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Gouverneur Morris, George Washington’s War Hawk

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

If there was a single factor that would determine whether the fledgling American republic that took form in 1789 would survive, it was the revenue to be derived from duties on imports, and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton made it the linchpin of his program to rescue the national credit. But the bulk of American trade was with Great Britain and it was proving a grudging loser of the Revolutionary War. The British excluded American exports from their home ports and from Jamaica, Barbados, and Bermuda in the Caribbean. In the Northwest Territory, Britain showed no willingness to evacuate Oswego, Detroit, Michilimackinac, and six other frontier posts, as stipulated in the Treaty of Peace. Britain refused even to send a minister to represent it in America. Hamilton feared that if tensions heightened they might erupt into stoppage of the all-important imports.

In order to avoid another rebuff, he therefore proposed to President George Washington that an unofficial emissary be sent to London to negotiate outstanding differences, and he persuaded him that the man for the job was their mutual friend, Gouverneur Morris, who was already overseas in Paris on private business dealings, and could easily skip over to England. Morris had been one of the principal architects of the Constitution, and his Federalist credentials were impeccable. A lawyer, financier, and land speculator, he was the proprietor of the New York manor that covered the lower half of the present Borough of the Bronx, and a member of one of America’s most prominent families. His grandfather had been governor of New Jersey, one uncle had been lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, one half brother was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and another was a British general and member of Parliament.

It is nevertheless an open question whether Hamilton would have preferred Morris if he had not been so conveniently in Paris. Handsome and fully conscious of his native brilliance and inherited distinction, Morris was self-assured to the point of arrogance. His trademark was a wooden leg (the result of a daredevil accident) which seemed only to accentuate his six-foot-two-inch frame. At the Constitutional Convention, he spoke more often than any other delegate, despite a month’s leave of absence. James Madison said of him that he had a “fondness for saying things and advancing doctrines that no one else would.” He was hardly likely to turn out to be the dutiful diplomat, careful to limit himself to the letter of his instructions.

Morris, in fact, had a very different concept of his mission than Hamilton had intended. In his view, Britain was not a power to be placated, but to be curbed. Despite its defeat in the war, Britain was still the dominant power in Europe, and a threat to America’s very existence. He disliked what he termed the “froideur Anglais.” He much preferred the vivacious French salon to the stuffy English drawing room, where the women were separated from the men. “A tedious morning, a great dinner, a boozy afternoon, and dull evening, make the sum total of English life,” he wrote. He wished to see the tottering French monarchy bolstered as a foil to the British ascendancy. And it was not without significance that he was at that moment engaged in a wide-ranging scheme, in partnership with Robert Morris, William Duer, William Constable, and Samuel Osgood, to purchase the American debt to France of $34,000,000 at $.50 on the dollar. If successful, they would use the profits, in conjunction with French investors, to form a giant international banking house that could outbid the Dutch syndicates for American loans and land speculations. Morris received his commission on Jan.21, 1790, in the form of two letters from Washington, instructing him to investigate the possibility of evacuation of the Northwest forts, payment for the slaves the departing British had taken with them, and negotiation of a commercial treaty.

Unknown to Washington was a clash that had occurred in July 1789 between Britain and Spain off the western coast of North America. A Spanish naval expedition had seized a British post and three ships at Friendly Cove in Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound. Morris had received confidential knowledge of the incident, possibly through his close friend, William Carmichael, American charge d’affaires at Madrid. A war might result in which France might be obligated to come to Spain’s aid, in accordance with the Family Compact of 1761. Here, Morris daringly envisioned, was an opportunity for the United States to obtain from Britain, as the price of neutrality, compliance with the Peace Treaty and free trade with the British West Indies. France, likewise, would yield trade with the rich Caribbean sugar islands, while Spain would grant free navigation of the Mississippi. He set himself the goal of promoting that war, and in the process restructuring the entire balance of power in Europe.

