Morris and the French Revolution

When people think of early American diplomats in France, they think of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin's adventures there were certainly fascinating and remarkable; but it is Gouverneur Morris's time in France that I think was far more extraordinary than Jefferson's time, and every bit as interesting as Franklin's.  It coincided with the beginning of the French Revolution, and Morris was there right through the most violent upheavals, and knew nearly all of the principal players; and wrote about them in detail in his wonderful diaries.  What follows is taken from a talk I've given a few times about Morris's time in France.

 He went to France on business in 1789, and quickly became involved in French affairs, both romantic and political.  He had a long affair with an exceptional woman named Adélaide de Flahaut, married to a man 30 years older than she, and she had followed in a French tradition by becoming the mistress of another, the (later famous) Talleyrand.  Morris viewed French mores with interest,-- he wrote to a friend, "there are two types of men in France, husbands and those who make children for them." He himself tried to get Adele pregnant, but she never had more than one child, a son, who was a young boy when Morris first met her. 

He quickly became acquainted with the reformers, led by Lafayette who was fresh from the American Revolution and its republican principles.  Jefferson was still there as our minister plenipotentiary (we didn't call our diplomats ambassadors until much later)  and was giving Lafayette advice, helping him draft a Bill of Rights, and discussing the appropriate form of a new constitution.  Was this an appropriate activity for a minister from another country?  Regardless, he did it, and Morris would follow his example.  Lafayette asked Morris for advice as well, and so did some of the counselors and cabinet ministers of  Louis XVI.  Morris was not nearly as optimistic as Jefferson that the French could handle rapid reform and, unlike Jefferson, he quickly concluded that Lafayette was too ambitious and not wise enough to lead the country safely through a political metamorphosis. 

Morris thought things were moving too quickly, that the new  assembly was too undisciplined and ignorant to be able to design an effective government.  In the summer of 1789 he predicted that unless there was more restraint, and an effort made to reconcile the privileged aristocracy with the changes, they would turn on the new government and attack it, leading to anarchy and eventual despotism.  He was quite right, but few people wanted to hear this. 

Where the issue becomes more interesting and worthy of debate was when Morris was appointed minister in 1792, because he didn’t stop giving advice to the King, who was by this time almost entirely without power.   He joined a small group of royal counselors who came up with one escape plan after another to try and get Louis out of Paris to a safer location from which to re-establish authority and issue a new constitution.    The American government never knew what he was up to –even diplomatic pouches were not secure by this time; and it took too many months to communicate with America.  He certainly was doing what he thought was right.   America owed a huge debt to France for the success of its own revolution, and Morris believed that the only hope for France’s revolution lay with an enlightened constitutional monarchy.  Should diplomats do things like this?  It’s a very interesting question, and I don’t know the answer.    

It all failed, of course, and on August 10, 1792, the royal palace was attacked and the King’s personal guard slaughtered.    Louis and his family took refuge in the Assembly; from there they went to prison and eventually, execution.  One of Morris’s co-conspirators was beaten to death in the street; two others were seized, and one died on the guillotine and the other in the September massacres.  The rest fled the country. 

These events threw all the game pieces on the floor, and left Morris with a very difficult question:  what tack to take with the new revolutionary government?  There were many immediate issues: should he make a payment on the American Revolutionary War debt to France, payment which had been arranged for just days before the king fell?  Did his credentials, which were to the court of France,still apply?  Were the treaties of 1778 between America and France still in effect?  Would the United States recognize the new government?

If you know about all the complaints that were made about Morris, and the objections to his appointment as minister, you might assume he  demanded his passports and left.  But in fact  Morris was the only minister-level diplomat to remain in Paris after the fall of the King.  He wrote to Jefferson:

 Going hence however would look like taking Part against the late Revolution and I am not only unauthoriz’d in this Respect but I am bound to suppose that if the great Majority of the Nation adhere to the new Form the United States will approve thereof because in the first Place we have no Right to prescribe to this Country the Government they shall adopt and next because the Basis of our own Constitution is the indefeasible Right of the People to establish it.

