Citizen Robespierre And Minister Morris

Posted by

I’ve tried to put my (once again) broadband-lacking last several days here in the Tenerife apartment to decent use. The broadband’s now just back up in the last half hour. But as I’m sure you’ll quickly be able to deduce, I didn’t write this post in “30 minutes.”

I was missing you all. So I started it yesterday, hoping there would be net again today (and thankfully I was right). Without it in the flat, I have mostly been further background reading for Conventions and doing bits of writing of it.

Reading - and suntanning - chair, Tenerife. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Reading – and suntanning – chair, Tenerife. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Coming to grips with the tale is becoming an issue, too. In intermixing fictional characters with people who actually lived, you have to be very careful with the formerly alive. You can “make up” certain things about them, yes; but you don’t want to make egregious errors of historical fact:

Leave Dartford this Morning at five. The Inn is good. Arrive at the City of London Inn at Dover at three oClock. The Distance is not quite fifty five Miles and we are ten Hours in accomplishing it.

If you find yourself on London’s M25 in certain circumstances in 2016, it could well seem to take almost as long by car on that stretch now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Kidding aside, the contours of their lives cannot be taken too far from reality or you might as well just write pure fiction and be done with it. The more I dig around researching people and events, I keep stumbling upon little-known, often fantastic, “micro-history” – asides that if you tried writing them as straight fiction some smug reviewer would accuse you of exaggeration or of inventing hyper-romantic silliness.

* * *

After over two years with no highest-level U.S. diplomat in the country, in early 1792 Gouverneur Morris, a New York and Pennsylvania businessman who’d been a force at the American Constitutional Convention in 1787, officially succeeded Thomas Jefferson as U.S. Minister to France. (“Minister” then being the term used for America’s top diplomats abroad; today it’s, of course, “Ambassador.”) During his stormy two years in the post, Morris was nearly overwhelmed by often pathetic calls for help from Americans, as well as from British (after the British ambassador departed Paris when Britain and France went to war in 1793), and even French. Especially during “The Terror” of 1793-1794, he did what little he could for them all – in intervening even with merely a respectful and carefully worded note (alerting the revolutionaries “America” was “interested” in the fate of this or that person), he probably saved many who would otherwise have been killed.

Americans in Europe in the 1780s thru the mid-1790s were a varied bunch. We have all heard about Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, and some others. When it came specifically to the French Revolution, far lesser known “little guys” included of a parade of adventurers, fortune hunters, and even starry-eyed idealists often ineptly involving themselves in the country and at real risk of losing their own lives in the process. (I’ve seen only “guys” so far, which is no surprise. “Respectable” American unmarried women didn’t then generally travel to Europe unaccompanied.)

As if lifted from a screenplay for what we two centuries later would call an “action/adventure film,” two Americans sought to help the Marquis de Lafayette escape from a Prussian dungeon after he ended up there following his fleeing France for his life. It was all dramatics: coded letters, timed meetings on horseback on little-traveled roads in the middle of the night, slipping across frontiers, disguises. Just one major problem arose: they ended up getting caught and imprisoned themselves as well.

Other Americans, wowed by France’s having become a republic, joined the French revolutionary army (and some were never heard from again). They were perhaps typified by one guy named John. Essentially a nobody back in the U.S., he became a vocal pro-revolutionary fanatic in France. He also eventually found himself tossed into prison when “his” faction that had been “running” the show was suddenly “voted out of office” (uh, guillotined) and replaced by a rival set of even more fanatical pro-revolutionary fanatics. So after previously having denounced Minister Morris as a monarchist and a do-nothing in letters home to the U.S., from his cell within a short walk to the guillotine John found himself writing to Morris begging for help.

In another instance, one in a group of three Americans included a man picked up evidently while carrying counterfeit French land documents. It’s all too much to go into here, but suffice it to say that could have meant the guillotine – a factoid about which the man was apparently oblivious. Seemingly thinking bluster and falsehood was a way out of his predicament, he informed their captors that he was on a โ€œsecret mission.โ€ Which is just what paranoid revolutionaries, already obsessed with uncovering “foreign spies” and “counter-revolutionary” activities, wanted to hear: a foreigner admitting a “secret mission.” The Americans were incredibly lucky they weren’t killed on the spot. Fortunately, and likely again only because of the intervention of the U.S. Minister, all three managed to keep their heads.

Then there were sundry tourists and ordinary merchants wandering around. France from 1789-1794 seemed to have had more than its fill of Americans who appeared to believe that as long as they avoided involvement in the Revolution they could meander around the country sightseeing or engaging in ordinary business. This was perhaps the beginning of an American “trait” we saw into the next century and beyond (although it seems to have diminished in recent decades): the idea that no one would dare lay a hand on them in a foreign country because they were…. you know, Americans.

Such Americans were sometimes educated abruptly and frighteningly that the Revolution was not just raised glasses toasting “liberty” that they’d participated in while in the U.S. Their problems may be traced at least in part to news then traveling across the Atlantic so slowly, if it traveled at all. Often what they “knew” about the Revolution was months, even years, out of date, by the time they arrived. (Morris in Paris went at one stretch for about six months without a single letter from Secretary of State Jefferson in Philadelphia. That’s inconceivable today.)

