“She Is a Most Extraordinary Girl”
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s story began, as so many American stories still do, with an immigrant’s arrival. The man who would become Elizabeth’s father, William Patterson, was a perfect example of the economic opportunities the new republic promised and sometimes delivered. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1766, a penniless fourteen-year-old, a Scots-Irish castaway from that poorest of British possessions, Ireland. But what he lacked in education or family wealth, he made up for in raw ambition and keen business sense. As an apprentice in a countinghouse, he did not waste time, as many of his peers did, drinking or playing cards after hours; instead, he sought the company of older men, established merchants who could add to his knowledge of the buying, shipping, and selling of goods. He kept a keen eye out for the main chance, scrimping and saving while he waited for fortune to smile on him. His first good luck came in the form of the American Revolution.
William had no interest in enlisting in the army as many young men would soon do. Indeed, throughout his life he boasted that he had none of the civic pride that drove poor men to military service or rich men to philanthropy. As war approached, he wanted neither glory nor adventure. He wanted wealth and respectability. And he reckoned that a man who invested his money in the purchase and sale of European arms and ammunition could acquire both. At twenty-two, William Patterson risked his entire savings on shares in two vessels headed to France to purchase the weapons that the American army so desperately needed. Where his money went, William was determined to go as well, and thus the budding entrepreneur took passage in one of the ships.
On the return voyage, which carried the ships first to the West Indies, fortune smiled on William once again. Here, on foreign-owned islands like the Dutch St. Eustatius, military supplies could be warehoused before final sale and shipment to the American forces. A fine profit could be made for the middlemen in this process, and William meant to make it. His two ships sailed home, but Patterson remained in the Caribbean for eighteen months. With remarkable speed, his fortune grew, and so did his rejection of the risk-taking attitude that had begun his climb up the economic ladder.
In truth, by the age of twenty-five, Patterson had become that oxymoron, a cautious entrepreneur. He had worked hard to acquire his fortune, and he intended to keep it all. A strong fatalist streak ran through his philosophy: men could fall as quickly as they could rise, and the man who owned a mansion was only one foolish or impetuous step away from the beggar outside its doors. He did not plan to wind up on the outside looking in ever again.
By July 1778, William was ready to go home. But he did not head for Philadelphia; instead he made his way to the growing city of Baltimore, Maryland. Here, where he would live for the rest of his life, William began a pursuit of respectability and social status with the same steely ambition that had formerly marked his pursuit of wealth. Although his own parents had been Church of England, he joined the local Presbyterian church, for its pews were filled with the merchant elite of Baltimore. He built a fine brick home, and beside it he constructed his countinghouse. He took a final step to the gentility he craved—and believed he had earned—by marrying Dorcas Spear, a beautiful young woman with impeccable family credentials.
In choosing Dorcas as his wife, William had not allowed sentiment or affection to cloud his judgment. Despite the romantic revolution swirling around him that led genteel young men and women to seek a marriage built on affection and companionship, he saw wedlock as a simple matter of enhancing or consolidating economic or social advantage. What Dorcas thought of her new husband is unknown, for she left no record of her courtship or of her own motives for the marriage. But it is clear that she was many things William was not: cultured, well educated, socially secure. Through blood and marriage, she was related to elite families in Virginia and Maryland, to revolutionary war officers and capital city political figures. And in temperament, she must surely have been patient and forgiving, for William proved a difficult man to live with and a faithless one at that.
By the time William and Dorcas said their vows, the bridegroom was numbered among the leading merchants and shippers not simply of Baltimore but of the new nation. He was intensely proud of his success, and it was a badge of honor that he was a self-made man. “What I possess,” he declared, “is solely the product of my own labor. I inherited nothing of my forefathers, nor have I benefitted anything from public favors or appointments.” His journey from rags to riches had come with a price, however. William’s ambition, perseverance, and capacity for delayed gratification in everything but sexuality had calcified into a near obsession with security, a rigidity of thought, and a brittle sense of moral superiority. He valued practicality above sentimentality and found it easier to express disapproval than affection.
