GOUVERNEUR MORRIS is by no means so well known to the present generation as he ought to be. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has not been and is not justly appreciated. If, however, we turn to M. Taine’s great work on the French Revolution, we find that he relies on Morris as one of the best and most penetrating observers of that great struggle, and places him at the head of the small group of men like Arthur Young, Malouet, and Mallet du Pan, who alone were able to record clear and dispassionate judgments in that dizzy time, for the benefit of posterity. The comments of Mr. Morris, thus rescued from his biography and brought before a wide public by M. Taine, already have attracted attention elsewhere, and a recent article in Macmillan’s Magazine shows how striking his criticisms and narrative really are. Such a prophet should never be without honor in his own country, and now that he is winning admiration in England and France perhaps it would not be amiss to refresh our own memories in regard to him.
It is not to be wondered at that M. Taine and others find so much that is admirable in Gouverneur Morris, for in him many high qualities met in a rare combination. A man of the world and of society, a wit, philosopher, and fine gentleman, he was also a bold and ardent patriot, an able and most practical statesman, a distinguished lawyer, and a successful manager of large business affairs. He played a conspicuous part among the many eminent men of his day, but in one respect he differs from them all. He had a sharp wit, a strong sense of humor, and a capacity for amusing satire which are to be seen in all his writings. If we except Franklin, who was of an earlier generation, Gouverneur Morris holds in this respect a lonely preëminence among his friends and contemporaries. The great men of our revolutionary and constitutional period were, it must be confessed, judging from their letters and journals, somewhat ponderous. Now and then we find a moment when we can laugh at them, but Morris is the only one of them all with whom we laugh or smile in sympathy. This is enough of itself to make us hold him in remembrance, but he was far more than merely an amusing companion or a writer of clever letters.
He was born in 1752, a cadet in a family which had been distinguished for two or three generations in the colonies, not only for public service and high office, but for certain quaint eccentricities and for unusual acuteness in discussion and power in argument. A bright boy at college, fond of Shakespeare, and a maker of rhymes and verses, he graduated with honor, and delivered a Commencement oration on Wit and Beauty. A little later, on taking his degree of A. M., he pronounced a discourse on Love, and both these boyish productions displayed, despite their florid style, a command of language and a vigorous imagination which were destined to stand their author in good stead in the years to come. His patrimony was small, only some £2000, and he had his way to make in the world; but his was not a nature to be discouraged, and he faced the future cheerfully and boldly. He often said in after life that in his intercourse with other men he had never experienced the sensation of fear, inferiority, or awkwardness. Armed with this easy self-confidence, he applied himself fearlessly to the task of winning success. He studied law, wrote at the age of eighteen against the popular plan of issuing bills of credit (an early evidence of his financial talents) and in 1771 was duly admitted to the bar. He was soon in active practice, and as the times grew more stirring solemnly declared that he disliked politics. His natural humor made him laugh at both parties, and his Tory connections, soon to become a thorn in his side, led him to favor a union with England and the concession to Parliament of the right to regulate trade. But with all his sense of the ridiculous and his tendency to find food for satire in his fellow-men, Morris was no Gallio. The ministerial side was impossible to a young, generous, ardent spirit, and in 1775 he was a member of the Provincial Congress of New York, when he at once took a leading part in organizing resistance and preparing for war. He advocated a continental currency, and his report on that subject was sent to Congress. He served on all the leading committees, and in 1776 made a speech for independent government which was replete with sarcasm and full of ability. From a letter of that time we learn how strongly he felt then, and how completely the early carelessness and merriment had vanished in the face of stern events. He writes to his mother : —
Copyright, 1886, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
“ What may be the event of the present war it is not in man to determine. Great revolutions of empire are seldom achieved without much human calamity ; but the worst which can happen is to fall on the last bleak mountain of America, and he who dies there, in defense of the injured rights of mankind, is happier than his conqueror, more beloved by mankind, more applauded by his own heart,”
The spirit of the man was equal to his words. He took a leading part, in framing the constitution of New York, and even then, in the din of war, strove to insert a clause abolishing slavery, He served on the Council of Safety, which held control until the new government was set in motion, and his energy, zeal, and organizing power were felt in all directions. No one was more active than he in sustaining the army and doing all in his power to assist our generals, especially Schuyler, who seemed to Morris, as to many others, both then and since, to be the victim of injustice, He strongly believed, in fact, that a campaign of obstruction was best for us, and he felt from the outset that in this way the English expedition from Canada could be most surely ruined. Even on so grave a subject, however, his humor crops out, and while he is solemnly arguing as to the campaign against Burgoyne he writes : —
“I am also told that the Indians are determined to take up the hatchet for us. If this be true, it would be infinitely better to wear away the enemy’s army by a scrupulous and polite attention, than to violate the rules of decorum and the laws of hospitality by making an attack upon strangers in our own country.”
In 1778 he was promoted to a seat in the Continental Congress, and although only twenty-six years old he came forward then with the same ease as on the smaller stage of New York. This was chiefly due, of course, to his ability, but also in part to his astonishing capacity for rapid and effective work. He was on the committee to visit Washington at Valley Forge; he urged the plan of provision for the officers of the army; he drew reports on the condition of the Union, on a plan for a treasury board and for a medical department. In the course of this work he became intimate with Greene, and formed a warm friendship with Washington which continued unabated through life. In the miserable cabals against the general, Morris made determined war upon the schemers, and his indignation breaks out sharply in a letter to Washington : —
“ You have enemies. It is happy for you that you have. A man of sentiment has not so much honor, as the vulgar suppose, in resigning life and fortune for the service of his country, He does not value them as highly as the vulgar do. Would he give the highest evidence, let him sacrifice his feelings. In the history of last winter, posterity will do you justice.”
