Gouverneur Morris and the Annular Eclipse of 1811

On Tuesday, September 17, 1811, Gouverneur Morris, at home in Morrisania, the Bronx, noted in his diary "An Eclipse of the Sun this Day." It was an annular eclipse, one that lasted nearly seven minutes, and occurred at 18:43 universal time, during the afternoon. An annular eclipse differs from the total eclipse we will experience next Monday, August 21, in that the moon is further from the earth when it blocks the sun, so that it does not entirely hide the sun, leaving a bright band of light around the dark circle of the moon.  Morris did not state whether he looked directly at the eclipse or not, but we can only hope he did not, because it would have been as dangerous for him as today. It was undoubtedly a dramatic event for all who observed it.  

Gouverneur Morris was the father of the Erie Canal, not Dewitt Clinton

In Tuesday's New York Times (6/29/2017), there was an article about the 200th anniversary of the ground-breaking for the Erie Canal. [here is the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/nyregion/history-of-the-erie-canal.html?_r=0]  Once again, Morris's critical contributions to New York State were entirely ignored.  Here is the letter we sent to the Times in response:

To the editor:

It was with pain that I read Mr. Roberts’s article regarding the origins of the Erie Canal, because it repeats misinformation that has been accepted since the late 1820s regarding Dewitt Clinton’s importance in the project, and incredibly, omits mention of the man who was truly the originator of the concept and at the forefront of the start of its implementation, Gouverneur Morris.

As early as 1775, Morris had articulated a vision of the future greatness of New York and the contribution to be made by a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson. He repeated this concept to Simeon Dewitt, the New York surveyor general, in 1803 (after many years in Europe, where Morris visited a number of canals); Dewitt, who gave Morris full credit as the visionary of the Canal, wrote later that “I very naturally opposed the intermediate hills and valleys, as insuperable obstacles. His answer was, in substance, labor improbus omnia vincit, and that the object would justify the labour and expense, whatever that might be.”  In 1808, a canal commission was established, with Morris at its head –Simeon Dewitt and Dewitt Clinton were also commissioners-- and Morris wrote all of its reports until 1816, traveled with them to scout out routes, and proposed a feasible means of financing it through loans from Europe after the federal government refused to lend support (an effort he led in a trip to Congress).  Morris also published anonymous essays in support of the canal.  When the War of 1812 came, however, the project was rejected by the legislature, probably to some extent because of Morris’s known (and fierce) opposition to the War, though Morris continued to publish pieces supporting the canal. When the war ended, interest in it surged once more. By this time, Morris was frequently ill, and though he drafted a last commission report, it was apparently modified by fellow commissioners and his name omitted. In May 1816, six months before his death, Morris wrote to a friend about the project that he had had “a Presentiment that when it became popular I should no longer be trusted with the Management.” He saw “with Concern that it is now, like every Thing else, swallowed up in the Vortex of Party” but he had noted previously that he was happy to have the credit given to “any person you please” as long as the canal would come to pass. 

The belief that Clinton was the father of the canal seems to be due to a sycophantic 1829 pamphlet compiled by a devoted friend of the governor, after Clinton’s death. The pamphlet quoted Simeon Dewitt’s comments about Morris, but also cited other contrary sources, who claimed, falsely, that Morris had been a hindrance to the project, that his proposals regarding financing had been rejected with horror, and that he had abandoned the project out of pique. It also included the highly suspect assertions made many years after the canal’s construction began by a man named Jesse Hawley, who claimed to have published early essays proposing the ultimate route and that Clinton had been inspired to pursue the canal as a result of those essays. We are still waiting to see evidence to support those claims: Clinton said nothing of him in his daily journal concerning the 1810 canal route trip, made with Morris, nor have we seen his name in any correspondence of those years.  Nonetheless, many historians, including the author of the Wedding of the Waters, apparently rely on this questionable pamphlet to dismiss Morris with scorn.

Whether Hawley wrote letters or not, the verifiable truth of Morris’s work for the canal can be seen in Morris’s essays and in his diaries, both with respect to his visits to canals in Europe and his tireless efforts on behalf of the project during the 1800s. The diaries appear in a new transcription published by the University of Virginia Press. Of course others made major contributions as the engineering planning and construction began; but for the editors of his papers, there is no question that Morris has been shamefully ignored for his enlightened foresight and selfless dedication to what is one of America’s most extraordinary achievements.

Sincerely, etc.

French Translation of the Paris diaries in progress.

10 October 2016: the Editors of the Gouverneur Morris Papers, were invited to give a talk at a seminar at research institute LERMA of Aix-Marseille University in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Editor Dr. Melanie Miller and PhD student Emilie Mitran in front of LERMA.
As the attendants of this seminar were interested in the historical, cultural and linguistic aspects of the Era of Enlightenment, they were eager to learn more about our Morris editing project. A golden opportunity to spread the latest news on that.... in France! And, at the same time lay some bricks on the road of future cooperation for research on Morris.

