The Patterson-Bonaparte Wedding

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The Patterson-Bonaparte Wedding


Belle of Baltimore. Born in 1785, Elizabeth Patterson may have been the most beautiful girl in Baltimore; she certainly was the most ambitious. Nature never intended me for obscurity, she wrote. She dreamed of one day being a great lady, not in the small and relatively tranquil world of Baltimore, but on the grand stage of Europe. Elizabeths father, William Patterson, had come to America from Ireland in the 1760s and through hard

work and fortunate opportunities had established himself as one of the countrys leading merchants. He had helped finance the American Revolution, and though he shunned political life, which would have taken too much time from his family, Patterson knew the countrys political leaders well. He was content to be one of Marylands wealthiest and most successful men; his daughter was not.


It is believed that Jean-Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born on the island of Saint Domingue in 1750. His mother was African, and his father was a French merchant. After his mothers death, Jean was sent to school in Paris by his father. It was common practice in Saint Domingue for white fathers to send their mulatto sons to France for an education. When he returned from Paris, Du Sable served as a seaman on his fathers ships, a means of support as well as mobility.

He migrated to the French province of Louisiana in 1765 and became a fur trapper for his fathers business in New Orleans. By 1779 he had traveled north and established trading posts on the modern sites of Peoria and Michigan City, Indiana. He also established a post at the mouth of a river called Checagou (Chicago) by the local Indians. During the Revolutionary War he supported the Americans, and as a result he was arrested by the British for espionage. He was released the following year and became a trader of supplies for their fort. When the British left the region in 1784, Du Sable returned to Checagou. He reestablished his trading post there and built a cabin, the first house built in present-day Chicago. He lived there for sixteen years, married a Potawatomi woman named Catherine, and had two children.

In 1800 he failed in an attempt to be elected chief of the Potawatomi. He then sold his land and businesses in the Checagou area and moved back to Peoria. He owned eight hundred acres there but lost his money and declared bankruptcy in 1814. He then moved to Saint Charles, Missouri, near Saint Louis, where he died in poverty in 1818.

Sources: Peter M. Bergman, The Chronological History of the Negro in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1969);

Benjamin Brawley, A Short History of the American Negro (New York: Macmillan, 1944).

French Officer. Jerome Bonaparte, one year older than Elizabeth, was the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, then first consul to the French Republic, had sent his younger brother to serve in the French navy. In 1803 Jeromes ship reached New York, and the young officer began a busy social schedule in the city, followed by visits to Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, where he and Elizabeth Patterson caught one anothers attention. She was an astonishingly beautiful and smart woman, and he was a handsome officer and, more important for Elizabeth, the brother of one of the most famous men in the world. Elizabeth, like many Americans, admired Napoleons military genius as well as his apparent attachment to republican principles. In October 1803 Elizabeth and Jerome began courting. William Patterson, however, tried to break off the relationship and sent his daughter to Virginia. He warned her that no good would come of her marriage into the Bonaparte family, that Jeromes brother would not consider the marriage valid. Patterson had worked his way to the top and did not want to see his daughter hurt or his fortune depleted by this European adventurer. Elizabeth, though, declared she would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for one hour than the wife of any other man for a lifetime.

Marriage. William Patterson had Alexander Dallas (later U.S. secretary of the Treasury) draw up a marriage contract, providing that if any question were raised as to the validity of the union, Jerome Bonaparte would publicly affirm the marriage, and if any member of the Bonaparte family sought to annul the marriage, Elizabeth Patterson would have the right to one-third of her husbands property. To further ensure the validity, the Protestant Pattersons had the wedding performed on Christmas Eve 1803 by Rev. John Carroll, who later would become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. Witnessing the wedding were the French consul and the mayor of Baltimore.

