The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation


With the Confederation drawing to a close, Jay sought to defer decisions on foreign affairs until the new government was formally installed. One problem could not be put off, however. In 1787 the Comte de Moustier was named France’s minister to the United States, succeeding the chargé d’affaires, Louis-Guillaume Otto, whom Jay disliked intensely. The Comte was accompanied to New York by his sister-in-law, Madame la Marquise de Bréhan, who travelled with him ostensibly for reasons of health. The Comte had never been known for his tact, and, save perhaps for “Copenhagen” Jackson, the offensive British envoy to the United States on the eve of the War of 1812, it is hard to think of a diplomat better calculated to arouse the most hostile feelings in his host nation than was Moustier. The Comte presented his credentials to Congress in February, 1788, and settled down with the Madame la Marquise in a splendid town house. He quickly rubbed everyone the wrong way by his unadulterated snobbery and his outrageously bad manners. He showed his contempt for Americans by various calculated insults: he called Cyrus Griffin, the Virginia lawyer and President of Congress, “a tavernkeeper”; and he took along his own chef when he went out to dine. Apart from his hauteur and his notorious stinginess, Moustier shocked American society, above all the very proper John Jay, by giving credence to the growing scandal that he was living in sin with his very odd sister-in-law, who held him captive to her caprices. Jay put the matter to Jefferson in Paris in a letter he entrusted to Gouverneur Morris, who was about to sail for France. The request for Moustier’s recall, it must be remembered, was from Jay, not from Congress.

Private N York 25 Novr. 1788

Dear Sir

… The Count de Moustier found in this Country the best Dispositions to make it agreable to him, but it seems he expected more particular and flattering Marks of minute Respect than our People in general entertain ideas of, or are either accustomed or inclined to pay to anybody. This added as I suspect and believe to Insinuations from persons who have no Desire that he should be very agreable to us, or we to him, have led him into Errors relative to men and things which naturally dispose him to give and receive Disgust. Appearances (whether well or ill founded is not important) have created and diffused an opinion that an improper Connection subsists between him and the Marchioness. You can easily conceive the Influence of such an opinion on the Minds and Feelings of such a People as ours. For my part I regret it; she seems to be an amiable woman; and I think if left to the Operation of his own judgment and Disposition his Conduct relative to this Country would be friendly and useful. These are things that I have not said or written to any other person. Nor is it pleasant to say or write them, but in the situation you are in, Information of this Kind may have its uses. With great Esteem and Regard I am Dear Sir Your most Obt. & Hble. Servt.,


On prodding from Jefferson, France’s foreign secretary, the Comte de Montmorin, Vergennes’s successor, granted Moustier a “leave of absence.” In October of 1789 Moustier sailed for home, the first foreign diplomat to be the victim of an American foreign secretary’s notions of propriety.

In the spring of 1789, meanwhile, Jay had seen his efforts rewarded when a strong central government under the leadership of President Washington took up its task. The President-elect was met by cheering crowds on his journey from Mount Vernon to New York to assume his post as the nation’s first Chief Executive under the Constitution. A barge especially constructed for the occasion conveyed him from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to New York Harbor. He was greeted by a tumultuous welcome, and on April 30 he was inaugurated at Federal Hall. Jay saw his fondest hopes fulfilled. In the years to come he was to continue to play a leading role in the great federal drama.