Professor Gerard Hugues and PhD-candidate Emilie Mitran are currently working on a French translation of Morris's Paris diaries. The availability of the diaries in French would obviously open up this magnificent historical source to many people beyond the anglophone world.

Morris's observations and his involvement with the major figures of the time have been of great interest for scholars of the period. In his Paris diaries of 1789-1793, Morris gave a lively (and sometimes intimate) report of his life during the French Revolution. A very accurate transcription of those diaries was published in 1939 by editor Beatrice C. Davenport, and recently we were able to make some additions in the revised online edition published by ROTUNDA of the University of Virginia Press.

Page in diary June 5, 1789 with  many cross outs
Why the additions?
In the original diary there are illegible parts because of crossed out and blotted sentences, rendered in the text as three dots by Davenport. Usually these dots concern Morris's sexual escapades, but sometimes they are about medication and disease. Anything that was considered unsuited for the public eye.

The question is: who did it?
These cross-outs were perhaps partly done by Morris himself, obscuring some passionate moments with former lovers from his wife's eyes. But some other blot-outs could have been done by Morris's wife Ann Cary Randolph in the 1830s before handing the diary to Morris's first biographer Jared Sparks. Even his granddaughter Ann Cary Morris (another editor of his papers) in the 1880s is a possible "suspect."

During our work with the diaries, we discovered that some omissions were applied by Davenport herself in the 1930s. She used dots in place of a perfectly legible phrase; for example on 1 November 1789:  "Madame is ill ..." whereas it says in the original: "Madame is ill she has the Infirmity of her Sex in a great Degree" Each editor was uneasy about something that was taboo in their own time. Of course, the modern scholar would like to know which parts were crossed out or left out.

Hyperspectral image of diary cross outs.
At the seminar we could discuss the results of hyperspectral images taken of some crossed-out sections. This state of the art technique was performed at the Library of Congress, but unfortunately those images did not reveal much. The goal was to show the difference between the original ink at the time of writing and the ink used later for blotting.

It turned out both inks were iron gall ink with the same spectral response and it was impossible to distinguish between them in order to date them. Thus, we still don't know when the cross-outs were done. We could however reconstruct a few phrases and fill in part of the "dots" in Davenport's online edition. See American Founding Era Collection, http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/FGEA.html.

The Story of Grace Coxe Le Ray de Chaumont


With words to that effect Gouverneur Morris ended his last letter to Mrs. Le Ray de Chaumont on February 27, 1807. Although the exact words Morris used were “some Years hence you will thank me” --more in the style of the early 19th century-- it suggests something unpleasant had been decided, and even though she could not see that yet, it would all be for the best. 

Morris, this goes without saying, knew better. In fact, he was certain he knew best. He went on to inform her husband, James Le Ray de Chaumont (Morris’s business partner and friend, who was in Paris at that time) of the latest commotion involving his wife Grace (who resided in Philadelphia), telling him she would probably "call me a cross old Devil and feel much hurt.

What was going on? Why would Morris reprimand his friend’s wife? It is time for some further investigation.

James Le Ray de Chaumont (1760-1840)
From Morris’s Letterbooks, that contain copies of the thousands of letters he sent out during his lifetime, we can tell that (business-) correspondence with Le Ray took place on a regular basis. About one letter every fortnight went back and forth during the times the men were not at the same location. From the period 1799-1816 (when GM lived at Morrisania near New York City), we have 136 letters to James Le Ray. 

And, surprisingly, there are also eight letters to Grace Coxe Le Ray.  These date from the period December 1805 to February 1807. This is in itself exceptional, because Morris would not have a reason to write to her personally, except in special cases.

However, by the end of 1805, a special case had arisen. 


The Coxes were one of the prominent families in Philadelphia. At the age of 27, in 1789, Grace married James Le Ray. The young Frenchman had come to America in 1785 to resolve some financial matters concerning his father, who had made large loans to the Continental Congress during the American War of Independence. The loans had been repaid in devalued paper money, causing an enormous loss for the family.

We learn a little more about their courtship (or rather, lack of courtship) from a letter Morris wrote to Le Ray in August 1807:
“... your conjugal Union arose from a Sense of Honor and Delicacy in you. That you accused yourself of having undesignedly, by Attentions which in your own Country pass for Nothing, and of Course make no Impression, interested her Feelings in such Way as (from her Account) to impair her Happiness thro Life. That you offered your Hand, provided your Parents would consent. That the same Sentiment of Honor had induced them to shut their Eyes also to Considerations of Fortune and splendid Connection.
 Apparently Morris seemed to think Le Ray had made a mistake in marrying her, but had done the honorable thing in doing so. Regardless, their wedding took place on July 14, 1789. Le Quartorze Juillet, but of course no one in Philadelphia had any idea yet of the important role this specific day was to play as the start of the French Revolution. News from overseas took several weeks to reach America.
Fall of the Bastille in 1789

Morris on the other hand, was in Paris at that time and witnessed how events spun out of control. By the time the young couple left for France in the spring of 1790, they would have known things were in turmoil overseas, but they went anyway and soon afterwards their oldest son Vincent was born.

