By Meredith Hindley
In October 1794, Gouverneur Morris packed up his possessions and turned the keys to his house, just outside Paris, over to a friend. Morris had lived in France since 1789, and had watched, first as a private citizen and then as the American minister to France, as revolution swept the country. Using bribes, guile, and the power of his office, he had helped several nobles and intellectuals escape the guillotine. But sometimes he failed and was left gazing in horror as heads were chopped off, mounted on pikes, and paraded through the streets. He risked his life to help liberate Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, only to watch helplessly as the plan unraveled at the last minute. They too went to the guillotine.
Morris can rightly be called a Founding Father, but he is rarely included in the usual pantheon, in part due to his youth and his promiscuous ways. The third son of a prominent New York family, he trained as a lawyer, a profession that played to his talent for oratory. At first leery of the American rebellion, Morris joined the cause of independence after the Battle of Lexington in 1775. He helped frame New York’s constitution, arguing for religious freedom and the abolition of slavery, and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He also played a key role in negotiations with France and Britain. As a member of the Constitutional Convention, he influenced the shape of the executive branch and the creation of the Electoral College. He also wrote the heart of the Constitution’s preamble: "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
With the new government established, the thirty-six-year-old American headed to France in 1788. He went to sell tobacco and land, to help bolster his family’s flagging finances, but quickly found himself in the middle of another revolution. His extraordinary diary for these years records his habits and meetings, along with many cutting observations about Parisian society. He moved in lofty circles, and his journals have been a key source for historians writing about the French Revolution. But he didn’t stop writing after he left Paris. And he didn’t stop living an interesting and consequential life, which, if made into a movie, would require at least a PG-13 rating.
Biographers and family members looking to bolster Morris’s profile have had to struggle with the many pages he left documenting his libertine ways. European court society, which Morris inhabited from 1789 to 1798, regarded the boundaries of marriage as fluid. And Morris, a bachelor, genuinely enjoyed the company of women. Flirtation, gossip, tourism, and politics all seem to be of a piece in his personal notes, as he records his romantic adventures, sometimes with eye-opening candor, alongside meetings with bankers, discussions with heads of state, and sightseeing treks. Parts of the diary from 1794 to 1798 have been published before, but only in a highly edited form that censored Morris’s candid language and his escapades. The effect was worse than prudish, as it simplified this founder’s life and character while disassociating him from the era in which he lived.
The new scholarly edition of his diaries from 1794 to 1798 sets things to right. Editor Melanie Randolph Miller and her team have faithfully transcribed Morris’s diary, including spelling and capitalization quirks that can appear odd to our twenty-first-century eyes. They have also done a champion job of identifying the people Morris met, turning a passing reference to a duke or comtesse into a story in its own right. The result is an absorbing entry point into the drama engulfing Europe and a chance to join Morris as he meets kings, woos women, and hatches political intrigue.
In mid October 1794, Morris said good-bye to Paris and made his way southeast to Switzerland. The departure was bittersweet. Morris loved Paris, but the Revolution had been demoralizing. “I saw misery and affliction every day and all around me without power to mitigate or means to relieve, and I felt myself degraded by communications I was forced into with the worst of man kind,” he wrote George Washington. He was also worn out from the controversy that had led to the end of his service as U.S. minister to France. The French government, concerned that Morris was insufficiently friendly to the revolution, had arranged for him to be recalled.
As the American bachelor travels through Switzerland, spending time in Lausanne and Basel, before pushing on into what is now central Germany, the diary reads like scenes from a bad road trip. There are impassable roads, cheating innkeepers, terrible food, slow horses, and delays for carriage repairs. The trip was also made decidedly less comfortable by the flare-up of two perpetual health problems: gout and venereal disease. By mid December 1794, Morris arrives in Hamburg, the vibrant port city nestled between the German states and Scandinavia and known for its trading prowess. It was also a sanctuary from the fighting that had engulfed the Low Countries since 1792. Austria and Prussia, fearing the spread of revolutionary fever, had been waging war against a resilient France.
