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It gave me very sincere pleasure to learn from you the good tidings, which you communicate respecting our new form of government. I know that you are not liable to the dupery of false hopes and groundless expectations ; and therefore I am confirmed in the opinion I have invariably entertained, that the new constitution is such a plain, calm, sensible appeal to the interest, feelings, and common sense of our countrymen, that it must, by its own intrinsic weight, bear down all opposition. I have from time to time received very great pleasure, at the developement of its principles by the legislature, which in my opinion does them the greatest honor. They have far, very far outgone my expectations, and even come up, not only to my hopes, but to my very wishes.
I have not unfrequently brought myself to share in the plea sure you must feel, in the consciousness of your own useful agency. Certainly it is the sublimest sentiment of the human heart, to know that we make others happy ; and more especially those whom we love. You have too much good sense not to know, that no person but yourself could have obtained that full confidence needful to the due establishment of the executive authority, which certainly is the key-stone in the great arch of empire. I doubt, also, whether any other could so universally have called forth into action the talents and virtues of America. Let me add, what I have mentioned to you on other occasions, and which I would not have mentioned, did I not know it to be true, your knowledge of human character is a gift inestimable to our country on the present occasion. I hope in God, my dear Sir, that you may long continue to preside, and that not only you, but all who succeed you, may be assisted by counsellors as able and as honest, as those who now fill the different seats in Congress. The prospect of public felicity, which must be the result, swells my bosom with delight. Oh my country, how happy r didst thou but know thine own blessedness.
Your sentiments on the revolution effecting here, T believe to be perfectly just, because they perfectly accord with my own, and that is, you know, the only standard which Heaven has given us by which to judge. The king is in effect a pris oner at Paris, and obeys entirely the National Assembly. This assembly may be divided into three parts; one, called the Aristocrats, consists of the high clergy, the members of the law, (note, these are not the lawyers,) and such of the nobility as think they ought to form a separate order. Another, which has no name, but which consists of all sorts of people, really friends to a good free government. The third is com posed of what is called here the Enrages, that is, the mad men. These are the most numerous, and are of that class which in America is known by the name of pettifogging lawyers; together with a host of curates, and many of those per sons who, in all revolutions, throng to the standard of change, because they are not well. This last party is in close alliance with the populace here, and derives from that circumstance very great authority. They have already unhinged everything, and according to custom on such occasions the torrent rushes on irresistible, until it shall have wasted itself. The Aristocrats are without a leader, and without any plan or councils as yet, but ready to throw themselves into the arms of any one who shall offer. The middle party, who mean well, have unfortunately acquired their ideas of government from books, and are admirable fellows upon paper ; but as it happens, somewhat unfortunately, that the men who live in the world are very different from those who dwell in the heads of philosophers, it is not to be wondered at, if the systems taken out of books are fit for nothing but to be put into books again.
Marmontel is the only man I have met with, among their Literati, who seems truly to understand the subject. For the rest, they discuss nothing in their Assembly. One large half of the time is spent in hallooing and bawling. The manner of speaking to a question is as follows. Such as intend to hold forth write their names on a tablet kept for that purpose, and are heard in the order that their names are written down, if the others will hear them, which very often they refuse to do, but keep up a continual uproar till the orator leaves the pulpit. Each man permitted to speak delivers the result of his lucubrations, so that the opposing parties fire off their cartridges, and it is a million to one if their missile arguments happen to meet. As to the arguments themselves, you will observe that it is a usual compliment of the Assembly to order them printed ; therefore, there is as much attention paid, at least, to make them sound well and look well, as to convey instruction or produce conviction,
But there is another ceremony which the arguments go through, and which does not fail to affect the form, at least, and perhaps the substance. They are read beforehand in a small society of young men and women, and generally the fair friend of the speaker is one, or else the fair whom he means to make his friend, and the society very politely give their approbation, unless the lady who gives the tone to that circle chances to reprehend something, which is of course altered if not amended. Do not suppose that I am playing the traveller. I have assisted at some of these readings, and will now give you an anecdote from one of them. It was at Madame de Stael s, the daughter of M. Necker. She is a woman of wonderful wit, and above vulgar prejudices of every kind. Her house is a kind of temple of Apollo, where the men of wit and fashion are collected twice a week at supper, and once at dinner, and sometimes more frequently. The Count de Clermont-Tonnerre, one of their greatest orators, read to us a very pathetic oration, and the object was to show that no penalties are the legal compensations for injuries and crimes ; the man who is hanged, having by that event paid his debt to the society, ought not to be held in dishonor ; and in like manner, he who has been condemned for seven years to be flogged in the gallies should, when he had served out his apprenticeship, be received again into good company as if nothing had happened. You smile ; but observe the extreme to which the matter was carried the other way. Dishonoring thousands for the guilt of one has so shocked the public sentiment, as to render this extreme fashionable. The oration was very fine, very sentimental, very pathetic, and the style harmonious. Shouts of applause and full approbation.
