Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, visits Philadelphia and New Orleans, almost gets pressed by an English ship, becomes king of France.

Posted in History and Politics on August 17th, 2015 by byronkho

Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was a young man of 20 when he was forced to leave France after his father’s execution during the Reign of Terror. In the 21-year self-imposed exile that followed, Louis Philippe moved extensively, going from Switzerland to Scandinavia and Finland before embarking on a trip to the United States. This stateside trip was prompted by the suffering of his two brothers – Antoine Philippe, Duke of Montpensier, and Louis Charles, Count of Beaujolais – who had been imprisoned in a dank and fetid Marseilles dungeon for years. The Directory, the penultimate rulers of France during the French Revolution, had kept the Orleans siblings imprisoned and only consented to release them (after fevered negotation with their mother, the Duchess of Orleans) if they were permanently exiled to the United States, and if Louis Philippe were also to leave the Continent. On September 24, 1796, Louis boarded the “America” – a packet plying a regular route between Hamburg and Philadelphia – and spent a leisurely 27-day voyage to the City of Brotherly Love (after presenting himself to fellow passengers as a Dane, fake Danish passports on hand). Once word of his departure reached the Directory, they consented to release the younger Orleans brothers to the American consul (actually a French citizen) Etienne Cathalan, who both hid the brothers from angry Jacobin mobs baying for royalist blood and later secreted them aboard the “Jupiter” for a grueling 92-day storm-filled voyage to the New World (with a 15,000 franc annuity to boot, worth between 30 and 40,000 dollars in current US currency).

In February of 1797, the brothers were reunited at a certain house between 4th and 5th St on Walnut just adjacent to [now known as Old] St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, at the time George Washington’s church of choice. The need for secrecy gone, the brothers inserted themselves into Philadelphia society with vigor and were present at major political events in what was then the nation’s capital, including George Washington’s farewell address to Congress and the inauguration of President Adams. Their introduction to upper class Philadelphia a success, the brothers then embarked on a long picaresque journey across America. One of their first stops was to the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, where they planned out a travel route that would take them down through Tennessee into Kentucky, West Virginia and looping back up through Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and into upstate New York. Buffalo, Lake Erie, Niagara Falls… then down the Susquehanna and on foot to Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia. On a second trip – after first awaiting their annual remittance to replenish their accounts – they traveled through New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts before deciding on a trip to warmer climes: New Orleans and Havana.

At the time – in December of 1797 – Louisiana still belonged to Spain. It had been ceded to Spain by the French in 1762 and would only be returned to the fold by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800, before being sold off to the United States in 1803 under Thomas Jefferson’s administration. It is perhaps unsurprising that Louis Philippe might have wanted to visit one of the cardinal cities named after his great great-grandfather, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, and former Regent of the Kingdom of France. Initially, it was supposed to be a brief visit followed by a quick departure to Cuba. However, the corvette they had chartered never arrived, and they were forced to stay for five weeks before departing in an American vessel. While touring the estates and manses of the local aristocracy, Louis and his brothers attended a sumptuous banquet at the home of Jean-Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a local planter and descendant of the treasurer of the French colony at New Orleans – and also the richest person on the continent. Legends of the banquet tell us that the Marignys, so honored to have Louis await their pleasure within their humble abode, had commissioned a hugely expensive set of golden dinnerware which was used once for the dinner and then thrown wholesale into the Mississippi River, unworthy of being used by any other implicitly lesser folk. (The always-spoiled playboy Marigny would later be sent to England for education, but would instead pick up the game of Hazards. After bringing it back to New Orleans, the game sparked rivalries between the American “Kaintocks” and the Creole “Crapauds” – nicknames they gave each other – which would later morph into what we now know as craps.)

Just before leaving Philadelphia on their trip to New Orleans, Louis had learned that the Directory had banished all Bourbons from France. This meant that their entire family had been banished from their homeland; their mother fled to Spain, which was a then-ally of France and as such were also at war with the British government. Thus it was slightly awkward when, onboard the American ship in the Gulf of Mexico, an English frigate decided to stop and board the ship. Under English interpretation of maritime law, they were legally cleared to stop any vessel anywhere on the high seas and press any on board that they considered English nationals, or if the need arose. In this case, Captain Thomas Cochrane of the British ship decided that the American crew would become his crew and so they were pressed; Louis Philippe and his brothers were allowed on to the American ship as mere passengers to Havana, but not before an unfortunately-timed ducking off the side-rope during boarding. Louis would remember this episode, and Captain Cochrane. But first, they were dropped off in Havana on March 31, 1798. After a year’s convalescence in the humid streets of Havana, word reached the Spanish that the princes were there. Unhappily, Spain noted that a revolutionary fervor had gripped the island colony and so the Captain-General of Cuba was ordered to vacate the Princes post haste, fearing insurrection from local Jacobins. From there, they went to Nova Scotia for a brief respite with the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, before a return to New York and then England in January of 1800. Complicated political gamesmanship ensued, and this former exiled prince became King of France in 1830.

Later in his reign, King Louis-Philippe I would have reason to revisit his almost-hijacking by a British ship in non-British waters. The act was a gross violation of international law, as not only was the American vessel neutral, but the American crew were of several different nationalities. After impressment, some might be forced to fight against their own country. So it was with a certain smugness that King Louis-Philippe I watched the British squirm after an incident in which a French frigate at the blockade of Veracruz decided to board an English ship and press a Mexican pilot. While the British Parliament passed an outraged decree demanding an immediate apology of the government, the French king held back pointing out the hypocrisy that they had themselves carried out on a boat actually carrying the future French monarch. Despite his often contentious relations with England (the Bourbon branch that Louis-Philippe I deposed had fled to exile there), he retained a lifelong friendship with the English captain that carried them to Havana. While Louis Philippe immersed himself in politics, Cochrane became a naval star. As a captain hunting French and Spanish ships, Cochrane earned himself 75,000 pounds sterling or roughly $4.5 million in current USD. Unfortunately, he was caught up in a court-martial of failed tactics by a superior and forced to temporarily retire from the seas. He did not sit back: meanwhile, Cochrane proposed to Prince George (the future King George IV of England) that they should take up “explosion ships” and “sulphur ships” as devices during the Napoleonic Wars. Essentially, these were variations on the ancient fireship: one was a saturation bomb, and the other was chemical warfare using gases that would hopefully choke enemy sailors onboard their ships, leading them to jump ship. Later in his career, he was falsely convicted in a London stock exchange scandal and forced to leave England, whereupon he became a successful foreign mercenary. In 1832, Cochrane was pardoned by the English king, and in 1843, King Louis-Philippe I of France presented Monsieur le Capitaine Cochrane with a set of fully gold inlaid percussion pistols made by Jules Manceaux (France’s leading gunsmith) at the royal workshop at Tulle.

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