Gouverneur Morris’s diary first mentions meeting Grace in Paris at her sister-in-law’s house in January 1791. It sounds as if he met her then for the first time; he described her as “looking like a fool,” but what he meant with his remark remains unexplained. Was she not particularly bright, or perhaps not as fashionable or well-spoken as the other ladies in the elegant circles Morris was by then accustomed to?

By the way, two years before, in May 1789, Morris described a meeting in Paris with “Madame Chaumont,” who talked to him “very serious, considering that she is said to be crazy.” The editor of the Paris-part of the diary, the erudite and otherwise very accurate Beatrice C. Davenport, misidentified her as Grace instead of Le Ray de Chaumont’s mother, who was by then estranged from her husband. She lived off and on with her married daughters in Paris.

Back to Grace’s story.
While Morris met Le Ray frequently during the next few years in Paris, he only mentions Grace four times, offering no additional information on her. When the situation in Paris became too dangerous after the fall of the Louis XVI, the Le Ray family took leave in September 1792, but Morris stayed behind (he was by now the American minister). After his successor had arrived by mid-1794, Morris left France to meet the Le Rays in Switzerland. It is evident that Grace was with her husband, for Morris stood as godfather to their newborn daughter Thérèse in a church in Lausanne in November.

No word on Grace for three and a half years, until 1798 when we learn that the family had traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, where Morris waited to meet them. Together they went north to Hamburg; from there they would take a boat back to the United States. Grace, James, toddler Thérèse and baby Alexander (born between 1795 and 1798), traveled together in their carriage(s), Morris in his own. There is no indication that 8-year old Vincent accompanied them; it could well have been that he was already enrolled in a school in Lausanne or Paris.
A three-masted schooner.

In the meantime it had become possible for James to return to France and he decided he would go to Paris for a while. He would try to convince potential French settlers of the advantages of living in the wilderness of upstate New York, while Morris would take care of the American side of the business.

Morris, who had already delayed his departure from Europe for more than a year, was eager to go home, but then young Alexander Le Ray became dangerously ill with smallpox, and the journey was again delayed. As soon as the boy had recovered by September 1798, they could search for a suitable ship that would take them and their considerable luggage, including Morris’s two horses, to New York.

At the time of departure on the ship Ocean, Grace had to be distracted in order not to upset her too much with the upcoming separation from her husband. Morris wrote: “The Ship gets under Way and we part with our friend Leray which is after all Preparation a painful Thing for his Wife. We deceive her therefore and he is off before she knows a Word of the Matter.” They finally left, rather late in the season, on October 4, 1798.

Arrival of a ship at Battery Park, New York c. 1800

Morris accompanied Grace and her two young children on a horrendous voyage across the Atlantic, but during the eleven-week ordeal he mentions their presence on the same ship only once, when he commented on having to take care of “Poupon” (baby) during a storm in which the water flowed into the nurse’s bed. Both his horses died at sea. A man fell overboard and drowned. They almost ran out of food. They almost shipwrecked near Rhode Island. They finished the last stretch of the journey on another ship. Finally, they reached New York on December 23, 1798, where Grace’s brother Richard welcomed her home.  


After arriving in the United States, Grace Coxe Le Ray, alone with the two youngest children but of course with the help of a nurse and footman and probably other servants, spent five months in New York City. By late spring 1799 she found herself in Sidney, New Jersey, where her parents lived, and in January 1800 she had settled in Burlington, NJ. There she socialized with French émigrés, the elite that had fled the violence in their country. One of them was the later King Louis -Philippe I of France.
King Louis-Philippe I de Bourbon, 1830.
He spent some years in exile in America, meeting
Morris again at the end of 1799/early 1800.

In August 1802, her husband finally came back from France, leaving their son behind in Paris. Vincent was twelve years old now and ready for higher education at the Ecole Polytechnique. James was in charge of the affairs of the French investors in land in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, a job that kept him on his toes. But unfortunately, fairly soon afterwards in 1804, he had to go to France again: his father had passed away and he was needed to take care of the inheritance. 

Again, he would stay away a long time, three years this time, until July 1807. During his absence, Morris was given power of attorney to deal with business affairs in America. He also was to give Grace a monthly allowance of 200 dollars. To put this in perspective: a laborer’s wage was 10-20 dollars a month. So, 200 does not sound bad at all, one would think.