But war and politics were far from Morris’s depressed mind. “I am told it is uncommonly cold even for the Climate we are in,” he wrote on Christmas. The dark days and bitter weather didn’t help. Neither did a terrible cold, which took Morris months to shake. “I had never had so heavy a Cold in my Life,” he wrote. “[T]he Effect is such as to render Existence burthensome.” At the end of December, Morris took stock. The final line of his diary for 1794 reads, “Another Year is added to the many which have been lost in the Abyss of eternal Duration.”
But he soon climbs out of his funk, and his diary entries become more animated and his activities more plentiful. He started mixing with Hamburg society and the émigré community. He also began working on a business project: selling land near Washington, D.C., that belonged to his brother. At the end of February, he rented a house in Altona, a Danish town on the Elbe River and an easy carriage ride from Hamburg. For the next four years, Altona and Hamburg would serve as his base of operations as he explored central Europe for the first time.
In the spring of 1795, Adélaïde de Flahaut, Morris’s former lover, arrived in Hamburg. He had met this “pleasing Woman” in March 1789 at a dinner held at Versailles. A creature of Parisian society known for her salons, the twenty-eight-year-old Flahaut was married to the sixty-three-year-old Alexandre-Sébastien de Flahaut de la Billarderie, the Keeper of the King’s Gardens. She was also the mistress of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the Bishop of Autun, who was father to her son born in 1785.
Morris found Parisian society difficult to navigate at first, his formal French no match for the wordplay of the salons and the double entendres whispered behind fans. It was enough to knock Morris, a seasoned ladies’ man, off his game. But as the months progressed, he soaked up the colloquialisms and rules that governed the French court. Possessed of amiable good looks, supplemented by the rakish addition of a peg leg (his left leg was amputated below the knee after his ankle was crushed under the wheels of a phaeton in 1780), Morris soon flourished. By the summer, he and Flahaut were engaged in a flirtation. Aware of her other obligations, he nevertheless became enchanted. In the fall of 1789, they became lovers after Morris confessed that he could no longer be “only a friend.”
Their affair consisted of restrained public meetings and clandestine assignations for lovemaking. They toyed with each other, sometimes cruelly: Morris unhappy about his competition and Flahaut unwilling to give up her means of support or influence. After the tenth of August 1792, in which troops backed by the Paris Commune attacked the Tuileries and forced Louis XVI and his family to seek the protection of the Legislative Assembly, Flahaut and her son fled to London using forged passports purchased with money provided by Morris. The following year, her husband went to the guillotine. For Flahaut, who had called a lavish apartment in the Louvre home, life as an émigré was a step down. To make ends meet, she wrote novels and, when she needed extra money, made bonnets. She also renewed her relationship with the Earl of Wycombe, who had been one of Morris’s rivals for her affection in Paris. Talleyrand, perpetually strapped for money, offered little support.
What brought Flahaut to Hamburg, aside from Morris, was her involvement with Louis Philippe, the twenty-one-year-old duc d’Orléans and future heir to the French throne. In late January 1795, Flahaut wrote Morris from Switzerland that Orléans, who had been living a shadowy itinerant existence, wanted to travel to Hamburg and then on to the United States, but lacked the necessary funds. Fearing for his life, Orléans had been in exile for almost two years after being accused of treason by the Girondists. Morris, who was always generous with his purse, provided the money.
Although Morris hadn’t seen Flahaut for two and a half years, in his diary he reveals nothing of the emotions that must have been roiling through him. “Made. de flauhaut arrives this morning. In the Afternoon, I place her and her Companion Mr. Muller in the Appartments I had taken for them.” (Muller being the duc d’Orléans.) Over the next three weeks, there are mentions of calls and dinners, but no overt clues as to how things stand between them. The only hint of any romance comes in the way of a poem, which Morris writes after picking flowers on the way to her lodgings.
Take these, my Sweet, which’ve just been culled
They’ve been there for you, you know, for many a day
My Work, my Cares, My Play all told
Flowers of spring and summer’s array
Here comes Winter with all its great might
Its days bring gloom but its Nights enthrall
So, my Dear little One, let us take delight
For days are Few now it’s well into Fall
(translated from French by Steve Moyer)
In early June, Morris sailed for England, where he would stay for a little more than a year. He saw Flahaut before departing: “We converse on her dreary Situation in Life with which she is strongly affected. After Dinner the Vessel in her Breast gives Way and she has a small Hamorhage.” It was the second time she had bled in such a manner since arriving in Altona. Morris, however, did not regard it as serious enough to change his plans.