Political and personal conflicts, however, did not turn him from his labors. From his busy pen came the report on Lord North’s conciliatory bills, an address on the treaties with France, a sketch of the negotiations with the commissioners, a draft of instructions for Franklin, a pamphlet on our finances to be presented to the French court, and finally, in 1779, a draft of instructions as to making peace. These manifold and eminent services did not, apparently, satisfy his constituents. Unjust prejudices and suspicions on account of his Tory relatives, so strong that he did not dare even to visit his mother when critically ill, and charges that he neglected the local interests of New York, especially in regard to Vermont, prevailed against him, and he was not reëlected when his term expired.
He thereupon moved to Philadelphia, to practice his profession, write upon finance, and attack the dangerous and futile legal-tender and maximum laws. Just after his retirement from Congress, and while thus engaged, he was thrown from his phaeton and severely injured. By the rash advice of his surgeon his leg was amputated, a severe trial to an active, energetic man ; but he bore his misfortune with the cheerful philosophy which was always his most marked characteristic, and jested about it even in the midst of his suffering. He was visited by one of those consoling friends of the kind familiar to every one, who held forth about the good effects of such a dispensation, and the check which it would be to dangerous pleasures and dissipations. When he had concluded Mr. Morris said, “ My good sir, you argue the matter so handsomely, and point out so clearly the advantages of being without legs, that I am almost tempted to part with another.”To another sympathizer he said, “Oh, sir, the loss is much less than you imagine ; I shall doubtless be a steadier man with one leg than with two.” The plain wooden leg with which he supplied his grievous and painful loss was, if tradition may be believed, once used to good purpose by his ready wit. In the stormy time in Paris, when Terror ruled, and not even a foreign minister was safe, Morris’s chariot was one day stopped by an angry mob, and immediate violence was threatened. Morris thrust out his wooden leg, and cried, “ I am an American ! See what I suffered in the war for liberty and independence ! ” The mob was converted by such ocular demonstration of patriotic suffering, and drew their victim home in triumph instead of hanging him to a lamp-post.
Great as the misfortune was, however, it did not diminish Morris’s energy, or depress his spirits. When his friend Robert Morris was appointed to the charge of our disordered finances, he took the position of assistant secretary, and contributed largely to the work which did so much to save the American cause. He also, in addition to his heavy public duties, carried on a large law practice, both in the courts and before the legislature, where he made one of his most, brilliant and in its day famous speeches, concluding with an apostrophe to William Penn, which moved his hearers to tears, — a feat that seems hardly compatible with the theme. During all this period, too, he wrote much for the press, and took an active part in politics. He drew a report on coinage, and published a pamphlet on our trade with the French West Indies. He urged an opposition to the congressional instructions to follow blindly the wishes of France, and in season and out of season advocated the claims of the army. Like all friends of the soldiers at that time, he was accused of being a monarchist, — a singularly unjust charge against a man whose first maxim was that government must conform to the habits and character of the people, and who greatly feared an attempt to introduce monarchy, “ because it did not consist with our taste and temper.” At the same time, like all the ablest and strongest men in that period of feebleness and solution, he worked ardently for a better and stronger union. In 1784 he wrote to Jay : —
“ A national spirit is the natural result of national existence ; and although some of the present generation may feel colonial opposition of opinion, yet this generation will die away and give place to a race of Americans.”
In the same spirit, and in almost his first speech in the constitutional convenlion to which he was chosen as a delegate from Pennsylvania, and in which he played a most conspicuous part, he declared : —
“ I come here as a representative of America. I flatter myself that I come here in some degree as a representative of the whole human race ; for the whole human race will be affected by the proceedings of this convention. I wish gentlemen to extend their views beyond the present moment of time, — beyond the narrow limits of place from which they derive their political origin.” Again he said, with “ something like prophetic strain,” “ This country must be united. If persuasion does not unite it, the sword will.”
No man did better work in the great task of forming the Constitution than Morris, and from his hand came the final draft, rounded and polished, which embodied the principles forged slowly in weeks of debate. He of course belonged to the party which favored a vigorous central government. He opposed bitterly equality of votes in the Senate, and sought to weaken the rights of the States. He wished a President for life elected by the people, and also a Senate for life. Property, he believed, should be represented, and the suffrage conferred only on freeholders; maintaining, also, that persons of foreign birth should be ineligible to office. What few others then perceived his keen mind detected, that the South was determined to secure a majority and rule at all hazards, and he fought fiercely against slave representation. Slavery, however, aroused his enmity on much broader grounds than those of political power. He had already striven for abolition in the New York convention, and he renewed the struggle on the national field. On moving to insert the word “ free ” before “ inhabitants ” he made a speech of great force and eloquence, beginning: —
“ Much will depend on this point. I will never concur in upholding domestic slavery. It is a nefarious institution. It is the curse of heaven on the States where it prevails.” Nothing shows the breadth of view, the far-reaching vision, and the generous spirit of the man better than his relentless and outspoken resistance to the malignant system which was destined to bring the country so near to utter ruin and dissolution.
After all was over he expressed in a letter to a friend in France his opinion of the great work on which he had been engaged, and it would be difficult to find a juster estimate in the year 1788 of the Constitution, then struggling for an opportunity to live, than this of Morris, with its characteristic touch of satire. He writes : —
“ You will long ere this have seen the Constitution proposed for the United States. This paper has been the subject of infinite investigation, disputation, and declamation. While some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it was the work of plain, honest men, and such I think it will appear. Faulty it must be, for what is perfect? But if adopted, experience will I believe, show that its faults are just the reverse of what they are supposed to be.”