During the periods Le Ray resided in France, the correspondence between the two men intensified; those letters mostly concern the business of their landholdings, but sometimes they touch on political or personal aspects. As mentioned before, we also have a few letters in our files from Morris to Grace in the period 1805-07; from reading through them, it becomes clear that Morris was getting more and more annoyed with her about her spending habits.


Sans Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa c.1850.
As soon as Le Ray had left in July 1804, Grace took off to the hot springs in northern New York taking 6 to 7-year old Alexander with her. Whether this was merely vacationing or for health reasons is not clear. It is likely that 10-year old Thérèse was left behind at Madame Grelaud’s school in Philadelphia (but that remains to be confirmed through more research of archival material). 

The first sign of trouble surfaced after Grace stopped by at Morrisania in October 1804 on her way home to Philadelphia (where she and James had recently moved to) from Ballston Spa, New York. It was then that she submitted some unexpected bills. 

On November 15, 1804, an alarmed Morris wrote to Le Ray in Paris:
                 I think her Expenditures besides travelling Charges will rather exceed $200 per Month. Her Board and that of Alexr. who was with her at Ballstown and may perhaps be with her at Phila[delphia]: $15 per Week--four Servants viz [= that is] Coachman, Footman, and two black Women $20—Two Horses $6—Add Cloaths, Washing, Wine, Tea, Fuel, Black Smith’s Bill, Footman’s Wages, &ca.
These expenses added up to much more than the two hundred dollars she received per month. Her allowance was supposed to cover her cost of living, the servants, and the cost of education for the children. She, however, spent it on other things like a $300 coach repair, and the expensive trip to the spa up north. Apparently, she did not spend any of the money on the children’s schools, and instead of boarding them out Grace tried to keep the children with her. On top of that, she quarreled with headmistress Madame Grelaud.

Morris was very annoyed with her behavior, “If you prefer keeping the Children with you, it will be an Injury to them.” He demanded she put Thérèse as a boarder in school in Philadelphia, and Alexander in a seminary in Baltimore, according to their father’s wishes. He thought “Ladies in general” were not equipped to handle money, so he decided he would pay the education costs for the children directly to their schools, thereby cutting Grace's allowance to 150 dollars per month per January 1807. If she still would not obey, it would go down to 100.

Morris wrote to congratulate Mrs. Le Ray after Vincent had won a prize at his school in Paris, and wished for similar success for her other children. Thérèse could win a prize too, he wrote sarcastically on New Year’s Day 1807, since she “excells all the young Ladies in Philadelphia in the Art of lying abed all the Morning.” 
This of course was all her mother’s bad influence.

Ballroom fashion anno 1807.

It looked like his threat had effect. Soon afterwards Thérèse was placed as a boarder at the renowned school of Mrs. Rivardi, therefore not allowed to go home during the nights, because “she goes late, comes away early, attends Balls, and wastes Time which can never be recalled.”  In March 1807 Morris wrote his last letter to Grace, which he ends with: “some Years hence you will thank me.

In bringing Le Ray up to date about his family affairs, Morris wrote, “I shall get the Children placed as they ought to be. I suppose the good Lady will call me a cross old Devil and feel much hurt. He genuinely thought she was being unreasonable. However, things only got worse.......


It seemed that Morris's strict approach to Mrs. Le Ray earlier in the year had not worked; she was even contemplating a divorce from her husband now. The first letter from Gouverneur Morris to James Le Ray de Chaumont after his return to the States mid-1807 is dedicated solely to the worrisome home situation of the Le Rays: “all was wrong: very wrong.”
Morris's letter to James Le Ray,  16 August 1807. 
In his letter, Morris analyzed the situation and advised accordingly. He suggested Le Ray limit the contact his wife was to have with the children. That it had been a mistake to marry her in the first place, due to cultural differences in American and French society. Sure, it had been the honorable thing to do to marry her, and Le Ray had been good to her, indulgent, even. 

But now, Morris insisted, time had come to put his foot down because it concerned the education of his children.
 That on one only Subject you had found it a Duty to use the Authority of a Husband—to protect your Children. That their Education, on which must depend their future Respectability and Happiness, was too near your Heart to permit any Consideration whatever to deter you from superintending it. Then appeal to her Reason and Conscience. Desire her finally to consult with any Person in whom she has Confidence, since unfortunately she no longer confides in her best Friend [i.e. Le Ray himself]—Entreat her, above all Things, not to think of a Divorce the Consequence of which must be both injurious and disgraceful.

