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CHAPTER XLII. - Gouverneur Morris, The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, vol. 2 
The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France; Member of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Anne Cary Morris (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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Yellow fever at New York. Morris describes his home life to Countess Hohenthäl. Letter to Parish on public affairs. Washington. The Senate opposes a motion to repeal the law respecting the Judiciary. Opinion of the Administration. Letter to Alexander Hamilton. Letter to Robert Livingston. Work in the Senate. Letter to the Princesse de la Tour et Taxis. Strictures on the Jefferson administration.
During the autumn of 1801 New York was smitten with the scourge of yellow fever. The inhabitants fled terrified from the plague-stricken town. Morris mentions the case of a young man who, he says, “dined with me on Wednesday, and was taken ill on his way to a friend’s house the next morning with the malignant fever.” But only occasional reports of the suffering and misery seemed to reach Morris in his remote and peaceful corner of the world, to judge from the following letter to the Princesse de la Tour et Taxis (October 30th) giving her an account of his life.
“J’y suis,” he wrote, “entouré de maçons et de charpentiers, dont depuis deux années je suis l’esclave. J’espère en être bientôt quitte, et je jouis en attendant de la plus belle saison que j’aie vue de ma vie. Vous en jugerez par la circonstance que nous avons cueilli hier des petits pois en plein vent. Ma maisonette s’élève sur les bords d’un bras de mer, six fois plus grand que votre fleuve, ou il passe tous les jours quelques douzaines de vaisseaux de toute grandeur. Cette vue anime beaucoup un paysage d’ailleurs riant. Enfin, pour tout dire en un mot, c’est le sol natal.”∗
Morris’s interest in European politics was as keen as ever, and he watched with that sympathy which was a prominent feature in his character the varying fortunes of his friends on the Continent. To Madame la Comtesse de Hohenthäl at Dresden he wrote early in November, and after sympathizing with her on a family affliction which had befallen her, he branched off upon that unfailingly interesting subject, the condition of Europe. . . . “Vous avez raison, madame, la géographie est à présent une étude inutile. J’attends pour faire mes cartes le moment d’une paix; je ne puis pas donner le nom de paix à la trêve qu’on a faite. Sans doute les petites puissances seront mangées, tôt ou tard; il ne s’agit que des grandes. Il reste à savoir ce qu’elles deviendront lorsque, se touchant de toutes parts, elles auront autant d’occasions et de moyens de se nuire qu’elles en puissent désirer. La solution de ce problême me paraît digne de l’attention de ceux qui gouvernent les états.
“Quant à nous, madame, nous sommes, jusqu’à présent, spectateurs peu instruits mais passablement tranquilles de la pièce qui se donne sur votre grand théâtre. Le dénouement doit nous intéresser, puis qu’en notre qualité d’hommes le sort des humains ne peut nous être indifférent. Au reste, l’énumération qu’on vient de faire, nous donne une population de cinq millions, ce qui, dans la position avantageuse que nous occupons sur le globe, ne laisse pas d’être quelque chose.”∗
Of the condition of public affairs in America Morris constantly informed his friend John Parish, and in a letter dated November 13th, speaking of the doings of the new administration, he says: “You will have seen by our gazettes that a complete change has taken place in the arrangements of our domestic and most of our foreign ministers and officers, and this, which to us federalists proves very disagreeable, is not so to me, who am in the habit of considering natural consequences and ultimate effects. The democrats will push the Constitution forward more rapidly than the federalists dared to do, and will wind up its powers as high as they ought to go, and perhaps a little higher. The result of this will be some clashing, by and by, with their friends in the States; and if we have good sense enough not to make too much noise we shall by and by be called in to take the business up in a much better condition than when we were forced (and deservedly, too) to lay it down; I say, deservedly, for we have done some foolish things as a party, over and above the many wild ones for which we are indebted to the unsteady temper of the late President.”
But to return to the entries in the diary, and Morris’s public life at Washington during the struggle over the repeal of the Judiciary law.∗
“I pack up to-day [December 8th] and set off for Washington. Reach Philadelphia on the 13th, and Wilmington on the 15th. Doctor Latimer calls on me, and I visit Mr. Dickenson. State to him the object which stands prominent in Jefferson’s message, viz., the destruction of the General Government. He is, of course, alarmed. Reach Washington on the 18th.
