Charles J. Bonaparte, American
(Courtesy Paul M. Burnett)
"You are a French boy, Charlie."
"No, I am an American boy!"1
The boy, then six years of age, who thus refused to be classified as French and asserted his Americanism, was none other than Charles Joseph Bonaparte, a grandson of Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother.
As was the boy, so was the man, emphatically, for Charles Joseph was the first all‑American Bonaparte. To him meant more than Bonaparte, and the United States infinitely more than France. This and much else one may sense, in his life that he lived, and on which many amusing and interesting sidelights were given by his biographer, Joseph Bucklin Bishop (to whom the authors are greatly indebted for much of interest and value), who on behalf of the subject of his book rendered a paean of praise. Yet careful investigation among those who best knew Mr. Bonaparte seems to indicate that it is all true, and more, and that in the first great American Bonaparte, and perhaps the last great Bonaparte, there was a man.
For of such was the life of this great American Bonaparte, who was in the more enlightened sense "one hundred percent" an American, by birth, by residence, by interests, and finally in death. He was born at his p54father's old home near the place in which he died, and for any Bonaparte to make his entry and his exit on the same stage and in the same city sets him apart again among the Bonapartes. Yes, Charles J. Bonaparte was a confirmed American, and he was the first Bonaparte to have a place in Who's Who in America, that great reference work of the best known.
As a child Charles was both serious and studious. He was six years of age when he entered a French school, studying later with private tutors. He always attained high marks and made himself a brilliant record, entering Harvard as a Junior in 1869, though only eighteen then. We are told that he passed "all the necessary examinations easily." He was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1874 and even in college was something of a reformer.
In the fall of 1874 Bonaparte was admitted to the Maryland Bar, making his Baltimore home at 601 Park Avenue, in the house built by his father. Here in the place where he was born were health to enjoy life, and wealth to do nothing in life. Yet these things were not enough, and it took no time for him to become a poor man's lawyer, frequently, if not usually, giving his services freely, if not entirely free, and indeed there were cases in which he himself even paid his clients' court costs.
Bonaparte is always referred to as having been ingenious and quick-witted in court. As a boxer and fencer, he was always ready in the arts of self-defense, and on one court occasion at least he relied on his art. p55His memory was prodigious and his success was great, for he seldom if ever lost a case.
Not only did he fight his case in the courts of law, but just as consistently and courageously in the courts of public opinion. For a score of years he combatted political corruption and corrupt politicians in Baltimore and Maryland. He was always a fearless fighter, an able and popular public speaker. When he commenced to practice law, his biographer and others tell us that Baltimore had one of the worst reputations in the United States, "as bad as New York and Philadelphia of that time." Bonaparte and his cohorts generally were beaten in their efforts and in their elections, but their needs and efforts made the public politically conscious, and crookedness was being shown up for the public's benefit. In 1881 Bonaparte aided in forming Maryland and National Civil Service Reform Leagues, but to show the man's persistence it is related that "it was not until 1895 that he had made much impression on political conditions in the State of Maryland and City of Baltimore."
Maryland has been largely Democratic, but that did not deter Republican Charles J. Bonaparte. He had a battling grandmother and a noble mother of Pilgrim stock. She it was who encouraged him to become wholly American and to be entirely forgetful of his French antecedents. Maryland, though it did not secede, was in some sections fiercely Southern during The War between the States; yet Mrs. Bonaparte urged her husband, Charles J. Bonaparte's father, to espouse the Union cause, which he did. So actively did he p56attempt to aid and abet the North that he became the first President of the Union Club, which came into being after the War had divided the Maryland Club in Baltimore, as it had divided the city and state where it was located.
It was fated that Charles J. Bonaparte should become the American of all the Bonapartes. His father had not wed King Joseph's daughter, but a girl of sterling American stock. He himself made no foreign alliance either, for his choice had been Miss Ellen Channing Day of Hartford, Connecticut, whom he met while a Harvard student in 1871. The young lady's grandfather was a brother of a former president of Yale, her father a former publisher of the famous Hartford Courant. His biographer reports him at this time "a very serious young man with a heavy black beard." Happily Charles' suit was smiled on; they became engaged in June, 1875, and married in Newport September 1 of the same year. When he brought his bride back to Baltimore they lived at first in the old home but ultimately purchased a country place •some fifteen miles from Baltimore, "Bella Vista," a home on a high hill with a commanding view, their farm in the valley below.
