Lucien Bonaparte (Prince of Canino), 1775-1840, Minister

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Lucien Bonaparte (Prince of Canino), 1775-1840, Minister
François Xavier Fabre (Studio): Portrait of Lucien Bonaparte

Lucien Bonaparte (Prince of Canino), 1775-1840, Minister. Lucien Bonaparte was born on 21 May 1775 in Ajaccio and was the third son of Charles Buonaparte. He was destined for the infantry, and followed in the footsteps of his elder brothers by attending the military schools at Autun and Brienne, but the death of his father led him to pursue a holy career. He entered the seminary of Aix in 1786, although he left in 1789, as he was not cut out for the strict discipline. At this point he returned to Corsica where Revolutionary activity was now in full swing. In 1791, he came into Paoli’s orbit, becoming his secretary. He became a frequent visitor of the Jacobin clubs in Ajaccio, where he became one of the principal (and indeed outspoken) orators. Some of his character traits were already revealed at this early stage through his correspondence with Joseph; he had a marked taste for political eloquence, a distrust of Napoleon (‘headed towards becoming a tyrant’), and a strong sense of self-confidence (possibly even the ‘courage of the tyrannicide’). The role he played in the severing of ties between Paoli and the Bonaparte family is disputed, but regardless of whether or not he was at its root, it was Lucien who publicly denounced the ‘English treason’ of the old Corsican leader in May 1793. Fleeing to the mainland, he who called himself ‘Brutus Bonaparte, citizen sans-culotte’ fought vigorously for the Jacobin cause in the Midi whilst occupying junior administrative posts, his excessive short-sightedness preventing him from pursuing active military service. In 1794 (and without telling his family), he married the daughter of his innkeeper Christine Boyer. He spent time in prison during the summer of 1795 because of his Jacobin activity and was only released after the intervention of his brother Napoleon, who then found Lucien a post as a Commissaire des guerres in the Armée du Nord. Lucien, however, instead preferred to lobby for (and receive) a posting in Corsica, where he was elected to the Council of Five Hundred as the deputy for Liamone in April 1798 (although he wasn’t in fact old enough to run for election according to the official requirements). He ran some profitable business affairs (linked to corsairing) and feverishly participated in parliamentary activity, where he unleashed his ‘passion for politics’ that his brother had recognised in him. According to Barras, Lucien ‘was ceaselessly proposing laws’, most frequently on the side of the Neojacobins, and was particularly successful in leading the offensive of the Conseils against the Directory in Prairial An VII (June 1799). However, news of events in Egypt as well as Sieyès’s influence caused a shift in his political stance, and when he was elected President of the Five Hundred in October he participated in the plot of the ‘constitutional’ coup d’État, aiming to establish a ‘durable Republic’, in which he and his brother would play important roles.

On 18 Brumaire (9 November) Lucien distributed a pamphlet in the streets of Paris that detailed a phony Jacobin plot, and the conspirators used the threat of the plot to propose and justify the relocation of the Councils to Saint Cloud. While presiding over the heated council session on 19 Brumaire he tried to buy time by agreeing to a demand that all members renew their oaths to the constitution. If we are to believe the account, Lucien supposedly was astounded by the sudden military entrance of his brother and then forced to give way to the Députés calling for his brother to be declared an outlaw. He then theatrically laid down his president’s regalia and demanded that force of arms protect him against the ‘représentants du poignard’ (thus creating the myth of the attack with daggers), swearing – adding the gesture to his words – that he would stab his brother in the chest if that brother were to attack liberty itself. He then showed enough presence of mind to apply parliamentary plaster to the cracks in the coup, managing to hold the Council of Ancients in place using a mixture of legalese and threats so as to bring together the greatest possible number of of Députés in “his” assembly and to keep them there until, by the early morning on 20 Brumaire, they had managed to piece together what remained of Sieyès’ plan, namely: to adjourn the Chambers, to replace them with two transitional commissions, and to nominate three provisional Consuls. Given the chasm between Lucien’s version of the events at Saint Cloud, where he saved his prostrate brother desperately hanging onto the bannister of the steps to the tribune, the latter’s intellectual faculties apparently annihilated by fear and rage, and that where Lucien’s role was either ignored or minimised, even in the official account of the “journée” drafted by Napoleon and Sieyès, it is easy to see where Lucien’s frustration with his brother came from (much more than from ideological differences) and which thereafter would colour relations between Lucien and the new master of France.