Soon after these lines were written he sailed for Europe to attend to certain business interests, little thinking of the long absence from home that was before him, or of the great events in which he was to be an actor and which he was to describe so vividly in the diary then begun.
He arrived in Paris on the 3d of February, 1789, and the first two persons he visited were Jefferson and Lafayette. Of the latter, of whom he was very fond, he curtly says, “ Lafayette is full of politics; he appears to be too republican for the genius of his country.” At the very outset he had doubts and suspicions as to the soundness and wisdom of the revolutionary party, and these feelings and opinions strengthened constantly during his long residence in the country. A day or two after his arrival he dined with Lafayette, who showed him a draft of the famous declaration of rights. “ I gave him my opinions,” Mr. Morris writes in his diary, “ and suggested several amendments tending to soften the high-colored expressions of freedom. It is not by sounding words that revolutions are produced.” A few weeks later we find him writing to Washington in the same strain, his sense of humor thoroughly aroused by the queer antics of the enthusiastic amateurs in government-making who then swarmed and talked everywhere in Paris. “ Everything,” he says, “ is à Anglais, and a desire to imitate the English prevails alike in the cut of a coat and the form of a constitution.”
Before a month had expired Mr. Morris had become a social success, thanks to his wit, ability, and engaging manners. Every day brought an invitation to the salon of some fashionable woman, or to the dinner table of some statesman or philosopher. Full accounts, apparently, are given in the diary of all these entertainments, but Mr. Sparks seems to have thought them below the dignity of history, for he has favored us with only one or two extracts, and as a rule has confined his selections to politics. The observations on public affairs are penetrating and valuable in the highest degree, but the descriptions of the social life, of men and women of the world, of the more private side of daily life, are most charming and interesting. The characteristic vein of subdued satire, the keenness of observation, the effective style of these passages, are extremely attractive, and they cannot but cause the greatest regret that we should not have them entire. There is no other journal, diary, or correspondence of that period left by any of our public men which at all compares with this in its amusing, light, and humorous touch. From the slender selections of Mr. Sparks let us take this : —
“ March 3d. Monsieur le Comte de Nenni does me the honor of a visit, and detains me till three o’clock. I then set off in great haste to dine with the Comtesse de B., on an invitation of a week’s standing. Arrive at about a quarter past three, and find in the drawing-room some dirty linen and no fire. While a waiting-woman takes away one, a valet lights up the other. Three small sticks in a deep bed of ashes give no great expectation of heat. By the smoke, however, all doubts are removed respecting the existence of fire. To expel the smoke a window is opened, and, the day being cold, I have the benefit of as fresh air as can reasonably be expected in so large a city.
“ Towards four o’clock the guests begin to assemble, and I begin to expect that, as Madame is a poetess, I shall have the honor to dine with that exalted part of the species who devote themselves to the Muses. In effect, the gentlemen begin to compliment their respective works, and as regular hours cannot be expected in a house where the mistress is occupied more with the intellectual than the material world, I have a delightful prospect of a continuance of the scene. Towards five Madame steps in to announce dinner, and the hungry poets advance to the charge. As they bring good appetites they have certainly reason to praise the feast, and I console myself in the persuasion that for this day, at least, I shall escape an indigestion. A very narrow escape, too, for some rancid butter, of which the cook had been liberal, puts me in bodily fear. If the repast is not abundant, we have at least the consolation that there is no lack of conversation. Not being perfectly master of the language, most of the jests escaped me. As for the rest of the company, each being employed either in saying a good thing or in studying one to say, it is no wonder if he cannot find time to applaud that of his neighbor. They all agree that we live in an age alike deficient in justice and in taste. Each finds in the fate of his own works numerous instances to justify this assertion. They tell me, to my great surprise, that the public now condemn theatrical compositions before they have heard the first recital.
And to remove my doubts the Countess is so kind as to assure me that this rash decision has been made on one of her own pieces. In pitying modern degeneracy we rise from the table.”
The statement as to the condemnation of theatrical works smacks of the soil. In the words “ to my great surprise ” we catch the peculiar vein of American humor which delights in a solemn appearance of ignorant and innocent belief in some preposterous assertion. It is close kin to the broader form of today as exemplified by Mark Twain weeping at the grave of Adam, which the Saturday Review declared was a ridiculous affectation of sentiment.
March 25th Mr. Morris is at the house of his old and true friend of the Revolution, Madame de Chastellux. There he meets the Duchess of Orleans, and forms a friendship which is to prove very warm, very faithful, and of great service to the Duchess and her son, the citizen king of the future. Two days later he goes to dine with the Neckers in company with his friend the Maréchal de Castries. Here too he begins a lifelong friendship with both his host and the daughter of the house, Madame de Staël, which was kept up with real affection on all sides until death ended it. His first impressions of M. Necker are worth quoting for their shrewd correctness: “ A little before dinner, Monsieur enters. He has the look and manner of the counting-house, and, being dressed in embroidered velvet, he contrasts strongly with his habiliments. His bow, his address, say, ‘ I am the man.’ Our company is one half Academicians. The Duchess of Biron, formerly Lauzun, is one. I observe that M. Necker seems occupied by ideas which rather distress him. He cannot, I think, stay in office half an hour unless the nation insist on keeping him there. He is now much harassed, and Madame receives continually mémoires from different people ; so that she seems as much occupied as he is. If he is really a very great man I am deceived ; and yet this is a rash judgment. If he is not a laborious man I am also deceived.”
