The Godfather of Radical Chic
Philip Duke of Orleans a.k.a. Philip Equality



 The French Revolution, begun in patriotic euphoria only a year before, was starting to turn sour. There was a smell of blood in the air, and prudent aristocrats were beginning to slip out of the country. The young Marquise de Gontaut was thinking of joining them. But for the moment it seemed safe enough to go out for an evening at the home of an old family friend, Philippe the Duke of Orleans. Everything could be counted on to be still comfortably traditional and orderly there, the old-fashioned courtesy, the flunkies in livery, the candles, the violins, the silken gowns and knee breeches.

 But this time some unpleasantly discordant notes were struck. The Comtesse de Genlis was there, once the duke’s mistress and now governess to his children, and she was shamelessly wearing a dress done in blue, white and read, the colors of the Revolution, a deliberate affront to anyone loyal to the white flag of the monarchy. Worse was to come. The young visitor was asked by the oldest of the Orléans boys the Duc de Chartres, to join him in a quadrille. The orchestra struck up the tune of “Ça ira,” the bloodthirsty air that the mobs were chanting in the streets of Paris. The Marquise politely backed out and fled as fast as she decently could from what she had now recognized as an abode of evil, an 18th-century temple of what the 20th-century journalist Tom Wolfe would label “radical chic.”

 In the 1950's the poet-historian Peter Viereck had noted this phenomenon – the tendency of some stylish members of the privileged classes to espouse ideas and subsidize causes aimed at taking the privileges away – and traced what he called “ritualized chic” as far back as Alcibiades in the Athens of the 5th century B.C.

 In the late 18th century AD, such fashionable radicalism was all the rage in Paris and Versailles, and appeared nowhere more flamboyantly than in the behavior and person of Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc d’Orléans.

 Born in 1747 he was the first prince of the blood, closest living cousin to the king and one of the richest men in France. At the death of his father, Louis-Philippe “the Fat,” (his best-known exploit in life had been to eat 27 partridges at a sitting), he had come into an enormous fortune , including enormous tracts of land and enough cash to instantly pay off the 24 million livres of debt he had run up in his hot-blooded youth.

 He soon became known as a reckless spender, a more than reckless rider (woe to the pedestrians of Paris when he was on horseback or in his coach headed for a rendezvous), a hard-drinking, roistering, lascivious young man. The police officer whose job it was to spy on his private life reported that he showered his lady friends with money but that he was quite rough with them, lacking completely in délicatesse. He was very conscious of his rights as the ranking nobleman of the kingdom, and he lost no opportunity to insist on them. At his wedding to the super-heiress Marie-Adelaide de Bourbon-Penthièvre, one week before his 22d birthday, he took a flying leap over the train of her gown when he noticed that he had been placed on the left, the wrong (i.e., lower-ranking) side of the altar. He demanded that his cousin the king appoint him Grand Admiral of France, and when he was refused he took it very hard. He consented nevertheless to participate in one sea battle, off Ouessant in Brittany in 1778, and acquitted himself rather well in what turned out to ben an indecisive battle But this did not keep his enemies, led by Queen Marie Antoinette, from spreading the story that he hid in the hold all the way through the fighting.

 The next year, Marie-Antoinette succeeded, at least for a while, in having him barred from the armed forces altogether.

 King Louis XVI appears to have no great opinion ion of his merits either. Once, when Philippe was banished to England for overindulgence in loose subversive talk, and he took it like a true philosopher, saying said “I will learn how to think {penser] there,” the king, not generally noted for his skill at repartee, said, “Ah, you intend to panser [curry] the fine English steeds, an excellent occupation for you.”

 Whether Philippe ever learned to think is a matter of debate among historians. He certainly voiced many opinions. They were the fashionable opinions of the enlightened intellectuals of the time: against the church, against the monarchy and the divine right of kings, against the hoary old mediaeval cobwebs that still clogged 18th century brains -- in short, liberal, democratic, egalitarian opinions.

 As a nobleman espousing such radical ideas, Philippe was of course not an isolated oddity. Many of his aristocratic friends yearned to create a new order for France, even if it meant abolishing their own centuries-old privileges. What they did not count on was paying for that aspiration with their fortunes and their lives.