He disclosed no part of this design to Washington or to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and it remained undetected by historian Julian P. Boyd, when in 1964 he published a study of the negotiations, entitled, Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy. Boyd maintained that Morris’s mission was underhandedly undermined by Hamilton, who detected in Morris’s reports a preference for France over England, and he determined to discredit him and have him recalled. To do so, he entered into secret discussions with a British agent in Philadelphia, Major George Beckwith, whom he advised to warn his home government against Morris. Beckwith obliged, and in his reports to London he employed code numbers to identify Americans. Hamilton was “Number 7.” Morris was “Number 23.” Hamilton, having disparaged Morris in England, next proceeded to do the same in America. He submitted to Washington a fabricated story that Beckwith had charged Morris with revealing his mission to the French ambassador in London, the marquis de la Luzerne, and hobnobbing with antiministerial politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. Boyd, in his book, branded Hamilton’s machinations a “Libel on an Honorable Public Servant.” But, although Hamilton could not know of Morris’s war plans, he had nevertheless learned from Morris himself, in a letter written Jan.31, 1790, of his involvement in the scheme to purchase the American debt to France, an investment not likely to influence him to champion England over France. Hamilton was cannily close to the truth.

Washington, however, unconvinced by the accusations of a British undercover agent, saw through Hamilton’s subterfuge. Supported by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, he rejected Hamilton’s anglophilism, and refused to sanction an American-British alliance.

Morris, unaware of the intrigue at home, began his self-appointed plunge into international political manipulation. Before leaving Paris for London, he informed the French minister of foreign affairs, the comte de Montmorin, that, contrary to his instructions to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain, he preferred one with France for trade with her West Indies. When Montmorin demurred, Morris declared that the only way for France to avert a British-American rapprochement was to go to war with Britain. Montmorin “means very well,” Morris wrote in his diary, “but he means it feebly.” Morris next went to the marquis de Lafayette, a friend from Valley Forge days in America, whom he knew had a profound animus against the British, with a proposal for an attack on England’s ally, Holland. Lafayette, Morris also knew, “burns with desire to be at the head of an army in Flanders and drive the stadtholder into a ditch.”

Arrived in London, Morris had his first interview with the foreign secretary, the bellicose duke of Leeds, whose wife had run off with John Byron, the poet’s father. He was intractable. He gave no sign of evacuating the Northwest forts, paying for the emigrated slaves, or opening negotiations for a commercial treaty until the Americans paid Loyalist debts. Morris was unperturbed. He warned that the American Congress might enact retaliatory tariffs. “I thought it best to heap Coals of Fire on their Heads,” he complacently informed Washington.

Five weeks later, came the climax that he had awaited. Late on May 4, orders were issued for impressment squads to scour pubs, brothels, and lodgings throughout the United Kingdom, seizing men for induction on warships preparing for war with Spain. The following day, the government announced the crisis to the public. Promptly, Morris wrote Lafayette:

This country is arming and I am convinced with a Determination to compel not only Spain but every other Power to subscribe to such terms as she may chuse to dictate. You will strive in vain to deprecate the Blow, therefore you must prepare to meet it. Or rather so to strike as may prevent it.

He proceeded to lay out a detailed plan. France should begin by crippling British trade with an embargo and seizure of British vessels and crews. Next, France should invade Belgium by way of Luxembourg, Brussels, and Antwerp, in which he was not above welcoming the assistance of the revolutionary followers of General Jean-André van der Meersch, then in prison at Antwerp. In order to prevent intervention by Austria, her Emperor Leopold II could be offered French assistance in fighting Turkey. Prussia could be held off by a force posted at Liege. Holland, too, must be contained. For this, the American captain John Paul Jones was prepared at Dunkirk to launch a naval attack on Antwerp. There, Dutch republican insurgents would join to oust the detested House of Orange, which Prussia and Britain had recently reinstated.

Enclosed in the letter to Lafayette were two he was to read and forward, alerting him to the complementary facets of the proposed war against Britain. One was to Carmichael, urging him to pressure Spain to dispatch expeditions against Newfoundland and the British East Indies. As he had advised in the proposal for the French invasion, the captured crews must not be exchanged, so as to drain British manpower. The second letter was to the French minister designate to the United States, the chevalier Jean de Ternant, acquainting him with the entire plan, so as to enable him to speak in America with circumspection.

