Gentleman revolutionary : Gouverneur Morris, the rake who wrote the Constitution /
Richard Brookhiser.
New York : Free Press, c2003.
xvii, 251 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 24 cm.
0743223799 (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Free Press, c2003.
0743223799 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 241-244) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

A biographer can feel a moment's hesitation when it comes to introducing his subject, for every traditional means has its drawbacks. If the hero appears in medias res, in the midst of some great action, the reader may feel manipulated, even coerced: his attention is being claimed before it has been earned. If the story of a life begins where the life does, in a cradle, then the reader might experience a sense of delay: he wished to read about great men, not infants. For the biographer of Gouverneur Morris, it is perhaps best to let him be introduced by a woman.

In 1795, Harriet de Damas, a French countess, wrote a portrait of a tall, handsome American who had become a fixture of Parisian society.1 Gouverneur Morris had come to France in 1789, age thirty-seven, as a businessman; three years later, he was appointed the American minister to that country. Mr. Morris had a French first name (his mother's maiden name), which Americans insisted on pronouncing "Gov-er-neer"; he had learned French as a child, and wrote it well enough to produce papers on French politics, or little poems for his friends. Mme de Damas called his spoken French "always correct and vigorous," though other Frenchwomen teased him for his mistakes. Mr. Morris cut a figure for many reasons: his impressive bearing (the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon used him as a body double for a statue of George Washington); his wit; his severely elegant clothes and carriage, so different from French silks and colors; and what was severe in a different way, his wooden left leg. When he arrived at a party, the servants watched him; the guests watched him; he watched himself, mindful of the impression he made.

"Superficial observers," wrote Mme de Damas, "...might be acquainted with Mr. Morris for years, without discovering his most eminent qualities. Such observers must be told what to admire." The Frenchwoman confronts a difficulty with her portrait head-on: she had known Mr. Morris for only a small part of his life, since his first thirty-seven years had been spent in America. But she plunged ahead confidently.

The superficial observers of his early life "regard Mr. Morris as a profound politician," and indeed he had been involved in politics, often of the most eventful kind. When he was twenty-three years old the American Revolution began, and he watched it pull society and family asunder (one of his elder half brothers signed the Declaration of Independence; another half brother was a general in the British army). He left American towns a step ahead of marauding British armies, and when Morris visited his mother, who supported the crown throughout the war, he had to get passes from both sides to cross their lines. He eventually followed his patriot half brother into the Continental Congress, where he helped accomplish great things, but also engaged in endless petty wrangling. ("We had many scoundrels" in Congress, he would remember as an older man.)

When he was still a young one, age thirty-five, Mr. Morris drafted the Constitution of the United States. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret, to allow the delegates maximum freedom to speak their minds, so Mr. Morris's role on the Committee of Style was not generally known. But in later years he admitted to a correspondent that "that instrument was written by the fingers which write this letter." Years after Morris's death, an elderly James Madison told an inquiring historian that "the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris." James Madison, the careful and learned theorist, is commonly called the Father of the Constitution, because he kept the most complete set of notes of the debates, and made cogent arguments for ratification after the debates were done (he wrote one third of the Federalist Papers). But Gouverneur Morris, who put the document into its final form and who wrote the Preamble from scratch, also deserves a share of the paternity. The founders were voluminous writers, and much of their writing is very good, but few of them had the combination of lightness and force that generates a great style. Jefferson had it; Franklin had it; Thomas Paine, the passionate and ungainly English immigrant, had it. The only other one of their number who hit that note consistently was Morris. "A better choice" for a draftsman "could not have been made," Madison concluded.

Mme de Damas and her French friends certainly knew about Mr. Morris's political activity: it was one facet of his social cachet, a point of interest like his wardrobe and his leg. A more striking feature of their friend was his manner. Mme de Damas called him "the most amiable" of men. "His imagination inclines to pleasantry, and being abundantly gifted with what the English call humor, united to what the French name esprit, it is impossible not to be delighted...." Humor and esprit: Mr. Morris delighted in the incongruities and follies of life, including his own, and his comments -- quick, shapely, and bold -- communicated that delight to others. Women found him especially pleasing, perhaps because he took special pains to please them. "Govr Morris kept us in a continual smile," was how one young lady put it. His women friends did more than smile. At the cardtable of the sexes, his wit and looks always trumped his disability, and the one-legged American left a trail of lovers on two continents.

Mr. Morris's good company went beyond good times. When the French Revolution, more stressful than the American, began to suck his glittering friends into poverty, exile, and danger, he gave many of them refuge, and saved several of their lives. Mme de Damas was not one of his lovers, but he did save her life.