Morris didn’t arrive in London a wide-eyed American colonist. He had spent nine months in England during 1790 when he acted as Washington’s informal envoy. Flush with prior acquaintances and an ability to attract new ones, it was only a matter of days before Morris was trading views with cabinet ministers and members of Parliament about how to tackle revolutionary France, the credit crisis, and a restless Prussia. He renewed his friendship with Lord Grenville, Britain’s foreign secretary, and befriended Grenville’s cousin, William Pitt the Younger, who happened to be the prime minister.
He also met John Quincy Adams, the son of Vice President John Adams, who was stranded in London after his diplomatic mission to The Hague fell through. Morris doesn’t record what he thought of the twenty-eight-year-old future president at their first meeting. Adams, however, wrote in his own diary that Morris, who had been generous with both advice and observations, had “conversed with as much freedom as from his character as I expected.”
In November, Lord Grenville presented Morris at court to George III, the very monarch Morris had helped foment a revolution against. At first, George III took Morris for an Englishman, a mistake politely corrected: “We set him right and Ld. Grenville tells his Majesty that I was not liked by the ruling Powers in France.” “I suppose Mr. Morris is too much attached to regular Government,” the king said. Morris quickly seized the conversational opening, “Yes Sir, and if your Majesty would send thither your discontented Subjects, it would do them much good.”
Morris didn’t spend all of his time in London. He made a thorough tour of England and Scotland, with one eye on landmarks and the other on industry. His diary bursts with notes about the price of fish, timber, and grain. He constantly calculates investments and returns to decipher how the factories he tours turned a profit. Ever the tourist, he climbed the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to see the misty view from the castle and declares the new section of the city “the handsomest Town I have seen any where.” As with previous road trips, there were indignities: “This morning at eight I leave a wretched dirty Inn where the Waiter has the Scab and the Chambermaid the Itch. The Kitchin stinks the Cellar Stinks and every Thing is bad, except the Bed.”
In May 1796, Morris received an unsettling piece of news: Flahaut was engaged to Jose Maria de Souza-Botelho Mourao e Vasconcellos, the Portuguese minister to Denmark. At thirty-seven, Souza was seven years younger than Morris and two years older than Flahaut. That the news came from a virtual stranger, an émigré in London, rather than Flahaut, must have been a shock. Soon after, he set off for Altona.
Rather than confront Flahaut about the engagement, he waited for her to tell him. He was back two weeks before she broached the subject, relaying her new attachment while they went for a morning ride. Afterward, Morris dined with the couple, presumably meeting Souza for the first time. His diary reveals nothing of his thoughts about the Portuguese interloper and Morris appears not to have countered with his own marriage proposal. Even if he had, Flahaut might not have accepted. She longed to return to France, and Morris wasn’t welcome on French soil.
Morris’s solution to his new romantic complication was to embark on another road trip. In July 1796, he headed south, spending the next eight months touring central Europe. He stayed to the east, putting distance between himself and the battle lines in Alsace-Lorraine, along the Rhine River, and northern Italy. After spending a month in Berlin, he ventured to Dresden, which was bursting with refugees. “In the Street are many french Emigrants who are travelling Eastward to avoid their Countrymen. They are allowed to stay only three Days. Unhappy People!”
September found him in Vienna, where he stayed till mid January. The capital of Austria had much to offer Morris in the way of sightseeing and culture, but he had another reason to visit: the liberation of the marquis de Lafayette, who was held by the Austrians as a prisoner of war.
Morris had met Lafayette during the American Revolutionary War. The young Frenchman had served with George Washington and lobbied his countrymen to provide more support for the American cause. The friends were reunited in Paris during the French Revolution, when Lafayette was once again in the thick of things, serving as the commander in chief of the National Guard of France. As a man who believed in revolution, but not radicalism, Lafayette increasingly found it difficult to stay on the good side of men like Danton and Robespierre.
