Gouverneur Morris to George Washington, 23 October 1792

From Gouverneur Morris

My dear Sir,

Yours of the twenty first of June is at length safely arriv’d. Poor lafayette. Your Letter for him must remain with me yet some Time. His Enemies here are virulent as ever and I can give you no better Proof than this. Among the King’s Papers was found Nothing of what his Enemies wishd and expected except his Correspondence with Monsieur de la Fayette which breathes from begining to End the purest Sentiments of Freedom. It is therefore kept secret while he stands accus’d of Designs in Conjunction with the dethroned Monarch to enslave his Country. The Fact respecting this Correspondence is communicated to me by a Person to whom it was related confidentially by one of the Parties who examind it. You will have seen in my Letters to Mr Jefferson a Proposition made by Mr Short respecting Monsieur de la fayette with my Reply. I had very good Reason to apprehend that our Interference at that Time would have been injurious to him, but I hope that a Moment will soon offer in which Something may be done for his Releif.1 In reading my Correspondences with Mr Short you must consider also that I wrote to the French and austrian governments as each would take the Liberty to read my Letters. You will have seen also that in my Letters to Mr Jefferson I hint at the Dangers attending a Residence in this City. Some of the Sanguinary Events which have taken Place and which were partial Executions of great Plans will point to a natural Interpretation thereof but these were not what I contemplated. Should we ever meet I will entertain you with the Recital of many Things which it would be improper to commit to Paper, at least for the present.2 You will have seen that the King is accus’d of high Crimes and Misdemeanors, but I verily beleive that he wish’d sincerely for this Nation the Enjoyment of the utmost Degree of Liberty which thier Situation and Circumstances will permit. He wish’d for a good Constitution, but unfortunately he had not the Means to obtain it, or if he had he was thwarted by those about him. What may be his Fate God only knows, but History informs us that the Passage of dethroned Monarchs is short from the Prison to the grave.3

I have mention’d to Mr Jefferson repeatedly my Wish to have positive Instructions and orders for my Government. I need not tell you Sir how agreable this would be to me and what a Load it would take from my mind. At the same Time I am fully sensible that it may be inconvenient to give me such Orders. The United States may wish to temporize and see how Things are like to end, and in such Case leaving me at large with the Right reserv’d to avow or disavow me according to Circumstances and Events is, for the Government, an eligible Position. My Part in the Play is not quite so eligible, but altho I wish the Senate to be sensible of this, I am far from wishing that any precipitate Step be taken to releive me from it; for I know how contemptible is every private Consideration when compard with the public Interests—one Step however seems very natural viz. to say that before any new Letters of Credence are given it will be proper to know to whom they are to be directed because the Convention, a meer temporary Body, is to be succeeded by some fix’d Form & it may be a long Time before any such Form is adopted.4 Mr Jefferson from the Materials in his Possession will be able to give you an accurate Account of the military Events. I discover three capital Errors in the Conduct of the Duke of Brunswic. First his Proclamation arrogated Rights which on no Construction could belong to him or his Employers, and containd Threats which no Circumstances could warrant, and which in no supposeable Success could be executed. They tended however to unite the Nation in opposing him, seeing that no Hope remaind for those who had taken any Part in the Revolution, and the Conduct observd towards Monsieurde la fayette and his Companions was a severe Comment on the Cruelty of the Text: thus in the same Moment he wounded the Pride, insulted the Feelings, and alarmd the Fears of all France. And by his thundering Menaces to protect the royal Family he plung’d them into the Situation from which he meant to extricate them. The second Error was not to dash at Paris the Instant he receivd the News of the Affair of the tenth. He should then have advanc’d at all Hazards, and if in so doing he had declard to the several Generals and Armies that he expected their Assistance to restore their dethroned Prince and violated Constitution I am perswaded that he would have met with as much Support as Opposition. I learn within these two Days that the Delegates of Lorraine and Alsace had so little Hope, or rather were so thoroughly perswaded that those Provinces would join the Enemy, that they made unusual Haste to come forwarded lest they should be apprehended. Great Activity in that Moment would have done Wonders; but then he was not ready. The third great Error was that after waiting so long He came forward at all this Season. By menacing the Frontiers with great and encreasing Force vast Numbers of the Militia would have been drawn to the utmost Verge of the french Territory. The Difficulty of subsisting them there would have been extreme. By taking strong and good Positions his Troops would have been preserv’d in full Vigor; and the french wasted by Disease, tired of Inaction, and stimulated by their natural Impatience and Impetuosity of Temper, would have forcd their Generals to attack even if they had the Prudence to be quiet. The Consequences of such Attack, excepting always the Will of God, must have been a compleat Victory on his Part, and then it would have been next to impossible for them to escape—Then the Towns would have surrendered beleiving the Business to be over, and he might have come as far forward this Autumn as the needful Transportation of Stores would permit. Next Spring France would have found it almost impossible to subsist the Armies needful for her Defence in that Part of the Country which is most defensible, and of Consequence her Enemy would have reachd the Point from which he lately retreated without the smallest Difficulty.5