But more important than Mr. Morris's career or his behavior was his nature. "Nothing really worthy of him," wrote Mme de Damas, "will be said by any one, who does not ascend to the source of all that is great and excellent in his character." That, she decided, was "a belief that God can will nothing but what is good." This gave him confidence, charity, and hope. "Ever at peace with himself...seldom ruffled in his temper, not suffering men or events to have a mastery over his spirit, he is habitually serene, alike ready to engage in the most abstruse inquiries, or to join in the trifles of social amusement." Gouverneur Morris took his life as it came. "He conceives it to be following the order of Providence to enjoy all its gifts. 'To enjoy is to obey.' And upon the same principle he submits, with a modest fortitude, and sincere resignation, to the ills inflicted by the same hand." Living among tottering thrones and shaky republics, Mr. Morris showed the gift of poise.

Gouverneur Morris belonged to that band of brothers that we now call the founding fathers. Some were his friends: he knew and worshipped George Washington for almost twenty years; he knew and squabbled with Paine for almost as long; he was at Alexander Hamilton's deathbed. Some of them were enemies: he thought James Madison was a fool and a drunkard. He knew them all, and was one of their number. The founding fathers-to-be were guided by the pursuit of greatness. They measured themselves by their service to the country they were making. Mr. Morris was moved by the same tidal pull of public good. "This is the seed time of glory," he wrote in one of his sweetest phrases. The second half of his life, after Mme de Damas finished her portrait, had two great public occasions in store for him. He was one of those New Yorkers who pushed early and hard for what became the Erie Canal, a project that made the paper structure of national union economically vital. At the same time, and paradoxically, he was one of those northerners who decided, during the War of 1812, that the nation should be broken up, and the Constitution scrapped. Other Americans would come to the same conclusion, from abolitionists calling the Constitution a deal with the devil to southerners arguing that it gave them a right to secede. But Morris's abandonment of the document he had written is more astonishing than later repudiations.

Yet Mr. Morris, alone among the founding fathers, thought that his private life was as important as his public life. Being a gentleman mattered as much to him as being a great man. When public life was not going well, he could go home -- not to bide his time before his next opportunity, or to enjoy the retirement on a pedestal of a Cincinnatus, but because he enjoyed farming, reading, eating, fishing, making money, and making love as much as founding a state. "A characteristic trait, which I must not forget," wrote Mme de Damas, "is his faculty and habit of applying his mind to a single object, of suddenly collecting the whole force of his attention upon one point." That point might be a stumbling economy, or an imperfect constitution; it might also be the parade of domestic life. "He is fond of his ease, does his best to procure it, and enjoys it as much as possible. He loves good cheer, good wine, good company." Mr. Morris's ability to switch from public to private life -- his inability ever to banish his private frame of reference, even in the midst of public business -- did limit his effectiveness as a public man. He lacked the persistence of the other founders. He could focus on one political idea, but soon he might be focusing on another. One delegate to the Constitutional Convention called him "fickle and inconstant," a charge that rang down the years. But this limitation brought benefits. In an era when American politics was as poisonous as it would ever be, he was remarkably free from rancor. Though a war would finally drive him to it, once the war ended, rancor receded. Even James Madison could not long disturb his peace of mind.

Mr. Morris had many reasons to be happy. He was born to privilege, he worked hard to make himself rich, and he was successful in politics, business, and love: after all his affairs, he married a devoted and intelligent woman (accused, it is true, of being a double murderess, though the accuser, her brother-in-law, was commonly supposed to be somewhat insane). But Mr. Morris also saw many things that could have made him gloomy, bitter, perplexed. He witnessed two revolutions, up close and on the ground, one more turbulent than we remember, the other as turbulent as any has ever been. He fled a town that was about to be burned to the ground, and he saw a corpse that had just been torn apart by a mob. His own body was not only missing a leg, but most of the flesh of one arm. Pessimists and misanthropes have been made of less.

In 1936, as Europe slid to war, William Butler Yeats wrote that there is a gaiety in art, even tragic art, that transfigures the dread of life. Gouverneur Morris was no artist, unless living is an art. He carried his gaiety within himself. It was, we might say, constitutional.

Copyright © 2003 by Richard Brookhiser

Chapter Seven

Secure the Blessings

A bit of public business lay on Morris's schedule, however. Without asking for it, he had been elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

The Pennsylvania Assembly had chosen him for the state's delegation while he was out of town, celebrating the New Year in Trenton, New Jersey. Morris had been living in Pennsylvania for not quite nine years, and some complained that he had "no stake in their hedge." The criticism of his rootlessness rang false, since Pennsylvania had a tradition of being kind to outlanders; of the original seven-man delegation, four besides Morris were from somewhere else: England (Robert Morris), Scotland (James Wilson), Ireland (Thomas Fitzsimons), and Connecticut (Jared Ingersoll). In the spring, the Assembly added an eighth delegate, the greatest of all transplants, Benjamin Franklin of Boston.