Only to continue with revealing the underlying purpose of his advice:
If I mistake not, this Course will lead her to insist more strongly on a Divorce. Then, when all is ripe, you will take an Opportunity to say very coolly; well Madam since you wish a Divorce, apply for it to the proper Authority—from this Moment, if you continue to be my Wife, you shall obey your Husband; and if (as I too clearly perceive) you are insensible to Reason, you shall be sensible to Correction. The Law gives me a Right to administer moderate Correction to a disobedient Wife, and at the first Moment you shall receive it from my Hand.”

Is he suggesting some domestic violence would help the situation here? 
Morris concludes, clearly satisfied with himself:
“This would I think change a vain foolish Woman into a decent well behaved Wife”.

The clever plan, however, did not work. Grace gave in, the children were placed solidly in boarding schools and she and James stayed married. The marital issue does not come up again in any of Morris's letters.


The following year the Le Rays made use of their newly built house in remote Leraysville (later Le Ray), in the relative wilderness of upstate New York. The couple (there is no evidence of the presence of the children in Morris's papers) only spent time there during late summer and fall in 1808 and 1809, winters were spent in Philadelphia. When Morris visited the last week of August 1808, and again from mid-October till mid-January 1809, he complained of the terrible cold, the snow, the impassible roads and the empty stores. He does not comment on the new house, nor does he mention seeing Grace there. 
The question is, did she even go there?

View of Utica in 1807, by Anne Hyde de Neuville.
A stop on the way to Leraysville in remote upstate New York, where Le Ray had built a house.

In the summer of 1810, James, Grace and Thérèse left for France; Alexander probably stayed in school in Baltimore and 20-year old Vincent certainly stayed behind in the US in charge of his father’s landholdings. Morris kept up a correspondence with Vincent as well: 45 letters went to him in Leraysville right up to Morris’s death in 1816. 

Grace died in 1812 in (French occupied) Switzerland. As far as we know, she was never mentioned again in Morris’s diary or letters. Rumor has it her health had never been good, but we have not found evidence for that in Morris’s papers.

Vincent Le Ray de Chaumont (1790-1875)

Vincent married Cornelia Jumel in 1821 and was widowed by 1823; after the land business in New York failed in c.1836, he also went to France. He remarried there and died in 1875.

Thérèse married Hippolyte, marquis de Gouvello de Kériaval in 1816, and they both joined James Le Ray on his return to the States in 1816. Their first born child is buried on the property at Leraysville (now military territory of Fort Drum). The text on her grave reads: "CLOTILDE de GOUVELLO died Sept 20th 1818 aged 1 year and 3 months. She was endeared to her Parents and relatives and beloved by all who witnessed her fifteen months of suffering  life. Strew flowers on her grave." The young people went back to France and had at least one son there, in 1821.

Alexander was with his father and sister in 1816, when they visited Morris. It is not clear yet whether Alexander moved back to France at some point. He was still alive in 1830.

James Le Ray worked with Vincent on the upstate New York land enterprise for many years, until 1832 when he made a short trip to France, and then again until 1836, when the business went bankrupt. He died in France in 1840; he never remarried.

-The cited letters are in Morris’s Letterbooks in the Gouverneur Morris Papers at the Library of Congress in Washington.
-For information on the Le Ray family, see Thomas J. Schaeper, France and America in the Revolutionary Era, the Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725-1803 (1995).
-For pictures and details on settling of upstate New York, see Franklin Benjamin Hough, A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York (1854).
-For Cornelia Jumel, see Peter M. Kenny et al., Honoré Lannuier, Cabinet Maker from Paris (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), 129.
-For family tree website with dates and their historic sources: Ancestry.com, e.g. http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=selvage1&id=I27421 

Encounters with Rutledge in 1803: Hair-do & Caning

In July 1803 Morris was on the way to Boston with his friend and business partner James Le Ray de Chaumont, when they stopped for the night at Hezekiah Sabin’s tavern in Pomfret, Massachusetts. While there, John Rutledge, Jr., Federalist Representative from South Carolina, who was traveling in the opposite direction, came in. He sat down with Morris’s party and they discussed the bad condition of the roads lying ahead. Soon afterwards, Rutledge wrote to fellow Federalist Harrison Gray Otis in Boston about this encounter. 
He had arrived at the inn on that rainy night and "heard a chattering in French."  Inside he "found Gouvre Morris with two french Valêts--a french travelling companion [Le Ray] and his hair buckled up in about one hundred Papilliottes. His wooden leg, papilliottes [curl papers], french attendants, and french conversation made his Host [...] with the whole family stare most prodigiously."
A day or so later, further along the road, in a village where Rutledge dined, the innkeeper had mistaken Morris for New York Governor George Clinton with his French son-in-law Genet, much to Rutledge's amusement. After he corrected him, the man was very embarrassed, "[…] made many apologies [&] was very eloquent in his eulogies upon Morris, & expressed very strongly his regrets that he had not stopped & given him an opportunity of conversing with the great Man who had made such great speeches in Congress [...]"
On their return to New York, a few weeks later, Le Ray and Morris stopped for a short social visit at Rutledge’s in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Although Morris did not mention any details, we know that Rutledge was involved in a bit of a delicate situation at that time, and had temporarily retreated to Connecticut to lie low after a scandal in which he had been involved.

