Chapter 18

The Convention of Mortefontaine

between the United States and France


An example of the friendship between France and the United States

Napoleon signs the Louisiana purchase


In 1799, a naval war was being waged between the United States and France under the Directory. When he become First Consul, Bonaparte, who was an admirer of George Washington, at once attempted to restore peace and friendly relations between the two nations, which at the time, were the only two major republics in the world.


With this purpose in mind, he invited President John Adams to negotiate. Adams named three plenipotentiaries, who arrived in Paris on April 2, 1800. The First Consul also named three negotiators to represent France. As we saw in the preceding chapter, he had to leave for Italy at that time in order to halt the advance of the Austrian army.


On his return to Paris, he stepped up the pace of the negotiations, and the convention was signed at the château of Mortefontaine on September 30, 1800. This very beautiful forty-room château, which today is an important historical site, still looks just as it did in 1800. It is set in a thirteen-hectare park, only ten kilometres north of Charles de Gaulle airport (35 km. from Paris, at the Survilliers exit on the Paris-Lille autoroute).


The following are excerpts from the official documents chronicling the break in relations between the United States and France, and their reconciliation:


United States Act of July 7, 1798 against France


Whereas the treaties concluded between the United States and France have been repeatedly violated on the part of the French government; and the just claims of the United States for reparation of the injuries so committed have been refused, and their attempts to negotiate an amicable adjustment of all complaints between the two nations have been shamefully repulsed:


And whereas, under the authority of the French government, a system of predatory violence is yet pursued against the United States, constituting an infraction of the said treaties in a manner hostile to the rights of a free and independent nation:


Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the United States are of right freed and exonerated from the stipulations of the treaties, and of the consular convention, heretofore concluded between the United States and France; and that the same shall not henceforth be regarded as legal obligations upon the government or citizens of the United States.


Signed:  Jonathan Dayton, Speaker of the House of Representatives

               Theodore Sedgwig, Interim Chair of the Senate


Approved:  July 7, 1798, by John Adams, President of the United States; Deposited at the Archives Office of the Secretary of State, and Countersigned: Timothy Pickering.”


Agreement signed September 30, 1800 between the French Republic and

the United States.


“The First Consul of the French Republic in the name of the French people and the President of the United States of America, equally desirous of ending all differences that have arisen between the two nations, have respectively named their plenipotentiaries, and have invested them with full power to negotiate on these differences and to resolve them.


To wit, the First Consul of the French Republic, in the name of the French people, has named as plenipotentiaries for the said Republic State Councillors Joseph Bonaparte, Charles-Pierre Fleurieu and Pierre-Louis Roederer.


The President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate of the said States has named as plenipotentiaries Oliver Ellsworth, Chief Justice of the United States, William Richardson Davie, formerly Governor of Carolina, and William Vans-Murray, Resident Minister of the United States at The Hague, who, after having respectively exchanged their full powers and with due deliberation discussed their respective interests, have agreed to the following articles:


(The twenty-seven articles specify, down to the smallest detail, the conditions of navigation and the amicable rules that will apply at sea and in port between the navies of the United States and France).


The present convention shall be ratified in good and due form and the ratifications shall be exchanged in six months from the date of the signature of the Ministers Plenipotentiary, or sooner if possible.


In witness whereof, the respective Ministers Plenipotentiary have signed the above articles both in the French and English languages, declaring nevertheless that the signing in both languages shall not be cited as an example, and shall prejudice neither of the parties.


Signed in Paris, on the eighth day of Vendémiaire of the ninth year of the French Republic, and the thirtieth day of September, 1800.


Signed:  Joseph Bonaparte, C.P.Fleurieu, Roederer, Oliv. Ellsworth, W.R.Davie, W.V.Murray. Certified copy: C.M.Talleyrand.”


To celebrate the reconciliation with the United States, the First Consul decided to stage a great celebration at Mortefontaine, on October 2 and 3, 1800. The Baron de Méneval, who at the time was secretary to Joseph Bonaparte, before becoming Napoleon’s own secretary, has left us an account of the event in his Memoirs:  The festival at Mortefontaine was superb; the beauty of the site contributed greatly to the good taste and the magnificence of the event. Napoleon was there with his family. General Lafayette and Monsieur de la Rochefoucauld had invited every American in Paris. There were many pretty women, including two young sisters of the First Consul, Mesdames Leclerc (Pauline, 20) and Murat (Caroline, 18).


It was at Mortefontaine that I saw Napoleon for the first time. Seeing him surrounded by such an aura of grandeur, which inspired admiration and respect in all those who approached him, I never suspected that I should one day be on close terms with him. He was very amiable with everyone and conversed at length with Monsieur de Lafayette, a general for whom he had a high regard.”


Madame Genevieve Mazel, in Newsletter 59-60 of the Oise and Beauvais Monument and Art Works Study Group comments:


"The festivities organized at Mortefontaine will leave an indelible memory. Four days before the date planned for the signing of this important agreement, Bonaparte addressed Jean-Étienne Despeaux, the great festival organizer. He charged him with organizing a sumptuous reception at his brother Joseph’s home, at the château of Mortefontaine. He wanted a great banquet for about 200 people. He wanted a ball, a theatrical entertainment, and a huge fireworks display. Everything had to be perfect. Jean-Étienne Despeaux considered it quite impossible, there being far too little time. He wrote to the First Consul that the plan was unrealizable. Napoleon’s reply was  All must be ready as I ask.”


