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“a Representative Of America”
Vain, snobbish, distinctly upper-class in his libertine social habits, Gouverneur Morris nevertheless saw himself justifiably as
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
But then came 1779 and his refusal to favor New York interests in the New Hampshire Grants, and Morris was defeated for re-election. He was not idle for long. Early in 1780 he wrote a series of brilliant financial articles, which brought him an invitation from Robert Morris, newly created superintendent of finances, to serve as his assistant. He accepted, and soon his tidy mind evolved a plan for a decimal system of coinage. His plan was later perfected by Jefferson, but the original idea stemmed from Gouverneur. He and Robert were not related to each other, but they quickly became great friends. “I could do nothing without [Gouverneur],” wrote Robert to John Jay, “and our quiet labours do but just keep the wheels in motion.” Later he said that Gouverneur “has more virtue than he shows, and more consistency than anybody believes.”
Robert Morris, the English-born financier of the American Revolution, was the richest as well as one of the ablest of the delegates to the convention. His luxury, said one of the visitors, was not to be outdone “by any commercial voluptuary of London.” During the war he had bought supplies and borrowed money in the face of appalling difficulties, providing Washington with the material assistance without which the army could not have been kept together. As soon as the war was over, he began speculating in western lands, a form of investment that held an irresistible attraction for many of his friends, including Washington himself. The excitement of large-scale dealings led him to make his tobacco monopoly with the Farmers General in France. It was to press the claims of his over-sanguine friend—claims that aroused the antagonism of other tobacco dealers—that, early in 1789, Gouverneur Morris went to Paris. There could have been no better or more willing emissary.
He was following in the footsteps of giants. Benjamin Franklin had arrived in Paris in 1776, when the Thirteen Colonies were only just beginning their struggle for independence. To the French people Franklin was a Socrates born again in an age of enlightenment. As John Adams had to admit—almost against his will, for he had no great liking for Franklin—“his reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any of them.”
By the time Franklin was replaced by Jefferson, in 1785, the foundations of a very special relationship between the two countries had already been laid. Jefferson lived for some time in the shadow of Franklin’s immense reputation, but as the revolution gathered momentum he endeared himself to all who were impatient with the status quo by his unshakable faith in the perfectibility of mankind. America’s third minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, was not as great a man as either Franklin or Jefferson, but he saw more clearly than the latter, perhaps because he was on the spot, that the popular party in France had no real idea where it was going. The analogy with America, which Jefferson was always trying to apply, seemed to him utterly false. Long before 1776 American colonists, in spite of the stupidities of a Tory government in England, enjoyed a freedom and a prosperity of which the French populace had no conception. Revolution in France was to involve a far greater upheaval of society than it had in America.
Meanwhile Morris” reputation as one of the ablest of the founders of the new nation had preceded him, and this reputation, combined with his good looks, his pleasant manners, and his excellent command of the language, assured him a warm welcome in society. His mother had bequeathed to him a certain alien brilliance that Frenchmen and, still more, Frenchwomen found irresistible. Whatever failings Morris might possess were more apparent to his own countrymen than they would be to a foreigner. “The tall boy,” as he had been known in Philadelphia, took Paris by storm.
Morris had a wooden leg, which added to the curiosity he excited in French society. There were rumors that he had lost it fighting against the British, and that he had been discovered where he should not have been by a jealous husband and had broken his leg jumping out of the window. The truth was more prosaic. He broke his leg one May morning in 1780 while climbing into a phaeton for a trip to the country. A possibly overzealous doctor amputated immediately. Morris bore the loss with what Robert Livingston called becoming fortitude. The only reference in his diary to what he calls his wooden peg, other than his pride in his ability to climb church steeples, is that he is constantly slipping and falling in “the cursed mud” of Paris, with disastrous results to his breeches. The wooden leg is still to be seen in the New-York Historical Society. There also will be found a number of his letters, but the diary of his day-to-day life in Paris, one of the most interesting documents of its kind and one, incidentally, that the French historian Taine found invaluable when he came to write his own history of the period, is preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington.