Philippe Egalité (1747-1793): French Prince, member of the National Assembly and the Convention
Philippe Egalité was born Louis Phillippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans, in Saint Cloud, a neighborhood of Paris. He was prince of royal blood of the Orleans family and cousin to the king, Louis XVI. His great grandfather had been the regent of France after the death of Louis XIV. During the revolution, in order to make himself a simple citizen, Louis Philippe would allude to the fact that he might have been a bastard, his father possibly being his aristocratic mother’s coachman, a statement that proved to be wrong. He was Duke of Montpensier until 1752 when, upon his grandfather’s death, he became Duke of Chartres. In 1785, after his father’s death, he became Duke of Orleans. He was raised as a grand aristocrat proud of his birth but lacked depth and rigor in his education. In 1756 his father called on the famed Swiss doctor, Tronchin, Théodore to inoculate his son and the rest of his family against small pox, a decision imitated by the rest of the court.
Louis Philippe was among the richest man of the kingdom but because of the libertine life he led he was often in debt. In June 1769 he married 16 year old Louise Marie Adelaïde de Bourbon, daughter of the Duke of Penthièvre, heir to one of the biggest fortunes of France. They had six children, their second child but first son, Louis Philippe d’Orleans (1773-1850), was king of the French (no longer called king of France) from 1830 until 1848; he was the first and only king of the Orleans dynasty. After a few months, Philippe Egalité went back to his libertine activities and would have several illegitimate children. His most famous mistress was Stéphanie Félicité du Crest, Countess de Genlis, lady in waiting to his own wife. Well educated, author of children education treaties and numerous literary works, she took upon herself to introduce her lover to Rousseau and managed to be officially in charge of Louis Philippe and his wife’s legitimate children, especially the education of the future king Louis Philippe I.
In 1771, in a controversy with Rene Nicolas Charles Augustin de Maupeou, Chancellor of France, he sided with the Parliaments and continued the politics of “frondeur” that characterized the house of Orleans. He turned against Maupeou, which imposed reforms favorable to the king but detrimental to the Parliamants; he was exiled in his land of Villers-Cotterêts. In 1772, Louis Philippe decided to start a career in the navy. In 1778, after a couple of successful campaigns, he was promoted Lieutenant General with his father in law’s help, a top French admiral. On 27 July 1778, on the coast of Ouessant in French Brittany, during a maritime battle against England, Louis Philippe rushed on British ships but because of poor communication with his commander, the Count of Orvilliers, he let the English ships escape.
In the pre-revolution atmosphere that reigned in France, Louis Philippe clearly hoped for a chance to replace his cousin on the throne and therefore favored all grievances against the king. His open distaste for the young queen, Marie-Antoinette, only accrued antagonism with the king, making him unwelcome at court. He was then elected Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France, one of the most powerful freemason lodges with concepts of masonic equality, fraternity and democracy. In 1780, his father gave him the Palais Royal (a very large palace across the Louvre). He opened its gardens to the public, which quickly transformed the palace into one of the main centers for anyone opposing the king and his monarchy. In 1787, Louis XVI wanted to levy a new tax on landed property, a decision which the Parliament of Paris strongly opposed. Once more, Louis Philippe stood against the king and was again exiled in Villers-Cotterêts. His Palais Royal had become a rallying point for the Jacobins of Paris. Louis Philippe generously granted subventions to pamphleteers criticizing the king and hoped to stand as the champion of a constitutionalist monarchy. Laclos, Choderlos de (author of the famous epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses) was chosen by Louis Philippe to astutely distribute money, therefore increase his popularity. However, Philippe Egalité did not create a new movement but only rode the revolutionary atmosphere. He might have started an Orleanist conspiracy to take the throne away from his cousin but was unable to convince or even impressed powerful leaders like Lafayette, Mirabeau, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de or Danton, Georges who did not believe him suited for the job.
In 1789, he was elected to the States General. At the opening procession, he forwent marching in accordance to his aristocratic rank in order to march as a simple citizen. Additionally, while surprised by the fall of the Bastille, he was satisfied with the turn of events. His popularity among the people was growing and he freely distributed food, which further exacerbated his rivalry with the court. He was accused of instigating the tumultuous days of October (5 and 6), when the Paris crowd invaded the royal residence and killed some of Lafayette’s guards. Being too apprehensive and lacking spirit of leadership, he failed to take advantage of his popularity. To distance him from Paris, Louis XVI sent him to England under pretext of entrusting him with a diplomatic mission regarding the revolt in Belgium against Austrian rule. Louis Philippe naively believed this could potentially lead him to being crowned king of Belgium. In 1790, he wrote the Assembly to request his return to France to resume his position as a deputy. A few days later, he was back in Paris unnoticed since the king had approved the constitution and sworn loyalty to the Assembly. Louis Philippe would have to wait until the royal family’s attempt to flee the country and their arrest in Varennes on 21 June 1791 to have a chance to replace his cousin. However, people were quickly losing trust in kings. Philippe Egalité’s sons had joined the revolutionary armies and his oldest son, and future king, was bravely fighting under General Dumouriez. Louis Philippe himself tried to obtain a charge with the army but was turned down. He was blamed by the royalists of initiating the September Massacre of 1792 in which the crowd brutally killed thousands of royalist sympathizers and refractary priests (priests which rejected the constitution), including his sister in law, the Princess de Lamballe. The monarchists continued to accuse him of siding with the Third Estate and mistakenly considered him a commanding and powerful man. Elected at the Convention in 1792, he sat with the Montagne, the more extreme revolutionary party led by influential and authoritative leaders such as Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, Danton, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de, Marat, Jean-Paul and Couthon. He then got rid of his titles and in his desire to appear true to the constitution chose a very democratic name, Philippe Egalité, a change that was formally accepted by the Paris Commune (the governing body of Paris). Unfortunately, that decision did not help him much; the tide was fast rising against him. Girondins and Montagnards accused each other to let a former "prince du sang" sit at the Convention.
In January 1793, he voted for the king’s death. In April, General Dumouriez and Louis Philippe’s son defected to the Austrians, an act which condemned Louis Philippe and his family in the eyes of the Convention. Even though many Convention representatives realized royal line ran through Philippe Egalité, they also recognized he had publicly served liberty. He was first imprisoned in Marseilles and calmly denied all accusations of counterrevolutionary activities with Mirabeau, Lafayette and Dumouriez. Ironically, denounced by Girondins, he went on trial along with them back in Paris. On 6 November 1793, after answering all suspicions of betrayal from the prosecutor, he was found guilty without evidence but specifically because of his son's defection and his noble birth. He courageously asked the tribunal not to delay his execution but to carry it the very same day. After a lavish dinner of oysters and ribs sprinkled with Bordeaux wine, he proudly and dauntlessly went to the scaffold.
Philippe Egalité was the only member of a royal house to adhere to a revolution to overthrow his king and to have voted for the king’s death.
Tom Ambrose, Godfather of the revolution : the life of Philippe Égalité, Duc d'Orléans, 2008.
Guy David Toubiana