The last time Morris had seen Lafayette was on June 29, 1792, the day after Lafayette’s impassioned speech against the Jacobins in the Legislative Assembly. Fearful for his friend’s life and where the revolution was headed, Morris urged him to return to his army post “to fight for a good Constitution or for that wretched Piece of Paper which bears the Name; that in six weeks it will be too late.” Lafayette brushed him off. In the following weeks, Lafayette was branded a traitor, forcing him to take flight for Holland, where he was captured by Austrian forces. At war with France, Austria believed the safest place for an architect of the revolution, even one slated for the guillotine, was in prison. In the fall of 1796, Lafayette resided in the fortress at Olmutz, Austria, where he shared two small rooms with his wife and children.
Morris was one of many who lobbied for Lafayette’s release, soliciting the help of anyone who might wield influence with the Austrians. He also loaned Lafayette’s wife 100,000 livres (twice Morris’s annual salary as minister) to allow her to settle her husband’s “debts of honor” and help make the marquis’s life in prison a little more comfortable.
Morris finally obtained a private audience with Baron Thugut, the Austrian foreign minister, in December. Nicknamed “Kriegsbaron” (war baron), Thugut ardently opposed revolutionary France and regarded Lafayette as a supreme troublemaker. During their meeting, Morris produced a letter from Lafayette’s sister-in-law complaining of how Lafayette and his family were being treated. Thugut adamantly denied any ill treatment, lamenting that Austria ever had anything to do with Lafayette. “I solicit his Release, but find that it is in Vain,” wrote Morris. “He says that probably he will be discharged at the Peace to which I reply that I never had any Doubt of that and had taken upon me long ago to give such Assurances but that I wish it were done sooner.”
In Vienna, he found time for pleasure as well as business. At a friend’s gathering one evening, Morris made the acquaintance of the marquise de Litta, an Italian noblewoman from Milan. Morris paid a call on her the next morning, as promised, but the return of her husband cut short their visit. While pleasantries were exchanged, Litta slyly conveyed to Morris that she would be home alone that evening. “Her Look tells me that we shall be Tête à Tête and mine is full of Tenderness Gratitude and Desire.” He returned later that night. “She finds it out of all Rule to surrender the first Day but at last she surrenders and is a very fine Woman indeed. Tis a Pity that I did not fall in with her sooner. As it was late when I came I am oblig’d to leave her in less than three Half Hours.”
The next three weeks were marked by missed calls and misunderstandings, until Litta outright refused to see him. It seems that she had hoped Morris would support her financially. Her husband had cut her off—as retribution for her taking an earlier lover. The solution, then, was another lover, but the arrangement she had in mind was impossible for Morris, as he had no plans to stay in Vienna.
Despite his blasé attitude about trysts with other men’s wives, Morris nevertheless had firm ideas about proper conduct. On Christmas Eve, he attended Midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna’s grand Romanesque Gothic church, and was shocked by what he observed. “A great Number of Women of the Town are here also some one or two of high Rank and lower Principle. The principal Object of a great part of the Congregation seems to be the arranging of Occasion for Sensuality. The Musick is good, but I own that this Mode of employing an Edifice dedicated to sacred Purposes does not accord with my Feelings.”
New Year’s Eve would bring another shock, but this time at the dinner table. At a gathering held by Madame Potoska, one of Vienna’s premiere hostesses, Morris was served a Saxon delicacy: cockchafer beetles preserved in sugar. “These Animals resemble in some Respects what in America they call the Locust . . . How it should enter into Peoples Heads to eat them unless driven to it by Famine one could hardly conceive and the making them into Sweetmeats is utterly inconceivable.”
On New Year’s Day 1797, Morris attended a gathering at the Austrian court, where he couldn’t help but gawk at the spectacle presented by the Emperor’s Hungarian Guard, led by Prince Esterházy, one of the richest nobles in Europe. Esterházy’s coat, boots, fur cape, and cuffs were embroidered with “four hundred and seventy large Pearls and many Thousand of inferior Size. Notwithstanding this Profusion it is done in good Taste,” wrote Morris.