Here on this place of •three hundred acres these Bonapartes, who like the others loved the country, could live and love not far from Charles' law practice in the city. His beloved Bella Vista burned after his death. The Bonapartes have been fond of the cities and capitals where they have worked and ruled, but whenever they could they lived in the country and all Bonapartes have p57loved their homes, when they had them. This particular country place, a Colonial mansion in the midst of spaciousness, also had for the pleasure of its horse-loving owner a dozen horses and many carriages. Mr. Bonaparte did not invest in a car, but with his spanking trotters drove to and from Baltimore daily, from Bella Vista, where he could generally be found from May until July. After the middle of July he usually removed to St. Andrews in New Brunswick, on Passamaquoddy Bay. Two months or so there and he was in physical readiness to resume his Baltimore affairs. Mrs. Bonaparte herself was not exceptionally well nor strong, and he suffered from a weak heart, or perhaps he put too great strain upon a stout one.
One of the most interesting things in his life and perhaps the one that had the greatest influence on it was his acquaintance with Theodore Roosevelt, who was graduated from Harvard just a year before Bonaparte. Roosevelt joined his National Civil Service Reform League nearly as soon as it was founded. He and Bonaparte became acquainted and friends almost as soon as acquaintances. These two rich young men had much in common. They were not idle rich and they were both primarily political reformers. In 1891 Roosevelt as a Civil Service Commissioner conducted some investigations of Federal offices there in Baltimore. Bonaparte helped him, and as soon as Roosevelt became President he commenced his special employment of Bonaparte which was to continue for just as long as Roosevelt was President. When Roosevelt had discovered a man he did not forget him and he did not p58believe in letting him "rust." In 1902 President Roosevelt named Bonaparte a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners, and in 1904, Bonaparte, who had been assigned to investigate conditions in the Indian Territory, reported, "Conditions in the Indian Territory involve immediate danger of ruin to the genuine Indian population and profound discredit to the United States, excite reasonable discontent on the part of all classes of the population, and demand prompt and drastic remedies on the part of Congress." This, it is said, "led to a radical change in the Government's Indian policy."2 In 1904 Bonaparte was first on the list of Republican Presidential electors for Maryland, and as first was the only one elected. He cast his vote for Theodore Roosevelt, but the other Marylanders voted Democratic. This is supposed to have been the first and only time he ever was a candidate. He refused consistently to run for any office at any time, though he was appointed to many.
On May 10, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt inquired if Bonaparte would join his Cabinet. On May 21, at the age of fifty-four, he accepted, albeit reluctantly, this invitation to enter public life. However, before making any announcement and a definite appointment, Roosevelt inquired of the French Government via our State Department if they objected to Bonaparte's appointment as Secretary of the Navy in his Cabinet. The French said "No," so Bonaparte was made Secretary of the Navy as of July 1, 1905, his appointment having p59been announced the day before. One of the cartoons of the day displayed the spirit of Napoleon receiving a wireless message from Roosevelt, which read, "I have made your grand-nephew Secretary of the Navy." Napoleon replied, "I hope he does better with ships than I did." The appointment caused no little comment, created considerable surprise, but in the end won genuine approval. Bonaparte at this time was a leading Republican, later he was a Progressive Republican; and the last mention of him in Who's Who was to list him as a Progressive.
The appearance of the new Secretary of the Navy was ingratiating and pleasant. A study man with small hands and feet, a very high forehead and almost bald head, with a generous moustache, he was taller than Napoleon and possessed "the cannon-ball head of a warrior with room for two sets of brains." His smile was famous and to it he resorted in anger as well as in joy. As the Secretary of the Navy he showed himself as fearless as the reformer and the poor man's lawyer. It may take courage also to be known as the friend of poor negroes, but Bonaparte did not hesitate when he felt that they were put upon and that his eloquence and strength were needed; no more than did Grandfather Jerome hesitate when he assumed the Germanic throne of Westphalia to befriend the Jews, to treat them as others were treated by them. Not only was this Baltimore Bonaparte a great man and statesman, he was a gentleman.