As a husband and a parent, William Patterson settled firmly into the role of patriarch. He expected not only obedience from all members of his family but also their confirmation of his wisdom in any situation. He was, in his own way, devoted to that family, but he could comprehend no other way to demonstrate his love than to control the lives of all who bore his name. He ruled his household with an iron fist that he believed to be a velvet glove.
William had strong, and unshakable, convictions about appropriate male and female roles in his family and in the larger society. For him, these roles were fixed and immutable. Men belonged in the broader public world of business and politics; women belonged in the home, where their lives were to revolve around the wishes and needs of husband or father. Other men might accept some latitude in the actual day-to-day compliance by their wives and daughters. Some might even delight in spirited or competent daughters as well as sons. But William was an absolutist. In this respect, he bore more resemblance to a fellow self-made man, a Frenchman named Napoleon, than to his American peers. “We treat women too well,” the Corsican soldier would observe when he became emperor, “and in this way we have spoiled everything. We have done wrong in raising them to our level. Truly the Oriental nations have more mind and sense than we in declaring the wife to be the actual property of the husband.”
Dorcas Spear Patterson would surely have disagreed with Napoleon that women were treated too well. Hers could not have been a happy life, for of her thirteen children, several died in childhood. And despite her submission to a domineering husband, she did not have the satisfaction of knowing that he honored his marriage vows. A string of mistresses, often drawn from the housekeeping staff, reflected his cavalier attitude toward marital fidelity; in 1814, as Dorcas lay dying, William would bring his current mistress into the household, no doubt to console him for the loss of a dutiful wife.
Dorcas’s first daughter, Elizabeth Spear Patterson, was born on February 6, 1785. Elizabeth, or Betsy, and her country would grow up together, but from her earliest years, this child of the young republic would steadfastly refuse to embrace America’s cultural and social trajectory. In part, this was the legacy of her mother’s marital experience. The unhappiness that Betsy saw in the Patterson home seared into her consciousness the high cost of the social assumption that, in a proper household, a wife’s duty was to please her husband and to spend a life confined to the parlor and the nursery. Betsy’s devotion to her mother did not blind her to Dorcas’s passive acceptance of her fate. She would carry a lock of Dorcas’s hair with her all her life, but she would also carry her childhood memory of a woman bullied and scorned by her husband.
Dorcas had, however, played a second, more positive role in forging Betsy’s rejection of American culture. For in her one rebellion against William Patterson, Dorcas Spear Patterson imparted to her daughter a deep appreciation of the arts, literature, and social refinement—an appreciation entirely foreign to her husband. Thus while others might find the vitality and expansiveness of the young republic exciting or satisfying, while they might praise the energy of its moneymaking or the fecundity of its women, Betsy came to see only a country that was raw and crass, devoid of any appreciation of high culture, its leading lights as dull-witted as its dock workers.
Betsy dreamed of an alternative, an escape from the culture into which she had been born. She found it, at least in her young imagination, across the ocean in the aristocratic world of Europe. Friends and neighbors, politicians and public opinion makers might condemn the Old World as stagnant and decadent, but in Betsy’s vision, it was sophisticated and glamorous. Her romantic notions of the charms of Europe may have been fostered by the presence in Baltimore of a number of French émigrés and refugees, for the city’s Catholic tradition acted as a magnet to Royalists fleeing the Terror, to displaced Acadians, and to the many white families uprooted by St. Dominique’s slave revolts in the 1790s. The arrival of these French immigrants swelled the population of this Maryland port city and increased its prosperity. It also gave Betsy a glimpse of a culture very different from her own.
When she was ten, Betsy became far more familiar with the local French culture. That year her mother enrolled her at Madame Lacomb’s school, where she mastered the French language. This fluency gave her entrée into the city’s immigrant community. She formed a close relationship with Henrietta Pascault, daughter of one of Baltimore’s most cultured refugees, the Marquis de Poleon. For Betsy, the refined manners and sparkling sociability she witnessed in Madame’s presence and in the Pascault household stood in sharp contrast to the somber atmosphere she found at home.
