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“A Representative of America”

July 2024
27min read

Vain, snobbish, distinctly upper-class in his libertine social habits, Gouverneur Morris nevertheless saw himself justifiably as "A Representative of America"

Of all the remarkable men who forgathered in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, and perhaps to do even more, Gouverneur Morris was certainly the most talkative. Between May and September, when the delegates adjourned, he made a hundred and seventy-three speeches—twelve more than Madison, his nearest competitor. Yet he was never tedious, and though there was often a vein of cynicism in him that distressed Madison, he was very much in earnest when he spoke about the absolute necessity of founding a strong central government. In the controversies that developed between the small states and the big states, Morris asserted that “state attachments and state importance had been the bane of the country” and that he was present not as a mere delegate from one section but “as a representative of America,—a representative in some degree of the whole human race, for the whole human race would be affected by the outcome of the convention.”

At the same time Morris was very much a New York aristocrat. In the convention he served as one of the eight delegates from Pennsylvania, but that was because he had moved to Philadelphia after the politicians of New York had refused to re-elect him to the Continental Congress at the end of 1979. They were disgusted with him for giving too much of his attention to the affairs of the nation instead of devoting himself to the affairs of his own state. The particular quarrel New York had with him was over his lukewarm attitude in the dispute with Vermont. Under the leadership of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, Vermont settlers had applied to the Congress for admission to the Confederation. New York bitterly opposed their claim on the ground that the New Hampshire Grants, the original name for Vermont, had been legally acquired by New York. Morris did not sympathize with the position taken by his state. He was wise enough to see that the Vermonters had much of the right on their side in addition to the great fact of possession. When in 1791 Vermont became an independent state, which, as Morris had foreseen, was inevitable, the small politicians of New York never forgave him. It was twenty years before he was again chosen to represent his state.

There were other reasons why Morris was never popular with the electorate. He made no secret of the fact that the strong government he had in mind was always to be in the hands of the rich and well-born. The responsibilities following from political liberty could only be appreciated and exercised by the gentry. “Give the votes to the people who have no property,” he argued, “and they will sell them to the rich.”

In this connection he was deeply suspicious of the West. His Americanism did not extend beyond the Atlantic seaboard. No one had championed the cause of the Thirteen Colonies with more vigor or more conviction, but his patriotism stopped at the Appalachians. There was nothing of the pioneer about Gouverneur Morris. In his philosophy “the Busy haunts of men not the remote wilderness, was the proper school of political Talents. … The back members are almost always averse to the best measures.” Along with Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Morris wished to see the Constitution limit the admission of new states “in such a manner that they should never be able to outnumber the Atlantic states.” The Westerners would inevitably bring on a war with Spain on account of their claims to the Mississippi River. What could be more absurd than “to quarrel about a country inhabited only by red men, and to claim a territory we cannot occupy, a navigation we cannot enjoy”?

With these exceptions Gouverneur Morris was one of the most valuable of the Founding Fathers. If some of the positions he took seem to us absurd, as indeed they did to his contemporaries, in other respects he was more in tune with posterity than with his own age. He was outspoken in his opposition to slavery and to the extension of the slave trade for twenty years, a measure that was passed against his protest to satisfy the delegates of Georgia and South Carolina. He was also a firm believer in religious liberty; and when his friend John Jay, the descendant of Huguenot forebears who had been driven out of France, declared that he wished to erect “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics,” Morris would have none of it.

Except on a few such issues Morris was not a fighter by temperament. When some of his pet theories were rejected, he took it philosophically and continued to work shoulder to shoulder with Hamilton and Madison for a strong central government. In the end he loyally accepted the bundle of compromises that make up the Constitution and devoted his talents to putting the document in its final literary form. “The finish given to the style and arrangement,” wrote Madison, “fairly belongs to the pen of Mr Morris.” Madison, though occasionally distressed by Morris’ veneer of cynicism, paid him a further compliment on his services to the convention: “To the brilliancy of his genius he added, what is too rare, a candid surrender of his opinions when the light of discussion satisfied him that they had been too hastily formed, and a readiness to aid in making the best of measures in which he had been overruled.”