What was the matter?

There had been an ongoing conflict between him and Rhode Island Senator Christopher Ellery, who was of the anti-Federalist faction, supportive of President Jefferson. The issue was about two presumably forged letters written to Jefferson in August 1801. Those letters purportedly were intended to provoke an incriminating response from Jefferson by calling on him to dismiss Federalists from various offices.

Ellery had accused Rutledge of being the author of the letters and in 1802 Jefferson gave them to Ellery to publish, in a context implying that Rutledge was indeed the conniving true author. The conflict escalated in a pub near Washington on December 28, when Rutledge physically attacked the Rhode Island senator. He hit him with a cane……

Needless to say, Rutledge, damaged by the publicity, did not run for Congress again.

Similar fight, in Congress in 1798, over the Sedition Act  

*Some of this blog will appear in footnotes in our forthcoming edition of  Diaries of Gouverneur Morris: New York 1799-1816 (publication c. 2018).

News: Brookhiser Presentation 2016


For those lucky enough to live in Manhattan and its surrounds: Richard Brookhiser will be giving a presentation on Gouverneur Morris in December 2016, at the New-York Historical Society, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Morris's death, November 6, 1816.   

There are no more knowledgeable and enjoyable speakers on American history, so be sure to check out the specifics about date and time on the N-YHS website  
--The Society is located at 170 Central Park West--

News: Article NY Post

Gouverneur Morris: Alexander Hamilton's "best friend"; and the dramatic scene at Hamilton's deathbed, July 11, 1804.

For a discussion of Morris and Hamilton, see this article by Richard Brookhiser, published in the New York Post on the 211th anniversary of Hamilton's death: 

NY Post Article July 10th 2015

Gouverneur Morris and the Marquis de Lafayette

I live in upstate New York.  Not far from me there is a Lafayette, NY; a Fayetteville, NY.  How about the readers?  Any places named for Lafayette in your state?  Undoubtedly; they are all over the place, because when he returned for his triumphal tour of the United States in the 1820s, Americans everywhere named places in his honor.

This famous hero helped us win our revolutionary war; during the Revolution, he was one of Washington's "adoptive sons," and a good friend of Alexander Hamilton and others, including Gouverneur Morris. But his later conduct toward Morris was less than heroic.

I'm not going to recount Lafayette's history in our war; that's written up in many places. And I dealt with Morris's interactions with Lafayette, one of those who lit the match that started the French Revolution, in my book, Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution.  But a little review might be useful in case you didn't happen to read it!: when Morris arrived in Paris on business in February 1789, Jefferson was still our minister to France (i.e., ambassador, but we didn't use that term in those days).  At this moment, the first "Estates-General" held in France for hundreds of years, was approaching. It was being held because Louis XVI needed money; the government was in terrible financial shape, and efforts to impose taxes had failed; the Estates-General, a convocation of the three orders of French society -- nobles, clergy, and commoners -- was made a condition of any new taxes. Reformers, such as Lafayette, inspired by the American Revolution, wanted to use it as a vehicle to establish a French bill of rights and a constitution.  He and Jefferson were busy working on drafts of these types of documents. 

Although Morris acknowledged the stultified and gross unjustice of the French system, he was skeptical that such reforms could be hurried, and he was frank with Lafayette from the beginning.  As the French Revolution took off and began to spiral out of control, he was absolutely candid in giving Lafayette advice and sincere criticism.  Jefferson, though he commented on Lafayette's "canine appetite for fame," did not criticize; but then, he was generally in favor of what Lafayette was doing.

There were many twists and turns in Lafayette's role during the Revolution: at one time he was considered the most popular (and therefore powerful) man in France, in a position to dictate all of the king's choices for cabinet ministers and able to rouse the masses to roaring for him.  Morris, however, began to lose respect for Lafayette as he watched his old friend's choices and his dogged pursuit of fame while he was at the same time utterly ignorant--or indifferent-- to the inevitable course of events. Morris commented in his diary, “This Man is very much below the Business he has undertaken, and if the Sea runs high he will be unable to hold the Helm." 

Morris's opinion did not change  as Lafayette's stature increased and King Louis XVI grew weaker.  Morris observed that what Lafayette really wanted was a position as a sort of worshipped dictator, and that this was  "vaulting Ambition which o’erleaps itself.  The Man’s Mind is so elated by Power, already too great for the Measure of his Abilities, that he looks in to the Clouds and grasps at the Supreme.  From this Moment every  Step in his Ascent will I think accelerate his Fall." Morris was, let it be acknowledged, quite right. But Morris's bluntness was certainly unwelcome compared to the flattery of others, and Madame de Lafayette particularly resented it. 