 Philippe, in any case, was not the kind of man who let his ideas get in the way of private personal pleasures. He went on living recklessly, as a nobleman should, and he gave up none of the privileges he was born with. His cousin the king might take timid steps toward a more rational order by, for example, abolishing on the royal estates the vexatious medieval institution of mainmorte, which provided that if a peasant on one of those estates died childless, he could not leave his property to anyone else, it reverted to his seigneur, his feudal lord, the king. Philippe never got around to abolishing mainmorte on his own estates.

 Naturally, his own immense holdings took a large staff to administer. The duke’s payroll was necessarily enormous, and included some men who would become famous as writers or revolutionaries or both. Although they were

 presumably working primarily to line their own pockets, these people also acted as the duke’s press agents and one of their duties was to spread the word that Philippe d’Orléans was the people’s friend, a true radical, a herald of a future day of freedom, far different from his stick-in-th-mud cousin the king. It all entered into the ferment of ideas – including those brought back from revolutionary America by the Marquis de Lafayette and other idealistic young French aristocrats who had fought there - that was sapping the foundations of the French monarchy.

 Paying for all those agents, as well as maintaining the lifestyle of a prince of the blood, eventually called for so much money that even Philippe had to look for way to increase his income. He had inherited the huge Palais-Royal – 0riginally the Palais-Cardinal built by the man who ran France during them reign of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, which still stands with its harmonious arcades surrounding spacious gardens, just across the street from the king’s palace of the Louvre. He decided to let out the grand floor to be turned into shops and cafés.

 The arcades of the Palais-Royal soon became the center of the fashionable upper-level social and intellectual life of Paris. Here is where you came to buy fine art or to meet young ladies of uncertain morals. Since the police had no right to penetrate the private property of a great nobleman, the domain of the Duc d’Orlêans was also a place where shady deals could be negotiated, stolen goods liquidated, and subversive ideas openly discussed and preached.

 There is a school of French historians – right-wing historians convinced that the whole of the French Revolution constitutes the greatest abomination of modern times, the root of all our evils – who maintain that the Revolution was conceived and planned and actually started by the Duke’s agents under the arcades of the Palais Royal. And all under the direct supervision of the Duke who hoped to overturn his cousin and seize the throne of France for himself.

 To be sure, these historians have no documentary evidence to back this up But just look at the facts, they say. Look how the vile Duke always turns up in the foreground, or prominently on the sidelines, at almost every crucial moment as his country lurches toward the abyss.

 Conventional historians have never been able to agree on the deep underlying forces that led to the Revolution. But they all agree on why it broke out in 1789 instead of some other year. It was the year the French government went broke.

 In many respects the 18th century was France’s golden age. Population was steadily increasing – half the population in 1789 were under 21 years old. So was prosperity. Paris was the cultural capital of the world.

 But the governmental budget deficit was colossal, unmanageable. Or would have been if the government of the ancien regime had had a budget. The King of France could not pay his bills.

 The political and administrative system of France was hopelessly archaic. Everyone agreed that it would be fairly simple to make the government solvent again by reforming the tax system. But any reform of taxes or anything else ran into a crazy quilt of ancient institutions and privileges (privilège meant private law, independent of the law of the land) which could not or would not be budged by the people who profited from them.

 To some extent, Louis XVI did recognize the need for change. And in fact, he appointed a succession of reformist ministers. He ended up by dismissing them, though, whenever they really tried to effect reforms, In the end, he let things drift, and went on borrowing money. The war that won American independence was largely financed by France, and brought sweet revenge for previous defeats like the war that lost Canada to England, but it also saddled the French government with mountainous debts. Runaway inflation added to the need for cash. But there was no more cash.

 The King convened an Assembly of Notables in 1788 to help him look for a way out of the morass. But the Notables, with Philippe d’Orléans sitting among them, only talked and talked and dragged their feet.

 The next year Louis decided to summon the Estates General, a body which had last met 165 years before, and had been dissolved because it was found cumbersome and useless. But this time, the reformers hoped to use it to break the strait-jacket of the old system.

 The Estates represented the medieval division of human society into three orders, or Estates, the nobles who fought, the clergy who prayed, the peasants who worked. Even by medieval standards, life was more complicated than that, and by 1789 the whole idea seemed preposterous. The nobles and priests, representing at most three percent of the population, spent more time on conspicuous consumption than on either fighting or praying. And the other 97 percent, the Third Estate, was feeling more and more impatient at being kept out of things. Peasants had no say in the taxes which were crushing them. And the increasingly prosperous and well educated and vocal middle class chafed at being kept out of all the high posts in church and state and army that were reserved for aristocrats.