No one had a better claim to high office than Gouverneur Morris, a friend of Washington and one of the most prominent members of the Continental Congress. His father, Lewis Morris, had served on the bench and in the assembly of New York, as had his grandfather also. This grandfather was the first native-born chief justice of the supreme court of New York from 1715 until 1733, when Governor William Cosby, angered by a decision Morris had handed down denying Cosby’s suit for arrears in salary, dismissed him. The publication of Morris’ attack on Cosby by John Peter Zenger resulted in the famous trial in which the governor met with humiliating defeat and Zenger was acquitted. This trial constituted a landmark in the continuous battle for freedom of the press, of which Morris’ grandson Gouverneur was very proud.

He also inherited a tradition of public service from his ancestors. He learned that the rights of the colonists must be defended at all times against the encroachments of royal governors, and also against the unseemly demands of the mob. The Morrises of Morrisania ranked among the first families of New York. Their two-thousand-acre manor, just outside New York in what is now the Bronx, was according to one account “the pritdest and best conditioned Farm in America.”


Lewis Morris the father was married twice, first to Tryntje Staats, by whom he had three sons and a daughter, and then fifteen years after her death to Sarah Gouverneur, a descendant of a Huguenot family driven out of France by the religious wars. One of the sons of the first marriage, another Lewis Morris, became a general in the Revolutionary army and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another son, Staats Long Morris, became a major general in the British army and married the Dowager Duchess of Gordon. Gouverneur Morris, born January 30, 1752, was the only son by the second marriage. We know little about his mother except that she insisted on sending her son to the French Huguenot school at New Rochelle, where he learned the excellent French that proved such an asset to him later on in his career. John Jay, a lifelong friend of Gouverneur, was educated at the same school. Mrs. Morris lived on her estate, which was within the British lines, throughout the war, and was suspected of having Loyalist sympathies. There is no question that the war made a cleavage in the Morris family, as it did in many others, particularly among the well-to-do.

In the growing controversies that preceded the Revolution, Morris, like most conservatives, hoped for a compromise. He looked upon the resort to arms as an extreme step forced upon the colonists by the tide of events. As a member of the landed aristocracy he dreaded the social upheaval that he feared war and the resulting separation from the mother country would bring in its wake. Yet when the breach came, he championed the patriot cause unreservedly. Theodore Roosevelt (who wrote a biography of Morris) thought he clung too long to the hope of a reconciliation and to a policy of half measures; but wherever questions of war and peace were involved, Roosevelt had no patience with those who were not as impulsive as himself.

Morris took his time, but having made his choice after the most careful consideration, he at once became a leader in the insurgent movement. He was among the first to realize that the colonists must present a united front if they were to win their rights from Great Britain either by compromise or by force. Throughout the war he was a strong defender of the dignity and power of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Even as early as 1768, when at the age of sixteen he graduated from King’s College, New York, he spoke of himself in his graduation address as among those “who can boast the glorious Title of free born Americans.” Ten years later, when he had become a member of the Continental Congress, it is not surprising that this far-sighted young man had so far outdistanced his colleagues that he had become a nationalist before the nation was born.

In Congress Morris managed to establish himself as an authority on financial, military, and diplomatic matters. In the spring of 1776 he had met George Washington in New York; he would remain devoted to the general for the rest of his life. Nor was there anything one-sided about the friendship. Washington came to rely on him as his most able and vigorous defender in Congress. Usually very formal in his correspondence, Washington, on one occasion at least, in writing to Morris pleading for regimental reorganization in the army, suddenly lets out a cry for help: “For Godsake my dear Morris, let me recomd. it to you to urge the absolute necessity of this measure.”