By the summer of 1792, Lafayette had lost most of his power; the radical Girondins had taken control of the National Convention.  France had been at war with Austria since the previous April, and as the monarchy was clearly close to collapsing, Lafayette left his troops in June to come to Paris. Morris, by now the new American minister to France, saw Lafayette on June 29th at court, and urged him to return to his army immediately or he would be imprisoned as a traitor.  He must, Morris told him, "determine to fight for a good Constitution or for that wretched Piece of Paper which bears the Name," or in six weeks” -- Morris had it down to the very day -- “it will be too late.”  

Lafayette did not answer; and they would not see each other again for five more years.  In August, the Tuileries Palace fell to the radical revolutionaries, and the king was deposed and imprisoned.  Lafayette tried to rally his troops to the king's support, but they ignored him. Shortly thereafter, he was, as Morris had predicted, condemned as a traitor in the National Assembly, and he fled, but was captured at an Austrian outpost. Unfortunately for Lafayette, the Austrians -- as did many other Europeans --considered Lafayette a prime cause of the French Revolution and all of its ensuing chaos, and he was clapped in jail and then sent to the Prussian fortress of Wesel. “He has spent his Fortune on a Revolution and is now crush’d by the wheel which he put in Motion,” Morris wrote to Jefferson, adding, “He lasted longer than I expected.”

To follow the story from here, I include some excerpts from Envoy to the Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution:

Lafayette wrote to the three American ministers in Europe (William Short (in the Netherlands), Thomas Pinckney (in London), and Morris), and to their mortification, begged them to demand his release as an American citizen.  There was not a legal leg to stand on with this claim, and they all knew it, but they did everything they could think of to help him, to little avail.  George Washington wrote a personal letter to the King of Prussia on his behalf, also to no effect. But here is the point of this blog: Morris did more: in the fall of 1793 Madame de Lafayette came to Morris to ask him to help cover her husband's "debts of honor" and Morris did so with 100,000 livres of his own money – twice his annual salary -- the “utmost which my fortune will permit, and I am indeed incommoded in getting the money to fulfill my Engagements,” he told Pinckney, asking him not to tell anyone else.  He did not ever ask for nor receive reimbursement for this loan from his government.  
Morris also worked with Madame de Lafayette on petitions for her husband’s release to the King of Prussia, and advanced another 10,000 florins of his own money (and at his own risk) to Lafayette in his prison camp; he was eventually reimbursed for this amount by the American government, though it was uncertain that he woudl be at the time he gave the money.  His compassion toward Madame de Lafayette was unfazed by her hostility.  In one letter to Pinckney he asked the minister to forward one of Lafayette's letters to him so that Morris could give it to his wife “for it will be a great Consolation to her to see his writing.  Poor Lady she is in great affliction.”  She was encouraged by others whom Morris disapproved of to take more desperate steps including providing money to help Lafayette try to escape.  Morris believed this was far too dangerous, and she reproached him bitterly.  " I will not injure a man for the Sake of appearing to be his Friend,” he responded. 

In June 1794 Morris received word that Madame de Lafayette had been arrested and was being brought to Paris for likely execution.  He drafted a carefully propitiating petition to the revolutionary government on her behalf, emphasizing her importance to Americans.  She was not guillotined, and was released in January 1795, after Morris had been replaced by James Monroe --her sisters and Mme de Staël gave Morris full credit for having saved her life.

In the meantime, Lafayette  had been moved to an Austrian prison at Olmutz in 1794;  here he is with his family (they were eventually allowed to join him:

[picture is reprinted from The Diaries of Gouverneur Morris: European Travels, 1794-1798]

Morris was recalled from his post as minister to France, receiving notice on July 29, 1794, just after the fall of Robespierre. He was replaced by James Monroe (who had strongly attacked Morris's nomination as minister). He did not return immediately to America, but spent much of the next four years traveling to various courts on the continent and in England. One of his principal purposes in doing so was to try to get Lafayette freed. In the meantime, the American consul at Hamburg, John Parish, who was a friend of Morris, was able to get letters to the Lafayettes .

On September 28, 1797, in Nienstedten, near Hamburg, Lafayette was released, in the presence of Morris and Parish. Although Lafayette himself credited Napoleon with his freedom, Morris later privately told John Marshall that it was unquestionably his own discussion with Baron Thugut, the minister of the Austrian emperor, that led to Lafayette's release. In the statement accompanying the decision to release Lafayette, he told Marshall, Thugut "stated expressly that Monsr de la fayette was not liberated at the Instance of france, but merely to shew the Emperor’s Consideration for the United States of America,"  precisely the language Morris had suggested to him.  However, Morris wrote, "Notwithstanding this it appeared to me  that Monsieur de la fayette chose to consider himself as freed by the Influence of General Bonaparte, and I did not choose to contest the Matter because, beleiving my Applications at Vienna had procured his Liberty, it would have looked like claiming Acknowlegements."

