Gouverneur Morris, American Patriot

Here is the amazing story of the author of the final draft of our Constitution. This article originally appeared in Illinois Review. Re-published by permission.


By John F. Di Leo –

Reflections on the anniversary of the birth of Gouverneur MorrisGouverneur Morris

Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first modern air conditioning machine in 1902 at the Buffalo Forge Company, and today, a century later, it’s difficult to imagine a home or office being built anywhere in America without either central A/C or at least a window or room unit to alleviate the summer heat.

There was no such technological solution in the Founding Era, when statesmen committed to the Glorious Cause spent months at a time in Philadelphia, trying to think straight in a muggy meeting room at what we now call Independence Hall.

In the summer of 1787, the oppressive weather must have felt like a very physical metaphor for the condition of the country.  The crushing pressure of humidity and heat mimicked the crushing pressure of national and state debts, as the impotent national government was exposed as naught but an empty shell.  We couldn’t repay our loans to Holland, France, Spain, or so many other lenders, both public and private.  Many patriots and investors were going bankrupt due to our government’s inability to pay our bills… and tens of thousands of soldiers were penniless, having served valiantly in a victorious revolution, with nothing to show for it but their poverty and their war injuries.  

This crisis was no surprise.  Wise leaders with an understanding of business and finance had been warning of the impotence of the government under the Articles of Confederation for years.  Young Congressmen Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Congressional finance master Robert Morris, and the General, George Washington himself, had been warning their colleagues throughout the 1780s that the system was unsustainable, that the states would have to pay their bills, or the national government would need the authority to collect revenue itself, eventually.  The economy was in a tailspin, currency was worthless, the national government had no power to improve the situation, and many state governments had no desire to.

Into the breach rode a certain subset of our Founding Fathers, the great men now known as the Framers.  Sent by the states as special delegates, this wise and cautious crew – eight from Philadelphia, three from New York, fifty-five in all – spent that tense summer trying to redesign a national government with enough energy to meet the needs of the day and beyond, while still preserving the competing sovereignties of the states and the people.

They argued; they debated, they roomed and dined together.  With General Washington presiding, future president James Madison (founder of the Democrat Party) and Alexander Hamilton (founder of the Federalist Party) brought ten years of preparation to the table. Washington and Hamilton spoke little, Madison spoke a good deal, James Wilson more.  And Gouverneur Morris of New York, representing Pennsylvania, spoke the most, giving some 173 speeches in all.

Born to a patrician family with estates up and down the Hudson River on January 31, 1752, Gouverneur Morris was well prepared for this summer’s debates.  He entered King’s College at twelve and was graduated at sixteen, going on to become a lawyer, a merchant, then a Congressman from New York, then assistant minister of finance to Robert Morris… all by the age of thirty.

At a time when most Americans felt themselves to be Virginians, New Yorkers, or Georgians, Gouverneur Morris thought of himself as an American.  He had called for national sovereignty as early as a decade before the Constitutional Convention, when as a very junior member of the Continental Congress he admonished his fellow delegates to be realistic and acknowledge that our nation’s potential would only be reached if we moved beyond the pettiness of our state borders and thought of ourselves as a single nation, with the potential to be the greatest nation on earth, within two centuries, perhaps even in one (how right he was!)

Practically kicked out of his native New York for his impatience with Clintonian parochialism, he moved to Pennsylvania with no intention of political activity, but his friends prevailed upon the Pennsylvania legislature to select him as one of their state’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention… despite his having neither Pennsylvania roots nor an inclination to run for the post.  But those friends knew what they were doing, as he became among the most important contributors to the proceedings.

He had been both a state legislator and a national congressman… but then, so had many others.  He had served in the war, but only in the lightest capacity (due to a carriage injury, he had a peg leg, and therefore only served in a local New York guard), so most other delegates had seen much more action. But he had been at Robert Morris’ side for five years, wringing another year, another month, another week out of perennially empty coffers.   And he was well-read, a splendid speaker who could organize his thoughts and compel an audience to listen – even to things they didn’t want to face, such as the dangers of monetary weakness, the need to grow past the petty tyrants of the state capitols, even the evils of slavery.

He was at the forefront of every debate.  He didn’t win them all; the list of the arguments he lost (such as calling for an end to slavery) is as long as the list of arguments he won.  He is credited with having written the stirring Preamble, and with focusing many of the arguments regarding the executive branch.