“Attend in the Senate; a foolish question about the ratification of the convention with France. Mr. Jefferson, instead of publishing the treaty, has sent it to the Senate, and we have a deal of idle talk. However, we decide that the ratification is complete, and they pay him a very bad compliment (at the instance of his friends) by directing him what to do. In the evening call on Judge Patterson, and see there the Bench. Mr. Bayard, I find, is the cause why this day the Delaware delegation in the Senate voted somewhat wildly.”
“Visit [December 24th] the President and M. and Madame de Pichon, who seem to think the society of our capital dull. M. Pichon tells me that he finds the attachment of the democrats to France was a mere party pretext to get into power. He tells me that Bonaparte would not have ratified the amended treaty if the affairs of Copenhagen and Egypt had not happened. He says the people about him, and particularly Talleyrand, are indisposed to America.”
“The Senate resolves this day [January 5th] to admit a short-hand writer on their floor. This is the beginning of mischief.”∗
“Motion made in the Senate for repeal of the law passed last session respecting the Judiciary [January 8th]. Oppose it in a speech of near an hour, which is much approved by those who think with me; a large audience, which is not common in that House. Late tea this evening at the President’s. Many of the opposite party there, who are much vexed at my speech; the President very civil, but with evident marks of constraint. Mrs. Madison, who takes Mrs. Robert Morris and her companions to this tea-party, has good dispositions, which, from the shrivelled condition of the Secretary, are the less to be wondered at. Mr. Smith came just after dinner to ask my aid in preparing my discourse for the press.”
“Debate on the Judiciary continued [January 14th]. I take a large portion of the morning; the auditors are affected, but the question will be carried against us.”
“On Friday [January 15th] the debate still continued; Mr. Baldwin argumentative, subtle, and plausible; Mr. Hillhouse, as usual, keen, discerning, and forcible, though unpolished. Mr. Burr calls on me. Is disposed to go with us on the Judiciary. Cannot, however, openly break with his party. Must modify the resolution.”
“An accident to Logan, one of our Senators—an apoplectic fit or something like it [January 20th]; a very insolent note on Smith’s pages this evening. Attend to executive business. Jefferson has got into a scrape.”
“The Judiciary Bill gets on one step [January 26th], and a motion to commit fails by this management. On executive business, persons are approved of who are stated by the senators from the country to which they belong to be men of no character, and men of bad character. This is thumping work. Dine with the President. His constrained manner of reception shows his enmity, and his assiduous attentions demonstrate his fear.”
Of the difficulty of sustaining the work of the administration Morris speaks, in a letter to Nicholas Lowe, at New York, dated February 12th:
“You know, my friend, that I came hither determined to support the administration, if I could do so honestly. They are mad, and so you will all see before the first day of January, 1803. . . . The Judiciary Bill keeps moving on. People of all parties begin to be alarmed at this wild measure, which, to get rid of a few obnoxious judges, (obnoxious to the ruling party) under the pretext of saving a little money, renders the judicial system manifestly defective and hazards the existence of the Constitution. This is the true state of the question, distinct from all party views, and so it will stand on the impartial page of history. It will, nevertheless, be carried, on the triumphant vote of a great majority, (many of them inwardly cursing their leaders) because the President has recommended it. They will try, before long, to make him the scape-goat, unless I am much mistaken; but I do not see how a member is to excuse himself, either to his conscience or to his constituents, for such excessive complaisance.”