In various ways, by law if necessary, Bonaparte increased respect at home for the Navy uniform, abroad p60for the Navy ships. However, he raised a great storm when he recommended that the frigate Constitution, "Old Ironsides," be "used as a target and sunk in the ocean" for Navy practice. Mass-meetings were held in Faneuil Hall, and Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem, "Ay, tear her tattered ensign down," was everywhere reprinted and circulated. Bonaparte held that the frigate, save for a few timbers, was not the original "Old Ironsides" at all, and that it was therefore an imposition on the American public to exhibit her as such. He recommended that whatever timbers were from the original frigate be built into a new vessel; and if, he said, the frigate were indeed "Old Ironsides," what more fitting end could she have than to go down under cannon fire in mid‑ocean? Congress authorized funds for the preservation of the Constitution, and the storm ended. He was "a large Navy" man, and he won the respect of ranking officers of the United States Navy, by whom he was regarded as efficient. He had the gift of friendship and he also won their liking. While Secretary of the Navy, Bonaparte took a leading part in the return to its homeland of the body of John Paul Jones, which in 1906 was removed from Paris for more suitable interment at Annapolis.
However, Roosevelt had said, "I put you in the Navy Department as a stop gap." Roosevelt, it seems, all along had intended him for his Attorney General, and finally, with the way clear, Bonaparte's appointment as such was confirmed by the Senate December 17, 1906. There he remained until March 5, 1909. Like Roosevelt, he was a "trust buster." A newspaper of the time p61said: "He is an aristocrat in feeling and deportment. He is too proud to be bossed and too cynical to be fooled. No 'interest' or no person does or can control him. He does his own thinking . . . and with his natural hatred of vulgar and greedy rich men he will prove a terror to every trust magnate in the country who comes under that head."3a He was well placed as Attorney General, and in this post he led Roosevelt's chief assaults upon "bad trusts." Successful legal actions were taken under Bonaparte against oil, tobacco, railroads, coal, and the like, under the anti-trust act. He became "the man who fights with a smile." Greatness of pride or pocket meant nothing to him, and in a speech in Chicago, December 21, 1907, Bonaparte said, "Americans as a nation think their laws are meant to be obeyed by all alike, by the rich no less than by the poor, by the enlightened no less than by the ignorant."3b And J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the famous Federal Bureau of Investigation, reminds us in a newspaper article that his Bureau (the "G‑men") "was created by an executive order issued by Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte" some thirty years ago.
Although many attempts were made by enemies of both to sow or show discord between Roosevelt and Bonaparte, there was no discord, and they always were as they had begun, friends until the end. Like Roosevelt, this man Bonaparte had a lively sense of humor, and like him also he was a great gentleman and scholar. p62He was "fond of the classics and fond of horses, fond of jokes and not fond of bosses."
Roosevelt and Bonaparte left Washington together, the latter informing Taft that he did not wish to continue in Cabinet or public life. He was anxious to get home and stay home, and indeed while in Washington he spent nearly every week‑end in Maryland and as much time in addition as he was allowed by a good lawyer's conscientious regard for the public interest, for he was happiest when at home and he and his wife had the Bonaparte dislike for society per se. He believed in an aristocracy of the intellect and in a nobility of nature. He was not lost in ancestral Bonapartes, and traders in were surprised to discover that he had no interest in their wares. He condemned Napoleon and he was not a professional descendant.