The Appearances are so vague and Contradictory that I cannot pretend to tell you whether the Alliance will or will not be preservd for the next Campaign. If I were to hazard Conjectures on the present State of Things, it might cast Suspicions where I have not sufficient Ground, and therefore I will bury them in my own Bosom lest Accident should put this Letter into improper Hands. France has a strong Ally in the Feelings of those Nations who are subject to Arbitrary Power; but for that very Reason she has a mortal Enemy in every Prince. If (as is very possible) the League hold firm till next Spring it will then have gain’d considerable Auxiliaries and I am very much mistaken if this Nation will make as great Efforts as those she is now making—The Characters of Nations must be taken into Consideration in all political questions, and that of France has ever been an enthusiastic Inconstancy. They soon get tird of a Thing. They adopt without Examination and reject without sufficient Cause. They are now agog of thier Republic, and may perhaps adopt some Form of Government with a Huzza; but that they will adopt a good Form or having adopted adhere to it, that is what I do not beleive. There is a great Body of Royalists in the Country who do not now declare themselves because it would be certain Death, but a favorable Occasion would bring them out of their Holes. The Factions here are violent and among those who administer the Government there is not I am told that Degree of Character which lays Hold of the Esteem and Respect of Mankind, but rather the contrary. In their Opponents there is a nervous temper which sticks at nothing which shrinks from Nothing, and if I see rightly there is in the Current of their Affairs a strong Eddy or counter Tide which may change materially both Men and Things. Yet let what will happen I think it hardly possible that they should blunder as much as the Emigrants and I am prone to beleive that in War and Politics the Folly of our Adversaries constitutes our greatest Force. The future Prospect therefore is involved in Mist and Darkness. There is but one Sovereign in Europe, the Empress of Russia, who is not in the Scale of Talents considerably under Par.6 The Emperor who it is said is consumptive and cannot live long is now much influenced by Manfredi a Statesman of the Italian School who takes Insincerity for wisdom. The prussian Cabinet is far from strong. Lucchesini an able Man is said to be rising in Influence there but there is such a Mixture of Lust and Folly in the Chief that no one Man can keep Things steady.7 The Alliance with Vienna is disagreable to the Prussians and particularly to the Inhabitants of Berlin which may have some Influence in destroying it and his Majesty has given three strong Proofs since his Accession that he is by no means nice on the Subject of public Faith. The Invasion of Brabant will I am perswaded alarm both Britain and Holland but whether they will confine themselves to Court Intrigue or come into the Field is doubtful.8 Thus you will perceive Sir that Nothing can be predicated with tolerable Certainty respecting the Affairs of this Country either internal or external in the present moment. I am ever truly yours

Gouvr Morris

ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DLC: Gouverneur Morris Papers. Tobias Lear docketed the ALSas “recd Feby 12th 1793.” A shorter version, in which the paragraphs are in a different order, is printed in Morris, Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, 1:589–93, under the date 22 Sept. 1792.