As he confessed in his memoires, at this point he was still hoping to seek an elective ‘presidential dignity’ and so he accepted the damage to his scruples caused by the conditions in which the Constitution was written, though still continuing to participate in “Republican” intrigues. He was appointed to the Tribune and then selected to replace the inefficient Laplace as Minister of the Interior on 24 December 1799, although he does not seem to have performed any administrative activity until the death of his wife the following year.

He was not without influence in this post, either in the selection of the first Préfets or in the matter of maintaining the right to oversee Paris police matters, notwithstanding Fouché’s objections, forcing the acceptation that the person responsible for Paris policing also be a ‘préfet’. His damning report on the state of education in France would also leave its mark. But his becoming a minister would always be marked by what some people saw as his ‘second’ coup d’état, when the results of the plebiscite on the Constitution of An VIII, over which his offices presided, were falsified, doubling the “yes” vote by rounding the departmental figures and adding those of the army staff.

He then began intriguing again, turning his attention to the question of succession and publishing an ‘anonymous’ (actually the work of Fontanes) brochure (and having it sent to all Préfets) in November 1800 that glorified the First Consul but also tendentiously professed concerns about the absence of an heir. This premature move not only frustrated those who were adverse to a hereditary system but also revealed Lucien’s cards too obviously, namely that he was thinking of himself as a successor. The addition of this to a campaign led by Fouché concerning Lucien’s potential prevarications and amorous adventures led directly to a stormy encounter with his brother, ending with Lucien’s resignation.

He was appointed ambassador to Madrid on 6 November 1800 and was given the mission to pursue the old “Family Pact” an alliance with Spain alongside a naval agreement. In March 1801 he managed to get Godoy to sign the Treaty of Aranjuez, which resulted in the constitution of the first of the ‘vassal’ kingdoms: Etruria. The new kingdom was given to the King of Spain’s son-in-law in exchange for the cession of the island of Elba to France. After this success Lucien put forward his wishes to be formally considered for the government of the ex-‘Cisalpine Republic’. However, Talleyrand had given him the task of ‘persuading’ Portugal to enter the French alliance by using the military might of Spain, but he refused to act on the last point, which was more difficult for Lisbon, blaming a delay with letters and claiming not to have received his instructions. Since large ‘diplomatic gifts’ (paintings and diamonds) from Godoy and from the Portuguese were probably not unrelated to the speed with which Lucien signed the treaty of Badajoz, he was recalled to Paris in October.

In March 1802 he accepted the offer to resume his place in the Tribune, so as to draft the two major on-going projects: the Concordat and the Legion d’Honneur. He was elected president of one of the three sections – that of the Interior – presided over the vote on the two texts, and in July was elected as membre organique of the Grand Conseil of the order of the Légion d’Honneur. The Constitution of An X made him, by right, a Grand Officer of the order and a member of the Sénat. His involvement in corsairing in the Mediterranean allowed him to expand his famous art collection, and he led a magnificent lifestyle both at the Chateau du Plessis and in his Paris town mansion in rue Saint-Dominique where he hosted a group of artists, scientists, and writers, where individuals such as Mme. de Staël, Chateaubriand and Béranger were his “protégés”. On 26 January 1803, he went on to be appointed a member of the Institut in the 2nd Class, the corresponding body to the Academy Francaise (which he had tried to resuscitate in 1800); although this appointment can hardly be attributed to his 1799 ‘American’ novel ‘La Tribu Indienne’… In July, he chose Poppelsdorf (between Bonn and Trier) for his senatorial seat. He refused the post of Treasurer of the Sénat because he did not want to renounce his rights of succession.

At this point he remarried, this time to Alexandrine Jacob de Bleschamp, widow of the Agent de Change (currency exchange dealer) Jouberthon. This did not create his conflict with Napoleon but rather served to crystallise it, Napoleon, unhappy that his brother, who he believed to be too ideological, had thwarted his plans to have Lucien marry the Queen of Etruria and, in doing so, had showed too much independence and set a bad example. This resulted in a dramatic meeting between Lucien and Napoleon at Saint Cloud, where the former refused to divorce and cursed this developing hereditary monarchy. Lucien left for Rome in April 1804.