Morris was only in Congress for two years, but they were fruitful ones. His influence dominated the rejection of the British peace mission of 1778, and he was chairman of the committee that drafted the instructions for Benjamin Franklin when he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to France. Morris’ persuasiveness and sophistication played a crucial role in swaying the French alliance to favor American, rather than French, interests. And he drafted a letter of instructions for a treaty of peace with Britain that John Adams was instructed to carry out and that formed the basis of the final peace treaty four years later.

But then came 1779 and his refusal to favor New York interests in the New Hampshire Grants, and Morris was defeated for re-election. He was not idle for long. Early in 1780 he wrote a series of brilliant financial articles, which brought him an invitation from Robert Morris, newly created superintendent of finances, to serve as his assistant. He accepted, and soon his tidy mind evolved a plan for a decimal system of coinage. His plan was later perfected by Jefferson, but the original idea stemmed from Gouverneur. He and Robert were not related to each other, but they quickly became great friends. “I could do nothing without [Gouverneur],” wrote Robert to John Jay, “and our quiet labours do but just keep the wheels in motion.” Later he said that Gouverneur “has more virtue than he shows, and more consistency than anybody believes.”

Robert Morris, the English-born financier of the American Revolution, was the richest as well as one of the ablest of the delegates to the convention. His luxury, said one of the visitors, was not to be outdone “by any commercial voluptuary of London.” During the war he had bought supplies and borrowed money in the face of appalling difficulties, providing Washington with the material assistance without which the army could not have been kept together. As soon as the war was over, he began speculating in western lands, a form of investment that held an irresistible attraction for many of his friends, including Washington himself. The excitement of large-scale dealings led him to make his tobacco monopoly with the Farmers General in France. It was to press the claims of his over-sanguine friend—claims that aroused the antagonism of other tobacco dealers—that, early in 1789, Gouverneur Morris went to Paris. There could have been no better or more willing emissary.

He was following in the footsteps of giants. Benjamin Franklin had arrived in Paris in 1776, when the Thirteen Colonies were only just beginning their struggle for independence. To the French people Franklin was a Socrates born again in an age of enlightenment. As John Adams had to admit—almost against his will, for he had no great liking for Franklin—“his reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any of them.”

By the time Franklin was replaced by Jefferson, in 1785, the foundations of a very special relationship between the two countries had already been laid. Jefferson lived for some time in the shadow of Franklin’s immense reputation, but as the revolution gathered momentum he endeared himself to all who were impatient with the status quo by his unshakable faith in the perfectibility of mankind. America’s third minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, was not as great a man as either Franklin or Jefferson, but he saw more clearly than the latter, perhaps because he was on the spot, that the popular party in France had no real idea where it was going. The analogy with America, which Jefferson was always trying to apply, seemed to him utterly false. Long before 1776 American colonists, in spite of the stupidities of a Tory government in England, enjoyed a freedom and a prosperity of which the French populace had no conception. Revolution in France was to involve a far greater upheaval of society than it had in America.

Meanwhile Morris” reputation as one of the ablest of the founders of the new nation had preceded him, and this reputation, combined with his good looks, his pleasant manners, and his excellent command of the language, assured him a warm welcome in society. His mother had bequeathed to him a certain alien brilliance that Frenchmen and, still more, Frenchwomen found irresistible. Whatever failings Morris might possess were more apparent to his own countrymen than they would be to a foreigner. “The tall boy,” as he had been known in Philadelphia, took Paris by storm.

Morris had a wooden leg, which added to the curiosity he excited in French society. There were rumors that he had lost it fighting against the British, and that he had been discovered where he should not have been by a jealous husband and had broken his leg jumping out of the window. The truth was more prosaic. He broke his leg one May morning in 1780 while climbing into a phaeton for a trip to the country. A possibly overzealous doctor amputated immediately. Morris bore the loss with what Robert Livingston called becoming fortitude. The only reference in his diary to what he calls his wooden peg, other than his pride in his ability to climb church steeples, is that he is constantly slipping and falling in “the cursed mud” of Paris, with disastrous results to his breeches. The wooden leg is still to be seen in the New-York Historical Society. There also will be found a number of his letters, but the diary of his day-to-day life in Paris, one of the most interesting documents of its kind and one, incidentally, that the French historian Taine found invaluable when he came to write his own history of the period, is preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington.

