The Orleanists aimed politically to find a common measure for the monarchical principle and the "rights of man" as set forth by the revolutionary leaders in 1789. The careers of Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans (nicknamed Egalité) , and of his son Louis Philippe, King of the French (reigned 1830 - 1848), demonstrate the process of events by which it came to pass that the Orleans princes became the more or less successful advocates of this attempted compromise between old and new. One might note here, however, that a certain attitude of opposition, and of patronage of "freedom", had a tradition in this branch of the house of Bourbon.
Saint-Simon records that the regent Orleans who died in 1723 habitually avowed his admiration for English liberty - at least in safe company and private conversation. Philippe Egalité, who had reasons to dislike King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, stepped naturally into the position of spokesman of the liberal royalists of the early revolutionary time, and it was a short step from that position to the attitude of liberal candidates for the throne, as against the elder Bourbon branch of the Capetian royal house which claimed to reign by divine right. The elder branch as represented by Louis XVIII was prepared to grant (octroyer), and did grant, a charter of liberties. The count of Chambord, the last of the elder line (the Spanish Bourbons who descended directly from Louis XIV were considered to be barred by the renunciation of Philip V of Spain), was equally ready to grant a constitution. But these princes claimed to rule "in chief of God" and to confer constitutional rights on their subjects of their own free will, and mere motion. This feudal language and these mystic pretensions offended a people so devoted to principles as the French, and so acute in drawing deductions from premises, for they concluded, not unreasonably, that rights granted as a favour were always subject to revocation as a punishment. Therefore those of them who considered a monarchical government as more beneficial to France than a republic, but who were not disposed to hold their freedom subject to the pleasure of a king, became either Bonapartists who professed to rule by the choice of the nation, or supporters of the Orleans princes who were ready to reign by an "original compact" and by the will of the people. The difference therefore between the supporters of the elder line, or Legitimists, and the Orleanists became profound, for it went down to the very foundations of government.
The first generation of Orleanists, the immediate supporters of Philippe Egalité, were swamped in the turmoil of the great revolution. Yet it has been justly pointed out by Albert Sorel in his L’Europe et la révolution française, that they subsisted under the First French Empire, and that they came naturally to the front when the revival of liberalism overthrew the restored legitimate monarchy of Louis XVIII and Charles X During the Restoration, 1815 - 1830, everything tended to identify the liberals with the Orleanists. Legitimism was incompatible with constitutional freedom. Bonapartism was in eclipse, and was moreover essentially a Caesarism which in the hands of the Emperor Napoleon had been a despotism, calling itself democratic for no better reason than because it reduced all men to an equality of submission to a master. Those rights of equality before the law, and in social life, which had been far dearer to Frenchmen of the revolutionary epoch than political freedom, seemed secured. The next step was to obtain political freedom, and it was made under the guidance of men who were Orleanists because the Orleans princes seemed to them to offer the best guarantee for such a government as they desired—a government which did not profess to stand above the people and to own it by virtue of a divine and legitimate hereditary right, nor one which, like the Bonapartists, implied a master relying on an army, and the general subjection of the nation. The liberals who were Orleanists had the advantage of being very ably led by men eminent in letters and in practical affairs—Guizot, Thiers, Achille Charles Léon Victor, duc de Broglie, Jacques Victor Albert, duc de Broglie, the banker Jacques Laffitte and many others. When the unsurpassed folly of the legitimate rulers brought about the July Revolution of 1830, the Orleanists stepped in, and they marked the profound change which had been made in the character of the government by calling the king "King of the French" and not "King of France and Navarre". That king appeared as the chief of the people by compact with the people, and not as a territorial lord holding, in feudal phrase, "in chief of God".
