Interview with Melanie Randolph Miller, author of
An Incautious Man: The Life of Gouveneur Morris
What makes Morris any different from the other lesser-known figures of the Founding era?
In the first place, Morris is extremely entertaining: he said and did very funny things (the most famous is the unfortunate slap on the back he gave George Washington, having made a bet with Alexander Hamilton). As such his writings are great fun to read. He was extraordinarily eloquent, as good a writer as Thomas Jefferson or any of the other best writers of the era. His experience as minister to France during the Terror is unparalleled in diplomatic history, a story of conspiracy to help the King escape, of friends imprisoned and murdered, of seized ships and complex diplomatic problems that had no precedent in the new nation’s history.
Did Morris deserve his reputation as a rake?
Morris greatly enjoyed but also greatly respected women; that is quite clear in his private diaries recording not only his pursuit of them but also their political conversations, which he considered as valuable as those he had with men. He did have an active sexual life; in France, he fell in love with a beautiful young countess married to a man over twice her age, and he recorded their lovemaking in such detail in his diaries that the woman he married fifteen years later felt she must obliterate them before allowing the diaries to be published. After leaving France, he met and made love to many other women, married or not, and always, apparently, to their mutual enjoyment.
Did he get along with Thomas Paine?
Morris’s experiences with Paine give a different perspective to this famous patriotic penman than most Americans have been led to expect. While Morris admired Paine’s abilities, he noted that he had “an excellent pen to write but he has an indifferent head to think.” Paine, whose pro-revolutionary activities in France landed him in jail when the first round of revolutionaries fell, blamed Morris for not getting him out and blasted him privately and publicly.
What was his relationship with Lafayette?
Morris met Lafayette during the American Revolution and they were friends; but when Morris went to France at the outset of the French Revolution he quickly perceived that Lafayette’s gifts were not the type that could save his native country from disaster, and moreover, that Lafayette’s ambition would ruin him. Their friendship was strained; but Morris was loyal to his friend, and would save Lafayette’s wife from the guillotine and, later, help in Lafayette’s release from a long confinement in an Austrian jail.
Wasn’t Morris really a monarchist, not someone who supported our form of government?
Anyone who reads about the Constitutional Convention quickly realizes that Morris was no monarchist, that he despised the monarchical form of government (though he did not think France was ready for more than a constitutional monarchy); but he was also a realist, and he feared excessive influence from both the poor and the rich, who would always be, as he pointed out, in conflict; and the rich might well end up in unchecked power. Whether some of his more sober predictions on that head may have come true in our country is a question someone who reads about Morris may be led to ponder.
If Morris is so important, why haven’t we heard of him?
Good question; but one this book seeks to address. Morris cared nothing for his own posterity (unlike Thomas Jefferson, who carefully wrote and edited his memoirs late in life), and he never sought to have his contributions or sacrifices acknowledged. Moreover, his exuberance and brilliance and (often) impetuosity made him as many enemies as friends. Enemies he really did not deserve; for study of Morris indicates that while there were many men he did not respect, he did not hold grudges or ever deliberately try to damage them in anyway, though the reverse was not true. His reputation as a rake, which existed in his own lifetime, led some in America, including many colleagues, to think he was amoral; his appointment as minister to France made him more enemies who wanted the job for themselves; and, on his return to America, his advocacy of what were essentially Federalist party principles did not help, for the Republicans, under Jefferson, were steadily gaining power and the Federalists were becoming very unpopular. He also strongly opposed the War of 1812, and while his opposition was grounded in his diplomatic sophistication and also his anti-slavery beliefs, the slight air of traitor seems to have hung over him for centuries. Maybe it’s time to rethink the War of 1812 and whether it should ever have been fought! Morris certainly thought it was an idiotic and destructive waste of American resources.