Morris had to know that large political forces were afoot. George Washington was calling for interstate cooperation on canal building, to develop the trans-Appalachian west; Henry Knox had been sounding the alarm over Shays's Rebellion, an uprising of hard-pressed farmers in western Massachusetts; Alexander Hamilton had drafted the call for a Constitutional Convention at a 1786 meeting in Annapolis. But Morris had not involved himself in any of these projects or controversies. He had made his best effort for reform in the Finance Office; the denouement of Newburgh represented a rejection of his efforts. But now he was called upon to try again. "The appointment was the most unexpected thing that ever happened to me," he wrote Knox. "Had the object been any other than it is I would have declined."

Pennsylvania, the host state, chose a large and distinguished delegation. Franklin was a world celebrity; Robert Morris was the money man of the continent; James Wilson had established a reputation as a political thinker. William Pierce, a delegate from Georgia who wrote vivid and generally accurate sketches of all his colleagues (he commonly misreported their ages), wrote this panegyric: "Government seems to have been [Wilson's] peculiar study, all the political institutions of the world he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time." The only delegation that matched Pennsylvania's in luster and depth was the seven-man team from Virginia, led by the young governor, Edmund Randolph; two senior theorists, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson's teacher, George Wythe; and one young and even more brilliant theorist, James Madison. Madison, a year older than Morris, was small, sober, and driven; at first blush he could seem priggish. He sped through the college of New Jersey at Princeton in two years, then suffered a nervous collapse, and he lost his first race for the Virginia House of Burgesses when he would not treat the voters to drinks. In a committee setting, however, his energy, his thoroughness, and his immense learning made him a compelling force. After hours, he revealed a taste for off-color stories. Greatest of the Virginians was the greatest man in America, George Washington. In the Convention as a whole there were eight signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Robert Morris, Franklin, Wilson, and Wythe. Some famous Americans, notably Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, stayed home, while others were otherwise occupied (John Adams was minister to Great Britain, and Jefferson was minister to France). But the Convention had many ornaments, much solidity, and only a few ciphers.

Judged by his record alone, Morris ranked with the solid rather than the glittering. At thirty-five, he was among the younger delegates, although he was not, as he had been at Kingston, one of the youngest. The junior member in Philadelphia was twenty-seven-year-old Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey (twenty-nine-year-old Charles Pinckney of South Carolina told everyone that he was twenty-four). Morris had been selected because the resurgent Republican Party in Pennsylvania appreciated his talents; even so, he had won only a bare majority of votes in the state Assembly (Franklin and Robert Morris had been elected unanimously). If Gouverneur Morris was to shine in Philadelphia, it would have to be through a special display of his talents on the spot.

Happily, one of his talents was public speaking. Morris was both an orator and an arguer; he could paint a glowing picture, or jab a rival in the gut. These gifts, augmented by his stature and his intelligence, made him a formidable force. William Pierce's portrait of him repeats what had by now become the traditional criticism -- "he is fickle and inconstant, never pursuing one train of thinking, nor ever regular" -- but wraps it in high, if somewhat alarmed, praise. "He winds through all the mazes of rhetoric, and throws around him such a glare that he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him. With an infinite stretch of fancy he brings to view things when he is engaged in deep argumentation that render all the labor of reasoning easy and pleasing." A good teacher, or a serpent in the garden? Pierce didn't seem to be quite sure. "No man," he concluded, "has more wit, nor can any one engage the attention more than Mr. Morris."4 James Madison, who took the most complete notes of any delegate, and who posted himself in front of the presiding officer's chair the better to listen, wrote more soberly that "the correctness of [Morris's] language and the distinctness of his enunciation were particularly favorable to a reporter."

The states had answered the call for a Convention, out of the same sense of urgency that had dogged Morris when he went to work for the Finance Office in 1781, or when he took his seat in Congress in 1778: the urgency arising from the United States's failure to cope with its debts. Urgency had become almost routine. The war had been won on loans and luck; a mutiny had been averted with an IOU; but still the government had no dependable source of revenue. Many of the state governments were as badly off: the farmers of Massachusetts had been driven to rebellion by property taxes levied to pay the state's crushing debt. On the bourses of Antwerp and Amsterdam, the money men of Europe traded American securities at a third to a quarter of their face value. The Thirteen Colonies were the first in the world to win independence, but the United States, despite its resources and the industry of some its citizens, was in a fair way to becoming the first Third World nation. The Convention offered itself as a last chance for reform. "[T]he fate of America," as Morris later put it, "was suspended by a hair."

