François Guillemin: Spying and scandal in 19th century New Orleans

François Guillemin was the French consul in New Orleans during the time in which Napoleon in America is set. As part of his job consisted of spying on Napoleon’s followers, Guillemin has his hands full in the book when Napoleon himself arrives in the city. In real life, much of what we know about Guillemin is thanks to his encounters with two other well-known figures: Alexis de Tocqueville and Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba.

French consul in New Orleans

New Orleans (Faubourg Marigny) in 1821, when François Guillemin was French consul

New Orleans (Faubourg Marigny) in 1821, when François Guillemin was French consul

J.N. (or Jean Armand) François Guillemin was born in France around 1777. He joined the French diplomatic service and wound up in the United States, where he served for a short time with the French consular service at Savannah and Baltimore. In September 1816, Guillemin went to New Orleans on an interim appointment. He stayed on and became the French consul there.

Owing to the Bourbon government’s concern about Bonapartist activity abroad, spying on French citizens in the United States was a flourishing diplomatic activity. On January 1, 1817, Guillemin began to keep records of all French citizens entering the port of New Orleans. He sent these lists – as well as reports about the activities of Bonapartist officers – to the French ambassador, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, in Washington, who sent them on to the Duke of Richelieu, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Consular reports were shared with the Ministry of War (who in turn passed on what they knew about the Napoleonic officers in America) and with the Ministry of Police. De Neuville even worked out a system with the British ambassador for keeping tabs on Frenchmen in America who sought to sneak into Europe on English passports.

Despite the spying, Guillemin appears to have been well thought of. In 1818, the French nun Philippine Duchesne described him as “the most honest, religious, obliging” man. (1) Guillemin remained the French consul in the city until 1832, when he became the French consul in Havana.

Tocqueville’s interlocutor

Alexis de Tocqueville, on his tour of America, visited Guillemin on January 2, 1832, just before the latter’s departure for Cuba. He remarked that Guillemin’s courteous manner “concealed an ego which prefers monologue to conversation.” (2) Still:

Monsieur Guillemin is certainly an able man and, I think, someone of means. All that is exceptional. For incompetence among French agents abroad seems to be the rule. (3)

Guillemin told Tocqueville that Louisiana’s inhabitants were “more concerned with French affairs than with their own.” He thought it important for French manners to be preserved in Louisiana. “In that way, one of the great American doors remains open” to France. He pointed out that almost all the land in Louisiana was still in French (Creole) hands, though big business belonged to the Americans. The French Creoles were no match for the Americans as entrepreneurs because they did not like taking risks and feared bankruptcy as a disgrace. In contrast, the Americans “are eaten up with longing for wealth…come with little to lose and very few of the honorable scruples the French feel about paying their debts.” (4)

When asked whether there was bitterness between the French and the Americans in Louisiana, Guillemin responded:

Each criticizes the other. They do not see each other much, but at bottom there is no real hostility. (5)

Guillemin did not think much of democracy in America:

You have no idea of such Bedlam. The people appoint intriguers without talent to office, while outstanding men seldom achieve it. The legislature ceaselessly makes, alters and repeals the laws… The government is a prey to factions. You see what a state of neglect and dirt the town is in; it has a revenue of a million francs. But much squandering of public money prevails. People say that by widening the franchise one increases the independence of the vote. I think the opposite. In all countries the working classes are at the disposition of those who employ them; and in those where they decide elections, it is the intrigues of a few industrialists that fix the supposed free choice of the people. (6)

He didn’t think this would get in the way of Louisiana’s prosperity, as the government had the merit of being “very weak” and “not hampering any freedom.”

When Tocqueville said he had heard that morality among the coloured population was bad, Guillemin replied:

But how could you expect it to be otherwise? The law in some sort destines women of color to wantonness…. These women, and many others, too, who are not as white as they, have nonetheless by now almost the color and graces of Europe, and have often received an excellent education. And yet the law forbids them to marry into the reigning and wealthy race of whites…. If, without giving rights to the Negroes, the white race had at least admitted into its circle those colored people whose birth and education make them closest to it, it would infallibly have attached them to its cause, for they really are much nearer to the whites than to the blacks; and that would have left nothing but brute force on the side of the Negroes. By rebuffing them, on the other hand, they have given the slaves the one kind of power they lacked in order to become free, that of intelligence and leaders. (7)

Madame de Pontalba’s companion

Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, by Frank Schneider, 1927, based on a 19th century miniature

Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, by Frank Schneider, 1927, based on a 19th century miniature

At the time, Guillemin was caught up in something of a moral scandal of his own. In 1831, the wealthy Micaela Almonester de Pontalba (later Baroness de Pontalba) visited her home town of New Orleans and conferred with the French consul as part of the procedure for filing for divorce against her cousin, who was a French citizen. The 54-year-old widower – Guillemin’s wife, Caroline de Pieray, had died in 1817 – became attached to the 35-year-old Micaela. They spent 15 months together. He joined her on a steamboat tour of New York and southeast Canada, even though he was supposed to be leaving for Cuba. Micaela wrote to her aunt regarding Guillemin:

He stays with me at the inn, where we get on marvelously and tells me that he will not go away to the consulate until I leave for the country. We dine at the ship’s common table. Since my arrival, my room is never empty. (8)

Micaela went out of her way to visit Pensacola with Guillemin, then accompanied him for “a tour” to Cuba.

Guillemin’s name became caught up in Micaela’s separation trial. If found guilty of adultery, Micaela would have been subject to a mandatory prison sentence and other penalties. Micaela’s lawyer told a French court that if the judges “had but a portrait of the gentleman, they would see how absurd was the imputation of an improper relationship” between the two. (9) By then, Guillemin who died in 1835, was not around to speak up in the Baroness’s defence. In any case, her husband never succeeded in proving anything except that Micaela “kept company” with Guillemin for several months.

Micaela was eventually granted a legal separation, though not until after her father-in-law shot her four times point blank with a pair of dueling pistols at the family château. In a nice twist of diplomatic affairs, she went on to commission the construction of a mansion in Paris that is today known as the Hôtel de Pontalba and serves as the official residence of the US Ambassador to France. She is also responsible for the construction of the Pontalba Buildings in New Orleans. You can read more about Micaela and Guillemin in Christina Vella’s biography, cited below.

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Slavery in New Orleans and Napoleon’s view therof

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  1. Chantal Paisant, Les années pionnières, 1818-1823 (Paris, 2001), p. 120.
  2. Christina Vella, Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba (Baton Rouge, 1997), p. 144.
  3. The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour: Exploring Democracy in America – Journal entries from Tocqueville’s trip: Interview with Consul Guillemin. http://www.tocqueville.org/la3.htm#0101b. Accessed March 27, 2014.
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Mélanges, Fragments Historiques et Notes sur l’Ancien Régime, la Révolution et l’Empire (Paris, 1865), pp. 295-96.
  5. Ibid., p. 296.
  6. http://www.tocqueville.org/la3.htm#0101b. Accessed March 27, 2014.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Vella, Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, p. 143.
  9. Ibid., p. 142.

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Monsieur Guillemin is certainly an able man and, I think, someone of means. All that is exceptional. For incompetence among French agents abroad seems to be the rule.

Alexis de Tocqueville