 The French aristocracy of the 18th century produced an impressive number of very gifted men (among others the Baron de Montesquieu, whose ideas inspired the writers of the American Constitution) and, all things considered, weren’t doing such a bad job ov running the country. Compared to Russia or Prussia or the kingdom of Naples, France was a pleasant country to live in, if you had the money it was an earthly paradise.

 But there were too many forbidden fruits in this paradise. For some time now, affluent commoners had found ways of raising their social status by marrying their daughters to impoverished noblemen, or by purchasing “entry-level” administrative or judicial posts from them. But this was a slow progress, usually taking three or four generations for the family to get up to full-fledged status and privilege. And the nobles were closing ranks to keep the upstarts down where they belonged. Well-fed and restless, the middle classes were producing young people who were angry at not having a chance to display their talents as they deserved, young lawyers liked Maximilian de Robespierre, junior army officers like Napoleon Bonaparte. Philippe d’Orléans, who had privileges to. burn, felt that he could advance still higher by becoming the spokesman for that great mass of discontent, and he hurried to present himself for election to the Estates General.

 The elections could not have come at a worse time for the monarchy.
The cold wet summer of 1788, the worst in human memory, had ruined the crops across the country, had driven prices sky-high and filled the city streets with unemployed workers, hungry and increasingly desperate.

 Here was a revolutionary mob in the making, and one day in late April 1789, it actually took to the Paris streets when a false rumor was spread that a Monsieur Réveillon, who employed 350 workers making painted wallpaper, had proposed to cut wages. With the scarcity of bread, and the price doubled since the previous summer, this was putting match to powder. The police had to be called in to protect Réveillon’s house from angry demonstrators, few if any of whom were workers in his factory. (He had in fact the reputation of being a notably humane employer.)

 The mob was surging through the Faubourg Saint Antoine, a working-class district on the eastern reaches of Paris, when up clattered the carriage of the Duc d’Orléans, who had been watching the races at the track in Vincente. He leaped out, emptied his purse into outstretched hands and reaped a harvest of enthusiastic cheers before driving on. A little later, it was the turn of the Duchess’s coach. For some reason never made clear, it did not follow the main road through the Faubourg Saint Antoine but turned into the rue de Montreuil instead. The police had barricaded this street to protect the Réveillon house, but they dutifully opened a passage to let the great lady through. A howling mob poured through in her wake, and in a few minutes Réveillon was fleeing while his home burned to the ground.

 Once begun, the rioting went on all day and all night, and cost 300 lives, or about three times as many as would be killed ten weeks later when another mob stormed the Bastille, the grim gray tower which stood at the edge of the Faubourg Saint Antoine. For historians of the conspiracy-theory stripe, the blood shed on that April day was the first blood of the Revolution, and it was shed, they contend, because the Duchess’s turn into the rue de Montreuil had been carefully planned by her husband.

 The government was still strong enough in April to suppress the Réveillon rioters harshly, and there were no immediate consequences. The elections for the Estates General went off as scheduled, and Philippe, who had taken the precaution of running in several localities to avoid unpleasant surprises, was duly elected to sit as a representative of the nobles at Versailles.

 The Estates opened formally in May 1789 and soon, as might have been expected, ran into a deadlock on the question of voting. Should each Estate have one vote, in which case nobles and clergy together could block any serious effort at reform, or should the vote be head by head, giving the 300 representatives of the Third Estate along with renegades from the upper cases, the power to take things over? The king and the court, who had no intention of letting common people run things, expected the deadlock to last indefinitely, and perhaps lead to another eclipse of the Estates General for another two centuries or so.

 Then on June 24 the Duc d’Orléans and a small band of liberal nobles, entered the hall where the Third Estate was sitting and joined the commoners, in effect giving them the right to claim that they were the legal majority of the French people. The Third Estate could now claim that it was a National Assembly and go on to write a new Constitution for France.

 No one was sure if the king would accept the defiance of his divine right to govern his country. He summoned troops to Paris and to Versailles, and it was widely believed that he intended to use them to disperse the Assembly and stamp out all opposition. There were anxious discussion wherever the friends of Liberty gathered, and particularly at the Palais Royal. On the evening of July 12, an impetuous young lawyer and journalist, Camille Desmoulins, jumped up on a table at one of the cafés there and made an impassioned speech that ended with the call. “To arms!” He led a shouting crowd out into the streets, the crowd that 36 hours later would decide to go looking for gunpowder within the decrepit walls of the Bastille.