While he was thus watching and weighing the men and women whose brilliant society he so much enjoyed, he was also studying with deep attention the momentous political development going on about him. May 4th, the day before the opening of the States-General, he witnessed the procession at Versailles. The Queen was received with hostile silence, and Mr. Morris writes most characteristically, “ I cannot help feeling the mortification which the poor Queen meets with, for I see only the woman, and it seems unmanly to treat a woman with unkindness.” He was present at the opening of the StatesGeneral, and has left a very striking and picturesque description of that great event, unfortunately too long for quotation. He followed the operations of that famous body with close scrutiny, and found little in their doings to encourage him as to the prospects of France. We catch a glimpse here of another famous American, who was equally interested in the fortunes of the French people, but who looked upon the advancing revolution with feelings and opinions very different from those of Mr. Morris.
“ June 3d. Go to Mr. Jefferson’s. Some political conversation. He seems to be out of hope of anything being done to purpose by the States-General. This comes from having sanguine expectations of a downright republican form of government. The literary people here, observing the abuses of their monarchical form, imagine that everything must go better in proportion as it recedes from the present establishments, and in their closets they make men exactly suited to their systems; but unluckily they are such men as exist nowhere else, and least of all in France.”
He had still other occupations, as appears by the next entry, with its jest at his own expense : —
“ June 5th. Go to M. Houdon’s. He has been waiting for me a long time. I stand for his statue of General Washington, being the humble employment of a manikin. This is literally taking the advice of St. Paul to be all things to all men.”
June 6th, he supped with Madame Flahaut, where he met a certain very celebrated person, whom he gauged with his usual penetrating accuracy : “ The Bishop of Autun, who is one of our company, and an intimate friend of Madame Flahaut, appears to me a sly, cool, cunning, ambitious, and malicious man. I know not why conclusions so disadvantageous to him are formed in my mind ; but so it is, and I cannot help it.” This quick judgment which Mr. Morris here sets down when Talleyrand was still comparatively unknown does not differ very widely from that of posterity half a century after the death of that eminent statesman and divine. It is one of many instances of a foresight and insight amounting almost to a gift of prophecy which made Mr. Morris’s political predictions most wonderful in their correctness.
Let us take a few more extracts from the diary : —
“ June 23d. At dinner I sit next to M. de Lafayette, who tells me that I injure the cause, for that my sentiments are continually quoted against the good party. I seize this opportunity to tell him that I am opposed to the democracy from regard to liberty; that I see they are going headlong to destruction, and would fain stop them if I could ; that their views respecting this nation are totally inconsistent with the materials of which it is composed ; and that the worst thing which could happen would be to grant their wishes. He tells me that he is sensible that his party are mad, and tells them so, but is not the less determined to die with them. I tell him that I think it would be quite as well to bring them to their senses and live with them.”
It is plain that he concealed nothing from Lafayette, no matter how distasteful his advice might prove. He writes in the same way to Washington, ten days later : —
“ Our American example has done them good, but, like all novelties, liberty runs away with their discretion, if they have any. They want an American constitution, with the exception of a King instead of a President, without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that constitution.” When he penned this sentence the first storm was just about to burst. July 14th, the day of the taking of the Bastile, after describing that event and the manner in which he heard of it, Mr. Morris writes, with a turn at the end which is curiously modern, “ Yesterday it was the fashion at Versailles not to believe that there were any disturbances at Paris. I presume that this day’s transaction will induce a conviction that all is not perfectly quiet.” After the fall of the Bastile there was a lull, and the attempts at constitution-making and reform went on again after a fashion.
September 26th, Mr. Morris was at the National Assembly, whither, indeed, he went frequently, and after listening to the report of the Minister of Finance he remarks, “ At the close, however, of the report there is a feebleness which they are not, perhaps, fully aware of, or perhaps it was unavoidable. They appeal to patriotism for aid; but they should in money matters apply only to interest. They should never acknowledge such want of resource as to render the aid of patriotism necessary.” So annoyed and troubled was he by the errors which he saw committed that, as events hurried rapidly forward, he strove, of course in vain, to mend matters by appealing to his intimate friends in behalf of wiser measures.
October 16th, he wrote to Lafayette an admirable letter of counsel and advice. He said that the constitution would not work, and that the National Assembly would soon fall into contempt. Under these circumstances, the only thing to be done was to strengthen the executive, and he urges Lafayette to see that good and able men go into the council, but advises Lafayette himself to remain outside. The reasons for this advice are then set forth with great vigor and shrewdness. One cannot help thinking, as one reads these wise but futile words, what a pity it was that among the French statesmen there were not a few like Morris. Much might have been saved if there had been, but nothing is so empty as the “ ifs ” of history. There were no such men in France, for there had been no chance for centuries to breed them, or even to make them possible.