  1. Morris was referring to GW’s letter to Lafayette of 10 June 1792. After the storming of the Tuileries on 10 Aug., Lafayette’s public opposition to the establishment of the new government resulted in his removal from his military command and his indictment by the government. On 19 Aug. he fled France, only to be arrested by Prussian forces on the French border. He was transferred to Austrian custody in May 1794 and imprisoned at Olmütz until his release in September 1797. In a letter to Jefferson of 27 Sept. 1792, Morris enclosed an extract of a letter of 7 Sept. from William Short, minister to The Hague, in which Short asked Morris to consider joining with him and Thomas Pinckney, minister to Great Britain, in efforts at “reclaiming Mr de la Fayette in the name of the U.S. as a citizen thereof.” Morris also enclosed an extract of his reply to Short of 12 Sept., in which he observed: “Supposing that M. de la Fayette were a natural born Subject of America, . . . I do not exactly see how the United States could claim him. He was not in their Service. . . . Can the United States interfere in an affair of this sort, without making themselves Parties in the Quarrel?” Morris cautioned that the United States needed to consider all possible actions carefully before doing something which could result in its being “drawn into a War.” In spite of these hesitations, Morris concluded his letter: “If there was however any probability that a Demand on our part would liberate him, it might be well to attempt it. You may perhaps find out how that matter stands thro the Medium of the Court at which you are” (DNA: RG 59, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to France).
  2. For Morris’s hints of danger, see his letters to Jefferson of 22, 30 Aug., 10, 19, 27 Sept., in Jefferson Papers, 24:313–15, 331–35, 364–65, 404–5, 419–22.
  3. After a trial before the National Convention, Louis XVI was executed on 21 Jan. 1793.
  4. Morris remained the U.S. minister to France until his recall in 1794. He alone of the diplomatic corps remained in Paris during the various stages of the Terror from its beginnings in 1792 until its end in 1794. Contrary to Morris’s prediction, the National Convention, in power from 20 Sept. 1792 until 26 Oct. 1795, was the longest-lived of the revolutionary assemblies.
  5. Although the allied army had been victorious at Longwy and Verdun, the French army defeated Brunswick’s forces at the Battle of Valmy on 20 Sept. 1792, halting the allied invasion and forcing Brunswick’s army to retreat.
  6. Although Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, was hostile to the ideals of the French Revolution, she did not join the Austro-Prussian alliance against France.
  7. Leopold II, the former grand duke of Tuscany who became the Holy Roman Emperor in September 1790, died in March 1792 and was succeeded by his son Francis (1768–1835), who, as Francis II, reigned as emperor until 1806, when the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved. Federigo Manfredini (1743–1829), who studied at the college of Modena and at the military academy of Florence, became the tutor to Francis II and his brother Ferdinand (1769–1824) in 1776. When Ferdinand succeeded his father as the grand duke of Tuscany, he appointed Manfredini as his prime minister, and together they maintained Tuscany’s traditional foreign policy of neutrality.
    Although Girolamo Lucchesini (1751–1825) was a native of Italy, he spent much of his diplomatic career in the service of Prussia, and in 1792 he accompanied Frederick William II to the front during the Austro-Prussian campaign against France. After the French military victory at Valmy, Lucchesini helped negotiate an armistice and terms for the allied retreat. He later served as the Prussian minister to France from 1800 until 1806.
  8. Early French efforts to capture Belgium (Austrian Netherlands), first in April and then in June 1792, failed. The third attempt, begun in October, proved more successful. The French victory at Jemappes on 6 Nov. was followed by their capture of Brussels, located in the duchy of Brabant, and by the end of the year, Belgium was under French control. Both Britain and the Netherlands joined the coalition against France in 1793.

The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.