Hundred Days, he supported Napoleon again, and went into exile in America after Waterloo. He remained there, apart from a couple of trips to England, until 1841, when his poor health gained him permission to live in Florence.  Joseph died in 1844.