Morris forged the difficult compromise with Roger Sherman on calculating population for representation in the House.  The slavery interests had called for slaves to be counted as full population, which would reward the slave states with extra congressmen, turning the very liberty-oriented founding of our nation on its head.  They eventually settled on the famously misunderstood three-fifths measurement, wherein slaves would be counted (for they are people, with the hope to soon become free) but not as a one-to-one ratio (for their presence as slaves should not reward the slaveholders with weighted votes).  The slavery interests agreed to this in exchange for an agreement to make exports perpetually tax-free, as helpful a measure for the industrial north as it was for the agricultural south.  Those who today rankle at the nature of the three-fifths bargain do so without considering what a blow it was to the slavery faction; had the Framers buckled on this matter and counted non-voting slaves at full strength, the slaveholding south would have been some 30% stronger in the House, and they were already much too strong.

By the end, a committee of volunteers was drafted to make sense out of the summer’s proceedings.  Imagine a summer of arguments like that last, each to be boiled down to a few words, the whole to provide guidance and structure for a nation.  Imagine the scraps of paper with scratch-out after scratch-out, the final agreement scribbled from the ink of a quill.  Hundreds of such scraps, all stacked up with the admonishment “Now you all make sense of this while the rest of us go to the pub.”

The committee was wise enough to know that even a group as talented as this – Morris, Hamilton, Madison, also William Samuel Johnson and Rufus King – was still a group, and the way to deal with the chicken-scratchings of a big group might not be with yet another group.  So the other four voted to deposit the box of paper in Morris’ capable hands, and they left him to craft a constitution himself.

He took that stack of clauses, those hundreds of notes loosely organized into 23 bundles, and he reordered them himself.  From that summer’s mishmash of arguments and agreements, Morris spun seven neat articles, cogent, organized, and clear, the seven articles that we know and honor today.

He was a good writer, as his famous eulogies of other Founding Fathers, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, would later prove… but this was a different talent, a talent of organization and brevity, an application of both political philosophy and legal clarity.

When we read the Constitution – when we study it and admire its logic and simplicity – when attorneys stand in federal court and argue on the merits of claims rooted in that document – it is the masterpiece of Gouverneur Morris that serves.

Gouverneur Morris went on to do many more things in his life.  He went to France on business, and stayed for years as America’s envoy when Thomas Jefferson returned to serve in the Washington administration.  As US envoy in Paris, he stayed during the Reign of Terror of that bloody time, and helped guide many of the persecuted to freedom before returning himself at the end of the decade.

Back in the United States, Morris became a Senator from New York, then returned to the private sector in 1803.  He finally married at 57, had a son, and then served as the visionary chairman of the Erie Canal Commission from 1810 to 1813, a promoter of American commerce to the end.

In many ways, he was the very model of a Founding Father, as we understand them.  A patrician who stood to gain more from loyalty to the crown than from rebellion and freedom, he nevertheless broke with his loyalist family and stood tall for the Glorious Cause.  He was a scholar and writer, clever enough to assist Robert Morris in the financial struggles of the 1780s, courageous enough to serve throughout the Terror when every other diplomat had fled.

Most of all, it was his vision.  He saw a future in which the United States would be the greatest economic power on earth: a land of free citizens, enjoying the security of a nation far from those ever-warring Europeans, enjoying prosperity from the commerce of a free market, and best of all, seeing an eventual end to slavery, with the blessings of liberty from north to south, from the Atlantic coast to the wide open west.

To understand America, what it is, what it was meant to be, and what it could be again, we should study this man.  Read David Stewart’s “The Summer of 1787,”  Melanie Randolph Miller’s “Envoy to the Terror”, and best of all, Richard Brookhiser’s thrilling and complete biography, “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.”

As we thank Providence for our nation and all of our blessings, let us also be grateful for the marvelous Framers, so long ago, and that summer in Philadelphia when a patriotic editor took a stack of notes and assembled the document on which our nation is built.

It is often said that “nobody ever built a monument to a committee,” but we have an exception here:  Those 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were indeed a noble committee of patriots, and with the artful crafting of Morris’ quill, the Constitution of the United States stands today as our perpetual monument to their wisdom, shining more bright than polished bronze, standing more durable than marble.

Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer.  A former county chairman of the Milwaukee Republican Party, he has been a recovering politician for over fourteen years.

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