Morris got off to a false start. The Convention, which had been called to meet in mid-May, had a quorum by May 25. Franklin planned to nominate Washington to chair the proceedings, maintaining the symbiosis of their celebrity, but rain kept the eighty-one-year-old man at home, and Robert Morris made the motion in his place, which passed unanimously. Six days later, Gouverneur Morris left town. Business drew him away from the nation's business. A new estate manager at Morrisania required instructions, and one of William Constable's agents had arrived in New York from Europe with the news that their partner Robert Morris's bills were being protested (in effect, his checks were bouncing). America might be hanging by a hair, but Gouverneur Morris spent all of June tending to these matters. Morris was not the only absentee. Delegates came late, left early, or went away for weeks at a time, to nurse illnesses, tend their personal affairs (Pierce, who called Morris inconstant, himself left at the end of June in an effort to stave off bankruptcy), or register their disapproval of the goings-on. Alexander Hamilton of New York stayed away for two months because he despaired of real change; Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., the other delegates from New York, left for good in July because they believed the changes that had been approved were too drastic. Morris was back in his seat by July 2, however, ready for work.

He returned at a moment of drama, for the Convention, as Roger Sherman of Connecticut said, was "at a full stop." The issue in its path was the ongoing power and influence of the states. Nearly all of the delegates wanted a government with greater powers, independent of the states, which over the years had withheld requisitions and vetoed the most modest taxes. But how was a stronger national government to be chosen? How would the states be represented in it? Wilson and Madison, the most aggressive minds of Pennsylvania and Virginia, wanted a Congress based on proportional representation, which would shrink the voice of the small states almost to nothing (Virginia and Pennsylvania, the largest, were nine times as populous as Delaware, the smallest). The small states pushed back, insisting that at least one house of Congress be organized as Congress was under the Articles of Confederation, with all states voting as equal units. Two days before Morris returned, Gunning Bedford, Jr., of Delaware, a young, angry fat man -- "a bold and nervous speaker," wrote Pierce, "warm and impetuous in his temper"8 -- warned that if the large states changed the principle of representation, "the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith." Bedford's threat, delivered on a Saturday, must have been the talk of the delegates all the following week; but Morris, who had tangled with everyone from his dearest friends to Thomas Paine, was not intimidated. "This country must be united," he observed on Thursday, July 5. "If persuasion does not unite it, the sword will." Four of the next five speakers grappled with Morris's sword, either trying to draw it or to twist it deeper.

This sally displayed a quality of Morris's that the delegates would become accustomed to over the next two and a half months: his ability to provoke, and his delight in doing so, whenever anyone showed an arrogance equal to his own. At the end of August, the Convention examined another sore spot, the slave trade. The Carolinas and Georgia, where mortality was higher than it was along the Chesapeake, depended on the traffic to refresh their slave labor force. Most of the delegates, though, northerners and southerners alike, were too humane to proclaim what they permitting, and so the relevant clause then on the floor was wrapped in cotton wool: the "importation of such persons as the several states...shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited." Morris offered an amendment: the "importation of slaves into North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia shall not be prohibited...." This little change, he said, "would be most fair and would avoid the ambiguity....He wished it to be known also that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those states." With offensive tact, he added that if his language "should be objected to...he should not urge it." After two piqued southerners and two anxious northerners shushed him, Morris withdrew his motion.

The Convention tolerated such a man because he was as amusing as he was annoying. He may never have slapped Washington on the back, but he was not afraid to poke fun at Franklin. During a discussion of term limits for the executive, the sage, in a pious mood, declared that "[I]n free governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors....For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them." To which Morris only remarked that "he had no doubt our executive" would be modest enough "to decline the promotion." On another occasion, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, earnest and crotchety, warned against letting the vice president preside over the Senate. "The close intimacy that must subsist between the president and vice-president makes it absolutely improper." "The vice president then will be the first heir apparent that ever loved his father," said Morris.

These were sly hits at republican cant, and human nature. Sometimes he indulged in broad comedy. Early in August, Morris proposed that foreign-born Americans be citizens for fourteen years before they could serve in the Senate. A lively argument followed, with Wilson, the Scot, opposing such a long residency requirement, while Pierce Butler of South Carolina, an Irishman, supported it. Morris spoke up again, in the name, he said, of "prudence. It is said that some tribes of Indians carried their hospitality so far as to offer to strangers their wives and daughters. Was this a proper model for us? He would admit [immigrants] to his house, he would invite them to his table, [he] would provide for them comfortable lodgings; but would not carry complaisance so far as to bed them with his wife."14 The delegates' accounts of the Constitutional Convention are interesting, but they are not light reading; most of what lightness there is comes from Morris.