Only now did Morris bother to notify his home government of the crisis that had erupted at Nootka Sound. And at that he did it privately through a letter to his business associate, William Constable, whom he asked to relay it to Washington. Spain, he reported, would never submit. He said not a word about his invasion plans.

Two weeks after the publication of the crisis, Prime Minister William Pitt himself joined Leeds in a meeting with Morris, and took over the negotiation. Although he was still adamantly opposed to surrender of the Northwest forts and compensation for the slaves, he signified that he was now willing to consider a commercial treaty. Morris countered that the return of the forts was a prime prerequisite. Frostily, he recommended that the British submit their commercial proposal in writing, and initiate the exchange of ambassadors by their own appointment. “I believe that a war is inevitable,” he wrote Washington, “and I act on that ground.” But he still said nothing about his own machinations to bring that about. And, as the crisis worsened, it did indeed look as though the British secretary of state for home affairs, Lord Grenville, was considering giving up the Northwest forts, as Morris heard on June 17.

On June 21, Morris received a report from Lafayette’s aide-decamp that Britain was about to commence hostilities against the French in India. The information was unverified, and the attack never developed, but Morris concluded that the time had come to set his plans in motion. He gave the aide a 4000 word operational agenda to deliver on his return. “One might as well talk of an alliance between Rome and Carthage” as between France and England, he declaimed, and “Carthage must be destroyed.” Not only must Spain seize Newfoundland and France invade Belgium and Holland, as he had previously urged, but the French must follow up their offensive against England herself. The French navy, feinting an expedition to the French West Indies, would decoy the British fleet and then reverse to land at Plymouth, London, and Brighton.

But France, as well, was not immune from concessions Morris targeted in his schemes for promoting American commerce. While she was distracted with England, America could gain access to the trade of her rich sugar islands in the West Indies. She would probably lose these colonies, Morris imperturbably conceded to Lafayette, but she would be more than compensated by the acquisition of Flanders, and her victory would reinstate Louis XVI and restore internal stability to France. There seemed no limit to the new world order that Morris envisaged as following from the defeat of Britain. Poland might be preserved from Russia, Greece liberated from Turkey, India unshackled from Britain, Egypt from Turkey. The Black Sea would be opened to navigation and the Mediterranean freed from the depredations of the Barbary Powers.

Morris’s bold-faced proposals received no endorsements. Lafayette, even if he had so desired, could not have moved the French National Assembly to honor with arms the Family Compact. Carmichael, in Madrid, ignored Morris’s plea for collaboration, was secretly supporting the British ambassador, Alleyne Fitzherbert, and warned Spain not to expect American aid. And the Spanish ambassador in London, the marques del Campo, supposedly Morris’s confidant, never relayed his messages to the foreign minister in Madrid, the condé de Floridablanca. Instead, the Spanish were hearing from contrived British sources that Morris was promoting an Anglo-American alliance.

On July 24, Floridablanca, deserted by France, conceded. In a joint declaration with Fitzherbert, he agreed to restitution of the captured vessels and indemnification of damages to the British. Subsequently, in the Nootka Sound Convention, Spain acknowledged Britain’s rights to settlement on the North American west coast. Fitzherbert was rewarded with a peerage. As Baron St. Helens, he had a mountain named after him which is still giving Americans trouble. Floridablanca’s career began a decline that ended in a three-year term in prison, from which he was released on condition that he never again set foot in Madrid. In America, on December 17, Washington and Jefferson decided that Morris could accomplish nothing with further negotiations. They recalled him and wrote to commend his conduct during the negotiations.