The pearls were nothing compared with the diamonds. “A Collar of large Diamonds a very Large Solitaire in a Ring, another in the Head of his Cane A Plume of Diamonds, the Hilt and Scabbard of his Sword set with Diamonds and even his Spurs.” All that glamour had a price: Esterházy was slowly bankrupting his family. Commented Morris: “Here is the History of feudal System in its Decline.”
Morris departed Vienna the second week of 1797, making his way back north. During a stopover in Leipzig, he met Henriette von Crayen, the wife of a banker and diplomat. They first became acquainted when he called upon her to deliver a letter from a mutual friend. Their paths crossed again the next evening at a soiree, and when Morris’s carriage failed to materialize, Crayen gave him a ride back to his lodgings. During the journey, behind closed window shades, he pressed his suit. “[I]f the Distance had been greater should I think have succeeded. She begs me not to think ill or lightly of her upon which I assure her of my Respect and my Regret in a Tone of tender Enthusiasm which considering the animated Scene which has just past cannot but have its Effect.”
Morris and Crayen enjoyed each other’s company in full the following day, which Morris appears to have enthusiastically written about, only to change his mind. The entry for that day has been ripped from his journal and the few lines that appear on the succeeding page are heavily inked over. Given what can be deciphered—Crayen’s words of appreciation for their “passionate” encounter when she next sees him—Miller, editor of the Morris papers, speculates the missing pages detailed their liaison. Much to his regret, Morris had to leave Crayen to attend to his affairs in Berlin.
Once settled in Berlin, Morris was presented to Frederick William II, the King of Prussia, whom he judged “a well looking Man.” Morris also took note of the king’s exhaustion, which troubled him and rightly so; Frederick William II would die in November. He found the king well-informed about European politics and anxious to discuss the current diplomatic and military chessboard. Morris appreciated the king’s enthusiasm, being a rare thing in a monarch, but there were limits. “That his Majesty has a direct Interest in such Events and a considerable one but a Ball Room is not the fitting Place to discuss such Subjects.” Morris also made the acquaintance of Frederick’s permanent mistress, Countess Wilhelmine de Lichtenau, known as the “Madame Pompadour of Prussia.” “She is bien pourvue d’espirit”—well equipped with wit, that is—“& lets me see that I am welcome to make my Approaches but one must not have too many Irons in the Fire at once.”
Morris was enchanted with the countess, but he was preoccupied. Crayen had followed him to Berlin. Over the next three weeks, they pursued their affair, contriving meetings with the help of her friends and family. “This Town is very badly pav’d,” wrote Morris after a late-night romp in a carriage.
More than once, Morris reflected on Crayen’s open expression of her feelings—she did not mask in public or in private her affection for him. And he is almost bashful about her praise for his lovemaking. When he broke the news of his impending departure, Crayen collapsed into tears. “I find [her] as much attached as any Woman I have ever yet known. She perswades herself that it is meerly sentimental or tries to perswade me at least. But I laugh at it telling her truly that I like a little of both.” A week later, he continued to be moved by her emotion. “The Feelings of my Friend at our Separation are so keen that I am much affected by them.” Despite his fondness, Crayen would remain an interlude. She wrote him in the months following their parting, but by early November, she became mistress to a Russian courtier.
The spring of 1797 found Morris back in Altona, where things remained at an impasse with Flahaut. There are no raucous accounts of furtive lovemaking or passionate evenings with her. Flahout’s primary suitor Souza remained a constant presence, although Flahaut had yet to accept his proposal.
Morris kept himself occupied by collecting gossip about Napoleon, working on business ventures, and meeting with persons of note who found their way to Hamburg. He also engaged in intimate German lessons with his landlord’s daughter. July brought a visit by Lord Wycombe, his sometime rival for Flahaut’s affections. In a candid after-dinner conversation, Wycombe expressed his dismay that Flahaut had thought to marry him and actively schemed to bring it to pass. “I find she had nearly catchd him in the matrimonial Noose and he seems to be very angry at it tho’ in Fact he has Nothing to complain of. . . . He seemed a proper Subject to work upon and therefore she exerted herself to get hold of him.”