When he left office with Roosevelt in March, 1909, Charles J. Bonaparte was a very happy man, and happily he resumed his law practice where he had left it in 1905. In 1912 he supported Theodore Roosevelt, advancing him as a nominee in 1916, though when Hughes received the Republican nomination he supported Hughes. His stand on the World War and on national preparedness was approximately that of Theodore Roosevelt, and a series of articles by Bonaparte in the Baltimore Evening Sun of that day asked immediate preparedness. When the War had been won, he said before a Baltimore club in December, 1919, to give expression to his opposition to the League of Nations, "Its effects will be to give foreign powers an excuse for meddling in our business, to greatly increase for us the p63danger of friction, controversy, and at the same time, to aid pacifists and other mischievous dreamers to mislead public opinion as to our need for preparedness in the future, as they had misled it in the past at a cost to us of billions of money and tens of thousands of lives."4a
This was in 1919. It was not long before impaired health caused him to go to Bella Vista, where he continued driving "till within four days of his death."4b There in his invalid's chair he was thought by some, including his biographer, to resemble the Versailles statue of Napoleon in his final days at St. Helena. On June 28, 1921, at four in the morning, came placidly and without pain the mortal end of Charles J. Bonaparte, statesman. Respected rather than popular, except by those privileged to know him well, he was a statesman and reformer rather than a , and better liked by the voters than by their "leaders." Answering the calls of public life and civic duty left him but little time for the life he most enjoyed. His days rarely were his own, but the evenings were, and until the end he and his good wife are reported after forty-five years of wedded life to have "held hands" and expressed to each other daily their lifetime of devotion which was to outlast life. Here again was an unusual Bonaparte, perhaps the first.
Among many distinctions, Charles J. Bonaparte was one of the first "see America first" enthusiasts. He had even visited Alaska as early as 1888. He never saw p64France, other European countries, or the British Isles, and he never wished to do so. The interests near his heart were near his home. He was the president of the famous Enoch Pratt Library, of the Maryland Board of State Aid and Charities, a Trustee of the Catholic University of America, an overseer of Harvard, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Council of National Defense. He received Doctorates of Law from Mt. St. Mary's in 1882, from the Catholic University of America in 1915, and in 1903 he had been awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame. Always deeply religious, as a Catholic he was "a good son of the Church" and a great friend of Cardinal Gibbons.a In one of his speeches Bonaparte said, "No American can be at once a good Catholic and a bad citizen," and on another occasion, "No one can be a good Catholic who is a bad Christian."5a
When he died, several pews in Baltimore's Catholic Cathedral were full of devoted negro servants who had been with the Bonapartes for many years. Servants and other employees always remained for many years with the Bonapartes, and were their friends as well. His stenographer for thirty years attended the Cathedral service and later wrote, "My lines have fallen in pleasant places . . . and I would wish for nothing better in the next world than to serve him again."5b Nephew Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte attended the last rites.
Baltimore itself was represented largely, for Bonaparte had been one of the city's sights, the "Bonaparte p65walk" and the Bonaparte family carriage always being pointed out to visitors. Bonaparte's gait was rather sidling and wholly distinctive. His coach must have harked back to Uncle Joseph's Adirondack equipage. As Judge John C. Rose has pointed out, his appearance was somewhat Italian, as also his manner and courtesy. Actually he was only "one‑quarter Corsican," the balance New Englander, Scotch, Irish, and Southerner. He was given to boasting that he did not have "a drop of French blood in his veins."6a
Mr. & Mrs. Bonaparte had been happy "stay-at‑homes." She waited for him when he went to town carrying his lunch, "two sandwiches in a silver box."6b His Presbyterian mother had taught him simplicity — good doctrine for any American, particularly when that American is born a Bonaparte.
Bonaparte owned in addition to Bella Vista an Anne Arundel County farm, and a third place, "Weston," in Prince George's County, but it is doubtful if he visited either place. When his city home was razed, over a decade ago, to make way for an insurance building, it is reported that a brass box •two feet square, containing jewels, necklaces and rings, was unearthed. If so, those perhaps were the long lost (to them) jewels sent to Charles J. Bonaparte's mother by Napoleon III, jewels which later had been worn by Charles J. Bonaparte's wife in the American capital city, and which long ago had belonged to Jerome. He really had intended them for his wife Elizabeth, but the first Napoleon p66may well have prevented their ever being received by her.
