Born in Ajaccio, 7 January, 1768, he was the eldest son of Charles Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino.
Initially destined for the Law, Joseph was forced by the exile of the Bonapartes from Corsica, after the rift with Paoli, to return to Provence. In 1794 he married Marie-Julie Clary (1771-1845), the daughter of a rich Marseilles businessman. Thanks to his brother’s influence, Joseph was appointed Commissaire des guerres for the Army of Italy and then elected by his Corsican compatriots, on 23 Germinal, An V, Député to the Conseil des Cinq-Cents. With his election contested by the Clichyite party, he was not able to take his seat until after the coup of 18 Fructidor. He was then appointed to Parma (ratified by the Duke of Parma 1 March, 1797). From there he passed to Rome (bills passed by the Directory on 6 and 15 May, 1797). The situation rapidly became tense. The uprising of 28 December 1797, in the course of which General Duphot was killed, gave him a pretext for leaving the city which Berthier was to invade at the beginning of 1798. Returning to his seat on the Conseil des Cinq-Cents, he bought amongst other things, in October 1798, the château and estate of Mortefontaine, a magnificent country house about 40 kilometres North Paris. He turned to literature – perhaps thinking to find there glory which would rival that of his brother? – publishing Moïna ou la villageoise du Mont-Cenis. On the Conseil des Cinq-Cents his role had disappeared. At the time of the Brumaire coup he attempted (without much success) a ‘rapprochement’ between his brother and Bernadotte, who had become Joseph’s brother-in-law on marrying Désirée Clary. Joseph entered the Corps législatif and then the Conseil d’Etat, but most of time was taken up as a negotiator, with the United States (the Treaty of Mortefontaine), Austria (the Peace of Lunéville) and with Britain (the Peace of Amiens). This success brought with it rewards. He was made Grand électeur on 28 Floréal, An XII, and then Sénateur de droit and Grand-officier of the Légion d’honneur. Napoleon offered Joseph the crown of Italy, which the latter refused, thus provoking a slight rift.
The Campaign of 1805: Naples, his first crown.
At the end of the campaign, Napoleon informed his brother that he was about to take the kingdom of Naples: “I have appointed you my Lieutenant Commander in Chief of the Armée de Naples. Leave forty-eight hours after receiving this letter […]. Take the uniform of a Général de division.” He was to swap this uniform for the crown of Naples on 31 March, 1806. Well assisted by Saliceti, Roederer, Miot de Mélito, Mathieu Dumas, Girardin, he brought about important reforms in Naples. The French administrative model was adopted and Miot de Mélito declared that the new institutions should be adopted nationwide. The slumbering economy was given a boost. However the absence of a strong local middle class which would have supported the throne and the unfortunate impression given of systematic pillage of the kingdom proved a setback for Joseph’s work there.
18 April, 1808, Spain, his second crown.
On 21 May, he received the order to go to Bayonne. He left on 23. Even though he had been made King of Spain on 7 June 1808, he remained King of Naples until 5 July, still passing decrees concerning the organisation of the judiciary and the law codes, etc. up to September. From the outset, he felt a strong dislike for his new kingdom and longed to be once again King of Naples. As early as 9 August, he wrote to his brother: “having conquered this country amidst the horrors of war, in which every single Spaniard has taken part, I shall remain for a long time the object of terror and hate. I ought not to wish to reign in Spain.” He was to be “el rey intruso” who could not depend upon the afrancesados and who met with distrust on the part of the Maréchaux serving in the Peninsula. When he left Madrid for the second (and final) time, he lost all his papers in the catastrophe at Vitoria. These papers only recently returned to France and the Archives Nationales via a descendant of Wellington. On 28 January 1814, he received the title Lieutenant général with the mission to defend Paris. Lacking the means to do this, he abandoned the capital with the Conseil de régence on 30 March. Retreating to Switzerland, he bought there the estate at Prangins. During the Hundred Days, he was made Pair de France and given presidency of the Conseil des ministres during Napoleon’s absence. He subsequently fled to the United States, settling in Philadelphia under the name of Comte de Survilliers. On the accession of Louis Philippe in 1830, he spoke up in favour of Napoleon II. In 1832, he moved to England, returning to America 1837-1839, coming back again to London before finally settling in 1844 in Florence where he died 28 July, 1844.
Jean Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon, 1999, tome 2, pp. 85-86
With the kind permission of Editions Fayard.