Mr. Morris was now called away by public duties of his own. He was requested by Washington to go to England as a secret agent of our government, and endeavor to reopen diplomatic relations and settle various outstanding and threatening differences with that country. To London he accordingly went in February, 1790, and there he spent seven or eight months in fruitless conversations with the Duke of Leeds and Mr. Pitt about western posts, the fulfillment of treaties, the compensation for negroes, British debts, and impressment, On the last subject he said, with a concise wit which ought to have made the saying more famous than it is, “ I believe, my lord, that this is the only instance in which we are not treated as aliens.” Whether this keen-edged remark penetrated the thick skull of the noble duke to whom it was addressed does not appear. At all events, the mission was a failure. English ministers, with that sagacity which has always characterized them in dealing with the United States, were determined to injure us so far as they could, and make us enemies instead of friends, if it were possible to do so, — a policy which has borne lasting fruit, and which England does not now delight in quite so much as of yore. It is pretty obvious that Mr. Morris was not to their taste, despite his wit and good manners. He was a man of perfect courage, and patriotism, and could be neither bullied nor cajoled. His brother, Staats Long Morris, was a general in the British army and the husband of the Duchess of Gordon, — a fact which implied respectability to the English mind, and made it difficult for them to snub a person who, according to their notions, was so well connected. Worst of all, he was a man of great ability and wide information, intellectually superior to any minister he met, except. Mr. Pitt, and therefore he was an awkward subject to trample on. Stories were set afloat to injure him, and were so far successful that they gave him much trouble at home. He was charged with consorting with Fox and the opposition, which was not true, and with revealing his purposes to Luzerne, the French minister, which was true, and sprang from Mr. Morris’s sentiment of gratitude to France, ill rewarded, and in great measure cured, by Luzerne’s betrayal of his confidence. He found time, however, in the midst of his vain efforts, to observe his English friends, and the following extract from a letter to Washington shows that the ludicrous side in the lives of the various distinguished personages whom he met did not escape him.
On September 18, 1790, he writes of Pitt: “ Observe that he is rather the Queen’s man than the King’s, and that since his majesty’s illness she has been of great consequence. This depends in part on a medical reason. To prevent the relapse of persons who have been mad they must be kept in constant awe of somebody; and it is said that the physician of the King gave the matter in charge to his royal consort, who performs that, like every other part of her coujugal duty, with singular zeal and perseverance.”
Fruitless wranglings and disobliging treatment, although they could not disturb his good-humor, nevertheless tired him sadly, and he turned his eyes ever more wistfully to the exciting scenes in France, He shows this in a letter to a friend in Paris, in which, too, he makes one of his many correct predictions, and also reveals his knowledge of his own failing in the direction of a dangerous frankness.
“ A cautious man,” he says, “ should therefore give only sibylline predictions, if indeed he should hazard any. But I am not a cautious man. I therefore give it as my opinion that they will issue the paper currency, and substitute thereby depreciation in the place of bankruptcy, or, rather, suspension.”
Soon after he departed for the Continent, made a brief tour in Germany, and in November reached Paris again. He went at once to one of his old haunts, the club, and there, as he says, met his friend De Moustier, who was engaged in making a constitution, and was, “as usual, on the high ropes of royal prerogative.” He soon saw that things were going to pieces very rapidly, and after several visits finally got an opportunity to tell Lafayette so, and renew his former advice to rally about the throne and try to gain some stability ; expressing at the same time unbounded contempt for “ the thing called a constitution.” He also urged the restoration of the nobility, at which poor Lafayette flinched, and said he would like two chambers, as in America. “ I tell him that an American constitution will not do for this country ; that every country must have a constitution suited to its circumstances, and the state of France requires a higher-toned government than that of England.” All this was very true but very unpalatable, especially to Lafayette, and the result was that he became rather cool to his frank adviser. Yet the old friendship really remained as warm as ever, and when Lafayette became a prisoner no one worked harder for his liberation than Mr. Morris.
Although the tremendous events in the midst of which he was now plunged absorbed his thoughts, we still get here and there glimpses of the gay society in which he found himself, and which was soon to be extinguished in the dark torrent of revolution.
January 19, 1791, he writes: “ Visit Madame de Chastellux, and go with her to dine with the Duchess of Orleans. Her royal highness is ruined; that is, she is reduced from 450,000 to 200,000 livres per annum. She tells me that she cannot give any good dinners ; but if I will come and fast with her, she will be glad to see me.”
January 25th, he dined with Madame de Staël, and heard the Abbé Sieyés “descant with much self-sufficiency on government.” Four days later he went out to Choisy with Madame de Chastellux and dined with Marmontel, who seemed to his guest “ to think soundly,” a compliment paid by Mr. Morris to but few of his French friends. There is something very striking and most interesting in these little pictures of daily existence, which went on much as usual, although the roar of revolution was even then sounding in men’s ears. Philosophers speculated and fine ladies jested, although the world was in convulsion ; and so they continued to do until it was all drowned in the Terror, from which arose, after brief interval, another society, as light-hearted and brilliant, if not so well born, as its predecessor.
We can mark, however, the tremendous changes in progress around him in the extracts from the diary. The social pictures grow fewer, the tone is graver, there are more interviews with statesmen and fewer chats with ladies of rank, while the reflections concern the welfare of state and nation rather than the foibles or graces of men and women. April 4th came the funeral of Mirabeau, with some observations in the diary which are eloquent and striking ; and there were other and still weightier matters then pressing upon his mind. August 26th he notes in his diary, “ Dine with Madame de Staël, who requests me to show her the mémoire I have prepared for the King.” The next day he says, “ Dine with M. de Montmorin. After dinner retire into his closet and read to him the plan I have prepared of a discourse for the King, He is startled at it. Says it is too forcible ; that the temper of the people will not bear it.” Mr. Morris’s talents and the force of his arguments on the state of public affairs had attracted general attention, and in their agony of doubt court and ministry turned to him for aid. The result was the draft for a royal speech, which the King liked but was prevented by his ministers from using, a mémoire on the state of France, notes for a constitution, and some other similar papers which are given by Mr. Sparks. These documents are very able and bold. Whether Mr. Morris’s policy, if pursued, would have had any effect may well be doubted, but there can be no question that it was the sanest, most vigorous, and best defined of the multitude offered to poor, hesitating Louis, and its adoption could certainly have done no harm. In the midst of these disinterested and somewhat perilous pursuits we find him writing to Robert Morris (October 10, 1791), and describing a scene at the theatre when the people cheered the King and Queen.
