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A Sophisticate Abroad

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

A Diary of the French Revolution. By Gouverneur Morris. Edited by Beatrix Cary Davenport. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Two volumes. $9.00.

It is indeed unfortunate that the publication of “A Diary of the French Revolution,” a day-to-day account of the experiences, thoughts, observations, and intimate private affairs of Gouverneur Morris while Minister to France from 1789 to 1793, should have been so long delayed. Morris might otherwise have gained a reputation comparable to the immortal Pepys. With his description of French society, politics, intrigues, and immorality, his characterizations of the leading figures of the period, and his own part in the gay whirl of the “Venusberg” of Europe, Morris has left a most revealing and human document.

Even the casual student of the Revolution will find little that is new in the recitation of the chief events of the movement. In that respect the information is confirmatory rather than original. However, Morris’s opinions of some of the leading ministers are revealing. He had no great respect for the abilities of Necker as a minister or as a financier. In Mirabeau he saw a man with a fine mind ruined by his vices. Talleyrand, a rival at love, was “sly, cool, cunning, and ambitious.” Morris repeated again and again that one of the greatest weaknesses in the position of the monarchy before the days of the Terror was the lack of honest and able ministers.

The great contribution of the diary, however, is the insight which it gives us into the character and political views of the man himself. Although he had no sympathy for the course which events were following in France, it is unfair to brand him a reactionary and a snob. Perhaps he may well be termed a nineteenth-century liberal. At home he was a staunch republican but in Paris a monarchist. From his point of view there was no inconsistency in that position. In political theory Morris appears as a follower of Montesquieu or Edmund Burke; he believed that the government of a state should be based upon the condition and the traditions of the governed. France, he felt, was unsuited for a republican government. He arrived at that conclusion partly from his knowledge of the history of the country, but more directly from his low opinion of the French people, particularly the Parisians, though most certainly that opinion was not drawn from direct contact with them.

From the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 to the beginning of the Terror in August 1792, he lived in daily hope and expectation of a reaction in favor of the monarchy. He believed it was inevitable that the prevailing anarchy, as he considered it, would result in a return to allegiance to the crown. Holding such views, Morris was obviously ill at ease after the proclamation of the Republic and the execution of Louis. But he refused to desert his post; he was the only representative of a foreign state to remain in Paris throughout the Terror.

In lighter vein, the absorbing affair with the Comtesse de Flahaut runs throughout the diary. Almost from the moment of their first meeting the peg-legged American and the famous beauty experienced a mutual attraction. The field was already well occupied by a husband and by Talleyrand, the admitted father of her son. But Morris quickly replaced the husband and rival. He remained ever the director of the play: it was he who determined the mood of the moment, first hot and then cold. The diary hides nothing of the intimacy of the relationship, confessing to the most delightful indiscretions practically in the public eye.

It is a fast-moving story with the main threads of love and revolution enriched by many sidelights. The editor, Beatrix Cary Davenport, deserves every praise; she has hidden nothing and her introduction and notes perform a valuable service both for the layman and the scholar.


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