The Last Bonaparte

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Roosevelt made him Secretary of the Navy, in which capacity he proposed destroying the frigate Constitution , “Old Ironsides.”

To understand him, his friends said, possession of a sense of humor was indispensable. Once, at a National Civil Service Reform League meeting, Roosevelt spoke of how he had conducted a shooting competition for applicants wishing to be lawmen. “Mr. Roosevelt has been very remiss,” Bonaparte then told the assemblage. “He should have had the men shoot at each other, and given the job to the survivors.” (The creation of laughter was apparently his main object in public life, noted the Baltimore Sun. ) As President, Roosevelt appointed him a special counsel to prosecute cases of fraud and bribery in federal departments; he did it with such skill that he was nicknamed Charlie the Crook-Chaser. Roosevelt also made him Secretary of the Navy, in which capacity he proposed the destruction of the derelict USS Constitution , “Old Ironsides.” Mass meetings and schoolchildren protested—"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down.” Secretary Bonaparte then suggested that she be towed out to sea and used for battleship target practice and so die a warrior’s death. That only made things worse. Next, he became Roosevelt’s Attorney General, a successful trustbuster who said he wished to keep the great hogs away from the trough, so the little ones could get some feed.

He purchased no relics of his family, disliked being told that he physically resembled the Little Corporal, and was so thorough a patriot that he never went to France or even Europe; he preferred his own country, he said. (His grandmother Betsy, who lived to be ninety-four, never gave up her dream that he or his officer brother would yet be crowned in Paris.) With Roosevelt’s departure from the White House, Bonaparte returned to private life, traveling to his office in Baltimore from his outlying estate in a carriage drawn by blooded horses weaving their way among the automobiles. His coachman and footman wore modified Bonapartist liveries of black piped in red and high silk hats with gold bands. He took his lunch in a silver box, two sandwiches.

Bonaparte was much in demand as a speaker on public events, “making talkee-talkee,” he termed it. His general theme was the danger of sentimentalist views. He and his childless wife were often seen holding hands, he with his eternal smile. He died in 1921, and most of his fortune went to Catholic charities. Bonapartes are almost extinct in the male line, so it is likely that he was the last of the family to play any part in public affairs anywhere.