“ Now, my dear friend,” he adds, “ this is the very same people who, when the King was brought back from his excursion, whipped a democratical duchess of my acquaintance because they heard only the last part of what she said, which was, ‘ Il ne faut pas dire, Vive le Roi.’ She had the good sense to desire the gentleman who was with her to leave her. Whipping is, you know, an operation which a lady would rather undergo among strangers than before her acquaintance.”
Mr. Morris’s sympathy for the King and Queen led him on further than he anticipated. Indeed, his attitude as an adviser of the ministry caused outbreaks against him on the part of the opposition. De Warville said in his newspaper that Morris, on one of his periodical visits to England upon business, was sent to thwart Talleyrand, — an accusation which Mr. Morris met with a public denial. His doings, however, were not fortunate, in view of the responsibility about to be placed upon him ; for while he was away on this very visit to England, in the early months of 1792, he received the news of his appointment as minister to France.
Morris was not without enemies. At home, his contempt and dislike for the methods of the French Revolution were only too well known, and his confirmation was strongly opposed in the Senate. His good friend the President with much delicacy explained to him the ground of the opposition, and in this way pointed out to Morris the failings which threatened his success. The idea of your political adversaries, Washington says, is “ that the promptitude with which your lively and brilliant imagination displays itself allows too little time for deliberation and correction, and is the primary cause of those sallies which too often offend, and of that ridicule of character which begets enmity not easy to be forgotten, but which might easily be avoided if it were under the control of more caution and prudence.” If it had been known in America just how deeply Mr. Morris had plunged into French politics, it may be doubted whether Washington even would have nominated him as minister. As it turned out, no better choice could have been made, yet at the moment Mr. Morris was involved in affairs which no foreign minister ought even to have known, He probably felt that his efforts to save order and government by means of the monarchy were hopeless, but they had drawn him on into the much more dangerous path of personal sympathy for the King and Queen, and thence to attempts to preserve their lives, at least. The King was unable to adopt Mr. Morris’s views in his public utterances, but on his advice confided in M. de Monciel, one of his ministers, and this gentleman and Mr. Morris arranged an elaborate yet practicable scheme for the escape of the royal family. After a short time the King sent Mr. Morris 547,000 livres to carry out the plan, and wished also to make him the depositary of his papers. Mr. Morris accepted the first trust, and declined the latter. The large sum of money seems to indicate the King’s preference for the plan of Mr. Morris, in whom he had great confidence, yet there were half a dozen other schemes on foot at the same time. De Molleville had one ; Mr. Crawford, sent over by the British government, had another; Marie Antoinette’s Swedish friend, Count Fersen, had a third ; and there were probably many more. One plan interfered with another. That of Morris and Monciel was ripe for execution, and still the King doubted and delayed. While he was hesitating, the 10th of August came, the Swiss guard was massacred, and all was over.
An American gentleman was present at the Tuileries on that memorable day, and went thence to the house of the minister of the United States. On entering he found Mr. Morris surrounded by the old Count d’Estaing and many other persons of distinction, who had fought side by side with us in our war for independence. Silence reigned, interrupted only by the weeping of the women and children. As the visitor was about to retire, Mr. Morris took him aside, and said, “ I have no doubt, sir, but there are persons on the watch, who would find fault with my conduct as minister in receiving and protecting these people ; but I call on you to witness the declaration which I now make, and that is that they were not invited to my house, but came of their own accord. Whether my house will be a protection to them, or to me, God only knows, but I will not turn them out of it, let what will happen to me. You see, sir, they are all persons to whom our country is more or less indebted, and it would be inhuman to force them into the hands of these assassins, had they no such claim upon me.” Whatever the faults of Mr. Morris, or whatever criticism may be made upon him, no American even now can read these words, uttered at such a moment, without feeling his pulse beat quicker, and without rejoicing that, a man of such high and generous spirit so fitly represented his country in an hour of trial and peril.
To suppose, because Mr. Morris had the sympathy of a gallant man for the King and Queen in their danger and distress, and also the profound distrust and contempt as an able and practical statesman for the follies and madness of those who were trying to carry on the French Revolution, that he therefore was a lover of royalty and aristocracy and titles would be a great injustice. How far removed he really was from such weak prejudices is shown by an incident many years later. At Vienna, where he had a discussion with some of the émigrés and with some scions of Austrian nobility in regard to Lafayette, these precious individuals abused the fallen and imprisoned leader ferociously, and Mr. Morris of course came to his defense. His commentary shows how much he despised the people who might have saved France and failed. “ Indeed, the conversation of these gentlemen, who have the virtue and good fortune of their grandfathers to recommend them, leads me almost to forget the crimes of the French Revolution ; and often the unforgiving temper and sanguinary wishes which they exhibit make me almost believe that the assertion of their enemies is true, namely, that it is success alone which has determined on whose side should be crimes and on whose the misery.”
In the same vein and about the same time he said of the illustrious personage who afterwards became Louis XVIII. that “ in Ins opinion he had nothing to do but to try to get shot, thereby redeeming by valor the foregone follies of his conduct.” He was sorry for the King and Queen, he disliked and distrusted utterly the methods of the Revolution, but he despised the French royalty and nobility, for “ they turned like cravens and fled.”