Morris and Flahaut said good-bye for the final time that fall. Through a series of bribes, she obtained the forged documents and official acquiescence necessary to allow her to return to France. Whether there were tears, as with Crayen, Morris doesn’t say. In the last diary entry to mention Flahaut, Morris records that they went for a walk and discussed how the current regime in France, then the Directory, treated aristocrats who broke the rules against returning. Morris was clearly worried about her safety. Undeterred, Flahaut returned to France and forged a new life for herself. Souza eventually followed her and, in 1802, they married. Morris, however, kept to his bachelor ways for another decade.
Early October reunited Morris with Lafayette, who made his way to Hamburg after being released from prison, his freedom negotiated as part of the Treaty of Campo Formio between France and the Austria-led coalition. “He assures me that he means to avoid all Intrigue and every Interference in the Affairs of France—but if I judge right he is mistaken. I applaud his Resolution—tell him that he can do France no good and may do himself much Mischief.”
Morris hoped that Lafayette would head for America. “That I believe America will make a proper Provision for him. I think they ought to offer, and he ought to accept, what will put him in easy Circumstances.” Instead, Lafayette settled into a house in Holstein, just north of Hamburg. He stayed there until 1799, when he returned to France, swearing to a suspicious Napoleon that he only wished to live a quiet country life.
Morris made one last foray into central Europe between October 1797 and June 1798. Morris found Frankfurt “ill built with narrow nasty Streets” and rampant with speculation about Napoleon’s plans for the German states and Prussia. The inhabitants, who had seen battle the year before, feared a renewal of hostilities now that the Corsican general was done with Italy.
Morris passed most of December in Regensburg, a picturesque town at the confluence of the Danube and Regen rivers that served as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire’s Imperial Diet. He was shocked by the conditions he observed outside the city. “The Hovels are poor . . . and the peasantry are ragged and filthy.”
In the city, he dined with princes and princesses, attended concerts, and soaked up every piece of news trickling out of the peace conference being held at Rastatt between France, and Austria, Prussia, and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. The same peace treaty that freed Lafayette also demanded that France’s opponents relinquish territory. It was now a question of how much.
After the first of the year, Morris ventured to Munich for a week. In between social calls, he toured the military academy, the Academy of Painting, and veterinary school. He was moved in particular by a tour of a work house. “In general the Regularity, Cleanliness and Economy of his House surpass any Thing I ever saw.” Upon returning to Regensburg, he was greeted with news of France’s invasion of Switzerland. Napoleon had gone south rather than east.
Morris journeyed on to Frankfurt, where he spent the spring and early summer. He hadn’t intended to stay so long in Frankfurt—or in Europe for that matter—but was compelled to remain by a promise. He had agreed to accompany the wife and children of James Le Ray de Chaumount, his dear friend and business partner, to America, and the family’s arrival in Frankfurt had been delayed.
From Frankfurt it was back to Altona, with the Le Ray de Chaumounts following in the carriage behind. Thoughts of making a quick departure for America had to be put aside when one of Le Ray de Chamount’s children came down with smallpox. In the interim, Morris dined with old friends, made new ones, and attended to business. What little excitement there was to his leisurely but limbo existence came from a dalliance with a Madame Ishlaer. “On my Return call on Madame Ishlaer and tho’ I make but a short Visit, she is extremely well pleased with it. I gave her indeed three Times a good Reason to be satisfied.”
In early October 1798, Morris departed for New York from Hamburg with Le Ray de Chaumount’s wife and children under his wing. “The Ship gets under Way and we part with our friend Leray which is after all Preparation a painful Thing for his Wife. We deceive her therefore and he is off before she knows a Word of the Matter.”
After a difficult voyage—itself a tale worthy of Melville—Morris arrived in New York on December 23, 1798. Morris had embarked on his European adventure to make money and aid friends in need, but that journey also allowed him to settle emotional debts incurred in revolutionary France. His relationship with Flahaut was finally done, and he’d helped to liberate and ensure the livelihood of his old friend Lafayette. Back in America, he attended to his business interests, which had grown substantially as a result of work he accomplished in Europe, but politics once again sang its siren song. In 1800, the New York legislature elected him to serve out a three-year unexpired term as a U.S. senator. Morris was back in the game.