To his friend James Parish he wrote [February 16th], on the same subject:
“As to this country, we have indeed a set of madmen in the administration, and they will do many foolish things, but there is a vigorous vegetative principle at the root which will make our tree flourish, let the winds blow as they may. Some stiff gales we shall certainly have, and if so I shall be perhaps obliged to keep the deck. My friend, I fear it is my fate to work as long as I live. I had rather not, but we are not masters of our road in travelling toward the grave. No, I have built no castle, but a pretty good house at Morrisania, on the foundation of that in which I was born and in which my parents died. There I believe my wanderings must end. I have a terrace roof (by the by, I will send you a receipt how to make one) of one hundred and thirty feet long, to which I go out from a side or, rather, a back door, and from whence I enjoy one of the finest prospects while breathing the most salubrious air in the world. Tell your son that if he has a mind to come and shoot some of my partridges he may embark with his dogs as soon as he pleases. He will at any rate find good living, and pass his time without much ennui. I think you were right in selling out of the British funds, and experience shows that you were right in trying it again. Had the affairs of that country been in the hands of able men, your temerity would have cost you dear. But they have made peace, and may the Lord in his mercy sanctify it to them. It was no doubt in the pious reliance on His protecting care that they signed that ominous treaty∗ which has reduced them to the rank of a second-rate power, and will oblige them, at no distant period, to take up arms again to fight for independence. The ball was at their feet; they had got over all difficulty. Paper money was established, spread through the nation, and depreciated. These were the three great points; everything else followed of course. Had they gone on to borrow this year £100,000,000; £300,000,000 the next; then £900,000,000, they were masters of everything in the country, and would, (always understanding that their counsels should be both wise and vigorous) after three or four years of victorious warfare, come out of the contest without a shilling of debt and fresh as a bridegroom. By the time the national debt had amounted to two thousand millions the pound sterling would have sunk down to about a penny. Then a scale of depreciation would have placed it justly under ten million real pounds, and as much above that mark as national generosity might have thought proper. The moneyed interest would, indeed, have been ruined by the war, but there would not have been a sucking-pig the less in the country. Their mines, their soil, their shops and ships, would still have existed and been unencumbered. You see their present situation in its true point, but there is a little circumstance which seems not to have met your notice, and which appears to me of importance. France commands with sovereign sway from the mouth of the Etsch [Adige] round to the mouth of the Ems; but there is a space from thence to the mouth of the Eider, or, if you please, to that of the Baltic, which must somehow or other be brought under the same influence. And there is a certain Marquis of Brandenburg, who must henceforth revolve in the orbit which the First Consul may think proper to prescribe. What negotiations may be carrying on for this effect I know not, but I incline to think that you will one of these days have busy work of it.”
“Attend in the Senate [March 5th]. We pass the bill for a peace establishment, 16 to 10. I am of the minority. Dine at the President’s. It seems to be confirmed that the blacks of Santo Domingo resist the French; several circumstances of horror.”
“We have this day [March 10th], by adhering to an amendment in the Senate, carried a small compensation for the disbanded officers. Colonel Burr called this morning. He tells me the ruling party are at fault, not knowing well what to do. Light reports from different quarters say that the ruling party begin to dislike each other.”
“As to our Senate,” Morris wrote to Alexander Hamilton, March 11th, “it is much too feeble, and, indeed, when we consider the manner of its composition, we cannot expect that it should be a dignified body; yet at present it is the only part of our Government which has the semblance of dignity. The House of Representatives have talked themselves out of self-respect, and at head-quarters there is such an abandonment of manner and such a pruriency of conversation as would reduce even greatness to the level of vulgarity.
“As to the state of parties, the federalists are become a column of steel, and have such a sense of their strength that there is no danger of desertion. The democrats feel their weakness. Many of them begin to stagger, and will fly at the first shock. As yet they have only heart-burnings among them, but murmurs will be heard before the session closes. I do not think much can be done at the ensuing election, but even a small change will work wonders; for, being of the courtier tribe, these patriots, as soon as his majesty the people shall signify that he is about to fancy a new whim, will, as usual, show their obsequiousness by outrunning his desires. The apparition ∗ and the toast you heard of are accurately stated. I see little chance for him as a leader of any party. Those he is with hate him, and though he has among them a few adherents they will not follow his lead just now. He has, I think, considerable talents for government, but I do not think the course which his situation compels him to pursue will command respect or excite confidence. Time and circumstances do much.”