The events of the eighteen years of Orleanist rule (1830 - 1848) were on the whole profitable to France. They ended in another "general overturn", the February Revolution of 1848, due no doubt in part to errors of conduct in individual princes and politicians, but due mainly to the fact that the Orleanist conception of the meaning of the word "people" led them to offend the long-standing and deeply-rooted love of the French for equality. It had been inevitable that the Orleanists, in their dislike of "divine right" on the one hand, and their fear of democratic Caesarism on the other, should turn for examples of a free government to England, and in England itself to the Whigs, both the old Whigs of the Revolution Settlement of 1689, and the new Whigs who extorted political franchises for the middle classes by the Reform Bill. The Orleanists saw in Great Britain a monarchy based on a parliamentary title, governing constitutionally and supported by the middle classes, and they endeavoured to establish the like in France under the name of a juste-milieu, a via media between political absolutism by divine right and a democracy which they were convinced would lead to Caesarism. The French equivalent for the English middle-class constituencies was to be a pays legal of about a quarter of a million of voters by whom all the rest of the country was to be "virtually represented". Guizot expounded and carried out this doctrine with uncompromising rigour. The Orleanist monarchy became so thoroughly middle-class that the nation outside of the pays legal ended by regarding the government as a privileged class less offensive, but also a great deal less brilliant, than the aristocracy of the old monarchy.
The revolution of 1848 swept the Orleanist party from power for ever. The Orleanists indeed continued throughout the Second Republic (1848 - 1852) and the Empire (1852 - 1870) to enjoy a marked social and literary prestige, on the strength of the wealth and capacity of some of their members, their influence in the Académie française and the ability of their organs in the press—particularly the Revue des deux mondes, the Journal des débats, and the papers directed by E. Hervé. During the Second Empire the discreet opposition of the Orleanists, exercised for the most part with infinite dexterity and tact, by reticences, omissions, and historical studies in which the Empire was attacked under foreign or ancient names, was a perpetual thorn in the side of Napoleon III. Yet they possessed little hold on the country outside a cultivated liberal circle in Paris. They demonstrated their weakness when the second empire was swept away by the German War of 1870 - 1871. The country, in its disgust at the Bonapartists and its fear of the Republicans, chose a great many royalists to represent it in the Assembly which met in Bordeaux on 12 February 1872. In this body the Orleanists again exercised a kind of leadership by virtue of individual capacity, but they were counterbalanced by the Legitimists, The most effective proof of power they gave was to render possible the expulsion from power of Thiers on 24 May 1873, as punishment for his dexterous imposition of the Third Republic on the unwilling majority of the Assembly.
The chief occupation of the Orleanists now consisted in endeavouring to bring about a fusion between themselves and the Legitimists which should unite the two royalist parties for the confusion of the Bonapartists and Republicans. The belief that a fusion would strengthen the royalists was natural and was not new. As far back as 1850 Guizot had proposed, or had thought of proposing, one, but it was on the condition that the comte de Chambord would resign his divine pretensions. When a fusion was arranged in 1873 it stood on quite another footing. After much exchange of notes and many agitated conferences in committee rooms and drawing-rooms, the comte de Paris, the representative of the Orleanists, sought an interview with the comte de Chambord at Frohsdorff, and obtained it by giving a written engagement that he came not only to pay his respects to the head of his house, but also to "accept his principle". It has been somewhat artlessly pleaded by the Orleanists that this engagement was given with mental reservations. But no mental reservations remained on the part of the comte de Chambord, and the country showed its belief that the liberal royalists had been fused by absorption in the divine-right royalists. It returned republicans at by-elections till it transformed the Assembly.
The Orleanist princes had still a part to play, more particularly after the death of the comte de Chambord in 1883 left them heads of the house of France, but the Orleanist party ceased to exist as an independent political organisation.
In the twentieth century the organisational impetus for the Orleanists passed to radical right wing groups, particularly Action Française who saw the Orleanist cause as the only way to rescue France from what they perceived to be the corruption of the Republic. Although the Orleanists were given a new vitality, the initiative passed to other organisations who although sincere monarchists also had other agendas. The Orleanist cause ceased to be that of moderation between the extremes of the Bourbons and the Republicans, but started to be seen as definitely something of the right. It was perhaps unfairly associated with Petain's National Revolution and has never been a serious political force since.
See also: Duke of Orléans