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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
Another of those who thought the American minister might have done more for him when he was in prison was Thomas Paine. An Englishman by birth, Paine had emigrated to America just before the outbreak of the Revolution. He was destined to become the first modern internationalist, the kind of man who was ill at ease except in a country where people were fighting for their rights. He was brilliant, restless, and passionate in his convictions. His pamphlet Common Sense had been a trumpet blast in the Revolution. Paine endeared himself to the patriots by arguing that the independence of the Thirteen Colonies was nothing more nor less than the fulfillment of America’s moral obligation to the world.
By 1787, after fourteen years in America, Paine was back in England, with plans teeming in his fertile brain for building bridges out of iron instead of wood or stone. But he was also dreaming of a bigger and better revolution that would remedy all the ills of the world. Such a one he saw in the French upheaval, and he rushed to its defense with even more ardor, since he felt that in the New World independence had brought in its train a dangerous element of conservatism—any form of conservatism was dangerous in Paine’s eyes—and a dimming of the vision. A fresh book from his pen, The Rights of Man , written in answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution and championing everything that had been done in France since the fall of the Bastille, produced an immense sensation. At the suggestion of one of the Girondist deputies, the more moderate liberals then in power, certain well-known apostles of liberty, including George Washington, Kosciusko, Jeremy Bentham, and Tom Paine, were awarded French citizenship; such men obviously deserved to be Frenchmen.
But the following year the Girondists fell from power, and the far more radical Committee of Public Safety, anxious to undo everything the Girondists had done, deprived Paine of his French citizenship. By the end of 1793, under a law providing for the imprisonment of nationals of countries at war with France, Tom Paine found himself in the Luxembourg prison. It is ironic that the man considered a traitor in England was jailed in France for being an Englishman.
His admirers saw his imprisonment as a plot devised by his archenemy Gouverneur Morris, the American minister, and consented to by Jacobin politicians eager to rid themselves of a dangerous opponent. The whole idea is absurd. Certainly the political and social views of Gouverneur Morris and Tom Paine were poles apart, and in the days of the American Revolution Morris had been responsible for Paine’s losing his job as secretary to the committee on foreign affairs, on the grounds that he was a troublemaker and not qualified for the position. But there was no reason why Morris should have wanted to see a man whom he considered of no account put in jail. The fact is that Paine lost his French citizenship simply because patriotism, fanned by military defeat into hysteria, demanded extreme measures against all foreigners. Having satisfied himself that Paine’s life was not in danger and that the French authorities considered him a harmless, misguided humanitarian whom it was not worthwhile bringing to trial, Morris paid no further attention to him. Paine was out of his jurisdiction, since he had adopted French citizenship. To satisfy Paine’s friends Morris asked that the reasons for his imprisonment be communicated to the American government, but he did not press the matter. Paine was released in November, 1794, shortly after the fall of Robespierre, at the request of James Monroe, who by that time had taken Morris’ place as minister.
What the Jacobins called Paine’s mistaken humanitarianism consisted in a suggestion that the government put the king on a ship and export him to America, where he could pass the remainder of his life in obscurity, repenting of his sins. The Girondists had taken up the suggestion, and it had been arranged that the king should be shipped to America in charge of Citizen Genêt, the new minister of the French republic to the United States. Although the plan came to nothing when the Girondists fell, Genêt did go to America, where Jefferson as the official friend of France gave him a warm welcome. Genêt soon became a storm center of American politics, thanks to his clumsy efforts to involve America in the war in Europe on the side of France. He even tried to fit out privateers in America and to issue commissions to American citizens. Washington, who had already heard from Morris that the new French minister was a man of no account, waited until he had overplayed his hand and then demanded his recall. When his successor arrived to take his place, Genêt very wisely asked for—and received—permission to remain in the United States. Had he returned, he would almost certainly have been guillotined along with the other Girondists. It was much better to buy a farm on Long Island, marry the daughter of Governor DeWitt Clinton, and become an American citizen.