The Senate bill for the repeal of the Judiciary law passed the house by a majority of 59 yeas to 32 nays, on the 3d of March. On the 20th Morris spoke of it as follows in a letter to Robert Livingston, Minister to France:
“We have here as yet nothing of importance except destroying the Constitution by repealing the Judiciary law of last session, and reducing the military establishment of the United States—at this moment so propitious to the reduction. We are, moreover, going to repeal the internal taxes, because overwise ones think we have too much revenue and that taxes give too much patronage. It is contemplated by the administration to cobble up some holes they have made by repealing the Judiciary. The chief seems to me in wretched plight. He is in the hard necessity of giving offices to the unworthy and turning good officers out to make room for them. He will soon be completely entangled in the meshes of his own folly. Your appointment is not a favorite thing among them. When the “Beau”∗ messenger returned, he said the French thought it very extraordinary that to succeed a minister who could not speak their language, we had sent one who could not hear it. This will give what doctors call a symptomatic indication; for, though straws and feathers be light things, they show which way the wind blows. Our administration have received with coldness, and treated with little attention, sundry applications made by Pichon which ought to have been otherwise received and treated. You will, I think, feel this where you are. In fact, they know not how to govern, and cannot possibly last. They begin already to want confidence in themselves, and as the seeds of division sprout we shall have them come over to us. The shrewdest will be the first. Burr is trying to place himself well with us, and his measures are not without some success. His friends the democrats fear and hate him, and he knows it. He intends making a visit to South Carolina; this will excuse him from any special steps in his own State and leave him free to take a position according to circumstances. I have not learned whether your friends continue active in support of the administration. I think it is probable that they will, but I doubt whether they will eventually have cause to rejoice at it. For my own part, I wish to get out of this galley and live for myself. I shall then frequently laugh where now I must frown. It is perhaps well for you, who wish to be engaged in public life, that you are in a position not to take immediate part either way. You seem to think that if a certain treaty were in existence it would have a salutary effect; but I think you will, in due time, discover that treaties are frailer things than you have hitherto esteemed them. Good fleets and armies, directed by prudent and vigorous counsels, are the treaties to be relied on. ‘The rest is all but leather or prunella.’
“In reply to what you tell me in the close of your letter, I can only say that your talents, if not your virtue, entitle you to the rank of an American citizen. To be born in America seems to be a matter of indifference in New York, an advantage in New England, a disadvantage in Pennsylvania. You say I must be more a favorite than you are. I believe that I am much less a favorite. When the democrats got into power, I ventured to foretell that they would do more to exalt the Executive in six months than the federalists would in so many years. The fact has verified the prediction. They who have constantly cherished State sovereignty have, by their repeal of the Judiciary law, laid the broad foundation for a consolidated government, and the first national scuffle will erect that edifice. I acknowledge to you that I do not like it, and though I have always seen that it must come unless we should lose our national existence, yet I hoped its progress would be so gentle as that our manners and materials would be reasonably fitted for it.”
“News has reached our administration [March 22d] of the cession of Louisiana to France. Appearances of a storm brewing. Attend in the Senate; find that the advices the public have received of the intentions of France to occupy Louisiana are only contained in a letter from the American Minister at Paris to Mr. Clinton of the Senate. Mr. King has, it would seem, adjusted amicably our differences with the Court of St. James’s.”
Morris worked very diligently during the rest of the session on the different bills before the Senate. He amended and got passed a light-house bill, “so as to provide for security of the Sound navigation,” spoke against the repeal of the internal taxes, and, with others, labored hard over the proper steps to be taken respecting the repeal of the Judiciary.
On the 6th of April he dined with the President. “He is Utopia, quite,” was his only comment on the occasion.
On the 24th of April Morris opposed in the Senate a “foolish appropriation for the public debt.”
On the 4th of May he mentions calling on the President, “who is as cold as a frog. Can get nothing from him respecting the loans to be made in Europe. Visit M. Pichon, who is tired of Washington and those who preside in it.”
Congress having adjourned, Morris sought the retirement and pleasures of Morrisania, where he passed the summer entertaining all sorts and conditions of people, who accepted with alacrity his free hospitality. His friends in Europe were not forgotten, and to the Princesse de la Tour et Taxis and the Comtesse de Hohenthäl and various other friends he sent copies of some of the debates in which he had taken part in the Senate.