One man got thrown into prison not long after his ship docked at Calais, and he couldn’t understand why: he hadn’t even been in France long enough possibly to do anything wrong, he lamented. American ship captains and their crews discovered themselves held for months and their cargos impounded for unfathomable transgressions of one kind or another. Terrified visitors found themselves unexpectedly witnessing severed heads paraded through the streets.

All you had to do was to “appear” to be a “suspect.” Walking in Paris for some inexplicable reason without identification on him, one guy was arrested and tossed into Paris’s Luxembourg Prison, which regularly fed the guillotine. This definitely wasn’t the France he’d expected to see. When he wrote Morris asking for help as an American, the Minister replied in an exasperated tone, saying essentially: You telling me you’re an American isn’t quite good enough. Where is your passport? Citizen Robespierre would like to see it.

They weren’t all “idiots abroad,” of course. Probably most simply found themselves swept up in situations they weren’t mentally prepared for and which weren’t their fault. It is, in a sense, surreal reading – watching them (and they themselves terrified at times, too) as they witnessed France’s agony and thousands of French sent to their deaths on the flimsiest of evidence or none at all. Today, it mostly – unsurprisingly – takes a back seat to the “Jefferson in Paris” glitter of nearly a decade earlier.

Morris himself was not untouched – literally. Your average Paris revolutionary mob was unaware of the niceties of “diplomatic immunity.” He was detained a couple of times. Armed men pushed into his ministerial residence claiming to be searching for anyone being sheltered by him and looking for weapons. Based on that latter abuse of “international law” alone, Morris would have been fully justified in shutting the U.S. legation and leaving France. (Just about every other country by then had closed theirs.)

He saw people murdered right in front of him. More than once, he could have been mistakenly – or even deliberately – killed himself. However, he played it all down in his reports back to Jefferson and President Washington. He felt strongly that he had a duty as America’s official voice to be of what help he could be to Americans and others in the chaotic country.

As Minister to France in the last days of its crumbling monarchy before the Revolution spiraled downwards into “The Terror,” Jefferson never faced such diplomatic challenges or threats to his own personal safety. Nor did he have to cope with so many Americans in distress in a country in which “law” by now consisted of little better than mob rule. It’s interesting to ask ourselves how Jefferson might have managed had he been minister then instead of Morris.

* * *

It wasn’t all about horrors, though. Some Americans were involved in the country’s, uh, affairs, in other more “social” ways, so to speak. Here, a noblewoman writes to an American “friend”:

….vous levรขtes subitement pour alle graver nos chiffres sur l’รฉcorce d’un arbre voisin sans me dire ce que vous vouliez faire, et en me suppliant de ne point approcher que cela ne fรปt achevรฉ ?

She says there she fondly remembers when he had carved their initials into a tree, but he wouldn’t let her see what he was doing until he’d finished. Wider context: that American (unmarried) man had fallen in love with her, and she with him. But she was married.

Marriage usually having been contracted among French aristocratic families for non-love dynastic reasons, marriage vows weren’t a major “romantic” obstacle for many. Another French married noblewoman was involved in what we might call a “tempestuous” relationship for years with (unmarried) Minister Morris himself. He wrote in his journal of one encounter with her:

I dine Tรชte ร  Tรชte with my friend who has sent her Husband out of the Way, but lest he should suddenly return we are to go abroad at half past four; this leaves us but Half an Hour after Dinner and we employ it in the best Manner for we perform twice very well the pleasing act.

She avoided the guillotine and escaped to England. (Her husband, however, was killed.) Although not destitute, looking to make extra money she took to writing…. romantic novels. She even created a character – an unhappy chaplain – whom she named “Dr. Morris.”

One runs into so many amusing “small stories.” For example, Morris, who turned forty years old in 1792, became personal friends with the British ambassador to France and his by all accounts beautiful and politically savvy mid-twenties wife. Unlike most American men of his generation and class, Morris loved discussing politics with women (the more attractive they were, the more he enjoyed it, it seems) and he took their opinions seriously. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t “accidentally” veer over to, uh, other topics:

….I go to Lady Sutherlandโ€™s and find her alone. We talk of Love and Loveโ€™s Disport till an old Man comes in to give the History of his Gout.

Yes, a discourse on gout does tend to kill the Love banter.

* * *

I’ve reached the point now that I’ve had to create an Excel spreadsheet. It’s that difficult to keep track of all of the doings and happenings enveloping all of the real people of all nationalities. And the more I read, the more I uncover.

I’m gonna have to stop reading. My respect for Herman Wouk grows by leaps and bounds as I attempt to write this novel. ๐Ÿ™‚

I hope you’ve all been well and had a good weekend. And I hope this time I’ll be online for a while uninterrupted for some time!

3 comments

    1. Thank you, but eventually you gotta stop being distracted! I keep stumbling on such great bits of stuff and half an hour vanishes here, another half an hour there. Arggggh! That’s not gonna get the novel written! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

Further thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s