The issues facing Morris were of great concern to the U.S.  France was already at war with Europe and it was clear that it would soon be at war with England.  The U.S. was very worried that honoring its treaty with France would require going to war on France’s behalf.  Morris recommended to Jefferson, however, that the U.S. recognize the new government and honor its commitments, and Jefferson agreed.

Morris’s recommendations relate to another charge against him: that his reports to America were unfair and inaccurate.   This was a concern about Morris through all the different changes of power, from Lafayette to Robespierre.   Since Morris’s predictions about France were mostly right it’s hard to agree they were distorted.  Morris’s reports make remarkable reading;  I only have time to read you one excerpt I particularly admire.  Morris wrote this to Thomas Pinckney, the American minister to London, in December 1792, while the King was being tried for treason.  The war in Europe had swung in France’s direction, temporarily.  Here’s what he said:  it's one of my favorite quotes:

Success as you will see, continues to crown the French Arms, but it is not our Trade to judge from Success . . . . You will soon learn that the Patriots hitherto adored were but little worthy of the Incense they received.  The Enemies of those who now reign treat them as they did their Predecessors and as their Successors will be treated.  Since I have been in this Country, I have seen the Worship of many Idols and but little [illegible] of the true God.  I have seen many of those Idols broken, and some of them beaten to Dust.  I have seen the late Constitution in one short Year admired as a stupendous Monument of human Wisdom and ridiculed as an egregious Production of Folly and Vice.  I wish much, very much, the Happiness of this inconstant People.  I love them.  I feel grateful for their Efforts in our Cause and I consider the Establishment of a good Constitution here as the principal Means, under divine Providence, of extending the blessings of Freedom to the many millions of my fellow Men who groan in Bondage on the Continent of Europe.  But I do not greatly indulge the flattering Illusions of Hope, because I do not yet perceive that Reformation of Morals without which Liberty is but an empty Sound.

The French government was worried not just because of what Morris might be saying about the political circumstances in France, but also what he was reporting as the war with Europe and the civil war in France began to affect Americans in France.  French privateers began seizing American ships and cargoes, in violation of the treaty with America.    Americans were thrown in jail -- the Law of Suspects meant anyone could be rrested, pretty much, and of course being a foreigner made you a suspect right away. 

   In early June 1793, the port city of Bordeaux rebelled against the Paris government.    In retaliation, the National Convention prohibited vessels from carrying cargoes out of the port.     By late November, there were 92 American ships trapped.   Morris protested repeatedly, and met with a deputation of captains from the ships, who also went directly to the National Convention. Morris warned them that even if they got a decree passed it wouldn’t last because of the dysfunctional state of the French government.  He was quite right, but that was not what the captains wanted to hear, and they apparently complained about him in letters to America and also to the French government.  But the embargo had nothing to do with the United States but with the civil war in France, and it  stayed in place until April 1794.  In the meantime, Morris made a rare admission of frustration to Jefferson:

     Every post brings me piles of letters about it from all quarters, and I see no remedy. . . ......if  I    would give way to the clamors of the injured parties, I ought to make demands very like a declaration of war.

He had heard nothing from his government for five months, and he would hear nothing until the summer of 1794, a gap of about nine months.   Although there were delays, naturally, the fact is that Jefferson wrote Morris rarely, and the worst gaps were about co-extensive with the Terror, when Morris’s need for support and input from his own government was critical.   As he wrote to Jefferson in the same letter, ;

    What am I to do in such cases?  It is impossible for me to guess the intentions of government, and indeed, sir, the responsibility is great and distressing.  Our countrymen here find, that it is the easiest thing in the world to carry any point with the Committees, until they have tried.  In the mean time, I am exposed to their clamors in this country, and most probably to their censures in my own, for not performing impossibilities.  In order to complete the business, nothing more is necessary, than that the rulers of this Republic, wearied with my complaints, should apply for my recall, in order to get rid of a troublesome fellow.  I think it is very likely to happen, if it be not already done.  I beg your pardon, Sir, for saying so much of myself, but it is a troublesome thing, to navigate in the dark between Scylla and  Charybdis.   

