Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic
Charlene M. Boyer Lewis
"In this expertly researched and carefully documented biography, Lewis tells the personal saga of a woman scorned, in the process revealing much about this country's debates over the creation of a national culture and the role of women within it. . . . Besides telling a good story, [Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte] enriches our understanding of the formative first decades of the 19th century. As Boyer shows, 'republican motherhood' was not the sole form of expression for politically active and engaged women of this period. This fascinating, highly readable book should interest scholars and general readers alike."—Library Journal
"Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's rebellious flouting of contemporary social and gender norms made her famous—and infamous—throughout the western world. Yet in the hands of Charlene Boyer Lewis, this is not just the story of a woman seeking fame. Rather, Boyer Lewis portrays Bonaparte as a significant figure whose unusual life offers the opportunity to explore a much larger set of ideas, trends, and patterns circulating between Europe and America in the early nineteenth century."—Rosemarie Zagarri, author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic
Two centuries ago, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was one of the most famous women in America. Beautiful, scandalous, and outspoken, she had wed Napoleon's brother Jerome, borne his child, and seen the marriage annulled by the emperor himself. With her notorious behavior, dashing husband, and associations with European royalty, Elizabeth became one of America's first celebrities during a crucial moment in the nation's history. At the time of Elizabeth's fame, the United States had only recently gained its independence, and the character of American society and politics was not yet fully formed. Still concerned that their republican experiment might fail and that their society might become too much like that of monarchical Europe, many Americans feared the corrupting influence of European manners and ideas. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's imperial connections and aristocratic aspirations made her a central figure in these debates, with many, including members of Congress and the social elites of the day, regarding her as a threat.
Appraising Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's many identities—celebrity, aristocrat, independent woman, mother—Charlene M. Boyer Lewis shows how Madame Bonaparte, as she was known, exercised extraordinary social power at the center of the changing transatlantic world. In spite of the assumed threat that she posed to the new social and political order, Americans could not help being captivated by Elizabeth's style, beauty, and wit. She offered an alternative to the republican wife by pursuing a life of aristocratic dreams in the United States and Europe. Her story reminds us of the fragility of the American experiment in its infancy and, equally important, of the active role of women in the debates over society and culture in the early republic.
Charlene M. Boyer Lewis is Associate Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Kalamazoo College.