A Mother’s Love

Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte (Bo) by Anna Pecchioli
Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.62

By Heather Haggstrom, Exhibitions Manager

Despite the heartbreak over the end of her marriage, Elizabeth was determined not to let the situation get the best of her and she certainly would not let it affect her son. Now that her chance of becoming European royalty had gone awry, she set her sights on paving the way for her son, Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte (Bo). Elizabeth began by having him baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, the religion of the Bonapartes, in the hopes that they may one day acknowledge him as an heir to the throne. Even Bishop John Carroll referred to him as “the perhaps future prince.” Elizabeth took to reading and writing in French as often as possible to be prepared for this possibility.

Back in Baltimore, Elizabeth’s living situation at her father’s South Street house had become untenable. With no word or money from Jérôme, she began the process of trying to obtain the pension Napoléon had promised her. In July of 1808, Elizabeth pleadingly wrote to General Louis-Marie Turreau de Garabouville, one of the ambassadors of France to the United States,  “Would that you, mon General, expose to His Majesty the situation of a child so worthy of interest, and that of a mother, who by true and affectionate sentiments, merits all the evidence of esteem and attachment of which a woman may be honored and who owes her misfortunes only to circumstances she cannot master.”

In a meeting with the General, Elizabeth told him that Bo needed a proper European education to prepare him for whatever the future may hold. He was, after all, Napoleon’s nephew. Elizabeth also asked for a title because she was not allowed to use the Bonaparte name. The General responded with the following list of terms: she was never to marry without the consent of the French government, she was never to return to England, she must renounce the United States and make Europe her home, she was not to leave her town of residence without informing the local authorities and lastly, that she would care for her son until the age of seven and then he would be raised by his father.

This last condition was one to which she could not agree. The thought of being separated from her son was unbearable. To make matters worse, a letter from Jérôme finally arrived wherein Jérôme told Elizabeth that he had sent M. Le Camus to bring his son to him so that Bo could “enjoy all the advantages which his birth and his name give him the right to claim.” It went on to say that if she denied him these things she would have ceased to love her son and would be responsible for his fate. Jérôme also wrote the same letter to her father but added that the Emperor Napoléon had authorized for Bo to come live with him. Elizabeth was acutely distressed at the thought of losing her son and told Jérôme that Bo was the only happiness in her life. Elizabeth did want the best for him, but was at a loss as to what to do. Looking for advice she wrote to her friend James Monroe: “My maternal duties certainly prescribe a total dereliction of all self-interest motives and I possess sufficient energy to submit to any privation however painful, which the interest of my son dictates.”

Though Elizabeth was strong, was she really strong enough to push away her maternal instincts in order to give her son the glory she thought he deserved?

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