These were acknowledgements--and gratitude-- that Morris never received; and the indifference was compounded as time went by and Morris, anticipating repayment from the Lafayettes for the enormous loan, received no communication of any kind.  He had understood that -- and simply assumed that -- Lafayette would feel the reciprocal obligation of loyalty Morris had felt when he gave Madame de Lafayette the money, and that the marquis would repay him with a modest rate of interest (the payment was now eight years old, so the amount was now over 150,000 livres). He had on the strength of this belief committed himself to major restoration work on his home in the Bronx.   In 1799, having heard nothing,  he finally asked his friend and business partner in Paris, James Le Ray de Chaumont, to speak to the Lafayettes about repayment; in response, he received from Madame de Lafayette a letter which, as he wrote to Le Ray, implied that since he had not secured the loan he made them, he could only hope to recover from the United States. She also seemed to say, Morris wrote: 

"'Sir will you urge your Demand and leave me worse than Nothing without a Morsel of Bread to put in the Mouths of my Children'? To this I must answer No. I have not been neither do I mean to be a harsh Creditor."  

The Lafayettes continued to evade Le Ray, and in the summer of 1802 she wrote again to Morris and insinuated that he had somehow made a profit on the loan to them.  He wrote to her "My sensibility led me at a terrible moment to give you an advance without regard to the risk...[T]he same sentiment," he told her, had kept him from saying anything about the loan when they were released in Hamburg.  
At last, Madame de lafayette offered, grudgingly, to pay him 53,000 livres, ignoring any interest (the loan was now ten years old) and also taking advantage of a later French law that supposedly gave them the right to knock down the original 100,000 to 53,000 based on "exchange rates."[1] 

Morris was taken aback.  He wrote to Parish "From the last Advices I have received it appears that the means to liquidate what he owes me by Something less than the Interest of this. To do this he reduces the Principal down pretty low by a Scale of Depreciation &c:&c: God forgive him and if possible reconcile him to himself. "  Le Ray wrote to Morris that he was very unhappy with the Lafayettes: "they act it is true as the Generality of the World would, but you acted differently with them and as very few would have done."  Directing Le Ray to take steps to accept the offered amount, Morris told him: "I own to you my dear Freind that this Stickling for Depreciation is quite shocking. It is worse to my Feelings than the Loss I must sustain. ..She [Lafayette's wife] paid the "sacred" debts of her husband with my money, in the knowledge that if she were killed or if her assets were confiscated, I would lose everything. ..was not the debt to me more sacred?"  Through all of this he heard nothing at all from Lafayette.

Historians (including me) have assumed that Morris was then actually paid. However, there are strong indications, requiring more research,  that he never received anything, for he wrote to a friend in July 1804, without naming the Lafayettes, that out of a sum of money he was owed he had been forced to agree to one-quarter and then, in the end, received nothing at all.  

Morris wrote to Le Ray that he knew that the result of their guilty feelings would be strong dislike toward Morris, and he heard from other sources that the Lafayettes were complaining about him in their circles.  Also in this connection, Lafayette himself did just as Morris expected; though Lafayette wrote to Jefferson and Madison and others in America numerous times in these years, along with letters of introduction for friends, he never wrote to Morris. In an 1809 statement of his finances to the American government, Lafayette asked for a substantial amount money from the United States in recognition of his services during the American Revolutionary War, and his agent noted with supreme indifference:
  It is true that Mr. Gouverneur Morris was willing some time later to loan one hundred thousand francs in assignats which, at the rate of depreciation, had been reduced in a manner to produce at the time of payment 5% interest, a sum of 68,000.  that we will take into account later; but, not assigning anything to the subsistence of his family or to the expenses arising from his persecuted condition, the trip of Mr. George Washington Lafayette to America, that of the rest of his family to Hamburg etc., one can see that Mr. Morris’s generous advance found in the items mentioned above a kind of compensation. [note that this also tends to indicate that Morris had not been paid anything by 1809]

To summarize: Morris saved Lafayette's wife from the guillotine; made them a huge loan to cover Lafayette's "debts of honor;" advanced more money from his own funds, later repaid by the American government (but he did not know if the that would be true at the time he gave it ), to help Lafayette in prison; and  got Lafayette released.   
I will leave it at that. 

[1] (Presumably this related to the fact that assignats were the only legal currency in France at the time Morris gave her the money (use of anything else was considered unpatriotic and could lead to arrest and execution); they were not worth their face value but in order to obtain them for her to use, he'd had no choice but to buy them at full value, probably in florins.)