Bonaparte and Bonaparte's biographer — both are dead now. We cannot ask them questions we should like about the Bonapartes in America, about the Bonapartes in Europe, about Charles J. Bonaparte himself; only in the case of this one Bonaparte may we still inquire of living contemporaries just what they thought of a last great branch on the dying trunk of the Bonaparte family tree. What manner of man, of American statesman, was he? Those who knew the others are gone. Yet witnesses are not lacking in Baltimore and elsewhere in the nation to talk to us of the first, perhaps the last, and certainly the only Bonaparte of the past to amount to something big both for and in America exclusively. Yes, though democratic in the grand manner of his royal progenitor, the blood of Mme. Elizabeth told; he stuck to Baltimore and he stuck to his guns.
His homes are gone. Mrs. Bonaparte herself died in Washington, D. C., on June 23, 1924, the same month, almost the same day, as her beloved partner had passed on only three years before. His homes, his wife, and all his famous ancestry have vanished like the rest of the Bonapartes. They did not build for permanence, it seems, these Bonapartes; yet Charles J. Bonaparte did, in "things not made with hands." Let us ask only two neighbors and associates what they thought of the lawyer-statesman-farmer.
First to testify for Attorney Bonaparte is Paul M. Burnett, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Monumental Life Insurance Company, located at p67Baltimore. Mr. Burnett was Charles J. Bonaparte's law partner for thirty-five years, from 1885 to 1920. Perhaps he is a prejudiced witness, yet any one who knew him so long must have known him well, and only one who knew him well could write of Charles J. Bonaparte as he does here:
"Charles Joseph Bonaparte was a Catholic — a very liberal and sensible one. In politics he was a Republican, but often voted for Democratic candidates when he thought they were better than the candidates of his own party. He was a reformer, but not the objectionable species; he strove for honesty in Governmental affairs; he was opposed to 'bosses' in either party. He violently denounced dishonesty in politics and was a master of invective and sarcasm when making political speeches against a candidate he distrusted. He was one of the overseers of Harvard and voted against an honorary degree for McKinley because he did not believe the President was entitled to the honor. He despised pretense in any one and made all manner of fun of certain of his friends who pretended to be what he knew they were not. He was tolerant of the faults of those he liked and severe and uncompromising with those he distrusted. He enjoyed life — his home — his farm — his office — his profession; but as one of his friends remarked, 'Why shouldn't he?' He had social position, a wonderful mind, a fine education and a fortune. With it all he was modest and democratic, unostentatious, severely plain in his dress, and disliked show, and 'society' as we know it — that of pretense; he sought his friends and associates among men of education and refinement. p68Our offices were for a long time the headquarters for meetings of the National Civil Service Reform association, in the work of which he took much interest. I remember meetings attended by prominent men from all over the country and at which Theodore Roosevelt was invariably the dominating personality and always interesting. I recall on one occasion Mr. Bonaparte invited a gentleman attending one of the meetings to dinner at eight. The gentleman appeared in informal dress while his host greeted him in formal dress, to the chagrin of the guest. He appeared in all the glory of formal dress while Mr. Bonaparte, not wishing to embarrass him again, appeared in a plain business suit. An incident of this character was much enjoyed by Mr. Bonaparte and provided occasion for a hearty laugh whenever it was referred to.
"His memory was prodigious. Other lawyers would take hours, sometimes days to prepare cases for trial. Mr. Bonaparte seldom spent more than an hour just before trial. When he was asked about any question of law, no matter how intricate or complicated, he would rub his forehead in a characteristic manner with two fingers and say, 'Look at ––––– volume of ––––– reports, case of Smith vs. Brown about page ––––– and you will find what you want.' When conducting a trial and some new point was raised unexpectedly, all he would do was to ask the clerk to give him a designated volume of the Maryland Reports, and without referring to the index, p69would turn to the page and paragraph he needed to answer the argument.