The many references in Morris’ diary to the charming ladies he was in the habit of visiting make us forget how much solid work he accomplished both before and after his appointment as minister. His appointment was dated January 12, 1792, so that for nearly two and a half years he was living in Paris as a private citizen, but an unusually busy private citizen. Jefferson went home in October, 1789, and his very able secretary, William Short, became chargé d’affaires. Morris and he were on good terms, but it was a great disappointment to him when Morris received the Paris post and he was appointed to The Hague.

Today a man in public life requires telephones, computers, and a whole battery of clerks and secretaries before he can begin to function, but in the eighteenth century a statesman, a diplomat, or a businessman—and Morris was something of all three—was more self-sufficient. He wrote innumerable reports and letters in his own hand without breaking down or suffering from nervous exhaustion. Getting up at cockcrow and driving his quill with prodigious industry, he had drafted a report on the tobacco situation, written Washington a full account of the beginnings of the revolution, and gone to Houdon’s studio to sit for the statue of Washington (Houdon, the greatest sculptor of his day, had been commissioned by the Virginia State Legislature to do a statue of Washington. While the head was done from life, in 1785, in Mt. Vernon, the body, which was done in Paris some years later, was none other than Gouverneur Morris) before dressing for a three o’clock dinner, an early opera, and an evening call on Madame de Flahaut.

This lady had the dubious distinction of being one of the many mistresses of Talleyrand, by whom she had a son, Charles de Flahaut, who was to become one of the glittering young men of the Napoleonic empire, the lover of Queen Hortense of Holland, and the father of the Duc de Morny.

The story of the charming Madame de Flahaut, her husband, the Comte de Flahaut, Talleyrand the official lover, and Morris the triumphant newcomer is an unusual one in that it involves four characters instead of the customary three. Since this was the eighteenth century, they all remained on good terms. Occasionally the Comte de Flahaut may have been slightly disgruntled when his wife and Gouverneur Morris insisted on talking English together, which he did not understand, but there was never any bitterness between them. Morris’ description of an evening call on Madame de Flahaut throws a curious light on this ménage. The Flahauts lived in the Louvre, at that time a vast rabbit warren of a building cut up into separate rooms and apartments for persons attached to the court for whom there was no suitable accommodation in Versailles. Residence in the Louvre was a sign of pensioned poverty, and the Flahauts had been living there for ten years at the time Morris met them. The count had succeeded the celebrated naturalist Buffon as director of the king’s gardens, but his duties were not onerous. By a convenient arrangement his rooms were on the floor below his wife’s, so that if any visitor stayed too long, he could always retire to his own apartments.

On one occasion the two friendly rivals, Morris and Talleyrand, who was at that time still known as the Bishop of Autun, had arranged to meet at Madame de Flahaut’s to discuss whether or not she would be well advised to invest in American lands. There was a theory long prevalent in Europe that anybody who owned vast tracts of land in America, no matter where they were, automatically became a millionaire overnight. “Madame being ill,” Morris records in his diary, “I find her with her feet in warm water, and when she is about to take them out … the Bishop employs himself in warming her bed and I look on. It is curious enough to see a Reverend father of the Church engaged in this pious Operation.” The scene suggests a Fragonard painting.