 Part of the crowd gathered to begin the march on the Bastille in front of the Palais Royal, where the renter of Salon No. Seven, a wax museum, presented them with two busts which they could carry like banners before them:– -busts of Necker the finance minister, who being Swiss was popularly believed to be able to solve the budget problem, and of Philippe d’Orléans. And so the duke’s image was present when the first shots were fired at the Bastille, and the Revolution formally began. The living duke was otherwise engaged at that moment, acting in a play produced by his own theatrical company.

 In a few heady months the old order was thrown out and a new one installed, feudal privilege were abolished, and Liberty and Equality were enthroned, at least as heady abstractions, with hardly a drop of blood being shed.Then early in October, a Parisian mob, suspicious of royalist plots and indignant over rising prices and shortages of food, tramped out all the way to Versailles. and came clamoring up to the gates of the chateau. The guards tried to close the gates, but they were too rusty - they had never in fact been closed in the century or more since they were built, because for all its grandeur Versailles always retained something of the air of the country house which it was at the start, a place where any respectably-dressed person could wander in at any hour to admire the gardens and the fountains and the works of art and the courtiers and the musketeers in all their splendid finery. And so the mob had no difficulty in bursting into the halls of state, killing two of the royal bodyguards, running down and rounding up the royal family who were forced to ride back with them to Paris, to be locked up in the Palace of the Toiletries where the people could keep a watchful eye on them. And there at this fateful moment was Philippe D’Orléans in his gray frock-coat watching everything and listening approvingly as the air sounded with cries of, “Our father is with us. Long live the King Orléans.”

 King Orléans - the new watchword was out. That is to say, a liberal constitutional monarch who would provide a paternal center around which a free people could freely gather. In 1789, this must have seemed an ideal solution to many – a benign respected ruler who could calm passions, rise above factional strife, preside over an orderly transition to constitutional government. A French George Washington.

 There were only three men who could conceivably play the Washington role in France. Louis XVI, who was full of good intentions, might conceivably have done it, and wishful thinkers wished he would. But he was not cut out to take charge.Indecisive, tender-hearted, not very bright, he bungled his way from crisis to crisis, till her bungled his way to the guillotine,

 A second candidate was the Marquis de Lafayette, an ambitious young man aureoled with immense prestige as the hero of the war of American independence. Lafayette was more than willing, but less than able, to run a government. As a politician he soon faded from the scene. In 1792, a revolutionary tribunal would revoke his command of troops sent against Austria and recall him to Paris. Fearing for his life, he fled the country and lived out the rest of the revolution he had helped to start in an Austrian jail.

 That left the Duc d’Orléans. It was a choice that in theory made perfect sense. He could appeal to all sides: as a prince of te blood, he was heir to the ancient traditions of France. As a relatively youthful liberal politician, he appealed to the rising generations. In fact, forty-one years later, when the next French revolution came round, throwing Louis XVI’s youngest brother off the throne, Philippe’s son, the erstwhile Duc de Chartres, was joyfully acclaimed by the people as their ruler under the name of Louis-Philippe, and he reigned for a 18 relatively uneventful, relatively prosperous years as a middle-of-the-road “citizen king.”

 The trouble was that France in 1789 needed and wanted not just an amiable figure-head but a firm clear-headed leader. A whole nation was soon to be in convulsion in at atmosphere of increasing passion and mutual distrust and generalized violence, runaway inflation, civil war, and eventually war with all of Europe. Crisis followed crisis, and Philippe merely watched them. In the early days of 1789, while everyone else was debating the4 future of the nation, he was taking his new mistress, Madame de Buffon,, to the theater or for rides in the country. On July 13, when his employee Camille Desmoulins called up the spirits of revolt from the duke’s gardens in the Palais Royal, the duke himself was fishing. After rumors implicated him in the rioters’ October march on Versailles, he acceded to his brother’s wishes and briefly exiled himself to London. In June 1791, when the royal family tried to sneak out of the country and was caught and dragged ignominiously back to Paris, he showed himself rather ostentatiously around the streets of the capital, but no one took any particular notice of him and he went quietly back indoors.