“I send you, charming Princess,” he wrote, June 20th, “these things because, knowing as you do what passes everywhere else, you may perhaps wish to see what we are doing in this little corner of the universe. Like those who play more important parts, we sit on the chariot-wheels of time and wonder at the dust, attributing it, with delectable self-complacency, to our special efforts. Do not from this debate imagine that we are on the brink of civil war, or even agitated by violent commotions. On the contrary, no republic was ever more quiet. This, you will say, gives no assurance of tranquillity, and I acknowledge the justice of your remark. Freedom and tranquillity are seldom companions. He, therefore, who wishes to glide through life on a smooth surface should seek the capital of some large monarchy where an individual is of too little importance to occupy the attention of that government by whose power he is protected and by whose law he is secured. The result of this mild state of being is mildness of manners, but it occasions also a want of energy. Thus there is compensation everywhere and in everything. To be happy we must learn to be content with our lot where it is cast, and our condition, whatever it may be. In studying this lesson I shall never forget that I once enjoyed the charms of your conversation, lovely Princess, and while I remember the sweets of your society I will endeavor not to regret. It is not permitted to listen to my wishes and make you a visit, but, considering the changes and chances of human life, it seems not impossible to see you again, and again assure you of the respectful attachment with which I am, ever yours.
“P. S. My respectful compliments to the H. P. [Hereditary Princess] and my affectionate remembrances to the society of Ratisbon. Should both the copies of the little book arrive, will you have the goodness to give one of them to Count Rumford.”
The following letter, with some strictures on the Jefferson administration as well as on the administrator himself, was sent to Mr. Livingston by private hand in August:
“This letter [August 21st] will be delivered to you safely. I shall not, therefore, use a cipher. I shall ask the bearer of it to take charge of two copies of our debates in the Senate on the judiciary system—send one of them, with my compliments, to M. Talleyrand, who may perhaps recollect that we were once acquainted. If you read the newspapers, as I suppose you do, you will have observed that the Vice-President is violently attacked by certain violent partisans now devoted to Mr. Jefferson, and that this latter gentleman has outlived his popularity and is descending to a condition which I find no decent word to designate. Without entering into unpleasant questions, it is sufficient to say that his administration is too weak to prosper. His attack on the Judiciary was rash and splenetic, and you will, I think, be surprised to learn that they calculated on an easy victory. Of course, when the contest was engaged, they were astounded. The result has been important. There was a moment when the Vice-President might have arrested the measure by his vote, and that vote would, I believe, have made him President at the next election; but there is a tide in the affairs of men which he suffered to go by. That debate gave us such conviction of our force as to render the fear of any defection quite visionary. We did not, indeed, apprehend any, notwithstanding the means which may be derived from executive patronage in a government like that of the United States. I do not think they could have been used to effect, but we certainly are now invulnerable; indeed, some officers have resigned because they felt a kind of dishonor in remaining as exceptions to the proscription. The schism among your political friends is, I believe, but beginning. No man knows better than you do how little of cordiality there is, and ever must be, among the discordant materials of which your party is composed. You cannot therefore be surprised at an explosion. The employment of and confidence in adventurers ∗ from abroad will sooner or later rouse the pride and indignation of this country. In the mean time, I think you must feel where you are that an administration which is not supported by the first characters at home will not preserve, much less command, the respect of foreign powers.
