This essay first appeared in the May 20, 2023 Epoch Times.
Gouverneur Morris was a “chick magnet.” He was tall, handsome, witty, and rich. Even scalding damage to his right arm, loss of his lower leg in a traffic accident, and reliance on a wooden prosthesis for walking didn’t impair his success with women.
Part of his attractiveness to women seems to have been a sincere regard for them. He was to express this regard in the final draft of the Constitution.
Morris was born on Jan. 30, 1752, on the family estate of Morrisania, in what is now the New York City borough of the Bronx. His father, grandfather, and uncle had held a collection of important colonial offices. He received his unusual first name from his mother, who was born Sarah Gouverneur.
Sarah was of French Huguenot (Protestant) stock, and her son received his education—including an excellent grounding in the French language—at a Huguenot school in New Rochelle, New York. Judging by his frequent classical references, Gouverneur also learned Latin well. One of his recurrent expressions came from the “Metamorphoses” of the Roman poet Ovid: Medio tutissimus ibis. Roughly translated, it means, “You are safest if you go down the middle.”
In 1768, he earned his bachelor’s degree from King’s College (now Columbia University). As was true of Alexander Hamilton, he was converted there to the colonial cause against Britain. After college, he clerked in the office of a leading New York City attorney and was admitted to the bar.
In 1775, he was elected to the New York Provincial Congress, the assembly charged with erecting a government for New York divorced from British influence. As a member of the Provincial Congress, the young man assisted in writing his state’s first constitution. In May 1776, the New York legislature elected him to the Second Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia. He didn’t arrive until October, but then served about two years. After leaving Congress, he continued to reside and practice law in Philadelphia.
Robert Morris (no relation) was Congress’s superintendent of finance, and in 1781 he made Gouverneur his assistant. In early 1787, the Pennsylvania legislature included both Morrises among its commissioners (delegates) to the Constitutional Convention.
Morris’s Constitutional Views
On the Founding-era political spectrum discussed in the first essay in this series, Gouverneur Morris was a “high nationalist,” holding positions similar to those of Alexander Hamilton, although somewhat less extreme. In Morris’s view, the central government should enjoy almost unlimited power over the states. It should contain a single chief executive elected indirectly for life, with power to appoint national officers and an absolute veto over legislation. It also should feature a bicameral legislature with both houses apportioned according to measures of wealth and population.
Morris believed the lower house should be elected by the people, but that an aristocracy—either of birth or merit—was inevitable, and should be represented by the Senate. Senators should be appointed by the executive for life. They should have authority to initiate tax bills. They also should be eligible for executive office, thus replicating a British practice most Americans derided as “corruption.”
Morris thought a ban on ex post facto laws (retroactive criminal laws) was unnecessary, and he favored ratification of the Constitution by a single national convention instead of conventions held in separate states.
Morris would have subordinated new Western states to their Eastern brethren. He wanted the government to retain huge tracts of Western land. This would give the government permanent sources of revenue and some control over the people of the West.
Morris’s Constitutional Contributions
Morris’s fellow commissioners firmly rejected most of his “high nationalist” ideas. In later years, his vision of vast federal landholding did materialize—but only in defiance of the Constitution as actually written (pdf).
Hamilton and Morris reacted very differently to their colleagues’ rejection of high nationalism. Hamilton went missing for six weeks and then moderated his participation. Morris remained for the entire time and participated in very useful ways.
For example, he was a major architect of the presidential-election system. He made the motions that led to several other provisions, including the Suspension Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2), the Full Faith and Credit Clause (Article IV, Section 1), and the Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2).
As the proceedings wore on, Morris became more protective of the states: He opposed a congressional veto over state laws and advocated equal representation in the Senate. Sometimes he changed his views, as when he admitted that the president should be impeachable after previously arguing the contrary.
Morris spoke more than any other delegate. His wit and humor made his colleagues’ task easier. An illustration: To emphasize that dependent people tend to vote for those on whom they are dependent, he observed, “In Religion the Creature is apt to forget its Creator; … it is otherwise in political affairs.”
On the subject of slavery, this conservative New Yorker-turned-Pennsylvanian was a radical. On Aug. 8, 1787, he launched a furious attack on slavery on the floor of the convention. Here is part of James Madison’s report of his speech:
“He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution—It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. … Proceed Southwdly, & every step you take thro’ [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 & let them vote. … The admission of slaves into the Representation … comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. 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 & damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice. … He would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for [emancipation of] all the Negroes in the U. States than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.”
The Committee of Style
As explained in the seventh essay in this series, the convention adopted resolutions outlining a constitution and then turned those resolutions over to a five-man “Committee of Detail” to prepare a first draft. Chairing that committee was John Rutledge of South Carolina, one of the convention’s great facilitators.
After refining the draft, the convention elected a five-man “committee of stile and arrangement” to prepare a semi-final version. Chairing the committee was another of the convention’s great facilitators: William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut. The other four were Hamilton, Madison, Rufus King of Massachusetts, and Morris.
These five were among the most talented members of a very talented gathering.
The committee delegated the actual drafting to Morris. As Madison later remarked, a better choice could not have been made.
In an earlier Epoch Times essay, I described how the convention rendered the Constitution gender-neutral, so women could participate in national politics if their states so decided (as New Jersey already had). Morris completed this process by eliminating the sole remaining reference to “men” and employing only the terms “persons” and “inhabitants” throughout his draft.
In preparing this draft, Morris enlisted his biblical education, his classical language training, and his English language eloquence. In an Aug. 8, 2021, Epoch Times essay, I explained how Morris used poetic meter, rhyme, and semi-rhyme in composing the Preamble. But his talent for elegance and symbolism is displayed throughout the instrument.
The Preamble’s list of states was altered to “We the People of the United States.” Twenty-three “Articles” were reduced to the biblical number of seven. To make the document easier to use, Articles were divided into sections and clauses. What many had considered four branches of government—Senate, House, President, and judiciary—became the New Testament “three.”
The words “supreme law of the several States” became “the supreme Law of the Land,” a phrase that echoed Magna Carta. “The legislature” became “the Congress.” Morris capitalized most nouns, giving the document the archaic air that conveys majesty.
Morris didn’t play a significant role in the Constitution’s ratification. He returned to his business, and in furtherance of that business departed for France in late 1788. He stayed in France for a decade, circulating at the highest levels of society. President George Washington designated him as America’s “minister plenipotentiary” in 1792, and he served in that capacity for two years. He also carried on a love affair with novelist Adelaide (or Adèle) de Flahaut, who had been the mistress of the famous French foreign minister Tallyrand.
After returning to America in 1798, he served in the U.S. Senate (1800–02). In 1809, he finally married—at the age of 57. His wife was the 35-year-old widow Anne Cary Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha. The marriage was happy, and it produced one son. However, it lasted only until Nov. 6, 1816, when Morris died of complications from a urinary obstruction.
Morris’s contributions to the Constitution were limited to his convention role. His colleagues rejected his “high nationalist” philosophy, but he continued to participate. He authored several of the Constitution’s clauses. His humor helped keep the proceedings going. And, most importantly, his inspired drafting produced a prodigy: a fairly precise legal document that also was beautifully written—indeed, so beautifully written that some in later generations falsely assumed it could not be very precise.
Through his eloquence, Morris converted a mere legal instrument into one of the most memorable documents in the history of the world.