"Mr. Bonaparte did not like the French and was not proud of his French ancestry. He never went abroad, in fact was never out of the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. At ever opportunity he asserted his pride in his American citizenship. Because of his name, stranded foreigners and French people particularly called to borrow, beg or sell something. When he was compelled to see any of these, he was patient and helpful. I saw him lose control of himself but twice in all the years of our association. One was an alteration with another attorney which ended almost as soon as it began, and the other was the reward of a Frenchman who persisted in pressing some proposition in French after Mr. Bonaparte had told him he was not interested. After exhausting every other means, he jumped from his seat, gave the top of the desk a bang, and uttered a few words in French at which the man withered completely and left his office. I have often wondered what he said.
"One of the brilliant young men I met just after being admitted to the Bar was William C. Smith, who later became States Attorney. During his term an Italian was arrested for attacking a girl, and his arrest caused quite a commotion in the Italian colony. Mr. Bonaparte had an honest conviction that it was his duty to take any case for a client who employed him and to use his ability and all proper measures to present his client in the most favourable light, yet he disliked criminal and divorce cases. One morning a delegation of Italians p70came to employ him to defend the accused. Mr. Bonaparte was reluctant to take the case and had me advise the delegation he could not represent the man unless he was prepared to pay a retainer of five hundred dollars, thinking this would discourage the delegation. The following morning the delegation reappeared with five hundred dollars in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. We had piles of small coins all over the office. Mr. Bonaparte took the case and put into the defense every bit of energy and ability he had. His masterful handling confused the States Attorney and secured an acquittal. Not one point of advantage was overlooked and after the first day the case drew a gallery. Mr. Smith told me later that Mr. Bonaparte's handling of the case was more of an education to him than all his years of study, and that it was the only time in his life he was completely in a hole and did not know how to get out!
"Mr. Bonaparte never rode in an automobile. When all horse vehicles had for years been withdrawn from use, his Brewster barouche with two spanking Arabian horses, coachman and footman, was a curiosity, winding its way through traffic to the amazement of the modern city dweller. He owned Chestnutwood, on Roland Avenue, a beautiful country home of •about thirty-five acres on which he conducted farming and stock raising on a limited scale. As time went on, the City extended and the Railway announced an extension of its lines past the farm. Trouble began at once, a suit ensued; but the Railway won. Immediately the farm was offered for sale and the first offer accepted. Then p71a hunt for a farm began. It must be out of reach of a street railway. It was found in Long Green Valley, 'Bella Vista,' where a beautiful house was built, fences repaired and the fields became alive with Jersey cattle and highly bred horses. He loved horses and refused to the day of his death to give them up.
"Mr. Bonaparte was hopeful of recovery to within a few days of his passing. Only one week before I had sat on the beautiful veranda, overlooking the valley for miles, and discussed our cases with him. He expressed his hope for a speedy recovery and asked me to prepare the cases for trial during the approaching term of Court.
"Mr. Bonaparte was a very interesting man, and although I was with him almost constantly for over forty years, he was just as interesting to me at the last as he was in the early days when he was a young lawyer."
Dr. Joseph Irwin France was not a lawyer like the distinguished commentator quoted. He was a physician, professor, former Presidential candidate, and one of the most brilliant and progressive leaders ever to sit in the Senate of the United States. Since he was not an attorney-at‑law, he brings us an analysis of different kind and approach, that of the doctor, of the student of men and affairs:
"Charles Joseph Bonaparte was a man of extraordinary physical vitality, of intellectual and moral power. In Maryland he became our first citizen through faithful and able services rendered the cause of good government. He rose to eminence in national affairs, when called by Theodore Roosevelt.
p72 "If a man becomes eminent in history, it must be because of his own greatness and his stars; by the combination of events. Large issues often summon a single supreme leader, one having the vision to see the way, and power to make the voice of reason audible above the din and confusion of the world, and hence mediocrity achieves notoriety. Charles J. Bonaparte lived in relatively quiet and peaceful times. There was no clash, in war, of material, imperial ambitions. His clear intellect, his moral cleanliness and fortitude, his indomitable physical courage were never summoned to conspicuous service in spectacular events. If it had been otherwise, in spite of his modesty, his seeming diffidence, his apparent self-depreciation, he would have responded with as great and forceful a leadership as that displayed by any man of history. He was a most remarkable man. He could blush with the diffidence of a debutante. But he was bolder than a lion. He was the most intrepid of leaders. So, in his time and generation, great events not calling, he was faithful 'in that which is least' and hence 'faithful also in much.' But who can estimate what shall be least and greatest in the judgment of time and the Infinite?