When this was pretty well over, I told him that his speech was extremely eloquent, but that his principles were not very solid. Universal surprise ! A very few remarks changed the face of things. The position was universally condemned, and he left the room. I need not add, that as yet it has never been delivered in the assembly. And yet it was of the kind, which produces a decree by acclamation ; for sometimes an orator gets up in the midst of another deliberation, makes a fine dis course, and closes with a good snug resolution which is carried with a huzza. Thus, in considering a plan for a national bank proposed by M. Necker, one of them took it into his head to move, that every member should give his silver buckles, which was agreed to at once, and the honorable mover laid his upon the table, after which the business went on again.
It is very difficult to guess whereabouts the flock will settle, when it flies so wild ; but as far as it is possible to guess, at present, this (late) kingdom will be cast into a congeries of little democracies, laid out, not according to the rivers, mountains, &c. but with the square and compass, according to latitude and longitude ; and as the provinces had anciently different laws called coutumes, and as the clippings and parings of several different provinces must fall together within some of the new divisions, I think such fermenting matter must give them a kind of political cholic. Their ,/lssembUe Nationale will be something like the Old Congress, and the King will be catted executive magistrate. As yet they have been busily en gaged in pillaging the present occupant of his authority ; how much they will leave him, will depend upon the chapter of accidents. I believe it will be very little ; but little or much, the perspective of such a King, and such an Assembly, brings to my mind a saying which Shakspeare has put into the mouth of an old soldier, upon hearing that Lepidus, one of the famous Triumvirate, was dead. c So, the poor third is up. World, thou hast but a pair of chops, and throw between them all the food thou may st, they needs must grind each other.
At present the people are fully determined to support the Assembly ; and although there are some discontents, I do not believe that anything very serious, as yet, exists in the style of opposition. Indeed, it would be wonderful if there should ; for hitherto an extension of privileges, and a remission of taxes to the lower class, have marked every stage of their progress. Besides, the love of novelty is a great sweetener in revolutions. But the time will come when this novelty will be over and all its charms gone. In lieu of the taxes remitted, other taxes must be laid, for the public burthen must be borne. The elected administrators must, then, either indulge their electors, which will be ruinous to the Fisc, or in urging the collection of taxes, displace their constituents. In all probability, there will be a little of both. Hence must arise bickerings and heart burnings among the different districts, and a great languor throughout the kingdom. As the revenue must fall short of calculation in point of time, if not in amount, (and that is the same thing where revenue is concerned,) it will follow, that either the interest of the public debt will not be regularly paid, or that the various departments will be starved ; probably a little of both. Hence will result a loss of public credit, and therewith much injury to commerce and manufactures, operating a farther decrease of the means of revenue, and much debility as to the exterior operations of the kingdom.
At this moment the discontented spirits will find congenial matter in abundance to work upon ; and from that period, all the future is involved in the mist of conjecture. If the reigning prince were not the small beer character that he is, there can be but little doubt, that watching events, and making a tolerable use of them, he would regain his authority ; but what will you have from a creature who, situated as he is, eats, and drinks, and sleeps well, and laughs, and is as merry a grig as lives ? The idea that they will give him some money, which he, can economize, and that he will have no trouble in governing, contents him entirely. Poor man ! he little thinks how unstable is his situation. He is beloved, but it is not with the sort of love which a monarch should inspire. It is that kind of good natured pity, which one feels for a led captive. There is, besides, no possibility of serving him ; for at the slightest show of opposition, he gives up everything and every person.
As to his ministers, the Count de Montmorin has more understanding than people in general imagine, and he means well, very well. But he means it feebly. He is a good easy kind of man, one who would make an excellent peace minister in quiet times ; but he wants the vigor of mind needful for great occasions. The Count de la Luzerne is an indolent, pleasant companion, a man of honor, and as obstinate as you please ; but he has somewhat of the creed of General Gates, that the world does a great part of its own business, without the aid of those who are at the head of affairs. The success of such men depends very much upon the run of the dice. The Count de St Priest is the only man among them, who has what they call caractere, which answers to our idea of firmness, joined to some activity. But a person who knows him pretty well, (which I do not,) assures me, that he is mercenary and false hearted. If so, he cannot possess much good sense, whatever may be his share of genius or talents. Monsieur de Latour-Dupin, the minister at war, whom I am also unacquainted with, is said to be no great things in any respect. M. Necker was frightened by the Enrages into the acceptance of him, instead of the Marquis de Montesquiou, who has a considerable share of talents, and a great deal of method. Montesquiou is of course at present the enemy of M. Necker, having been his friend.
As to M. Necker, he is one of those people, who has obtained a much greater reputation than he had any right to. His enemies say, that as a banker, he acquired his fortune by means, which to say the least were indelicate, and they mention instances. But in this country, everything is so much exaggerated, that nothing is more useful than a little skepticism. M. Necker, in his public administration, has always been honest and disinterested ; which proves well, I think, for his former private conduct ; or else it proves that he has more vanity than cupidity. Be that as it may, an unspotted integrity as minister, and serving at his own expense, in an office which others seek for the purpose of enriching themselves, have acquired for him very deservedly much confi dence. Add to this, that his writings on finance teem with that sort of sensibility, whiah make? the fortune of modern romances, and which is exactly suited to this lively nation, who love to read but hate to think. Hence his reputation. He is a man of genius, and his wife is a woman of sense ; but neither of them have talents, or rather the talents of a great minister. His education as a banker has taught him to make tight bargains, and put him upon his guard against projects. But though he understands man, as a covetous creature, he does not understand mankind ; a defect which is remediless. He is utterly ignorant of politics, by which I mean politics in the great sense, or that sublime science, which embraces for its object the happiness of mankind. Consequently, he neither knows what constitution to form, nor how to obtain the consent of others to such as he wishes. From the moment of convening the States-General, he has been afloat upon the wide ocean of incidents.
