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.)



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