- 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
The brothers rode away late in March, 1797, accompanied by good Baudoin and the nameless dog. Louis Philippe noted that the four horses cost $130, the gear $70. Samuel Breck (and Miss Lucy?) saw them off, and observed that they had adopted the style and dress of western traders, that is, deerskin breeches and long, loose frocks of linsey-woolsey or deerskin, belted to make a pouch at the breast for provisions. But in their saddlebags they carried white satin suits with lace ruffles, in which to appear, at need, with decency.
They took the Baltimore road through “a swampy and dreary country.” They stopped at roadside inns, registering as Mr. Orleans, Mr. Montpensier, and Mr. Beaujolais. In Baltimore they broke out their satin suits to dine with Richard Caton, General Samuel Smith, and the rich merchant Robert Gilmor, who kindly presented them with a letter of credit.
On April 3 the party reached Washington, “a city laid out on paper, staked out in swamp-land.” One wing of the new Capitol rose in the midst of desolation. Louis Philippe was not impressed. He found the President’s House (only the shell of the present White House) mean and heavy, with a ridiculously small entrance. (This defect was in fact corrected after the British burned the building in 1814.)
Two days later the travellers, delayed by the necessity of having their laundry done, presented themselves at Mount Vernon. The flustered Negro doorman reported to General Washington: “Your Excellency, there are three Equalities at the door!” The General received them with his usual courtly grace. They talked late that evening, chiefly about the institution of slavery, a subject that fascinated Louis Philippe. He was inclined to foresee a bloody slave rebellion, like that of Santo Domingo. Mount Vernon, to be sure, presented an example of a model plantation, with the slaves apparently contented. But Baudoin, who gained the confidence of the house servants, reported that they longed for freedom, even without contentment, and envied fugitives to the North.
The following morning the brothers rose at six thirty and, looking out the window, perceived their host returning from an inspection of his lands. “Do you get along without sleep?” Louis Philippe asked at breakfast. “I always sleep well,” he replied, “for I never wrote a word in my life which I had afterwards cause to regret.”
They announced to the General their purpose of exploring the mysterious interior of America. He was much interested; he took a copy of Abraham Bradley’s recent map of the United States and on it traced in red ink a recommended itinerary. Years later King Louis Philippe liked to impress American visitors by unfolding his map and pointing to the red line drawn by the hand of the great Washington.
After four happy days at Mount Vernon, the party set out to follow Washington’s guideline. At Leesburg they were interrupted at dinner by Colonel Burgess Ball, Washington’s cousin, who insisted on carrying them off to his plantation and boring them through a long evening. “Boredom and wasted time,” Louis Philippe noted in his journal. “The only thing I am interested in is the aspect of the country, the state of agriculture and that of the houses and inhabitants.”
The travellers entered the rich valley of the Shanadore, or Shenandoah. At Winchester they stopped at the inn of Mr. Bush, originally from Mannheim. Louis Philippe conversed familiarly with him in German, then requested that they be served in their room, since one of the brothers was indisposed. But Mr. Bush exclaimed in outrage: “If you are too good to eat at the same table with my other guests, you are too good to eat in my house! Begone!” And, indeed, they were driven forth in a storm of rain and hail, to push on eighteen miles to Strasburg and to meditate on the peculiarities of democracy.
The brothers followed the “Great Indian Warpath,” now placid Route 11, through Harrisonburg, Staunton, Lexington, Salem, and so southwest into Tennessee. The well-travelled road was tolerable enough, the food—salt pork and hoecake—revolting, the inns frightful. But they apparently succeeded in dodging Mrs. Tease’s tavern, near Staunton, which the Marquis de Chastellux ten years before had described as “one of the worst in all America. … A solitary tin vessel was the only bowl for the family, the servants, and ourselves. I dare not say for what other use it was proposed to us on our going to bed.” On this theme, Louis Philippe asked one evening for a chamber pot; the hostess pointed expressively to a glassless window.
To Louis Philippe most of the land seemed monotonous, endless forests wherein even the birds were mute. But wild turkeys, partridges, blue pigeons, and deer abounded. Although the travellers were well received in the rare homes of gentry, they found most of the human inhabitants unwelcoming.
Nothing can equal the shiftlessness and disobligingness of the workers here. When a horse needs shoeing one must sometimes travel twenty-five miles before getting aid, and one must call on five or six farriers before finding one who is willing to work. If anything happens to a saddle, a coat, or a boot, one finds no one to repair it. The other day a cobbler said to us: “Yes, I’m a cobbler. I work sometimes, but now I don’t feel like it.”