A few years later Madame de Flahaut was to give up Talleyrand, as she found him lacking in devotion to her interests. For a while she was willing to divorce her husband and marry her American admirer, but Morris hesitated, the events of the revolution intervened, and they drifted apart. Madame de Flahaut fled to England to escape the guillotine, and there was Talleyrand again at her side, not passionately in love with her yet always friendly and good-tempered. He probably lent her a hand in the writing of sentimental novels. One of these, Adèle de Sénange , netted her forty thousand francs. Not many of the French émigrés in London provided for themselves as successfully as Madame de Flahaut.

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.


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.

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.

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.

The inevitable sequel to Genêt’s recall was that in the late summer of 1794 the French government demanded Morris’ recall too. In spite of the complaint of some of his compatriots that he had lost touch with America, no one could have served his country better. He was the only foreign emissary who remained in Paris throughout the Reign of Terror. In the face of repeated insults he vindicated the full rights of his countrymen with dignity and courage. In sheltering refugees from the guillotine, and still more in helping to draw up plans for the king’s escape, he may not have been as strictly nonpartisan as a diplomat should be, but these are not sins posterity is likely to hold against him.

Though he was only forty-two when he reluctantly gave up his post, Morris played no further part in world affairs. The European scene fascinated him, and he was in no hurry to return to his own country. He finally sailed from Hamburg in October, 1799. By the time he landed in New York on December 23, 1799, he had been abroad ten years.

His Federalist friends welcomed him with open arms. Washington had died while he was still at sea, but John Jay, the governor of New York at the time, and Alexander Hamilton, a leading light of the party, urged him to re-enter politics. When one of the New York senators resigned his post in April, 1800, Morris was elected to fill the remaining three years of his unexpired term. Though he was one of the strong pillars of the Federalist Party, he was too independent to act always within strict party lines. Unlike many of his colleagues he supported Jefferson’s Louisiana policy, but he was never in sympathy with Jefferson himself, whom he considered a theorist, a man who believed in the wisdom of mobs and the moderation of Jacobins. As long as Jefferson was in the saddle, he felt there was no future for him in Washington. Accordingly, on the expiration of his term in 1803 he retired to Morrisania and spent the remaining thirteen years of his life there.

There was plenty to keep him busy in Morrisania, which he found in a “leaky and ruinous condition.” He spared no expense in putting his house in order, for he was a rich man and his investments in land had proved highly successful. Having rebuilt Morrisania, he found himself a suitable wife, Anne Gary Randolph, who, though she belonged to a great Virginia family, had fallen on hard days. They were married on Christmas Day, 1809. Miss Randolph had come to him first as his housekeeper, and there were some raised eyebrows when he announced his impending wedding. Nevertheless it was a happy marriage.

Meanwhile he worked to forward the plans for the Erie Canal and served as chairman of the canal commission for years. By the time he died, on November 6, 1816, Napoleon had been banished to St. Helena, and a Bourbon king was once again ruling in the Tuileries. The War of 181 a had come to an end without solving any of the issues for which it was fought. Morris had opposed it bitterly from the beginning. Many years earlier, with perhaps a prophetic vision of this war in his mind, he had asserted that new western states would be “little scrupulous of involving the Community in wars the burdens and operations of which would fall chiefly on the maritime states.” By now, at the age of sixty-four, a ripe one for those days, he had few illusions about anything. The man who had had such a robust faith in the future of the American Republic in the days of the Constitutional Convention was beginning to wonder whether the Union, with such men as Jefferson and Madison at the helm, could possibly survive. Gouverneur Morris had been a great patriot, but he had not been able to move into the nineteenth century.

As for France, the country he had learned to love so dearly and whose agonies he had watched with his own eyes, he was delighted to see it once more at peace. The fat and unprepossessing but shrewd-wilted Louis XVIII represented stability; and to Morris, who had lived through the fall of the monarchy, the Reign of Terror, the Directory, and the Empire, stability was a very important thing. It was all very well for Jefferson to talk glibly about “the tree of liberty being refreshed with the blood of tyrants,” but that, after all, was before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Jefferson might well have retracted that statement had he stayed in France and watched the guillotine at work.


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