- Historic Sites
Louis Philippe In America
The future French king asked Washington for directions and got an arduous tour of a new nation’s wilderness
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Passing as a German merchant, Louis Philippe and the faithful Baudoin—the two younger brothers were to follow later—sailed from Hamburg on the America and arrived in Philadelphia on October 23, 1796). The shipowner, David Conyngham, learned the passenger’s identity and offered him temporary hospitality. He did not lose a moment in informing Philadelphia society of his distinguished guest. Hearing the report, Miss Lucy Breck informed her diary that a real prince had arrived in the republican city! She immediately commanded a new dress. And on the twenty-eighth she wrote: “ I have seen him and yet I live! He is rather tall, and pretty well formed: but none of that commanding dignity, or even ease of manner, which is generally looked for. … There was, however, a degree of modesty, united to the appearance of a good understanding, discovered in his Countenance.” A most amiable character, she summed up; but evidently he was not quite a Prince Charming.
On the other hand, his easy, friendly manners commended him to the merchant aristocracy of Philadelphia. Lucy’s father, Samuel Breck, said: “Amiable and unpretending in conversation and general conduct, ever cheerful and apparently forgetful of his lost rank, he conformed his demeanor to that of our own manners in our best-bred Circles, and was everywhere treated with distinguished regard.” John Pickcring called him a “plain but intelligent man of good person and deportment.” Others spoke of his maturity, good sense, good nature, modesty, and simplicity of manners. He lodged in a single room. Baudoin did the shopping; his hard bargains were remembered for years by the market women. Louis Philippe was unabashed. He gave a dinner for some distinguished guests, among them John Singleton Copley, Jr., son of the painter and the future Lord Chancellor of England. He sat half his guests on the bed, remarking that he had himself occupied less comfortable places without the consolation of such an agreeable company. In short, he put on the democratic character of his companions, as he could put on the character of a schoolmaster or a frontiersman. This adaptability was to serve him later, when he became le roi bourgeois , going shopping with his queen in the Paris stores and taking his purchases home in the omnibus, and carrying an umbrella instead of a sword.
There was one quality the Philadelphia merchants could read- ily appreciate. He was extremely close, if not stingy, and had been so from childhood despite Mme. de Genlis’ correction. The Comte de Neuilly, who knew him as a boy, recalled that he would ask the price of everything, meditate, and end by saying: “C’est cher! C’est trop cher!” His parsimoniousness had developed in his years of near-destitution in Switzerland and Lapland. During his American travels he kept close account of all his expenditures. The habit persisted when he sat on the French throne. It is said that he checked grocer’s bills, sold his candle ends, had the royal table supplied by a restaurateur at four francs a plate. The leftovers were served in a cheap eating house in the Palais-Royal.
In Philadelphia, of course, he was entertained by all the great families: the Binghams, the Robert Morrises, the Willings, the Cadwaladers, the Chews. He painted a miniature of Miss Abby Willing, and is said to have offered her his hand; and her father is said to have pronounced sententiously: “As an exile, destitute of means, you are not a suitable match for my daughter. Should you recover your rights, she will not be a suitable match for you.” He attended the inauguration of President Adams. He watched Gilbert Stuart at work on a portrait of Washington. And ever he awaited the promised arrival of his two brothers.
They came at length on February 8, 1797, after a long crossing on a dirty Swedish ship, the Jupiter , chartered by the American government to bring home eighty Americans redeemed from slavery in Algiers. The reunion, Louis Philippe said later, was the happiest day of his life. The Duc de Montpensier, now twenty-one, was thin, wispy, and melancholy, yellowhaired, dark-eyed, with a sensitive face. He was delicate and fastidious; he detested wine and, much more, American whiskey. His great love and solace was art. He was an excellent painter by any reckoning, and would have some standing in art history today had he not been a prince and had not most of his works been destroyed in the sack of the royal palaces in 1848. The second brother, the Duc de Beaujolais, was only seventeen. He was undersized, “almost a dwarf,” said one scornful observer. But after all, he had just spent in prison four years proper for growth. Others thought him strongly built, bright, witty, very good-natured, and even “a beautiful youth.” The brothers brought their faithful dog, companion of their prison life. His race and name have not been recorded.
Though Louis Philippe took for the brothers a house at the northwest corner of Fourth and Prune streets, they did not linger long in Philadelphia. Louis Philippe, that earnest tourist, was eager to explore the backwoods of America, to confront the virtuous uncorrupted savages, to inspect such natural wonders as Niagara Falls. He may also have thought that a little toughening, àla Mme. de Genlis, was just what his brothers needed. He may even have wished to demonstrate to Miss Abby Willing, by a plunge into the wilderness, the romantic consequence of a broken heart.