 He went on espousing liberal ideas and making all the proper revolutionary gestures. He voted for the abrogation of feudal privileges, he coted for the Rights of Man, he voted for war against Austria. He joined the Jacobins, the most radical of the political clubs. When elections were held in 1792 for the Convention - the new assembly that was to govern the country and draw up the constitution of the first French republic – he was elected 24th on a slate of 35 candidates in Paris headed by Robespierre. He felt uncomfortable to have to bear a noble family name, and the revolutionary authorities allowed him to change it from Bourbon to Egalité.

 As the Revolution picked up speed and became more and more sanguinary, it began to put to death revolutionaries who were not revolutionary enough in thought and word and deed. Philippe began to look more and more like a sorcerer’s apprentice when the reign of liberty and equality he had helped get started turned to a Reign of Terror. Bred to courtly ways, he looked more and more out of place in an age of outsize, outrageous, savage personalities like Robespierre and Marat and Danton,  

 Still, he went on loyally voting for everything on the extremist Jacobin agenda. He voted for tee creation of the revolutionary tribunal which would in a few months condemn Camille Desmoulins and thousands of others to the guillotine. He voted with the large majority that found the ex-King Louis XVI guilty of treason. When it came to fixing the penalty for the traitor, he was one of the 394 deputies to vote “Oui” for death.

 The ex-King took the news with gentle forbearance.”It really pains me,” was his only comment, made to the barber who was giving him hid last haircut, “to see that Monsieur Orléans, my kinsman, voted for my death.” He preferred not to dwell on it, but rather to worry about the servants who would have no income when he was gone.

 The execution of the king, in January 1793, brought no comfort to Philippe, who rightly feared that his turn might be soon coming. On February 10, he issued a statement that he was not the son of the fat Duc d’Orléans at all; his biological father, he said, had really been a coachman named Lefranc.

 Calling his mother a whore won him no credit from his revolutionary colleagues. Neither of the opposing factions, the radical Jacobins or the more moderate Girondins, wanted to claim him. “That slime,” said Danton, “makes me sick to my stomach.” He was an embarrassment to Jacobins like Marat because the Girondins kept accusing the Jacobins of being on the Orléans payroll and of secretly conspiring to put Philippe Egalité on the throne of France.

 It was the Girondins who set in motion the judicial proceedings that led to the arrest of Citizen Egalité on April 6, 1793, shortly before they were themselves to be arrested and condemned to die.

 At first, delegates to the Convention had been protected by parliamentary immunity. But on April 1, a decree had been voted (with Citizen Egalité’s usual Oui) that permitted the arrest of any deputy “with strong presumptions of complicity with the enemies of Liberty.”

 There was no direct evidence of any kind against Citizen Egalité, but it was easy to find presumptions. His son, the ex-Duc de Chartres, now known as General Egalité had been fighting the Austrians in Belgium under the command of General Dumouriez. When Dumouriez was abruptly recalled to Paris, he knew what that meant, and found it more prudent to go over to the Austrians, taking General Egalité with him,

 When the warrant arrived for Philippe’s arrest, he was dining on sole with his friend de Monville. “What ingratitude!’ he exclaimed. De Monville squeezed a lemon on his sole and said, “This is what they are going to do with you.” Soldiers dragged Egalité out of his bed at the Palais Royal the next morning.

 Judgment before the revolutionary tribunal was a formality. This defendant was not naive enough to expect either a fair trial or a humane sentence. Like some 40,000 others, he was convicted of having betrayed Liberty Equality and Fraternity. He had been trained to take blows stoically, and he was gallantly stoical all through the long ordeal. First they sent him off to Marseilles, a calvary of a voyage during which he was hooted at and spat at all along the way. After some months spent dirty and unkempt in an unheated cell, he was brought back to Paris and formally condemned to death. Since they had confiscated all his enormous property, he did not have enough money t order the traditional last dinner, though he did insist on getting his hair cut and powdered before he mounted the wagon that took him to the Place de la Revolution, once called the Place Louis XV, now known as Place de la Concorde. He showed no sign of emotion as he took his place on the morning of November 7 with some prisoners of lesser rank – for revolutionary justice made no distinction between sons of dukes and sons of coachmen. When they had trouble pulling off his boots, he told them it would be easier to get them off his corpse. Then he knelt down, put his neck into position and said to the executioner, “Make it quick.”

 Dr. Joseph Guillotin had made his great invention for that very purpose. The head was quickly severed and held up to the crowd that filled the spacious square.

 A great cheer went up at the sight of Philippe d’Orléans. It was probably the first time it had not been paid for.

©1979 Robert Wernick
reprinted from Smithsonian Magazine