Madison, the careful reporter, occasionally checked his notes of long and controversial speeches with their speakers. One such effort was a "very extravagant" speech of Morris's, probably one of his tangles with Bedford over representation. "It displayed," wrote Madison, "his usual fondness for saying things and advancing doctrines that no one else would....[W]hen the thing stared him in the face (this was Mr. Morris's exact expression)...he laughed and said, 'Yes, it is all right.'"

Morris spoke 173 times at the Convention, more often than any other member, despite the fact that he missed all of June. Wilson, who spoke 168 times, and Madison, who spoke 161, placed and showed, even though they attended every session. What things, peculiar to himself, did Morris say?

Morris was a passionate nationalist. He had come "as a representative of America"; to "form a compact for the good of America." "Among the many provisions which had been urged, he had seen none for supporting the dignity and splendor of the American empire." There were other nationalists at the Convention: Madison; Wilson; Hamilton, when he chose to speak; Washington, though he hardly spoke at all. None were as rhapsodic as Morris. He attacked every centrifugal or sectional force, assailing the states -- "What if all the charters and constitutions of the states were thrown into the fire, and all their demagogues into the ocean? What would it be to the happiness of America?"; assailing entire regions -- the west could not furnish "enlightened" lawmakers, for "the busy haunts of men, not the remote wilderness, were the proper school of political talents"; if "the southern gentlemen" persisted in angling for power, "let us at once take a friendly leave of each other." Morris's attacks on the west and the South goaded the sober Madison into saying that he "determined the human character by the points of the compass."

Morris spoke out against democracy in every branch of government. This was not an unusual position at the Convention: "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," Elbridge Gerry said roundly during the Convention's first week. But Morris added a twist of his own. A broad franchise across the board would empower the rich, who would control poor or fickle voters. "[T]he people never act from reason alone. The rich will take advantage of their passions and make these the instrument for oppressing them." "Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them." Morris had had these concerns since 1774, when he smiled at the bellwethers leading the sheep at Fraunces Tavern; such concerns were a hereditary privilege of the Morrises, who had done their share of herding over the years. Morris's solution was to segregate rich and poor each in their own branch of Congress, so that their pride would encourage mutual distrust. "[O]ne interest must be opposed to another interest. Vices...must be turned against each other."

Morris attacked slavery more strongly than he had at Kingston. His great philippic came in the course of a discussion of how slaves should be counted in the rule of representation. By August, it was clear that one house of Congress would be apportioned on the basis of population; Delaware would have the fewest representatives, Virginia and Pennsylvania the most. This would also be true of the Electoral College, when that strange system was finally rigged. In both bodies, the southern states wanted slaves to be counted equally with freemen; this would boost the power of their masters, without conferring any benefit upon the slaves, since of course slaves could not vote. Some northerners -- notably Rufus King of Massachusetts -- asked why slaves should be counted at all? On August 8, Morris rose to ask the same question. Slavery, he began, "was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed....Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the [New England] states and enter New York, the effects of the institution become visible; passing through [New Jersey] and entering Pennsylvania, every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take through the great region of slaves presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings." But he was just warming up. "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? The houses in [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina." Finally, a masterly sentence, long, dense, and relentless. "The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice."

The picture of trans-Atlantic woe and hypocrisy that follows the colon is folded like a Chinese screen. At either end stand Americans. Moving inward, the laws of humanity are defied, and the protection of rights is mocked. At the center, a monstrous irony: the act of enslavement is rewarded by votes. In Morris's sentence, the laudable horror of the Pennsylvanian accomplishes nothing. Neither did his speech. Roger Sherman of Connecticut spoke for the majority: "the admission of the Negroes into the ratio of representation" was not "liable to such insuperable objections." The Convention compromised, counting each slave as three fifths of a person.

The nature of the executive was one of the trickiest questions the Convention addressed, not settled until the home stretch. No one knew how long his term should be, how many he should have, or how he should be picked. Franklin favored a plural executive, a committee of three; Gerry feared the executive would be picked by the Society of the Cincinnati, the veterans' group of Revolutionary War officers. Brooding over the entire discussion was the silent presence of Washington, who had in effect been the nation's executive as commander in chief, and had set a very high bar (too high?) for trustworthiness. Morris was a leading spokesman for the executive, repelling assaults on him, and seeking to extend his powers. "We are acting a very strange part," he complained in August. "We first form a strong man to protect us, and at the same time wish to tie his hands behind him." Morris spoke up for his grandfather, his uncle, and the only man he idolized.