"Mr. Bonaparte accepted literally the faith of the founders of the Republic, that 'All men are created equal.' He believed in the true American system, and he had a deep knowledge of our Constitution. He believed the American philosophy to be that which ultimately must bring justice in the world. So he was ultra conscientious, a most meticulous guardian, lest some p73profane hand should touch the Ark of the American Covenant. Although, by heredity and his own nature, he was a devout Roman Catholic, there was not in his soul a taint of religious prejudice or intolerance. Jews, negroes, the descendants of all foreign born were, to him, American equals.
"The things he loathed with all the intensity of his nature were intolerance, injustice and, above all, political corruption. This last he believed should be fought as being a menace to the purity and integrity of our Republic. He believed the abuse of the power of patronage tended toward political immorality and it was for this reason that he became our most conspicuous national leader for Civil Service Reform. Bonaparte was never a partisan but always a patriot.
"For several decades after the Civil War, the Democratic party was in supreme control in Maryland. It had rendered invaluable services and had given notable men as leaders of State and Nation. But this party came under the control of men unworthy of its fine tradition and a tidal wave of protest and reform swept the state. High-minded Democrats and Republicans alike united to destroy the dominant machine. It was a fierce battle between corruption and reform. As a result, a Republican Governor and Legislature were elected and two Republicans were sent to the United States Senate. One of the leaders in this fight was the valiant young Charles J. Bonaparte. In order to guard against another invasion of our government by corrupt influences, the Baltimore Reform League was established and, for years, Mr. Bonaparte was the leader and p74moving power of this League, which was always on guard. In which a rock of virtue amidst the shifting sands of sordid and sometimes corrupt Maryland politics. Taking a longer view, Maryland, at times the worst governed of the States, is now one of the best governed, and no man contributed as much toward this evolution as Mr. Bonaparte. For a time the Reform League scrutinized carefully the record of every man who became a candidate for public office, published the records, and pointed the way. This of course involved much painstaking research and careful judgment.
"By 1905, when I first entered politics as a candidate for the State Senate, there had occurred a grave recession in the political morality of Maryland, and I went to the State Capital to fight for political decency. It was as a result that I received a letter from Mr. Bonaparte asking me if, at my convenience, I would call upon him. I had not, prior to this, seen Mr. Bonaparte, although of course his distinguished ancestry and his outstanding services to the State were well known to me, and I deeply appreciated the opportunity of meeting him. Shortly after the close of the session of the Senate, I called upon him at his office, which was on the ground floor of a building on Park Avenue. Later he removed his offices to his residence, on the corner of Park Avenue and Center Street, a short distance from the home I later occupied, so that subsequently I saw him frequently, often driving in his barouche, the old‑fashioned carriage, with his wife. With his name and fortune he had married a distinguished woman to whom, always faithful, he was devoted although she was an invalid and p75they were childless. It has seemed to me a tragedy that such a man did not leave a son to the country he so loved.
"It was an afternoon in the spring of 1908. Mr. Bonaparte's private office was at the front, on the street, and there was no anteroom. His desk was at the left of the door before the window which looked upon the street, while the desk of Cleveland P. Manning, Mr. Bonaparte's assistant, was almost in front of the door. The office was rather small so that there was little space between the two desks. Mr. Bonaparte rose as I entered and greeted me cordially, but with that somewhat awkward and diffident manner so characteristic of him. He was tall, with broad shoulders, of rather heavy frame. He wore the conventional black frock coat. The collar of his shirt was of the old fashioned turndown style and he wore a black cravat which had its ends beneath the collar, a neck dress once an indication of modesty and conservatism. His complexion was clear, with the glow and flush of health, and when meeting strangers his color often suddenly heightened. As he took his seat, his head was turned to one side and downward and, as if embarrassed, he fingered the ruler and articles upon the desk.