Yet, although Spain had withdrawn, this did not hinder him in his efforts to promote a Franco-British conflict as a lever for securing American trade with the French West Indies. He returned to Paris, and on May 1, 1791, approached Montmorin with a new plan. France could still ally itself with Austria, Poland, and Malta for an attack on Holland and the Austrian Netherlands. Austria would be compensated with Silesia and Bavaria. Poland would be promised support for northern expansion to the Baltic. Malta would receive Constantinople. And while France was thus preoccupied, Morris had “a different Plan which I do not communicate.” He proposed to engineer independence for the French West Indies, and the concession from the new regime of free trade for the Americans.

Next he turned to one of the French commissioners to the islands who was then in Paris, the baron de Cormeyré, a known American partisan. Morris offered him a bribe to request from the National Assembly the creation of colonial legislatures and the relaxation of colonial trade restrictions. Cormeyré was then to spur those legislatures to demand independence. This scheme also came to naught. Morris’s only remaining hope of war disappeared when Montmorin resigned in September 1791. In St. Domingue, Morris’s hope of a planter-led movement for independence was supplanted by an insurrection of slaves and free Blacks late in 1791. He was an opponent of slavery, but he feared that incendiary Black liberation might become a model for revolt in the United States.

Finally, he ended his campaign. America must now achieve economic self-sufficiency, he wrote Washington, through “Progress in useful Manufactures. This alone is wanting to compleat our Independence. We shall then be as it were a World by ourselves, and far from the Jarrs and Wars of Europe, their various Revolutions will serve merely to instruct and amuse. Like the roaring of a tempestuous Sea, which at a certain Distance becomes a pleasing Sound.”

In the meantime, events in France were taking a turn that caused him to recast his assessment of the European political scene. A new constitution had been adopted, stripping the nobles of their power, but the king had vetoed punitive measures against émigrés and nonjuring priests. The revolutionary Girondists and Jacobins had retaliated with demands for the overthrow of the monarchy and creation of a republic. France was no longer the potential counterforce to challenge Britain’s domination. She was becoming a revolutionary upheaval that threatened to spread across Europe. Morris wished to halt this contagion, and he now decided that it was Britain that was America’s best friend.

Into this upheaval, Washington summoned him to a new assignment, as Jefferson’s successor as minister plenipotentiary to France. His nomination was hotly contested in the Senate, where James Monroe charged him with being a “monarchy man,” and Roger Sherman derided him as “profane.” He was confirmed Jan.12, 1792, by a vote of 16 to 11. Washington heard the critics, and he candidly cautioned him that “the promptitude, with which your brilliant imagination is displayed, 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 characters, which begets enmity not easy to be forgotten.” Morris promised “that Circumspection of Conduct which has hitherto I acknowledge form’d no Part of my Character.”

No sooner promised than violated. The Bastille had fallen, the royal family had been forced by a mob of women to move from Versailles to Paris, and the assembly had seized the lands of the Catholic Church. He had watched, horrified, as the decapitated body of a king’s minister, with the head on a pike, was dragged through the streets. He set himself no less a goal than transforming the government of France into a limited monarchy, and he drew up a proposed constitution. The old regime must be modified, not eliminated, in order to educate the people to new responsibilities. The king should have appointive and removal powers, command of the armed forces, authority to declare war and peace, and conduct of diplomatic relations. A bicameral legislature would consist of a 90-member hereditary senate and a 400-member national assembly elected in rural districts by property holders and in cities by married males. Revenue laws would originate in the assembly, and these, with legislation enacted by both houses, would be subject to royal veto. An appellate court, with judges appointed for life, subject to overrule by the senate, would safeguard trial by jury and freedom of religion.

Louis XVI allowed Morris to take over the management of his personal affairs, and he responded with a plan for the king to evade the mob by fleeing Paris. The king, however, lost his nerve, and instead entrusted his own funds of 996,750 livres to Morris to raise a personal insurrectional army headed by the marquis de Mandat. The insurrection erupted on August 10. Mandat was slain and his followers slaughtered. The Jacobins, in control of the Legislative Assembly, suspended the king, in effect ending the monarchy.