Lucien, the man behind the Concordat, was well received by Pius VII, and received the papal castellany of Canino (60,000 Francs of annual revenue) in February 1808, in exchange for a loan of 500,000 Francs. Besides archaeological studies, he indulged in substantial economic exploitation in order to bail out a budget that was burdened by a family of seven children and the maintenance of a number of residences – including the Palais Nunez in Rome and the Ruffinella estate and its surrounding area. Even though he definitively referred to himself as a ‘citoyen Romain’ and never missed an opportunity to criticise the ‘opération Césarienne’ that had killed the Republic in France, he never lost his secret desire for reconciliation with Napoleon, which he hoped would lead to the latter legitimising Lucien’s marriage and issue. The Emperor was considering orchestrating a union between one of Lucien’s daughters and Ferdinand of Spain and spoke with his brother at Mantua on December 1807. This meeting lasted for 4 hours, and Napoleon flitted between intimidation (threatening his brother with imprisonment at Bicêtre) and seduction, offering him in turn thrones in Italy, Spain, or Portugal. At one point, Lucien was tempted by the crown of Tuscany, but after being told that he must not ‘play the Medicis’, he changed his mind, refused to divorce, and closed the heated discussion by criticising the sale of Louisiana and the policy of conscription.

He returned to Rome, where he was openly hostile to the arrival of French troops in the Eternal City in February 1808. During the annexation of the Papal States, Pius VII ostensibly spoke of him as a future ‘gonfalonier of the church’. After this, the isolation of Lucien’s family, his inability to stay in Rome, and his increasing financial difficulties caused him to contemplate leaving for America. As part of this plan, he made contact with the British, who were masters of the seas. Even though the they refused to provide him with a passport, as they saw him as a republican capable of causing trouble for the Spanish colonies, he took to the sea in August 1810 so as to escape a French arrest warrant, which had been issued for his ‘correspondence with the enemies of the state’. Taken prisoner on a British ship, he was imprisoned in Malta before being placed under house arrest in England. As of September his name was erased from the list of senators and grand officers of the Légion d’Honneur, as his absence from national territory had exceeded five years, and the Almanach Impérial of 1811 did not even include him as one of Napoleon’s brothers. During the three years Lucien resided at the Thorngrove House, his only public pronouncement was the publication (designed to help his financial situation) of an epic poem: Charlemagne ou L’Eglise Deliverée, which was highly thought of.

After the events of 1814, he was able to return to Rome. Despite the pressure of France and of the Curia, the Pope awarded him the title of hereditary prince of Canino because of his ‘loyal and sincere attachment’ to Holy See.

After having tried in vain to ward off Murat’s invasion of the Papal States, he returned to Paris at the beginning of the Hundred Days. He knew that Napoleon, with the framework of the now ‘Constitutional’ Empire, wanted his assistance, a parliamentarian of An VIII, the only brother to whom he had not bestowed a crown. The reconciliation was sealed by an edict on 9 May 1815 which named Lucien ‘Prince Français’, although it did not end his dynastic exclusion: he would not be called ‘Lucien-Napoléon’. He was elected as a representative by the college of Isère but sat in the Chambre des Pairs (it was well noted that he was at Napoleon’s side on the Champs-de-Mai), and he had the casting vote in the Conseil des Ministres and supervised the official newspapers of the regime. After Waterloo, he (with Carnot) recommended the dissolution of the Chamber and proposed the proclamation that the ‘la Patrie’ was once again ‘en danger’. He was appointed by Napoleon to speak in his name before the Representatives, and, believing this was the moment he could do another Brumaire, announced the creation of a parliamentary commission in order to buy time. He then put before his brother what he believed to be the two clear options: a coup de force in line with a dictatorship of ‘public safety’, or an immediate abdication that would avoid destitution and preserve the chances of the dynasty. On the 23 June Lucien who had presided over the birth of the consular regime had to write with a heavy heart (and under dictation) the Act of the Abdication, while insisting that it expressly include the accession of ‘Napoleon II’. But the old Jacobin did not manage to convince the Peers when he noted that: ‘All interruption of dynastic continuity is anarchy!’ He managed only to procure a ‘declaration’ establishing the succession by the ‘force of constitutions’, which was not a solemn proclamation and left the path open to the Bourbons.

While in forced residence in the Papal States, he was supported by the Pope against the Allies, who had pushed for his banishment, and occupied himself with writing his memoires. His financial needs caused him to part with his painting collection and also to rent out the Palais de Canino. He moved to a house in Viterbo, where he died from stomach cancer on 30 June 1840. He left two daughters from his first marriage and ten children from his second, including the infamous Pierre Bonaparte.

The character of Lucien Bonaparte was rehabilitated by the propaganda of ‘Memorial of St helena’, which judged him an ‘ornament of any political assembly’. In 1833 he had collaborated in a draft constitution (providing for an elective consulate and life annuity) which stood as his political testament and included the following sentence, which can be seen as a summary of his life: ‘It is family interests that bring about the fall of the best of kings…’

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