And it was, but what a task! First of all, Despeaux contacted architect Jacques Cellerier, telling him to come quickly to lick the theatre into shape; he asked for a great number of workmen to be sent to him, and also requested his assistance in finding the necessary furniture for receiving and lodging all the guests. Then he met with the actors of the Comédie française: They were asked to come "on Sunday to the château of Mortefontaine, where you will have luncheon and supper, and will perform whatever you wish."  He did the same with the musicians for the great concert. He ordered a beautiful fireworks display. They worked day and night and finally everything was ready on time and was a marvellous success.


Three large tables had to be laid out in the Orangery, in three adjoining rooms. The first was the “Room of the Union” or the reconciliation, as was written in large gold letters above the door. The second and third bore the names of Washington and Franklin. The busts of these great men were displayed and their names inscribed on escutcheons supported by the flags of both nations. The bust of Washington was sculpted by Houdon.


Facing the American ministers, a scroll hung unfurled to represent the ocean; at the bottom, on the right, was Philadelphia, and on the left, Brest and Le Havre. Above that, soared a figure representing Peace bearing an olive branch from France towards America. A large amount of foliage was used to decorate the walls. In the small park, close to the bridge that spanned the stream, an obelisk had been erected on a base decorated with two allegorical figures: France and the United States swearing allegiance at the altar of Liberty, Peace and Unity.


Mr. Murray recorded his impressions in his diary of the two days he spent in Mortefontaine. Thanks to him, we know many details about the progress of the festivities, but even more interesting are his opinions on all and sundry, particularly on the Bonaparte family. We will quote him often, as he was such an attentive and extremely well placed witness.


At half-past four, a cannon announced the arrival of the First Consul who, in the minutes that followed, arrived in a carriage drawn by six white horses, with guards in front and behind. He entered the salon, where the assembly rose. He was in the uniform of a Colonel of his personal guard, with a blue tunic with a red and white collar, and a sword. He was very gracious. Five minutes later, he proposed that we go for a walk. We strolled alone among the trees  for half an hour. His conversation centred on the rapprochement between our two nations."


The entire Bonaparte family, the two other Consuls, and all the ministers and members of the diplomatic corps were there. There were also the Presidents of the Senate, the Legislative Assembly and the Tribunate. Various people who had been in the United States for any reason at all, such as General Lafayette, Monsieur de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, as well as American citizens in France, were invited. There were a great number of pretty women to be seen, particularly Caroline Murat and Pauline Leclerc, Napoleon’s young sisters; only Elisa was absent.


Mr. Murray benefited from the opportunity to make some fine observations of the Bonaparte family: 


“Joseph Bonaparte is gentle, quiet, and slightly lazy; he is prudent but not timid, has a pleasing personality, and adores hunting and his estate.

“Madame Bonaparte, the mother, is a charming 46-year-old-woman, who seems as young as the Consul’s wife.

“Lucien Bonaparte, the Minister of the Interior, appears very attached to his two young children; his wife died six months ago..."


At six p.m. the Minister for Foreign Affairs gave Napoleon the text of the Convention which had just been signed between the French and the Americans. The event was marked by an artillery salute. After the First Consul’s speech, " at half-past eight, we were summoned to dinner. Our names were on the napkins placed on our plates. Mrs. Murray was seated to the right of Bonaparte, my colleagues close to Mme Fleurieu, who was on Bonaparte’s left, then a lady, then Governor Davie. My place was at the right of Madame Bonaparte. The dinner was superb, full of gaiety and richly presented. The two salons were full to overflowing.”


After dinner, came the moment for many enthusiastic toasts. The first was proposed by the First Consul: “To the souls of the French and the Americans who have given their lives in battle for the independence of the new world.” Then it was the turn of Consul Cambacérès:  “To the successors of Washington.” Lebrun recalled all the reasons for the treaty:  “A union with America to ensure respect for the freedom of the seas.” 


Everyone then went up to the first floor to admire the fireworks that were being set off over on the river, on the theme of the union of the two countries. “As the final cluster exploded, small vessels flying American ensigns set sail in the flash of the fireworks that lit up the allegories and glided between the bright riverbanks towards an obelisk where France and the United States swore an eternal alliance.”  This was followed by a concert that was very appreciated by everyone and loudly applauded by the Americans. Mr. Murray sat beside the First Consul, and benefited from the opportunity to observe him and to draw a very detailed, accurate physical portrait in his diary:


Before the play began, Bonaparte conversed with the actors Garat and Frédérick; he appeared very knowledgeable about music. His voice is articulate and serious; his demeanour is the very opposite of insipid or bland; he is sometimes pensive, is neither pretentious, nor egotistic, and is very precise in all his movements. What he says always expresses a broad outlook and bears on important ideas. He speaks with such frankness that you think that he is telling you everything and keeping nothing back. He is an extraordinary man and he is too generous for his French  enemies. Generosity will be his weakness and his ruin.” Around midnight, in a set specially constructed for the occasion, the finest actors of the Comédie-Française presented Le jeu de l’amour et le hasard by Marivaux, with great success.  There were notable performances from Fleury, Dazincourt, Melles Contat, Mezerai and Devienne (who as a charming Lisette made a strong impression on Mr. Murray).  That memorable day ended at three o'clock in the morning.


The following day, a hunt was organized. On his return, Bonaparte had a long conversation with Lafayette and chatted very cordially several times with Mr. Murray:  “... I spoke to Bonaparte who was sitting by the chimney. He talked with me about the American government and constitution with an air of real interest. He wanted to learn about subjects on which he was not well informed. In my opinion, France must not allow itself to have a weak government. I hope, for the peace of the world, that Bonaparte remains in power for as long as he lives.”


In conclusion, one can say that Napoleon, by reconciling the two republics, was the father of two hundred years of uninterrupted friendship between the United States and France. In these troubled times, the château of Mortefontaine deserves rejuvenation. It could become a study centre for peace, justice and harmony in the world.


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