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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
Meanwhile Morris stayed on in Paris, very much in demand in the salons, meeting everybody of any importance and recording in his diary or in his letters his opinion of those who were trying to direct the course of events. Like most of the king’s well-wishers Morris was exasperated by him. In January of 1790 he wrote that he believed Louis XVI to be “an honest and good man … but what will you have from a Creature who, situated as he is eats and drinks and sleeps well and is as merry a Grig as lives?” As the king’s position deteriorated further Morris concluded he was a well-intentioned muddler incapable of sticking to any decision. This frankly expressed opinion would seem to be the answer to those who thought the American minister too sympathetic with the monarchy. Though he found the king pleasant enough, he decided he was too like his foreign minister, the Comte de Montmorin, who “means well, very well. But he means it feebly.”
It would have been well for the king if he had followed the excellent advice Morris gave him. In 1791 he urged the king not to allow any sneering by members of the court at the constitution then in the making, and he begged him to dismiss a household disapproved of by the nation and to surround himself with people more in sympathy with reform. He wanted the king to accept the constitution provisionally, leaving loopholes for revision of certain clauses that he thought unworkable. To this end he analyzed it article by article in what Theodore Roosevelt has called a very able state paper.
Morris’ estimate of Lafayette was not much more complimentary than his estimate of the king. In his opinion Lafayette was not a man of any real ability, and in every emergency he is cursed by his desire to shine, his besoin de briller , as Morris puts it in his diary. In another passage he writes: “If the Sea runs high he will be unable to hold the Helm.” Morris was also quick to discover the limitations of Necker, the Swiss banker who had been summoned to Paris to put the French finances in order. He was also suspicious of Mirabeau, whom he thought untrustworthy. It speaks well for his judgment that he detected the feet of clay in these two idols long before they were apparent to anybody else.
Even before Morris became minister, he saw a good deal of Necker, whom he was instructed to sound out with a view to arriving at some agreement about the payment of the French debt. The discussion came to nothing. Morris made suggestions that were neither accepted nor refused. He concluded finally that Necker, in spite of his reputation, was not much of a financier. This opinion was confirmed when it appeared that this financial wizard of whom so much was expected came up with a plan for extricating France from her difficulties by demanding of all citizens a “patriotic contribution.” Every man was to declare, if he pleased, what he estimated as his annual income and to pay one fourth of it in three years. Morris did not think much of this last-minute appeal for help. As he noted in his diary, “The plans he [Necker] has proposed are feeble and ineptious.”
Mirabeau, whose funeral he and some hundred thousand others attended, puzzled him more than Necker did. He was a giant. In the space of two years Morris had seen him “hissed, honored, hated and mourned.” He was a man of great gifts, but he was never under the control of reason “nor the firm Authority of Principle.”
Instinctively Morris seemed to be matching Mirabeau with another giant, his friend Washington, who had succeeded in winning independence because he possessed to an extraordinary degree the qualities Mirabeau lacked.