May 2013 | Nate Pedersen

Northwestern Returns Bonaparte Letter to France

Today, Northwestern University will be repatriating about 250 documents to France including a letter written by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Joseph about the future Emperor's patriotism during the French Revolution.

How the documents ended up at Northwestern is an interesting story in itself: Jack McBride, an entertainer in a USO troupe was stationed in Corsica during WWII.  According to family tradition, McBride stumbled across a group of soldiers burning documents while he was wandering around the island.  McBride saved what he could, a parcel of about 250 documents, including the Bonaparte letter.  McBride shipped them home to his family, thinking they might prove to be valuable.  In the 1980s, McBride's descendants deposited the documents at Northwestern for further study.

Some twenty years later, in 2009, Northwestern finally got around to processing the documents. (Like many archival institutions, Northwestern has an extensive backlog of unprocessed documents).  They discovered the Bonaparte letter, which was written in 1792 to an unidentified colonel during the height of the French Revolution.  In the letter, Napoleon's brother, Joseph, insists that Napoleon is a patriot to the revolutionary cause.  The bundle of McBride papers included a variety of other documents over a 450 year time frame.

Northwestern consulted the French government about their find, who were interested in receiving the documents back.  Today, Northwestern will present the bundle to the French consulate in Chicago in a special ceremony at the University.

Northwestern's move raises again the question of repatriation of historical documents. Many special collections libraries (and private libraries) own documents that could arguably be repatriated to their country of origin. Whether they should or not remains a question of much debate.

[Image of Joseph Bonaparte from Wikipedia]