Indeed, for Betsy, the Patterson home was more prison than refuge. Her father watched over his children’s lives with hawklike concentration. He was unapologetic about his close supervision of everyone under his roof, including his adult unmarried sons. “I always considered it a duty to my family to keep them as much as possible under my own eye,” he declared, “so that I have seldom in my life left home whether on business or pleasure.” His rule, he added, was to “be the last up at night, and to see that the fires and lights were secured before I retired myself; from which I found two advantages: one was that there was little or no risk of fire under my own roof, and the other that it induced my family to keep regular hours.” For William Patterson, sons and daughters, like lamps and fireplaces, were property under his care and supervision.
But of all his children, William believed Betsy was most in need of his watchful eye. Her yearning for an alternative to American society was only one of the traits that disturbed him. The truth was that this daughter was both a source of displeasure and an absolute mystery to William Patterson. He could not, and would never, see how similar in temperament and personality he and Betsy were; indeed, she shared with him a fierce ambition, a stubborn desire to have her own way, and in her teenage years, an impetuosity and risk-taking that reflected his own character at that same age. Father and daughter, so much alike, would spend their lives locked in a battle of wills that neither could hope to win.
Betsy found an escape from the pall cast by her father in books. She developed a habit of writing commentary in the margins as she read, and she would continue this in later years as she annotated the letters she read and saved. She was clearly precocious, memorizing French texts like La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and poring over a book by the French intellectual Madame de Staël. Her intelligence and intellectual bent did not escape the notice of more conventional friends and relatives. “She is a most extraordinary girl,” observed another young Maryland woman, Rosalie Stier Calvert, labeling Betsy “in short, a modern philosophe.”
Whatever the sources of her attachment to European culture—the French presence in Baltimore, the romantic poems and Enlightenment manifestos she read, her father’s strict supervision, or her deep desire to escape her mother’s fate—by the time she was seventeen, Betsy Patterson would have agreed with a later critic of American culture, Henry James, who would give voice to her discontent in succinct fashion: America lacked all that was desirable, “No sovereign, no court . . . no museums, no pictures.” At seventeen, Betsy was convinced she had been born on the wrong side of the Atlantic. The problem was how to get to the other side.
Betsy’s criticism of American culture and her attachment to Europe’s aristocratic society made her unusual in Baltimore’s elite circles. Her beauty made her exceptional. At seventeen, she was petite but perfectly proportioned; her hair was thick and chestnut brown; her eyes, which some described as hazel and others as blue, were large and bright. She was slender, with the softly rounded shoulders that men of her day admired, and her clear complexion was the envy of her female peers. Men were quick to take note of her extraordinary looks, and long into middle and even old age, she was showered with flowery compliments and ardent poetry from admirers. A young cousin declared in 1802 that even when she was absent, her beauty outshone that of other young women: “I most solemnly declare that all . . . were incapable of arresting my attention away for a moment—no madam each thought, each idea, were immoveably [sic] fixed upon the pleasing tho’ dangerous, perhaps delusive contemplation of an absent object . . . at the bare recital of that name ten thousand inexpressible sensations crowd impetuously upon me.”
Betsy was flattered but apparently unmoved by the admiration of local suitors. If she assumed, as surely all girls of her class and era did, that marriage and motherhood were an inevitable part of female life, she nevertheless nurtured a hope that someone would rescue her from the dull and constricting married life that lay ahead. And in 1803 that hope seemed to become a reality when a handsome stranger appeared in staid Baltimore City. His name was Jérôme Bonaparte, and he was the youngest brother of the first consul of France, Napoleon.
Jérôme was handsome, charming—and terminally spoiled. He was the youngest son of Letizia Ramolino and Carlo Buonaparte, who, like Dorcas and William Patterson, had thirteen children, although only eight survived. The family’s rise was already legendary in 1803—from the isolation and unrest of Ajaccio, Corsica, to the slums of Marseilles and on to the palaces of France, where Napoleon now directed that country’s political and military future.
Excerpted from Wondrous Beauty by Carol Berkin. Copyright © 2014 by Carol Berkin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.