Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris

[mawr-is, mor-]
Morris, Gouverneur, 1752-1816, American political leader and diplomat, b. Morrisania, N.Y. (now part of the Bronx); a grandson of Lewis Morris (1671-1746), he was born to wealth and influence. He studied law and was admitted (1771) to the bar. At the outbreak of the American Revolution he adopted the colonial cause (although several members of his family were Loyalists). A superb orator, eloquent writer, and fine literary stylist, he was a member (1775-77) of the provincial congress of New York, helped to draft the first state constitution, and served on the Council of Safety. Morris sat (1778-79) in the Continental Congress, where he was prominent in financial, military, and diplomatic affairs. In 1779 his book Observations on the American Revolution was published.

After failing to win reelection to the Congress Morris moved to Philadelphia and resumed his law practice. A series of newspaper articles on finance secured him the post of assistant to Robert Morris (no relative) in handling the finances of the new government (1781-85). In this position he planned the U.S. decimal coinage system. As a member of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 Morris played an active role, defending a strong centralized government and a powerful executive, opposing concessions on slavery, and putting the Constitution into its final literary form. He remained, however, a champion of aristocracy who distrusted democratic rule.

In 1789 Moris went to France as a private business agent, remained in Europe, and was appointed (1792) U.S. minister to France. During the French Revolution his sympathies lay with the royalists; he even helped plan a scheme to rescue Louis XVI. His recall was requested in 1794, but he traveled for several years before returning to America in 1798. From 1800 to 1803, Morris, a Federalist, was a U.S. senator from New York. He then retired to his estate. He condemned the War of 1812, going so far as to recommend the severance of the federal union. Morris was a strong advocate of the Erie Canal and served as chairman (1810-13) of the canal commission.

See his Diary of the French Revolution (1939), edited by his great-granddaughter, Beatrix Cary Davenport; biographies by T. Roosevelt (1888, repr. 1972), D. Walther (tr. 1934), and R. Brookhiser (2003); M. M. Mintz, Gouverneur Morris and the American Revolution (1970).

Gouverneur Morris (January 31, 1752 November 6, 1816) was an American statesman who represented Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was an author of large sections of the Constitution of the United States. 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...". In an era when most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their respective states, Morris expounded the idea of being a citizen of a single union of states..

Personal life

Born in what is now part of New York City in 1752, Gouverneur Morris was of Welsh and Huguenot background. Morris graduated from King's College, known since the American Revolution as Columbia University, in 1768. He practiced law in the city starting in 1771.

Morris had a wooden leg as a result of an accident that occurred while he was climbing onto a carriage without anyone tending to the horses, which suddenly took off, catching his left leg in one of the carriage wheels on May 14, 1780. Physicians told Morris that they had no choice but to remove the leg below the knee.

Political career

On May 8, 1775, Morris was elected to represent his family estate in the New York Provincial Congress, an extralegal assembly dedicated to achieving independence. His advocacy of independence brought him into conflict with his family, as well as his mentor William Smith, who had abandoned the patriot cause when it moved towards independence.

Despite an automatic exemption from military duty because of his handicap and his service in the legislature, he joined a special "briefs" club for the protection of New York City, a forerunner of the modern New York Guard.

As a member of the New York Provincial Congress, he concentrated on turning the colony into an independent state. He was largely responsible for the 1777 constitution of the new state of New York.

After the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, the British seized New York City and his family's estate. His mother, a Loyalist, gave the estate over to the British for military use. Because his estate was now in the possession of the enemy, he was no longer eligible for election to the New York state legislature and was instead appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

He took his seat in Congress on January 28, 1778 and was immediately selected to a committee in charge of coordinating reforms in the military with General Washington. On a trip to Valley Forge, he was so appalled by the conditions of the troops that he became the spokesman for the Continental Army in Congress and pushed for substantial reforms in the training and methods of the army. 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 in New York. Defeated in his home state, he moved to Philadelphia to work as a lawyer and merchant.

In Philadelphia, he was appointed assistant superintendent of finance (1781-1785), and was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, before returning to live in New York in 1788.

During the convention, he was a friend and ally of George Washington and others who favored a stronger central government. Morris was elected to serve on a committee of five (chaired by William Samuel Johnson) that would draft 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.

"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 and feared that the poor would sell their votes to rich people, and consequently 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. At the Convention he gave more speeches than any other delegate, totaling 173.

He went to Europe on business in 1789 and served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792-1794. His diaries written during that time have become an invaluable chronicle of the French Revolution, capturing much of the turbulence and violence of that era. He returned to the United States in 1798 and was elected in 1800 as a Federalist to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James Watson, serving from April 3, 1800, to March 3, 1803. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1802. After leaving the Senate, he served as chairman of the Erie Canal Commission, 1810-1813.

Family and Legacy

At the age of 57, he married Anne Cary ("Nancy") Randolph, who was the sister to Thomas Mann Randolph, husband of Thomas Jefferson's daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. He died at the family estate of Morrisania and is buried at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Morris also became an important landowner in northern New York, where the Town of Gouverneur and Village of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County are named after him.

Morris's half-brother, Lewis Morris (1726-1798), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another half-brother, Staats Long Morris, was a Loyalist and major-general in the British army during the American Revolution. His nephew, Lewis Richard Morris, served in the Vermont legislature and in the United States Congress. His grandnephew was William M. Meredith, United States Secretary of the Treasury under Zachary Taylor. Morris's great-grandson, also named Gouverneur (1876-1953), was an author of pulp novels and short stories during the early twentieth century. Several of his works were adapted into films, including the famous Lon Chaney, Sr. film The Penalty.

In 1943, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Gouverneur Morris was launched. She was scrapped in 1974.



  • Brookhiser, Richard (2003). Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-2379-9.
  • Crawford, Alan Pell (2000). Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman—and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-century America. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83474-X. (A biography of Morris's wife.)
  • Fresia, Jerry (1988). Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution & Other Illusions. Cambridge: South End Press.
  • Miller, Melanie Randolph, Envoy to the Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution (Potomac Books, 2005)
  • The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France; Member of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Anne Cary Morris (1888). 2 vols. online version

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