But what is most extraordinary is, that M. Necker is a very poor financier. This, I know, will sound like heresy in the ears of most people, but it is true. The plans he has pro posed are feeble and inept. Hitherto he has been supported by borrowing from the Caisse d Escompte, which, (being by means of what they call here an arret de surseance secured from all prosecutions,) has lent him a sum in their paper exceeding the totality of their capital, by about four millions sterling. Last autumn he came forward to the Assembles with a dreadful tale of woe, at the fag end of which was a tax upon every member of the community of a fourth of his revenue, and this he declared to be needful for saving the state. His enemies adopted it, (declaring what is very true, that it is a wretched, impracticable expedient,) in the hope that he and his scheme would fall together. This Assemblee, this patriotic band, took in the lump the minister's proposition, because of their confidence and the confidence of the people in him as they said ; but in fact, because they would not risk the unpopularity of a tax.
The plan thus adopted, M. Necker, to escape the snare which he had nearly got taken in, altered his tax into what they call the patriotic contribution. By this, every man is to declare, if he pleases, at what he pleases to estimate his annual income, and to pay one fourth of it in three years. You will easily suppose that this fund was unproductive, and notwithstanding the imminent danger of the state, we are as yet without any aid from the contribution patriotique.
His next scheme was that of a National Bank, or at least an extension of the Caisse d Escompte. It has been variously modelled since, and many capital objections removed ; but at last it is good for nothing, and so it will turn out. At present it is just beginning. By way of giving some base to the pre sent operation, it is proposed and determined to sell about ten or twelve millions sterling of the crown and church lands, both of which are, by resolution of the Assemblee, declared to belong to the nation ; but as it is clear that these lands will not sell well just now, they have appointed a treasurer to receive what they will sell for hereafter, and they issue a kind of order upon this treasurer, which is to be called an Assignat, and is to be paid, (out of these sales) one, two, and three years hence. They expect that on these Jlssignais they can borrow money to free the engagements of the Caisse d Escompte, and they are at the same time to pay some of the more pressing debts, with the same Assignats.
Now this plan must fail, as follows. First, there will be some doubt about the title to these lands, at least till the revolution is completed. Secondly, the representative of the land must always (for a reason which will presently appear) sell for less than a representative of money, and therefore, until public confidence is so far restored as that the five per cents are above par, these Assignats bearing five per cent must be be low par. Money, therefore, cannot be raised upon them but at a considerable discount. Thirdly, the lands to be disposed of must sell a great deal below their value, for there is not money to buy them in this country; and the proof is, that they never obtained money on loan at the legal interest but always upon a premium sufficient to draw it from the employments of commerce and manufactures, and as the revolution has greatly lessened the mass of money, the effect of the scarcity must be greater.
But farther, there is a solecism in the plan which escapes most of them, and which is, nevertheless, very palpable. The value of lands in Europe is, you know, estimated by the in come. To dispose of public lands is to sell public revenue ; and therefore taking the legal interest at five per cent, lands renting for 100 livres ought to sell for 2000, but they expect that these lands will sell for 3000, and that thereby, not only public credit will be restored, but a great saving will be made, as the 3000 will redeem an interest of 150. It is, however, an indisputable fact, that public credit being established, the stocks are worth more than land of equal income, and for three reasons ; first, that there is no trouble whatever in the management ; secondly, there is no danger of bad crops and taxes ; and thirdly, they can be disposed of at a moment's warning, if the owner wants money, and be as readily repurchased when it suits his convenience. If, therefore, the public credit be re stored, and there be a surplus sum of ten to twelve millions to be invested, and if such large sales (contrary to custom) should not from the amount affect the price, still the lands must go cheaper than the stocks, and consequently the interest bought will be smaller than the revenue sold.
Having thus given you a very rude sketch of the men and the measures of this country, I see and feel that it is time to conclude. I sincerely wish I could say that there are able men at hand to take the helm, should the present pilots aban don the ship. But I have great apprehensions as to those who may succeed. The present set must wear out in the course of the year, and most of them would be glad to get fairly out of the scrape at present ; but it is alike dangerous to stay or to go, and they must patiently wait the breath of the Assembles and follow as it blows. The new order of things cannot endure. I hope it may be mended, but fear it may be changed. All Europe, just now, is like a mine ready to explode ; and if this winter does not produce peace, next summer will behold a wider extension of the war. I am, &c.
- Gouverneur Morris
- The Life of Gouverneur Morris With Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers Vol. II., Jared Sparks, 1832