"MADAME, YOU WILL THANK ME LATER"
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.
SOME BACKGROUND ON GRACE COXE.
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:
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.
“... 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.”
|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.
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.
|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.
GRACE COXE IN AMERICA, 1799-1810.
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.
TROUBLE BREWING, 1804-1807.
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).
|Sans Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa c.1850.|
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.......
THE MARRIAGE CRISIS.
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
continue with revealing the underlying purpose of his advice:
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?
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
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.
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.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REST OF THE
|Vincent Le Ray de Chaumont (1790-1875)|
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
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.
-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.