Morris's success as an advocate was mixed. His analysis of rich and poor voters was an interesting opinion merely, thrown out for the edification of the delegates, then put aside; he lost on slavery. Nationalism would be an open question for the rest of his life, and beyond. The office of the president that finally emerged was to his liking, but that had more to do with the tidal pull of Washington than anything he said. Morris didn't get everything he wanted, but then no one did. Hamilton had wanted a president for life; Madison thought the national government should be able to veto state laws; George Mason wanted it to be able to pass sumptuary laws, regulating foreign luxuries and conspicuous consumption. Morris took his defeats with better grace than many. For all his sharp words and strong opinions, he was disinclined to sulk. "[T]o the brilliancy of his genius," wrote Madison when he was an old man, "he added what is too rare...a readiness to aid in making the best of measures in which he had been overruled."

Morris was an indefatigable speaker, but his greatest service was done as a writer. On July 26, the Convention adjourned for ten days so that all the resolutions that had been so far approved could be offered to a Committee of Detail, for presentation as a draft. In the interval, Washington and Morris went to Valley Forge to fish for trout; Washington looked at the ruined outworks where his men had suffered so. On August 6, the Committee of Detail presented its handiwork, which was followed by five weeks of further discussion.

On September 8, the Convention selected a five-man committee to "revise the stile" and "arrange the articles" of the Constitution. The chairman was Dr. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, a sixty-year-old lawyer and classicist who had just been named president of King's College, now christened Columbia. But the energy on the committee would come from its younger members: Rufus King, Madison, Hamilton, and Morris. As with the committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier, here was a surfeit of talents. In 1776, John Adams wrote voluminously and Benjamin Franklin wrote well, but the assignment had gone to Thomas Jefferson. Madison, Hamilton, or King would have done a fine job, but they gave the task to Morris. Perhaps his blazing performance over the last two months, like a jockey making his move at the far turn, decided them. His draft was done in four days.

Unlike Jefferson in 1776, Morris was not writing out of his head. He was bound by the resolutions of the Convention. Yet time and again, he shaped and smoothed; and though he was a lawyer, he avoided as much as he could the legalistic repetitions that his profession loves. The effect of his changes is to make for clarity, simplicity, and speed.

Consider a passage from Article VI, based on Article VIII of the draft of the Committee of Detail (one of Morris's improvements was to compress the draft's twenty-three articles into seven). The Committee of Detail said:

The Acts of the Legislature of the United States made in pursuance of this Constitution, and all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the several States, and of their citizens and inhabitants; and the judges in the several States shall be bound thereby in their decisions; any thing in the Constitutions or laws of the several States to the contrary notwithstanding.

Morris made it this:

This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Morris's rewrite is not poetry, but it is cleaner. Three clanking "the several States" become "the land," "every state," and "any state." "[T]he acts of the Legislature" become "the laws." Two bits of lint are removed: "and of their citizens and inhabitants" (who else do laws apply to?); "in their decisions" (how else are judges bound?). One seeming bit of lint is added: "or which shall be made," but it actually makes an important point. Morris wanted the states to be bound both by future treaties and by those already in force. Even so, he managed to chip eight words out of a passage that was only seventy words long to start with.

Or consider how Morris cleaned up the prohibition on state armies and navies. The analogous passage in the Articles of Confederation (the old and the new Constitution agreed on this point) had been a lazy bumble:

No state shall engage in any war without the consent of the united states in congress assembled, unless such state be actually invaded by enemies, or shall have received certain advice of a resolution being formed by some nation of Indians to invade such state, and the danger is so imminent as not to admit of a delay, till the united states in congress assembled can be consulted: nor shall any state grant commissions to any ships or vessels of war...unless such state be infested by pirates, in which case vessels of war may be fitted out for that occasion, and kept so long as the danger shall continue, or until the united states in congress assembled shall determine otherwise.

The Indians and pirates impart an unexpected flavor of a boys' book, but as constitution writing, this simply fails.

Article XIII in the draft of the Committee of Detail had cleaned things up to this:

No State, without the consent of the Legislature of the United States, shall...keep troops or ships of war in time of peace...nor engage in any war, unless it shall be actually invaded by enemies, or the danger of invasion be so imminent, as not to admit of a delay, until the Legislature of the United States can be consulted.

Morris, in Article I Section 10, wrote this:

No State shall, without the consent of Congress...keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace...or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.

He cuts sixty-one words down to thirty-six, making danger more imminent by describing it more rapidly. Morris the stylist would not admit the delay of inelegant verbiage.

Sometimes Morris saved time by showing instead of explaining. Article II of the draft of the Committee of Detail declared that "The Government shall consist of supreme legislative, executive; and judicial powers." Morris eliminated this entirely, and simply began his first three articles by announcing that "all legislative powers," "the executive power," and "the judicial power" shall be vested in a Congress, a president, and the courts.