American Tour. The young couple then took an extended tour of the United States, giving Elizabeth a chance to escape what she felt to be the constraints of Baltimore and to show herself on a wider stage. In Washington she enchanted and shocked society by her dress and her sarcastic wit: She charms by her eyes and slays by her tongue, one observer said. One Washington hostess reported that her appearance threw all the company into confusion, and no one dared to look at her but by stealth. Her dress was the thinnest sarcenet and white crepe there was scarcely any waist to it and no sleeves; her back, her bosom, part of her waist and her arms were uncovered and the rest of her form visible. Elizabeth was said to have the most transcendently beautiful back and shoulders that were ever seen, and though she delighted in showing them, American society was less openly pleased to see them. Before the next Washington party, several ladies sent her word, if she wished to meet them there she must promise to have more clothes on.

Diplomatic Difficulties. While the nuptial couple traveled, Elizabeth Pattersons brother Robert was in France, trying to ensure that his sisters marriage would be upheld by Napoleon. He met with constant disappointment. Napoleon would not acknowledge the marriage, even though his mother and older brother welcomed Elizabeth into the family. Napoleon hoped to marry his brother to a European princess and in the process form a strategic alliance for the French nation. Napoleon ordered Jerome to return home and to leave the young girl in the United States. In October 1804 Jerome and Elizabeth sailed for France. Their ship wrecked off Delaware, but both were saved. (Elizabeths large and extravagant gown nearly pulled her under.) In March 1805 they sailed again, this time on a safer ship owned by Elizabeths father.

Arrival in Europe. Napoleon would not allow Jerome to bring his bride into any French port. By the time the couple arrived in Lisbon, Napoleon had been crowned emperor of France and controlled much of the European Continent. French officers were instructed to send Elizabeth back to the United States, but she was not willing to go. When a French officer in Lisbon asked what he could do for Miss Patterson, she replied angrily, Tell your master Madame Bonaparte is ambitious, and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family. Jerome was brought to Paris, but Elizabeth was not allowed to disembark from the ship. Jerome pledged his undying love for his bride, who was pregnant with their child, but he quickly yielded to his brothers demands. Elizabeth landed in England, where her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in July.

The Pope. Napoleon denied that the marriage was valid and had a civil divorce arranged in France. He promised Elizabeth a pension of Fr 60, 000 each year on the condition she not use the Bonaparte name. Elizabeth contested the divorce, though she accepted the pension (which she received as long as Napoleon was in power) and signed the receipts Elizabeth Bonaparte. Napoleon asked Pope Pius VII to annul the marriage on the grounds that Elizabeth was a Protestant and Jerome a Catholic. To help encourage the Popes decision, Napoleon sent him a diamond tiara. Pius VII, however, denied the annulment. The wedding had been performed according to the rules of the Church, celebrated by the leading Catholic in America. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, born two weeks after the Pope upheld his mothers marriage, was raised a faithful Catholic by his Protestant mother.

Jerome Remarries. In 1807 Jerome yielded to his brothers ambition and married a Westphalian princess, Fredericka Catharina of Wurtemberg. Jerome, who ultimately became the king of Westphalia, offered Elizabeth a pension (Fr 200, 000) if she would allow their son to be raised in his household. Elizabeth, Jerome thought, could take up residence in the principality of Smalkal-den. She refused, saying Westphalia was not big enough for two queens and that she would rather be sheltered under the wing of an eagle (Jeromes brother) than to hang from the bill of a goose. Elizabeth and her son returned to Baltimore. Elizabeth may have been denied her place at Napoleons court, but she was still determined to escape the narrow world of Baltimore. In 1815, when Napoleon fell from power, she and her son returned to Europe, but when Louis XVIII invited Elizabeth to his court, she refused. Since she had accepted a pension from Napoleon, she thought it inappropriate to accept hospitality from his deposer. In Maryland her father moved to have the legislature grant his daughter a civil divorce as he feared the Bonapartes might now try to claim some of her wealth as rightfully theirs.

