Monday, March 11, 2013

Featured Manuscript: Congé Signed by Louis XVI

Park 822, signature Louis  XVI

The story might be familiar: King Louis XVI of France, having been captured trying to flee the country during the French Revolution, was confined to Paris and held under guard in June, 1791. By August of 1792, as events had progressed and France tried to work itself into a constitutional monarchy, it had become clear that the King and the Legislature would not see eye-to-eye. On the night of August 10, 1792, the Tuileries Palace was stormed by partisans and insurgents who massacred the Swiss Guards stationed to protect the King and his family. The Royal family taken prisoner, the Legislature quickly moved to suspend the monarchy, bringing an effective end to the reign of Louis XVI.

How is this relevant to Morristown National Historical Park, you might ask? One reason could be that Louis XVI was the one monarch the American Revolutionaries had admiration for and greatly needed. It was, after all, at the Ford Mansion, Washington’s Winter Headquarters during the 1779-1780 encampment, that Lafayette arrived with the news of massive French support for the colonials. Yet, there is still a more intimate connection between Morristown and Louis XVI.

Park 822

As it turns out, a document which has recently surfaced from the Park collection dating back to August of 1792, offers a glimpse into the final days of the fabled Ancien Régime. In essence the document, written in French and signed by Louis as well as the Minister of the Marine, is a ship’s passport, detailing that it has permission to fly French colors and sail to and from particular ports. The ship Diligente in this case is given permission to sail out of Treguier in Brittany “to engage in the coastal carrying trade for one year from the visa date.” (Jeff Horn)

The document signifies a break in existing contracts for the ship, which one scholar has explained is the result of the April, 1792 declaration of war. According to Jeff Horn of Manhattan College, “Given common practice, it probably led to a transfer of ownership to an American to operate as neutral shipping and avoid confiscation.”

Such a document has a long history. Professor Silvia Marzagalli of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, located in Nice, France, has done extensive work on such “conges” issued in 1787. She speculates that we have the original document issued to the captain. According to Marzagalli, “They are rare…it is unclear when Admiralty offices ceased to issue such documents and whether the competences went directly to the newly created administration.” The Morristown document thus helps illustrate how long such seemingly pro-forma administrative duties were carried on in the final days of the French monarchy.[1]

The era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were a dangerous time for merchant ships. Even for neutral American ships, the chances were high that a ship could be seized and its cargo confiscated as contraband, not having proper paperwork, or even for spurious reasons conjured by the capturing privateer. Interesting as this all is, what has piqued the interest of scholars who have viewed the Morristown document is the date of its signing.

Signed August 6, 1792, this document represents one of the last documents signed by the soon-to-be-disposed King Louis XVI. The monarchy was dissolved on August 10, four days after the document was signed, and Louis would be executed in January, following a trial.

[1] The Bourbon monarchy was reinstated under Louis XVIII in 1814, was interrupted again by Napoleon for a little over one-hundred days, and was again in place from 1815 until 1830, when it was made fully extinct.

 Close up of seal.

This blog post written by Bruce Spadaccini, Museum Technician.

A special thanks to the professors who responded to our inquiry:
Susan Dinan, Professor of History, William Paterson University
Jeff Horn, Professor and Chair, Department of History, Manhattan College
Silvia Marzagalli, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Nice
Ralph Kingston, Professor of History, Auburn University
Martine Acerra, Professor of History, University of Nantes

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