Gouverneur Morris, Our Country’s Master Wordsmith

Gouverneur Morris

September 17 is Constitution Day in America, a time to celebrate history’s greatest document this side of the Ten Commandments.  Let’s not forget Gouverneur Morris, who gets an “A+” for that masterful work of composition.

Constitution Day deserves much more attention and appreciation than it now receives. So too does Mr. Morris, who has been relegated to the back benches of the Founding Fathers.  “The Penman of the Constitution,” he deserves better.

A native of New York City and a gifted scholar, Morris enrolled in 1764 at the age of twelve at King’s College, predecessor to Columbia University in New York City. He graduated at age 16 in 1768 and received a master’s degree in 1771.

Morris represented Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Morris was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation.  He saw and lived with the weaknesses of the new nation’s first attempt at self-government, and did his part to rectify them the second time around.

Morris was an author of large sections of the Constitution of the United States and one of its signers.

He is widely credited as the author of the document’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …” That was still an era when most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their respective states. Morris advanced the idea of being a citizen of a single union of states.

Born to a wealthy family in Westchester County, he was elected in 1775 to represent his family estate in the New York Provincial Congress.  After the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, the British seized New York City and his family’s estate across the Harlem River from Manhattan. His mother, a loyalist, gave the estate to the British for military use.

Morris was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1777-78 and was appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and took his seat in Congress on 28 January 1778. He was selected to a committee in charge of coordinating reforms of the military with George Washington. After witnessing the army encamped at Valley Forge, he was so appalled by the conditions of the troops that he became the spokesman for the Continental Army in Congress, and subsequently helped enact substantial reforms in its training, methods, and financing. He also signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778.

In 1779, he was defeated for re-election to Congress, largely because his advocacy of a strong central government was at odds with the decentralist views prevalent in New York. Defeated in his home state, he moved to Philadelphia to work as a lawyer and merchant.

In 1780, Morris’s left leg was shattered and replaced with a wooden pegleg. Morris’s public account for the loss of his leg was that it happened in a carriage accident, but there is evidence that this was a false story concocted to cover for a dalliance with a woman, during which he jumped from a window to escape a jealous husband.

Morris was well-known throughout much of his life for having many affairs, with both married and unmarried women, and he recorded many of these adventures and misadventures in his diary.

Before the Constitutional Convention, Morris lived in Philadelphia where he worked as a merchant for some time.  The financier Robert Morris (no relation), recommended him for the convention.

During the Philadelphia Convention, he was a friend and ally of George Washington and others who favored a strong central government. Morris was elected to serve on a committee of five (chaired by William Samuel Johnson) who drafted the final language of the proposed constitution. Catherine Drinker Bowen, in Miracle at Philadelphia, called Morris the committee’s “amanuensis,” meaning that it was his pen that was responsible for most of the draft, as well as its final polished form.

“An aristocrat to the core,” Morris believed that “there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy”. He also thought that common people were incapable of self-government because he feared that the poor would sell their votes to the rich. Consequently, he thought that voting should be restricted to property owners. Morris also opposed admitting new western states on an equal basis with the existing eastern states, fearing that the interior wilderness could not furnish “enlightened” statesmen to the country.

At the convention he gave more speeches than any other delegate, a total of 173.  He believed strongly in a guiding god and in morality as taught through religion. Nonetheless, he did not have much patience for any established religion. As a matter of principle, he often vigorously defended the right of anyone to practice his chosen religion without interference, and he argued to include such language in the Constitution.

Gouverneur Morris was one of the few delegates at the Philadelphia Convention who spoke openly against domestic slavery. According to James Madison who took notes at the Convention, Morris spoke openly against slavery on August 8:

“He [Gouverneur Morris] never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed. …with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other states having slaves…. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings. Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”

Morris went to France on business in 1789 and served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792 to 1794. His diaries during that time have become a valuable chronicle of the French Revolution, capturing much of the turbulence and violence of that era, as well as documenting his affairs with women there.

Mr. Morris with pegleg after his unfortunate "accident."

He returned to the United States in 1798, and he was elected in April 1800, as a Federalist, to the United States Senate, filling the vacancy caused by the resignation of James Watson. He was defeated for re-election in February 1803.

After leaving the U.S. Senate, he served as Chairman of the Erie Canal Commission from 1810 to 1813. The Erie Canal helped to transform New York City into a financial capital, the possibilities of which were apparent to Morris when he said “the proudest empire in Europe is but a bubble compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of two centuries, perhaps of one.”

At the age of 57, he married Anne Cary (“Nancy”) Randolph, who was the sister of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., husband of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph.

Morris also established himself as an important landowner in northern New York, where the Town of Gouverneur and Village of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County are named for him.  He died at the family estate, Morrisania, and was buried at St. Ann’s Church in the The Bronx.

This distinguished, aristocratic man died an unusual and painful death in 1816. He stuck a piece of whale bone through his urinary tract in an attempt to relieve a blockage.

So it’s Constitution Day, a time to celebrate history’s greatest document this side of the Ten Commandments.  Let’s not forget the Constitution’s Penman, who gets an “A+” for his masterful composition.

Here’s to you, Gouverneur!

One Response to “Gouverneur Morris, Our Country’s Master Wordsmith”

  1. “We the People” say “Thank you, Gouverneur” « Veteranscribe's Blog Says:

    […] for a living, I am a big fan of Morris.  My earlier blog post, which you can read by clicking here, recaps his life and career. There’s no need to repeat it.  But since I did that post, I have […]

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