Bo. Elizabeths two greatest concerns were for herself and her son, now ten years old. She hoped to have him educated in Europe, as the Bonaparte talents ought to have an English education. In America unfortunately he possesses no rank, but in Europe he was the son of a king (though only the king of Westphalia). When young Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (called Bo by his family) reached a marriageable age, his mother hoped to find an appropriate European princess for him. And though his father now had a legitimate heir, young Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was accepted into the Westphalian court family. Though it was understood in Westphalia that he would not inherit the crown, Bo and his mother seem to have expected otherwise.

Europe Again. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, who would be called Madame Bonaparte until her death in 1879, despised the narrowness of her own country and rejoiced in living in Europe, where the purposes of life are all fulfilled. Beauty commands homage, talents secure admiration, misfortune meets with respect. Women, even at forty, fifty, or sixty years of age, retain the glorious privilege of charming, and the word old was completely banished from polite vocabulary. She became a social butterfly in Europe. Her son preferred America, telling his grandfather that I have dined with princes and princesses and all the great people in Europe, but have not found a dish as much to my taste as the roast beef and beefsteaks I ate [at William Pattersons home] on South Street. Bo graduated from Harvard College in 1826 and married a young woman from Baltimore, much to his mothers shock.

Later Years. William Patterson died in 1835 one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. He left his children considerable estates, but Elizabeth, who he said had caused him more grief than all the others, received less property than her brothers and sisters. She still had an income of $10, 000 each year and through investments managed to accumulate a large fortune by the end of her life. In the 1850s her familys royal ambitions were reawakened when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte had established cordial relations with his cousins when they were out of power; with their restoration the American Bonapartes hoped to secure a title. Their attorney argued their case in Paris, citing among other evidence that the great Jefferson himself had written of the Patterson wealth. On 4 July 1856 the Bonaparte family declared that the American Bonapartes were their cousins and could continue to use the family name but that they could not inherit property or expect to share in power. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was disappointed again, but not surprised. How much more surprised the great Jefferson would have been to hear his name invoked by an American family trying to claim a European noble title. Jerome Bonaparte died in 1860, his son in 1870. Elizabeth Patterson

Bonaparte lived comfortably, if not regally, to the age of ninety-four.


Medric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Mery, a French refugee in America between 1793 and 1798, wrote this account of Philadelphia:

Another veritable torture during Philadelphias hot season is the innumerable flies which constantly light on the face and hands, stinging everywhere and turning everything black because of the filth they leave wherever they light. Rooms must be kept closed unless one wishes to be tormented in his bed at the break of day, and this need of keeping everything shut makes the heat of the night even more unbearable and sleep more difficult.

And so the heat of the day makes one long for bedtime because of weariness, and a single fly which has gained entrance to your room in spite of all precautions drives you from your bed.

I say one fly because many among them are a sort of blis-terfly, and once they have attacked you, you can have no peace until they are killed. If one writes, the paper is spotted with flyspecks. If a woman is dressed in white her dress is in like manner soiled, especially her fichu [a muslin cape worn over the shoulders]. The upholstery and bellups are sticky.

At table and above all at dessert they light upon and befoul all food, all drinks. They taste everything they see. Ones eyes are revolted by them; ones appetite destroyed. When a rather large room, hitherto closed, is suddenly opened in the summer, a noise is produced there which imitates the sea roaring in the distance; it is the flies who are escaping and cover you as they pass. It is because of this frightful inconvenience that the custom arose of going without [wall] hangings, and repainting apartments every autumn.

Source: Moreau St. Merys American Journey (17931798), translated and edited by Kenneth Roberts and Anna M. Roberts (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947).


Mary C. Crawford, Romantic Days in the Early Republic (London: Gay & Hancock, 1913);

Eugene L. Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York: Scribners, 1879);

W. T. R. Saffell, The Bonaparte-Patterson Marriage in 1803 (Philadelphia: The proprietor, 1873).