Madison described Morris's trimming and polishing best. "The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to [his] pen...A better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved."

Did the careful scribe try to smuggle in an argument for nationalism? Eleven years later, Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania congressman who had not been at the Convention, claimed on the floor of the House that Morris had played with the punctuation of Article I Section 8. The section begins:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States...

Clearly, everything after "Excises" explains what the taxes, duties, imposts, and excises are for. But, said Gallatin, Morris had put a semicolon after "Excises," which made providing for the common defense and the general welfare "distinct power[s]" of Congress. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, however, had spotted the "trick," and a comma was substituted, thereby ratcheting the powers of Congress back to their proper level. At the time the charge was made, Sherman was dead, and Morris was out of the country, Morris was not above sleight of hand, but he made his convictions explicit elsewhere.

The Preamble was the one part of the Constitution that Morris wrote from scratch, and here he showed creativity, and condensed thought. The version of the Committee of Detail was as plain as paint. "We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts" and so on through all the states to Georgia, "do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity." This was a roll call, and an announcement. But what the ends of government might be, the Committee of Detail refused to say. The proposed constitutions offered by delegates at various times during the Convention had been more forthcoming. Madison had come to Philadelphia with a plan in his pocket, which defined the "objects...of Confederation" as "common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare" -- phrases borrowed from the Articles of Confederation. Charles Pinckney's plan quaintly defined the purposes of government as the "common Benefit" of the states, and "their Defense and Security against all Designs and Leagues that may be injurious to their Interests and against all Force and Attacks offered to or made upon them or any of them." Robert Patterson of New Jersey looked to "the exigencies of Government" and "the preservation of the Union."

Morris wrote a grave little essay, as quiet as it is comprehensive.

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The last of Morris's six goals are Madison's three, rearranged so that "liberty," now prized for its "blessings," opens out to the future. Two inconspicuous rhymes -- insure/secure and tranquility/liberty/posterity -- and one strong alliteration -- provide/promote -- bind the paragraph together. In the final version, someone -- the printer? -- made a tiny improvement, canceling the second, redundant "to."

Morris's Preamble names "the people," rather than the thirteen states, as the source of legitimacy and power. This, not any sly semicolon, was his last statement of nationalism. Later historians dispute whether he intended anything so meaningful: Morris's version, they say, was a verbal maneuver to finesse the fact that some states -- Rhode Island had sent no delegates to Philadelphia -- might stay out of the Union for years. At the time, critics of the Constitution were not so indifferent. Patrick Henry, who had refused to attend the Convention, identified "that poor little thing -- the expression, 'We the people; instead of the states,'" as a momentous shift.

Truly, it was momentous. Washington had united Americans in war and now -- as the hands-down favorite for the new country's first executive -- in peace. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had created a federal government that was far more finished and practical than its predecessor. Yet many Americans still held their states to be semiautonomous. It would be no accident that southern secession in 1861 would proceed under the slogan of "states' rights." When Gouverneur Morris changed "We the people of the states" into "We the people," he created a phrase that would ring throughout American history, defining every American as part of a single whole. Those three words may be his greatest legacy.

As an old man, Madison warned against expending "so much constructive ingenuity" on the phrases of the Preamble. The meat of the Constitution, he believed, was its careful machinery of provisions. The same objections might apply to the self-evident truths in the opening of the Declaration of Independence. The business of that document is the indictment of George III, and the assertion of sovereignty. Strictly speaking, Jefferson's little thoughts about man, nature, and God are superfluous. Anyone interested in such topics can read Locke, or ponder the Bible. Yet Jefferson in 1776 thought it was important to consider first principles, as did Morris eleven years later, and their colleagues, on both occasions, agreed.

After a few adjustments, the document was approved by all the state delegations in attendance on September 15, though Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry announced that they would not sign it. To win them over, Morris thought of a trick, attested in Madison's notes, which Franklin agreed to propose to the delegates on the 17th, their last session: surely everyone could sign "in witness" to the fact that the vote of the states had been unanimous? The trick didn't work, and the Constitution went out into the world with the signatures of thirty-nine framers, minus the holdouts. Morris's occupies the lower left-hand corner of the page.

In later years, Morris's attitude toward the Convention and his handiwork was appreciative without being worshipful. "In adopting a republican form of government," he would write in 1803, "I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better, for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities." One of republican government's flaws was impermanence. The framers, he wrote in 1811, knew they were working with "crumbling materials. History, the parent of political science, had told them that it was almost as vain to expect permanency from democracy as to construct a palace on the surface of the sea. But it would have been foolish to fold their arms and sink into despondence because they could neither form nor establish the best of all possible systems....As in war so in politics, much must be left to chance."