The two years which followed his appointment as minister form one of the most brilliant chapters in the diplomatic history of the United States. On the day he left Paris, after having turned everything over to his successor Mr. Monroe, Mr. Morris writes in his diary (October 12, 1794), “ I have the consolation to have made no sacrifice either of personal or national dignity, and I believe I should have obtained everything if the American government had refused to recall me.” 1
This brief statement is as true as it is moderate. No foreign minister ever faced such difficulties and dangers as Mr. Morris did at this time, for the simple reason that there has been in modern times but one Reign of Terror, and Mr. Morris was the only representative of a foreign government who did not ask for his passports and withdraw. He not only remained at his post, but he handled the affair of our debt most admirably, doing all that either law or honor demanded to accelerate our payments, but firmly declining to go further or to be imposed upon in any way. He carried on a continual battle with the decrees militating against our commerce, met every difficulty that arose at the threshold, protested against every outrage on our rights, and was on the point of getting reparation when the French government obtained his recall, if these duties had been performed in ordinary times they would have been sufficiently difficult, but to deal with any diplomatic questions in the hurly-burly of the French Revolution seems an almost impossible feat. Mr. Morris, on account of his well-known views, was not liked by the successive ministries or committees, each of whom was more extreme and violent than its predecessor. To oppose them was about as safe as playing with a hungry tiger, but our minister never flinched by a hair’s breadth. His house was searched more than once, he was arrested in the street because he did not have his card of citizenship, and his death or murder was at one time currently reported in Europe and America. His life was, in truth, in constant danger. When all other ministers departed he stayed, an example worthily followed by another American minister when France was last beset with “ malice domestic and foreign levy.” When subjected to these various outrages he never failed to take a high tone, demand his passport, and obtain a more or less surly apology. So he held out, doing his duty and protecting his countrymen and his country’s interests. He was, in fact, just the man for the place and time. A sympathizer like Monroe at that period would have been ensnared and made a tool of, and would have thus involved us in all the network of French complications, as indeed he afterwards succeeded in doing to a certain extent. Almost any other man of Morris’s own party would have been driven from the country by holding a too rigid and defiant attitude.
Morris, however, while too strongly opposed to the Revolution to be beguiled, by his utter fearlessness and ready wit combined with a certain dash and gallantry was carried through triumphantly. The diary became too dangerous, and was stopped for the time; but before this occurred there are a few entries and some extracts from letters which must be quoted, to show how wonderfully he penetrated the conditions of the struggle, and how clearly he understood its true character. On May 14, 1792, he wrote to Washington: —
“You know that I do, from the bottom of my heart, wish well to this country, and will therefore easily judge what I have felt in seeing them long since in the high road to despotism.”
And again in June he wrote : —
“It is notorious that the great mass of the French nation is less solicitous to preserve the present order of things than to prevent the return of the ancient oppressions, and of course would more readily submit to a pure despotism than to that kind of monarchy whose only limits were found in those noble legal and clerical corps by which the people were alternately oppressed and insulted.”
Here is the true view of the French Revolution : that it was a struggle not for political rights, but for equality before the law, for the abolition of privileges, and for good government. Morris was almost if not quite alone, at that time, in this opinion, and it has been reserved to the most recent modern investigation to bring out and insist upon this all-important truth.
July 2d he says in his diary, “ Monciel and Bremond call on me. The French, says Monciel, are. I am afraid, too rotten for a free government. I tell him that the experiment may, nevertheless, be tried, and despotism still remain as a last resort.”
August 22d he wrote to Jefferson of Lafayette’s flight: “ Thus his circle is completed. He has spent his fortune on a revolution, and is now crushed by the wheel which he put in motion, He lasted longer than I expected.”
October 18, 1793, he writes to Washington : “ But whatever may be the lot of France in remote futurity, and putting aside the military events, it seems evident that she must soon be governed by a single despot. Whether she will pass to that point through the medium of a triumvirate or other small body of men seems as yet undetermined. I think it most probable that she will.”
If we consider that the Directory did not come until two years later, the consulate or triumvirate four years after that, and then in the process of evolution the Empire and the single despot in 1804, it must be admitted that this is an extraordinary example of political foresight. Morris saw that a despotism existed ; in common with many others he perceived that it would probably be concentrated in a single individual; but who else in 1793 announced that the single despot would come in the precise manner in which it actually happened? He made many other predictions, and was rarely wrong. Indeed, his sagacity in this way was quite noted among his friends, but there is space to mention only one other instance. Many years afterward, when watching from across the Atlantic with intense interest the Russian campaign, he predicted that Napoleon would begin his retreat from Moscow on October 21st. On October 19th the retreat actually began. These things were of course not due to mere chance, and to M. Necker (May 22. 1798), who had recalled one of his predictions since become true, Mr. Morris gives undoubtedly the secret of his remarkable foresight. “ It is not,” he says, “ difficult to prophesy in such a case. If we are to judge of the conduct of a man in a given situation, it would be hazardous to pronounce upon it. since the character of each individual is governed by the peculiarity of his mind and the impression made upon him by the circumstances in which he is placed. But where the mass is concerned we have but to observe the instinct of the animal, and we shall not be deceived,” In addition to this wise doctrine he was also governed by a theory which guided him through all his public life and largely explains his success, He says in a letter to Carmichael: —
“ The true object of a great statesman is to give to any particular nation the kind of laws which is suitable to them, and the best constitution which they are capable of.” No better rule was ever laid down, and if it were more observed men would make fewer disastrous failures in government and constitutions.