"But his outstanding feature was his wide, massive head, and the high forehead, noble, imperial, that denoted extraordinary intellectual power. His whole demeanor indicated that extreme modesty which is quite compatible with a majesty of mind. I knew, as I looked at Mr. Bonaparte, that I was in the presence of an extraordinary man. Whether or not it was the power of suggestion, he impressed me as being a larger, p76more massive, more noble replica of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. As a physician, a student of the human body and of the fathomless capacities of the mind, I had read of Napoleon, studied his portraits and once most carefully examined his death mask, seeking an understanding of this mysterious and monstrous man.
"Charles J. Bonaparte's hair, like Napoleon's, was sparse. His head was much larger than Napoleon's. His brow was more imperial. No student of the brain could see that brow, and doubt that within ruled a mind of vigor, far vision and vast power. But that which his collateral ancestor had possessed, superlative arrogance and self-assertiveness, were not to be observed in this man.
"When he began to speak one realized the force of his personality and his huge reserves of energy, of mind and will. His voice was high, vibrant, at times strident. He spoke slowly. His articulation was deliberate and perfect, each word falling like a hard coin, 'fresh minted.' Except Theodore Roosevelt, I have never heard another speak, in private conversation, with such perfectly controlled energy and stress. As Roosevelt's speech revealed a restrained physical and emotional temperament, that of Bonaparte suggested high intellectual and moral tension. Both of these men were highly dynamic, carrying a heavy voltage. Bonaparte was serious, intense, but he was no solemn fellow. His sense of humor was spontaneous and delicious. Sometimes his laughter was explosive but more often it was a chuckle suppressed, even sardonic, and on occasions he would confound his opponents with a terrific sarcasm p77and irony. I attended at least one great banquet at which he was toastmaster. His wit was brilliant and inexhaustible; his humor sharp and pointed as a flashing rapier. When Mr. Bonaparte was ready to castigate those who deserved it, he could do it with cruel weapons of pen and speech, mercilessly, and with destructive power. Woe to the man who aroused that righteous wrath!
"For some time I was associated with Mr. Bonaparte in the Baltimore Reform League and frequently we met with a small Board, Mr. Bonaparte, Charles Morris Howard, Cleveland P. Manning and I. Much later, when I became candidate for the United States Senate, I was gratified and proud to receive Mr. Bonaparte's endorsement and support.
"Comparing Mr. Bonaparte, intellectually and morally, with other notable men with whom I have been associated in various fields of endeavor, I can say that Mr. Bonaparte nationally was without a superior and had but few peers. Not only was a great Marylander, but a superbly pure and patriotic American, and undoubtedly one of the greatest minds and most extraordinary personalities of his time. Had Theodore Roosevelt been called upon to appoint a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and had he chosen Bonaparte, our own generation would have had another John Marshall.
"When an accurate political history of Maryland shall be written, no name will shine with greater lustre than that of Charles J. Bonaparte, persistent, fearless and powerful champion of political decency. Yet, p78again, if a man is to be pre‑eminent in national or international events, his genius must be joined by opportunity. In a sense, Mr. Bonaparte never met opportunity. He was faithful and diligent in dealing with the issues that presented. I have known the famous and the infamous of those whose names stand out in our contemporary political history. Some of these rose, with a residue of ideals at the bottom of the beaker, by political opportunism. Some, by very lightness of weight, came up into the foam of temporary fame. Having observed the gymnastics of our political mountebanks, and having known Bonaparte, I question whether our country has ever had a more virtuous and virile patriot. If America, in his time, had experienced a revolution like that of France in the days of Napoleon, this Bonaparte, with his great powers, summoned by a crisis, would have come forward, not a Bonaparte of ambition, blood and destruction, but one of benevolence, construction and progress under the best American ideals. A great crisis would have elected all his powers and his name would have become immortal."
With which our case for the Patterson-Bonapartes rests, rests with Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who if he were not the most Bonaparte of all the Bonapartes, certainly was the most American.
1 Bishop, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, His Life and Public Services. Scribner's Sons, N. Y. 1922.
2 Bishop, Charles Joseph Bonaparte. Scribner's.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 26 Feb 13