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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
As he surveyed the political scene in Paris Morris decided that the materials making for revolution were very indifferent. The leaders were not to be trusted, and the people were entirely unskilled in the business of self-government. Whereas Jefferson and Lafayette believed, and encouraged others to believe, that from the moment the Bastille was captured France was headed along the same road as America, Morris knew better. When Jefferson heard that his friend the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had been beaten to death by a French mob, he admitted that his affections had been deeply wounded, “but rather than see the Revolution fail [he] would prefer to see half the earth desolated.” With such fanaticism Morris had no sympathy. Long before the revolution burned itself out and the Napoleonic dictatorship had risen from the ashes, he had become disillusioned. He did not foresee that the revolution would eventually bring about a great improvement in society, though only after a generation of hideous convulsions. At the same time his letter to Washington, written just before the fall of the Bastille, proves that there was no truth in the belief, widely circulated by his enemies at home, that he was opposed to the revolution from the very beginning. On the contrary, at the beginning he was very much on.the side of reform: We have I think every Reason to wish that the Patriots may be successful. The generous Wish which a free people must form to disseminate Freedom, the grateful Emotion which rejoices in the Happiness of a Benefactor, and a strong Interest as well in the Liberty as in the Power of this Country, all conspire to make us far from indifferent Spectators. I say that we have an I NTEREST in the L IBERTY of France. The Leaders here are our Friends.
This is not the language of a reactionary or of one who did not wish to see any change in the condition of France. Morris differed from his critics in that he did not confuse his wishes for the success of the revolution with what he saw going on.
Objections to his appointment as minister came from the right as well as from the left. Once Jefferson had gone home, Morris was the bestknown American in Paris. As such he was a marked man, and it was not long before rumors were drifting back across the ocean about the unseemly love affairs of the American minister. How was it that he, an American, was on such very friendly terms with ladies of the aristocracy? Washington, who had every reason for liking Morris as one of his staunchest supporters in the dark days of Valley Forge, warned him of these rumors in a very candid letter. He reminded him that his “habit of expression, indicated a hauteur” and urged him to be more discreet in the future.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who as a Federalist shared Morris’ views, was more explicit. Sherman attacked him on grounds that showed the strength of Calvinist morality in his own state. “I consider him,” said Sherman in voting against the appointment, “as an irreligious and profane man. … I do not think the public have as much security from such men as from godly and honest men—it is a bad example to promote such characters.” In spite of the criticism of some who thought him too aristocratic and of others who shied away from the appointment of a man who was notoriously ungodly, the Senate confirmed Morris by a vote of 16 to 11.
Morris got word of his appointment while he was in London. He had gone there on a special mission to settle controversies, left over from the peace treaty of 1783, over trading posts, impressments, and commercial privileges. The results of his mission had been disappointing, and he was glad to get back to Paris. He had seen his half-brother Staats, now a brigadier in the British army, with whom he had always been on good terms, though they had agreed to disagree on the subject of American independence. The two brothers were glad to catch up with each other again, but Gouverneur’s heart was in Paris and he was eager to present his credentials.
These credentials, signed by Washington and Jefferson, congratulated the king on the new “edifice” of liberty he had just constructed, in which they hoped he would live happily for many years. In the early days of the revolution this hope seemed reasonable enough. On July 14, 1790, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the king, when he swore to maintain the constitution, was at the height of his popularity. Even his attempted flight on June 20, 1791, did not entirely turn the nation against him. Arrested at Varennes, he was brought back to Paris, but he was still regarded as the lawful monarch, and he took another oath of loyalty to his office on September 13, 1791. By the time Morris presented his credentials in the late spring of 1792, the edifice of liberty did not look particularly sound. The king was now practically a prisoner. The revolutionary dictatorship was an event utterly unsuspected by the makers of the constitution of 1791. The king, who never seems to have understood what was going on, graciously gave Morris permission to appear at court without wearing a sword, which he was not able to manage gracefully because of his wooden leg. On such matters of etiquette the king’s authority was still supreme, but within less than a year His Majesty would be on his way to the scaffold, and the edifice of liberty would be in ruins.