The devilish diplomacy of Gouverneur Morris during the French Revolution
First published in Elle (US) 1989
There once was a golden age of good clean fun when married women received gentlemen callers in their baths. The husbands were off conducting affairs of state, while their young wives took care in conducting stately affairs. All was carefully balanced and exquisitely nuanced: the bath was filled with a modicum of opaque milk, the suitor with a ripple of restrained ardor, and the whole scene with a splash of veiled decency. Sound too good to be true? It was, in fact, the best of times and the worst of times, for the year was 1789 and the place, Paris.
Before the French Revolution intervened to spoil the party, a sizeable slice of Parisian society scrupulously observed the improprieties of civilized behavior. And before last summer’s bicentennial of that great event focused what many Frenchmen consider far too much attention on lofty principles and even loftier fireworks, a few cranky historians managed to look beyond the bedlam of the revolutionaries and peek into the boudoirs of the powerful.
Surprisingly, one of the men most frequently found there was an American ambassador to France. Unlike such relatively well-behaved representatives as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, this unsung but entirely uninhibited American hero was a past master of dangerous liaisons. Gouverneur Morris, friend of doomed royal families, crafty currency speculator, and irrepressible bon vivant, may have been the most atypical emissary the young United States ever sent overseas. He also may have been the most courageous: of all the foreign envoys to France, Morris was the only one to stay in Paris during Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Thanks largely to Morris’s bullying of the French Revolutionary government, no American citizen suffered the swift stroke of the guillotine.
The forgotten story of Morris’s remarkable nine-year sojourn in Europe was revived in France in 1983 by a Swiss biographer, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, whose as yet untranslated Un diplomate américain sous la Terreur (“An American Diplomat During the Terror,” published by Fayard) set modern Parisian dinner parties atwitter with two-century-old gossip. How Morris, an affluent young lawyer from a large country estate, which, incidentally, was long ago engulfed by the Bronx, ended up the confidant of counter-revolutionaries and the consoler of widowed noblewomen is an absorbing, unlikely story. Biographer Fiechter confides, “I wanted to set the historical record straight. Morris is not very well known in France or America, yet he played an important, discreet role in the politics of both countries. Perhaps the only hindrance to his becoming President of the United States was his habit of stating clearly what was on his mind. His frankness made him many enemies, especially among such mediocrities as James Monroe.” Fiechter might also have added, as his book so clearly points out, that Morris’s epicurean tastes and seductive powers were not in keeping with the yong republic’s ideas of public virtue.
In fact, Morris originally came to France to escape the moral strictures then weighing heavily on the newly independent United States. Commissioned by an indebted friend to sell tracts of American land to eager European investors, the young New Yorker soon found himself clinching deals in Paris, Amsterdam and London, gaining the confidence of the powerful, and amassing a healthy sum of money.
When the revolutionaries evicted many of his French aristocratic acquaintances from their châteaux, Morris exercised the better part of shrewdness in purchasing some of their assets at cut-rate prices. The Palace of Versailles, crammed with the lavish, opulent belongings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, took one full year of daily auctions to empty. Fiechter estimates that Morris sailed back to the United States with an impressive booty of priceless tapestries, furniture, paintings, sculptures, musical instruments, more than 700 pounds of silverware, and 4,672 bottles of vintage wine.
Not that Morris was without uncommercial accomplishment: he had participated fully in the writing of the American Constitution, successfully arguing for religious tolerance and unsuccessfully demanding the abolition of slavery. An esteemed friend of George Washington, who was 20 years his senior, Morris also convinced his peers to adopt the dollar decimal system as the currency of the U.S., and first mooted the Erie Canal project. Yet these achievements should not detract from his other considerable gifts: a tall, athletic build, blue eyes, dark hair, and a melodious voice.
Morris’s sole physical peculiarity, a wooden leg, was the direct result of using his looks to good advantage, a hobby he would practice for most of his life. One day in May 1780, the 28-year-old Morris was forced to make a reckless dash into a Philadelphia street, leaving his lady friend behind to deal with a husband who had unexpectedly come home early. He escaped detection – but not a rushing carriage that ran over his left leg. During Morris’s convalescence, Fiechter notes, “several ladies watched over [his] resurrection… Cared for in the house of a Colonel Parker, he enjoyed a tender idyll with the wife of his host before taking his place in the world outside.”