The fight to ratify the Constitution had easy victories and sharp struggles, and it took nine months, until eleven states had ratified, including all the largest ones. Morris took no part in it. Alexander Hamilton asked him if he would contribute to a propaganda campaign that Hamilton had conceived, a series of essays for the New York newspapers, to be signed "Publius." Morris declined. William Duer, another friend of Hamilton's, offered his services, but Hamilton declined to accept them. Hamilton ended up working with Madison and John Jay; the Federalist Papers they wrote are clear, earnest, and intelligent, often ringing, but they have made their way without Morris's sparkle. In 1788, Morris went once more to Virginia, to attend to Robert Morris's tobacco business. He visited Washington at Mount Vernon, met local grandees like the Randolphs (Jefferson's cousins), and attended the state ratifying Convention in June. He sent Hamilton keen but lighthearted reports of the debates. "Be of good chear. My religion steps in where my understanding falters and I feel faith as I lose confidence. Things will yet go right, but when and how I dare not predicate. So much for this dull subject."

Morris had disengaged himself once more from public affairs. Having been chosen, against to his will, to make an effort for which he then gave his all, he went back to his private business.

Copyright © 2003 by Richard Brookhiser

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2003-03-24:
This biography ought to rehabilitate an appealing, major if second-ranking figure of the early nation. Gouverneur Morris has been overlooked, surmises Brookhiser (America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918), because he was among "the solid rather than the glittering." If so, Morris had a more penetrating mind, a more buoyant disposition and a more lusty character than most of his contemporaries. He may have been a rake, but he appears to have been a lovable and admirable one-a thoughtful lover (greatly loved in return by women, including Talleyrand's mistress, whom he shared with the Frenchman), a keen observer of history, an early opponent of slavery, and an optimistic and unembittered man despite grievous bodily injuries. More important, he played key roles in the nation's first years. We owe the Constitution's great preamble, as well as many of the document's key phrases and all of its style, to Morris's pen. Observing the French Revolution up close in Paris and serving as ambassador to France at the height of the Terror, he recorded what he saw in a classic diary. The author's characteristic strengths are on display here, no doubt because he's writing of another of the founding generation's conservative figures, his longtime subjects. Sometimes letting facts suffice for interpretation, Brookhiser, a senior editor for the National Review and a columnist for the New York Observer, leaves a reader unsure of where to place Morris, how to understand his significance. But no one will fail to be charmed by this man of fortitude and achievement who "savored life." (June 3) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2003-07-01:
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words "We the people" and continues with other stirring phrases, all written at hectic speed by a man whom the general public has largely forgotten: Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Penned by well-known journalist Brookhiser, the author of two well-received earlier biographies (Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and Alexander Hamilton: American), this brief but reliable and well-written biography should help to rescue Morris from his undeserved oblivion. The paradoxical Morris was a bon vivant who enjoyed the finer things in life, including the favors of numerous ladies both in America and in Europe. That a later carriage accident left him with a peg leg dampened neither his spirits nor his attractiveness to the opposite sex. But Morris was also a talented writer, skilled businessman and attorney, and ardent patriot. Brookhiser expertly traces all the phases of Morris's career, from the New York Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress in the 1770s, through his writing of the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, to his years at U.S. minister to France during its revolution and his later disillusionment with the very government he had helped to create. This book belongs in all public and academic libraries.-T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Choice on 2004-01-01:
As time passes, the lights often dim on central figures in events that changed the course of history. To help refocus the light, Brookhiser (senior editor, The National Review; biographer of George Washington, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, 1996, and Alexander Hamilton, American, CH, Jul'99), has written a first-rate and well-rounded biography of Gouverneur Morris. Although coming from a family with split allegiance, Morris was an unapologetic advocate for the creation of a new nation. He served in numerous positions in the formative years, but the most important may have been his service on the Constitutional Convention's Committee of Style. Entrusted with the responsibility of styling the Constitution for publication, the committee left the task to Morris, whose pen gave life to the emotionally charged Preamble. Suffering from disabilities that would derail others, Morris moved easily between the political arena and the private sector for the remainder of his life. Although the book is light in size, Brookhiser has knowledgeably covered his subject in a manner that will not disappoint readers. Not just for scholars, this book should be in all libraries. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All collections. J. J. Fox Jr. emeritus, Salem State College
This item was reviewed in:
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Publishers Weekly, March 2003
Booklist, June 2003
New York Times Book Review, June 2003
Library Journal, July 2003
Choice, January 2004
Reference & Research Book News, May 2004
New York Times Book Review, September 2004
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