After leaving France, Mr. Morris traveled for six years on the Continent and in England, studying men and manners, enjoying society, and making everywhere firm friends among the most distinguished men and women of the time. At last in 1799 he returned to America, and as he supposed to private life and the practice of his profession. He was elected, however, almost at once Senator from New York, and reentered public life just as the Federalist party, to which he belonged, was driven from power, never to return.
In the dangerous crisis which arose from the equality of votes received by Jefferson and Burr Mr. Morris took the only sound view, that it was right to have Jefferson chosen. He says in his driest way : —
“ Not meaning to enter into intrigues, I have merely expressed the opinion that, since it was evidently the intention of our fellow-citizens to make Mr. Jefferson their President, it seems proper to fulfill that intention.”
A little later he writes to Hamilton : “ I have more at the request of others than from my own mere motion suggested certain considerations not quite unworthy of attention ; but it is dangerous to be impartial in politics. You who are temperate in drinking have never perhaps noticed the awkward situation of a man who continues sober after the company are drunk.”
Again, he writes to Livingston: " I greatly disapproved, and openly disapproved, the attempt to choose Mr. Burr. Many of my friends thought differently. I saw they would be disappointed, and therefore looked on with perfect composure. Indeed, my dear friend, this farce of life contains nothing which should put us out of humor.”
Despite his philosophy, however, he made a most eloquent and desperate resistance to the repeal of the judiciary act, which he always considered little less than a death-blow to the Constitution. He could be impartial at times and he supported the acquisition of Louisiana, but at heart he was a strong partisan. We can see this in what he says of Jefferson.
“ It is the fashion,” he writes in 1803, “ with those discontented creatures called Federalists, to say that our President is not a Christian ; yet they must acknowledge that, in true Christian meekness, when smitten on one cheek he turns the other, and by his late appointment of Monroe has taken special care that a stone which the builders rejected should become the first of the corner. These are his works ; and for his faith, it is not as a grain of mustard, but the full size of a pumpkin, so that while men of mustard-seed faith can only move mountains, he finds no difficulty in swallowing them. He believes, for instance, in the perfectibility of man, the wisdom of mobs, and moderation of Jacobins. He believes in payment of debts by diminution of revenue, in defense of territory by reduction of armies, and in vindication of rights by the appointment of ambassadors.”
Again, he writes to Dayton: " That our administration is too feeble is, I believe, too true. What you say of their chief is curious. When he told you we have the choice of enemies, he stated a fact applicable at all times to all countries, since any blundering blockhead can make a war; but when he acknowledged that we have not a choice of friends, he pronounced the surest satire on himself, since this misfortune Can only be attributed to a series of false and foolish measures.”
Strong and even extreme as he was in his Federalism, he nevertheless was not despondent, like so many of his party friends, and declined to despair of the future. “ There is always,” he says in a letter written in 1803, “ a counter-current in human affairs, which opposes alike both good and evil. Thus the good we hope is seldom obtained, and the evil we fear is rarely realized. . . . Like the forked, featherless bipeds which have preceded them, our posterity will be shaken into the political form which shall be most suitable to their physical and moral state. They will be born, procreate, and die, like the rest of creation, while here and there some accomplished scoundrels, rare nantes in gurgite vasto, will give their names to periods of history.”
He seems to have sighed but little for the delights of Europe, where he had passed so many years. To his friend Parish, who had urged him to come to England, he writes in 1801 : —
“ Recollect that a tedious morning, a great dinner, a boozy afternoon, and dull evening make the sum total of English life. It is admirable for young men who shoot, hunt, drink ; but for us ! How are we to dispose of ourselves ? No. Were I to give you a rendezvous in Europe, it should be on the Continent.”
He traveled extensively, however, in his own country, and, not content with the exercise of his profession, gave his best thought and work to schemes of public improvement. As early as 1777 Mr. Morris had set forth the idea of connecting the great lakes with the Hudson. This project he never forgot, and alter his return he renewed his efforts, and devoted the last years of his life and all his eloquence before the legislature to its promotion.
Thus engaged, his life flowed peacefully along, He married in 1809, most happily, and not long afterwards, in a letter to his friend Madame de Dumas, he gives us a glimpse of himself and his home life that displays admirably the happy disposition, cheerful philosophy, and keen intellect which made their possessor so successful and so contented. “ My health,” he writes, “ is excellent, saving a little of the gout which at this moment annoys me. I can walk three leagues, if the weather be pleasant and the road not rough. My employment is to labor for myself a little, for others more ; to receive much company, and forget half those who come. I think of public affairs a little, play a little, read a little, and sleep a good deal. With good air, a good cook, fine water and wine, a good constitution, and a clear conscience I descend towards the grave full of gratitude to the Giver of all good.”
There is nothing to add but the inevitable statemeut of the end. He died after a brief illness, in 1816, without suffering, and cheerful to the last.
The man who made the final draft of the Constitution of the United States and who first suggested the Erie Canal needs no other monuments. But his brilliant intellect and long and distinguished public career are too little known. We have but to read his diaries and letters to appreciate him at his true value both as statesman and writer. There is only one other word to be said. Among many fine qualities of heart and mind, nothing does him more honor than his strong, unswerving patriotism and ardent belief in his country. This sketch cannot end more fitly than with another prediction, made in 1801, which has not only been fulfilled, but which shows the spirit which animated its author throughout his life: —
“ The proudest empire in Europe is but a bauble compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of two centuries, perhaps of one ! If, with a calm retrospect to the progress made within forty years, we stand on the firm ground of calculation, warranted by experience, and look forward to the end of a similar period, imagination shrinks from the magnitude of rational deduction.”
Henry Cabot Lodge.