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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
The many references in Morris’ diary to the charming ladies he was in the habit of visiting make us forget how much solid work he accomplished both before and after his appointment as minister. His appointment was dated January 12, 1792, so that for nearly two and a half years he was living in Paris as a private citizen, but an unusually busy private citizen. Jefferson went home in October, 1789, and his very able secretary, William Short, became chargé d’affaires. Morris and he were on good terms, but it was a great disappointment to him when Morris received the Paris post and he was appointed to The Hague.
Today a man in public life requires telephones, computers, and a whole battery of clerks and secretaries before he can begin to function, but in the eighteenth century a statesman, a diplomat, or a businessman—and Morris was something of all three—was more self-sufficient. He wrote innumerable reports and letters in his own hand without breaking down or suffering from nervous exhaustion. Getting up at cockcrow and driving his quill with prodigious industry, he had drafted a report on the tobacco situation, written Washington a full account of the beginnings of the revolution, and gone to Houdon’s studio to sit for the statue of Washington (Houdon, the greatest sculptor of his day, had been commissioned by the Virginia State Legislature to do a statue of Washington. While the head was done from life, in 1785, in Mt. Vernon, the body, which was done in Paris some years later, was none other than Gouverneur Morris) before dressing for a three o’clock dinner, an early opera, and an evening call on Madame de Flahaut.
This lady had the dubious distinction of being one of the many mistresses of Talleyrand, by whom she had a son, Charles de Flahaut, who was to become one of the glittering young men of the Napoleonic empire, the lover of Queen Hortense of Holland, and the father of the Duc de Morny.
The story of the charming Madame de Flahaut, her husband, the Comte de Flahaut, Talleyrand the official lover, and Morris the triumphant newcomer is an unusual one in that it involves four characters instead of the customary three. Since this was the eighteenth century, they all remained on good terms. Occasionally the Comte de Flahaut may have been slightly disgruntled when his wife and Gouverneur Morris insisted on talking English together, which he did not understand, but there was never any bitterness between them. Morris’ description of an evening call on Madame de Flahaut throws a curious light on this ménage. The Flahauts lived in the Louvre, at that time a vast rabbit warren of a building cut up into separate rooms and apartments for persons attached to the court for whom there was no suitable accommodation in Versailles. Residence in the Louvre was a sign of pensioned poverty, and the Flahauts had been living there for ten years at the time Morris met them. The count had succeeded the celebrated naturalist Buffon as director of the king’s gardens, but his duties were not onerous. By a convenient arrangement his rooms were on the floor below his wife’s, so that if any visitor stayed too long, he could always retire to his own apartments.
On one occasion the two friendly rivals, Morris and Talleyrand, who was at that time still known as the Bishop of Autun, had arranged to meet at Madame de Flahaut’s to discuss whether or not she would be well advised to invest in American lands. There was a theory long prevalent in Europe that anybody who owned vast tracts of land in America, no matter where they were, automatically became a millionaire overnight. “Madame being ill,” Morris records in his diary, “I find her with her feet in warm water, and when she is about to take them out … the Bishop employs himself in warming her bed and I look on. It is curious enough to see a Reverend father of the Church engaged in this pious Operation.” The scene suggests a Fragonard painting.
A few years later Madame de Flahaut was to give up Talleyrand, as she found him lacking in devotion to her interests. For a while she was willing to divorce her husband and marry her American admirer, but Morris hesitated, the events of the revolution intervened, and they drifted apart. Madame de Flahaut fled to England to escape the guillotine, and there was Talleyrand again at her side, not passionately in love with her yet always friendly and good-tempered. He probably lent her a hand in the writing of sentimental novels. One of these, Adèle de Sénange , netted her forty thousand francs. Not many of the French émigrés in London provided for themselves as successfully as Madame de Flahaut.