But, though he was operating in the dark, he consistently displayed moderation.  He was afraid that French depredations on American shipping might undermine America’s determination to be neutral, and that this would get America embroiled in the whole messy European war.   When the captains called for threats and retaliation, Morris refused, and his letters to the American government urged temperance. 

The papers at the American Philosophical Society contain the piles of letters that Morris described to Jefferson, and many of them were pleas for help from Americans in jail.  Here’s one typical example:  American William Hoskins  who wrote to Morris for help in December 1793.  He had arrived in an American ship at Calais, where he was arrested and taken to Paris.  He wrote: 


imagine to yourself my present situation, lodged in a chamber with two persons who are extremely sick of a fever & nothing to sleep on the last evening, without a farthing to purchase the necessaries of life, when this fact is told you I am persuaded the sympathy for a fellow countryman will excite your exertions as well as your pity. . . . do not delay for I am already sick ---- 

Morris repeatedly protested to the foreign minister, and after about a month, Hoskins was released.   


 Morris's  recall is a very interesting episode but I will only mention it here. A recall would seem to indicate disgrace; that Morris had failed his government.  Morris was distressed by it, for he felt that as long as his behavior had been “proper in regard to the United States,”  the Americans shouldn’t have agreed to recall him.  If the French had known they couldn’t get rid of him, they would have been far more cooperative.  He was replaced by James Monroe, who arrived in Paris two days after Robespierre had been executed.

The ostensible reason for Morris’s recall was a quid pro quo for the recall of Edmund Genet, the French minister to America. But there was a lot more to it than this.  Morris had enemies, who claimed to oppose him on political grounds but had very different motives.  The first time the French considered requesting his recall was when the first revolutionary ministry was hoping to cash in on a venture to conquer Spanish territories, and share the spoils; Morris was considered an obstacle.  The group included such unlikely Americans as Thomas Paine and William Stephens Smith, who was John Adams’s son-in-law, as well as Francisco de Miranda, the famous Venezuelan general.  They circulated pamphlets against Morris, and Smith told  Washington and Jefferson that Morris had alienated the French ministry and wanted to be recalled. 

There were several others who sent damaging reports about Morris, but the one that probably did the final trick was a letter to the Committee of Public Safety from an odd fellow named John Cusack , an American mercenary in the French army.  Cusack told Robespierre that Washington had named Morris, a man “gangrened” by the aristocracy to destroy French-American friendship.  The letter is right next to the request for Morris’s recall in the French archives.   In a bit of irony that is very typical of the French Revolution, two months after Cusack wrote it,  he was in jail in Paris, and asking Morris to help him get out.

         I should also mention that the Committee was already very uneasy because of a situation in which a French woman staying at Morris’s house was arrested.  The authorities entered Morris’s house over his protest, violating the law of nations regarding his diplomatic status.  The Committee knew the violation had been significant, and were very worried that Morris would induce the United States to break diplomatic relations. 

It is important to understand that during the 32 months of Morris’s ministry, there were seven different heads of foreign affairs in France.  Four were condemned as traitors, three died on the guillotine, and one defected to the Austrians.   As Morris pointed out, “to stand well with all parties is impossible,”  especially since by standing “well” with the first government to which he was accredited, the monarchy, he was certain to be distrusted by every succeeding regime.     With this kept in mind, it is clear that he did an extraordinary job.  This was the judgment of Theodore Roosevelt:  “We have never had a foreign minister who deserved more honor than Morris.   In his whole attitude towards the revolution, Morris represents better than any other man the clear-headed, practical statesman, who is genuinely devoted to the cause of constitutional freedom.”   






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