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Journal of the Early Republic 26.3 (2006) 419-447

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Exporting American Revolutions

Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and the National Struggle for Universal Rights in Revolutionary France

On December 7, 1791, Gouverneur Morris sat down at his desk at the Hôtel Richelieu in Paris to spend some time on a personal project. As he later noted in his diary, "This Morning employ myself in preparing a Form of Government for this Country." The following day Morris received a visit from a French gentleman who informed him that he knew America "perfectly well tho he has never seen it" and was convinced that the "American Constitution is good for Nothing." The visitor who had studied the subject of constitutions for fifty years had been kind enough to write a letter to President Washington, enclosing a new constitution. As a central figure in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, Morris was himself an old hand at constitution making, and the encounter left him with the disconcerting feeling of having met his French double: "I get Rid of him as soon as I can," Morris wrote, "but yet I cannot help being struck with the Similitude of a Frenchman who makes Constitutions for America and an American who performs the same good Office for France. Self Love tells me that there is a great Difference of Persons and Circumstances but Self Love is a dangerous Counsellor."1 [End Page 419]

In this moment of uncharacteristic humility, Morris encapsulated the predicament of Americans in revolutionary Paris. On the one hand, like many of his compatriots, Morris assumed that the American experience of revolution and constitution making was universally relevant and that he had some important lessons to teach to the French. On the other hand, he was disturbed to find that while the French revolutionaries did take great interest in the American precedent, they were apt to use it in their own particular ways and, in this instance, even turn the tables on their would-be teachers.

Throughout the decade of the French Revolution, Americans in Paris offered support and criticism, conducted business, fought in wars, sought artistic inspiration, or simply observed firsthand what many of them regarded as a continuation of the American Revolution. The French Revolution forced these Americans abroad to wrestle with ambiguities within their own revolutionary tradition that most of their compatriots at home had not yet carefully examined. Although there was no consensus in the United States about the meaning of the American Revolution, Americans in Paris generally agreed that its lessons were universally applicable. However, at the same time that they extolled the universalism of American ideas and accomplishments, they also believed that these accomplishments reflected particular qualities of the American people and that the successful application of these ideas elsewhere would require the same qualities in other nations.

This article examines the ambiguity in the American revolutionary tradition of universalism and particularism by using as an example the activities of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson in Paris in 1789. During the first crucial phase of the French Revolution, from the convening of the Estates-General in May 1789 to the October Days, Morris and Jefferson, the American minister to France, were the most prominent representatives of the new American nation in Paris. Their reputations as political theorists and revolutionaries caused both liberal and conservative French reformers to seek out their advice in the heated debates about the new French constitution.

Recent biographies of Morris have emphasized the contrast between the boisterous New Yorker and the soft-spoken Virginian, using Jefferson's idealistic naïveté as a foil for Morris's worldly pragmatism. Although Jefferson and Morris brought to Europe two fundamentally different interpretations of the meaning of the American Revolution, they were equally enthusiastic about providing guidance to their French hosts [End Page 420] based on their respective interpretations. Yet, at the same time, both men worried that the national character of the French would impede their ability to follow in American...


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