In the ensuing Reign of Terror, Morris was the only diplomat who had the fortitude to remain at his post. He gave sanctuary to refugees from the insurgents, including his mistress, the beautiful novelist Adelaide Marie Emilie, wife of the aged comte de Flahaut, who eventually was guillotined. Morris’s relations with the revolutionary regime reached an open rupture when the minister of foreign affairs, Pierre Hélène-Marie Le Brun, requested payment of $890,000 of the American debt to France. Morris refused to treat, arguing that the debt had been contracted with the old government, and he had not been authorized from Philadelphia to negotiate with the new one. When, on Jan.21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed, and the following month France declared war on Britain and Holland, Morris’s role was reduced to little more than that of spectator. He did manage to save Lafayette’s wife from the guillotine, and lent her 100,000 livres of his own money. He refused, however, to intervene for the imprisoned American pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who had accepted French citizenship from the earlier Girondist government.(Morris’s successor, the Jeffersonian James Monroe, obtained his release.) The revolutionary government found an excuse to request his recall as retaliation for the American rejection of the French emissary, Edmond Charles Genet.

Yet it was not in Morris’s makeup to remain a spectator. Convinced now that the only way to contain the contagion of French incendiarism was to restore the Bourbons to the throne of France, he enlisted in support of the late king’s younger brother, the self-styled Louis XVIII. He drafted a manifesto, exhorting royalists to rally to his cause, but Louis issued instead the uncompromisingly reactionary Declaration of Verona. A British-supported naval invasion attempt at Quiberon Bay in Brittany failed, ending the last hope of the royalists.

Morris returned to America in 1798, where in 1800 the New York Federalist legislature elected him to fill the remaining three-year term of a resigned United States senator, but he failed of reelection against his Democratic-Republican opponent. Although out of office and now happily married to a woman much younger than himself, he was still not a political bystander, nor a stranger to intrigue. He was bitterly opposed to the War of 1812, which he considered an unjust attack on England, agitated by Western interests and supported by the South, bent on conquering Canada. As an uncompromisingly partisan Federalist, he fostered a group that met at his Morrisania estate to draw up antiwar resolutions and call for state committees of correspondence. It included John Jay and Rufus King, and it organized a mass protest meeting on Aug.18, 1812, in New York’s Washington Hall at Broadway and Reade Street. Eleven days later, in the New York Herald, he went so far as to issue a call for secession of the northern states from the Union. He attended the Federalist party presidential convention in September that nominated DeWitt Clinton. When he lost to Madison, Morris supported the secessionist Hartford Convention, which he even thought was not forceful enough. The signing of peace, at last, eliminated any further movement to form a separate confederation. And in 1816, two months before he died, he called for national reconciliation: “If our Country be delivered, what does it greatly signify whether those who operate her Salvation wear a federal or democratic Cloak?”

Conspirator he might have been, but constitutionally not, as Theodore Roosevelt in his biography charged, an “open champion of treason.” Despite his opposition to direct democracy, fundamentally his goal was civil rights and human betterment. In drawing up the New York State constitution of 1777, he prevented the disenfranchisement of Catholics, and unsuccessfully fought to outlaw slavery. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he unsuccessfully opposed allowing the Southern states to increase their Congressional strength by counting three-fifths of the slaves. He opposed the protective tariff of 1816 on the ground that the manufactures it fostered would shackle “many poor Children who can be pent up to march backward and forward, with a Spinning Jenny, till they are old enough to become Drunkards and Prostitutes.”

Morris’s acuity and audacity suited the unique enterprise of creating the American republic, as crafter of the office of the presidency at the Constitutional Convention, and as the clandestine schemer to liberate American territorial and commercial expansion from the British yoke. He was, however, out of step with the coming era of popular power. Not a believer in the perfectibility of humankind, he maintained that self-government was feasible only where tradition and temperament existed to restrain the turbulence of the masses. In America, this meant siding with Hamiltonian elitism against Jeffersonian democracy. In France, it meant restoring the monarchy. In his schema, the sanctity of private property was essential to the preservation of civil rights.


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