“The French Government cannot, I think, respect either the Government or people of the United States. What is it which renders a nation respectable? power, courage, wisdom. Put out of view, for a moment, both France and America, and suppose yourself in the administration of Austria. What would be your estimation of the Turks? of the Russians? of Prussia? You would not, I think, inquire whether in those countries they have a Habeas Corpus Act, a trial by jury, a house of representatives, etc. You would seek information as to their fleets, their armies, and, above all, the talents of those who are at the head of affairs. Now suppose, for a moment, that a European statesmen (M. Lucchesini, for instance) should make inquiries of you respecting such things in this country. Would your answers impress his mind with anything like respect? I hope, as you do, that we may long continue free, but this hope involves the double idea of continuance and freedom. The duration of a government is perhaps the first consideration; for, be it ever so good in other respects, if its texture be too frail to endure it can be of little value. Now it appears to me that the duration of our government must, humanly speaking, depend on the influence which property shall acquire; for it is not to be expected that men who have nothing to lose will feel so well disposed to support existing establishments as those who have a great interest at stake. The strongest aristocratic feature in our political organization is that which democrats are most attached to, the right of universal suffrage. This takes from men of moderate fortune their proper weight, and will, in process of time, give undue influence to those of great wealth. I know that this effect has not yet been produced, and I know the reason why; but a different state of things seems to be approaching, and slight circumstances will perhaps decide whether we are to pass through a course of revolutions to military despotism, or whether our government is to be wound up, by constitutional means, to a tone sufficiently vigorous for the conduct of national concerns. Much will depend on the union of talents and property. There is a considerable mass of genius and courage, with much industrious cunning, now at work to overturn our Constitution. If these be not met by a phalanx of property under the guidance of our ablest men, I think there will be a scuffle, and that in the course of it many large estates will be put into the melting pot. The engine by which a giddy populace can be most easily brought on to do mischief is their hatred of the rich. If any of these supposes he can climb into power by civil commotions, he will find himself mistaken. It seems, however, probable that the property in this country will continue to be divided on political questions, and if so we may expect mischief.
“This letter will be delivered to you by a very worthy priest who is returning to the care of souls in his parish, blessing God that he hath redeemed his chosen seed by the hand of his servant Napoleon.”
[∗]Translation.—I am surrounded by masons and carpenters, who have made a slave of me these last two years. I hope to be rid of them soon, and, in the mean time, I enjoy the finest season I ever saw in my life. You may judge of it from the fact that we gathered yesterday peas grown in the open air. My little house is built on the shore of an arm of the sea, about six times broader than your river, and over which pass daily several dozen ships of all sizes. That gives much animation to a most charming landscape. In a word, it is my native land.
[∗]Translation.—You are quite right, madame, in stating that geography is, nowadays, a useless study. I will wait for peace before drawing any maps; I can hardly give the name of peace to the present suspension of hostilities. There is no doubt that the smaller powers will be gobbled up sooner or later; the great powers only are in question. It would be most interesting to know what will become of them when their many points of contact shall furnish them with all the occasions and facilities they may wish for, to be harmful to one another. The solution of this problem appears to me worthy of the attention of all statesmen. As for us, madame, we remain the imperfectly informed but pretty quiet spectators of the play acted just now upon your vast stage. The unravelling of the plot is bound to interest us, for, being men, the fate of human beings can never be indifferent to us. Besides, the last census gives us a population of five million people, and that is quite a little something, in addition to our advantageous position upon the globe.
[∗]The great point at issue during the Session of 1801 and 1802, was the repeal of the Judiciary Act. The hostility of the republicans to judges of the Federal Courts was marked, and exasperated by the recollection of the foreign missions of Chief-Justices Ellsworth and Jay, and having at last obtained the power, they were bent upon retaliation.
[∗]“Hitherto men who came to the Senate to take notes found it impossible to report debates. Their place was with the public, in the upper gallery, so far removed from the floor of the chamber that they could not hear what the senators said. Now the editor of the National Intelligencer was assigned a place on the floor of the House where he could both hear and see what was said and done. He was a Republican. The Federalists, therefore, when the yeas and nays were taken, disgraced themselves by attempting to keep him out.” McMaster’s History of the People of the United States, vol. ii., pp. 607–608.
[∗]The treaty of Lunéville, February 9, 1802, when the provisions of Campo Formio were ratified.
[∗]An allusion to Burr’s appearance at the dinner on the 22d of February.
[∗]John Dawson of Maryland, on whom his townsmen had fastened the epithet of “Beau.” He it was who carried, in the frigate Baltimore, to France the State papers after the convention with France was signed.
[∗]This was probably an allusion to Thomas Paine, who had recently returned to America and was supposed to be an intimate friend of Mr. Jefferson, who, it was said, received him warmly, dined him at the White House, and could be seen walking arm in arm with him on the street any fine afternoon.