In 1805, the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV of Naples signed a treaty of neutrality with Napoleon, only to renege a few days later and openly side with Austria and Russia when they declared war against France. Unfortunately for king Ferdinand, Napoleon crushed the Austro-Russian armies, then turned his wrath on the Neapolitan king. He declared that Ferdinand had forfeited his throne, and sent Joseph, in nominal command of a French army that was actually commanded by Marshall Massena, to conquer Naples. Ferdinand was forced to flee his kingdom, and on March 30th, 1806, Napoleon issued a decree installing Joseph as King of Naples and Sicily.
It was a backwards realm that had suffered greatly from generations of misgovernment by corrupt and incompetent Bourbons. Joseph commenced an ambitious program of reform, seeking to raise Naples to the level of a modern and well administered state, along the lines of Napoleonic France. Feudal privileges and taxes were abolished; military tribunals were established to suppress rampant banditry; monastic orders were suppressed and their properties nationalized; public works programs were instituted to employ the poor and improve the kingdom; and public schools to educate young girls, and a college to educate young women, were established. The new king’s government was seen by most subjects as a vast improvement over the previous Bourbon regime, and Joseph settled down to reign as a popular and well liked monarch. He was thus not too thrilled when Napoleon made him switch crowns in 1808, giving up the Neapolitan throne in order to get crowned as king of Spain, instead.
As things turned out, Joseph had cause for unhappiness: he ended up leaving a kingdom where he had been extremely popular, for a kingdom where he was widely loathed. Napoleon had invaded Spain and dethroned its ruling Bourbons, replacing them with Joseph. The new king tried his best to win over the Spanish people, learning their language, disciplining French troops when necessary, attending bullfights, and expressing devotion to the Catholic Church. The Spanish were adamant in refusing to put up with him or the French, and rose in a massive revolt that drove Joseph out of Madrid within three months of his arrival.
Joseph begged Napoleon to let him return to Naples, where he could be more effective, but the Emperor ignored him, and sent a massive French army to restore him to power. The result was a bitter and brutal guerrilla war that swept the country, and eventually – with the support of a British army under Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington – ended up expelling Joseph and the French from Spain. In the meantime, Napoleon’s empire started crumbling after his invasion of Russia ended in disaster, and allied armies steadily pushed the French back into Metropolitan France.
When allied troops entered Paris in 1814 and Napoleon was forced to abdicate, Joseph Bonaparte and his family fled to Switzerland. A year later, when Napoleon escaped from Elba and regained power, Joseph joined his younger brother in Paris. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and second abdication, Joseph, who had chartered an American ship, the Commerce, for an escape to America, came up with a harebrained scheme to spirit his brother to freedom. He proposed to switch places with the former Emperor, impersonating Napoleon while the latter sailed in his place to the United States.