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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
Morris’ diplomatic status demanded aloofness from the internal affairs of France, which was not an easy position for him to maintain, considering the number of friends he had in what had hitherto been considered high places. At the same time he was confronted with a host of official problems any one of which would require today the presence of a special representative from the White House. But this was still the golden age of diplomacy, when ambassadors and ministers made their own decisions. There was one period during the two years of his mission when Morris heard nothing from the State Department for six months. One of his problems was to know whether to hand over a substantial installment of the money owed to France at a time when France was no longer a monarchy and not yet a republic. It is significant that though he was supposed to be a monarchist, Morris paid the debt on the theory, which proved to be entirely correct, that a Bourbon resurrection was infinitely remote.
In the meantime, with the help of Madame de Flahaut, Morris had acquired a very fine house in the Faubourg St. Germain, no. 488 rue de la Planche, for which he paid thirty-five hundred francs a year. That was a substantial sum, but Morris was a rich man and he was determined to do things in style. The house had belonged to Henry Seymour, described as an eccentric “grand seigneur anglais.” Seymour had the distinction of being the last, or believing himself to be the last, gentleman especially favored by Madame du Barry before she went to the guillotine.
In his diary Morris tells us of making the rounds of the shops with Madame de Flahaut, ordering the necessary silver, china, linen—everything that might be needed for the home of the American minister. This was in May, 1792, just before the mob invaded the Tuileries. France was already at war with Germany and Austria. We think of Paris as being in a continuous uproar, but below the surface life goes on as usual, and here are Gouverneur Morris and his charming lady driving about Paris in his post chaise, enjoying their shopping bouts, just as if the world were jogging along as usual.
While he was busy installing himself in his new home he was confronted by a difficulty involving Lafayette. Morris did not care much for the gallant young marquis, but owing to his services to America Lafayette would always be the official friend of whoever happened to be the American minister in Paris. In December, 1791 the “hero of two worlds,” as he had come to be known, had been placed in command of the army on the northeastern frontier. Within less than a year he had become the most popular figure in France, a great landowner who had declared himself opposed to the privileges of his class. He was a friend of the people who was now about to play the same altruistic role at home as he had played abroad. Unfortunately the course of revolution in France had been more complicated than in America. The liberals of 1789 had become the conservatives of 1792. Lafayette had tried to keep a foot in both camps. Now when he finally realized it was time to take a stand against Robespierre and the Jacobins, it was too late.
The troops he commanded, under the influence of special representatives sent out by the convention, refused to follow him. Lafayette saw that his cause was lost, and with a number of other officers he fled across the frontier, intending to make his way to Holland or to England. The party fell into the hands of Austrians, and for the next five years Lafayette was held as a prisoner of state in spite of the efforts of his American friends to rescue him. Morris considered he had been crushed on the wheel he himself had set in motion, but Lafayette had done so much for America, and was so enormously popular there, that Morris felt he must do what he could for him. He could claim that Lafayette was an American citizen, which he certainly was, but he was also a very prominent Frenchman, a deserter fleeing from the so-called justice of the governing faction. He was also a prisoner of the Austrian emperor, in whose eyes he was little better than a bloodthirsty anarchist.
After conferring with the American ministers in London and at The Hague, Morris concluded that he would be doing Lafayette no good by demanding his release on the ground that he was an American. That he was not indifferent to Lafayette’s fate is proved by his advancing a hundred thousand livres to Madame de Lafayette with which to pay her husband’s debts and at the same time provide him with some of the amenities of life while he was still in prison. Furthermore, when Madame herself was in prison and in danger of the guillotine, Morris intervened with the revolutionary tribunal and saved her life. Sad to say, the Lafayettes were not very grateful for Morris’ good offices. His loan, scaled down to fifty-three thousand livres, was grudgingly repaid years later. Perhaps they felt that Morris had not bestirred himself as he should and that he had accepted Lafayette’s imprisonment too philosophically.