King Louis-Philippe of France
The Perilous Crown: France Between Revolutions, 1814-1848
The reigns of the later Bourbon kings have been neglected until now, partly because their rule was bifurcated by the 1830 revolution, which discouraged historians from treating the 34 years of France’s constitutional monarchy as a single period. Munro Price has resolved to correct this oversight and the result is a subtly argued thesis that the constitutional monarchy, although ultimately a failure, was far more resilient than has been supposed. Crucially, it was the first time in French history that a loyal parliamentary opposition was allowed to develop. Price shows that Louis-Philippe was honing his ideas of modern kingship throughout the reigns of his cousins Louis XVIII and Charles X. Thereafter he ruled with the assistance of a centre-left parliamentary bloc. Relying heavily on hitherto unexamined archival material, notably the correspondence between King Louis-Philippe and his sister Adélaïde, who effectively ruled alongside him as one of his chief counsellors, Price’s sharply focused study transforms our perception of these years.
Whereas the elder Bourbon branch descended from Louis XIV, the junior Orléans branch descended from his younger brother. Following the French Revolution, their paths diverged. Both Louis XVIII and his successor Charles X had difficulty in accepting the legacy of the French Revolution, which had resulted in the execution of their elder brother Louis XVI. Hence their lukewarm support for the constitutional arrangements that constrained their monarchy.
However, their cousin Louis-Philippe had at first welcomed the Revolution before rebelling against it. His father, Philippe-Egalité, had voted for the death of Louis XVI, though he was himself executed on suspicion of being involved in Louis-Philippe’s rebellion. To the senior Bourbon branch and their supporters, therefore, Louis-Philippe was not only the son of a regicide but a man possessed of dangerously liberal views.
The Bourbon restoration settlement was based on a constitutional Charter comprising some 76 articles, setting out the terms of the limited monarchy. Article 14 was fatally flawed, since its ambiguity seemed to permit the king to suspend the Charter as a whole in an emergency, thus creating “a surreal situation in which the Charter contained its own negation”. Charles X’s revocation of the Charter led directly to the revolution of 30th July 1830 and the subsequent “July monarchy” of Louis-Philippe. The crown passed from the senior to the junior branch of the Bourbons, and to a more liberal regime. But as the politician Adolphe Thiers remarked to Adélaïde, Louis-Philippe’s sister: “The crown… is too perilous today to be an object of ambition.”
Louis-Philippe and his brothers had been educated by their father’s progressive-minded mistress, Mme de Genlis. Made to sleep on boards with only a single blanket in the winter, and to wear lead-soled wooden clogs, they were taught modern languages and science as well as literature and history. They were also taught alongside several children of lesser rank. Louis-Philippe’s enlightened education as well as his years in exile and fifteen years observing the reigns of his cousins from within their courts, prepared him for the burdens of his own reign. But he was both king and revolutionary. When his family departed for the Palais-royal in 1830, they hailed a passing omnibus: it was the first time the family of a revolutionary leader “had rejoined him by public transport”
Most persons forget, if they ever knew it, that the French Revolution had begun as an attempt to produce a republican monarchy, not a republic. (Indeed, Munro Price’s last book, The Fall of the French Monarchy, concerned precisely this short-lived experiment, during which Louis XVI tried to work with the National Assembly.) Similarly misconceived, argues Price, is the notion that the constitutional monarchy from 1814 to 1848 was doomed to failure, the conventional assumption of the majority of historians who have written about this period. The later Bourbon kings felt that they were following the English constitutional model and indeed Louis-Philippe’s reign constituted almost two decades of peace and prosperity, surviving a series of shocks and crises that Price describes with a beady eye for the various colourful characters involved. But even the Anglo-maniacal Louis-Philippe, who had lived as an exile in England for much of his early life, failed to appreciate the need for electoral reform in 1848. Only 90,000 out of a total French population of 30 million were allowed the vote, whereas under the British monarchy the electorate had numbered 440,000 out of a total population of 20 million, rising to 656,000 after the 1832 Reform Act.
Louis-Philippe and his supporters “could not conceive that there could be a genuine mass uprising against a political system that had itself been born of revolution”. Yet the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were successful because of the complacency, tactical errors, and military incompetence of the ruling regimes, not because the masses felt especially oppressed. The 1848 revolution followed an inept attempt to suppress the so-called banqueting campaign for electoral reform – the government had outlawed banquets for political purposes – and was driven by the prosperous and aspirational Paris artisans. There was also a self-inhibiting factor. At the back of Louis-Philippe’s mind were memories of the French Revolution and an awareness of the need for a liberal-minded king to show restraint. Four months after his fall, the Second Republic, based on universal male suffrage, swiftly suppressed the Paris artisans with gunfire, causing Louis-Philippe to observe: “Republics are lucky: they can shoot people.”