That world grew larger in the spring of 1789, when this man of exceptional talents arrived in Paris. He did not go unnoticed: “His natural elegance, original conversation, and candor… led very quickly to Gouverneur Morris being appreciated by a libertine nobility always in search of novelty… His accent and picturesque syntax, his wooden leg – which made him look like a wordly pirate – and the protective way he spoke to the ladies, contributed to making him a fashionable figure in Paris society.
As Morris’s circle of acquaintances spread, so did the fire of revolution in the French capital. The American diplomat, complaining that “a man in Paris lives in a whirlwind,” nonetheless had the time to note that France at the end of the ancien régime was “a woman’s country,” where wives were as involved in the politics of the time as their husbands were. His combination of republican political savvy and dashing patrician charm thus stood him in good stead with the wives of prominent French officials.
One of the Parisian belles was the young Adélaïde de Flahaut, the wife of an elderly member of the court of Louis XVI. Morris, a regular guest at the salons held by such distinguished families as La Rochefoucauld and Lafayette, believed the lovely Adélaïde to be unhappy as the mistress of the greatest political schemer of that era, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who, just to add further salaciousness to the tale, was then a Roman Catholic bishop. After taking Madame de Flahaut to witness the demolition of the Bastille (stormed by the Paris populace on July 14, now France’s national holiday), Morris contrived to have the young noblewoman help him in translating his letters to the French authorities. Words were eventually superseded by actions, and Morris became one of Adélaïde’s favorite visitors.
Fiechter describes the particularly perilous summer of 1791: “The two lovers… became so daring as to embrace in Adélaïde’s boudoir, while her young cousin, Mademoiselle Duplessis, played the piano in the next room.” Morris noted in his diary: “The husband was downstairs, we expected visitors at any moment, and the door was wide open.” One visit in August by the American was singularly undiplomatic, according to Fiechter: “They [Morris and Adélaïde] took advantage of the extreme myopia of Mademoiselle Duplessis, who was reading a book near the corner window, to love each other there in the room.”
Morris’s reputation as a pleasant ladies’ companion grew, attracting a horde of aristocratic admirers that included the wife of the British ambassador to Paris, as did his stature as a political analyst. His meticulously kept diary shows a constant stream of meetings with the men and women who led France to the irrevocable step of beheading its king. (It should be added, in passing, that after finally settling down to marriage late in life, Morris suffered the posthumous indgnity of having many of the amorous anecdotes in his diary expurgated by his shocked American widow.) Never one to shrink from a paradox, Morris, a founding father of the republican United States, held that a monarchy was the form of government best suited for France, for the simple – and fairly unflattering – reason that few Frenchmen were capable of managing the affairs of their country in a democratic manner.
In the early years of the revolution, his outspokenness in favor of the French king incurred the displeasure of other Americans in Paris: after one quarrelsome Fourth of July celebration, Morris complained of Thomas Jefferson’s naïve belief in a peaceful outcome of the turbulence, and dismissed fellow patriot Thomas Paine as little more than a drunk. With uncanny foresight, Morris predicted the Reign of Terror and the rise of a despot like Napoleon.
When the Terror finally did come, in 1793-94, Morris stubbornly decided to remain in a bloodthirsty Paris to carry on his ambassadorial duties. By chiding Robespierre’s ministers about French interference with American shipping, all the while aiding friends to escape and knowing the revolutionaries were aware of his past plots to help Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette flee the country, Morris showed a tremendous amount of what would now be called chutzpah. Modern Frenchmen, who have mixed feelings about their revolution, admire that quality in Gouverneur Morris – so much so that there is talk of a film about his stay in Europe. French producer Yves Rousset-Rouard claims that Morris’s adventures are “like The Year of Living Dangerously set in 18th-century France.” Along with British producer David Puttnam, he wants to introduce this “charming, clairvoyant” man to the film-going public. Gvien Morris’s active social life, it seems fitting that Rousset-Rouard’s previous screen successes include A Little Romance and Emmanuelle.
Morris, after outliving his French Jacobin enemies and turning the Paris embassy over to James Monroe, spent his last three years overseas visiting other European capitals, his reputation as a brave diplomat and brazen American Casanova preceding him. In 1796, dining with the sister of the Emperor of Austria, Morris was asked to distinguish between “beautiful” and “pretty” ladies. With typical panache, he responded by saying he detested comparisons, then went on to muse aloud, “What good is the most beautiful palace in the world, if I’m locked out of it?” This, as Morris himself might admit, is the immoral of his story.