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The Forgotten Founding Father
Richard Brookhiser
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Gouverneur Morris, author of the Constitution and the most famous forgotten man in New York, is buried on a remnant of the 1,900-acre estate his family once owned in what is now the South Bronx. When the Number Six train stops at Brook Avenue and 138th Street, it leaves you on a poor but bustling main drag, dotted with fast-food restaurants and cheap clothing and furniture stores. If you walk a block east and three blocks north, you come to St. Ann’s, an old Episcopal church, built by Gouverneur Morris II in 1841 in honor of his mother. In the yard behind a fence stands a tablet erected by the State of New York in honor of Gouverneur Morris, listing his dates (1752–1816) and his accomplishments: his hand in two constitutions (New York’s and the United States’s), George Washington’s minister to France, projector of the Erie Canal. Before I visited, I had called the rector to tell her that I was a biographer, and she kindly showed me the stained glass, the list on the sanctuary wall of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Morrises, and Gouverneur’s mausoleum, whose half-sunken entrance is sheltered by a huge elm, the shape of a golf umbrella. There is nothing else to see.

The congregation, like the neighborhood, is almost entirely Hispanic, and I cannot imagine that they give much thought to the father of their church’s founder. In this they are not alone. Only the most comprehensive guides to the city mention Morris’s grave. Morris himself has been the subject of only nine books (two of them in French). Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, probably gets nine books written about him every five years. Amazingly, there are now three biographies of Morris in the works, including one by me, so his ship may be coming in at last. But for almost 200 years, he has been off the map of our minds.

One small but important barrier to appreciation is surely his first name, which was his mother’s maiden name. Those exotic u’s give no clue to their pronunciation. If we attempt French vowels, we sound clumsy or pretentious. If we Americanize the name, people will ask what state he was governor of. Abigail Adams, who spelled phonetically, wrote him down as “Governeer.” That will have to do for an answer—it is the best clue we are likely to find.

Another barrier to Morris’s reputation is the curse of New York. If the author of the Constitution had been born in Boston or Virginia, his grave would be on walking tours and heritage trails. There would be a statue by Houdon, and docents in ruffled shirts and mobcaps. New York, which produced great Founding Fathers—Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, along with Morris—counts its daily returns and moves on.

Yet there is a deeper reason for Morris’s obscurity. He does not fit the template of what we think a Founding Father should be.

Morris was a funny man. The Founders mostly were not, and we would not wish them to have been otherwise, for they had serious work to do. Franklin could be funny when he chose to be, and John Adams was funny when he couldn’t help it, usually when he was enumerating the vices of some enemy. But Washington leading his troops, Jefferson and Madison contemplating their theories, and Hamilton balancing the books were all earnest men, not to be distracted from their duties.

A good joke always distracted Morris. The one story about him that everyone knows is about a humorous bet. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton, a fellow delegate, offered to buy Morris dinner if he would go up to George Washington, president of the Convention, hero of the Revolution, and father of his country, slap him on the shoulder, and say, “My dear General, I am glad to see you looking so well.” Morris slapped his slap and won his dinner, but said afterward that the look Washington gave him had been the worst moment of his life. The story is probably not true—when it first appears, years after the fact, it is already in two versions, one of them not set at the Convention. There is yet a third version, in which Morris slaps the back of Baron von Steuben. Like many an apocryphal tale involving Churchill or Lincoln, this is a play in search of characters. The story does, however, tell a truth about Morris—he is cast as the backslapper because his contemporaries expected impudence and a light heart from him. For years the sober-minded called him “fickle” and “inconstant,” while those who were bored or oppressed with overwork appreciated his good humor. “Mr. Morris,” wrote one Philadelphia belle, “kept us in a perpetual smile.”

Another way in which Morris stands out from his peers is not evident to us, though it was to him, and that is his background—all those forefathers listed on the wall of St. Ann’s. Most of the Founders were men of wealth or at least middling means. Several of them had been involved in colonial politics before the imperial system began showing its pre-revolutionary strains in the mid-1760s. But Morrises had belonged to the governing elite of three colonies. Gouverneur’s grandfather, Lewis Morris, was the leader of one of the two factions that divided the New York colonial assembly between them (broadly speaking, the lineup pitted merchants and Anglicans vs. landowners and other Protestants). In this role, Grandfather Morris tormented colonial governors of New York so successfully that London had to buy him off by making him governor of New Jersey. Gouverneur’s uncle, Robert Hunter Morris, became governor of Pennsylvania. When he took his job he asked a leading politician, Benjamin Franklin, how he would get along with the colony’s legislators. Franklin told him he would get along well, so long as he did not quarrel with them. “You know I love disputing,” the new governor answered. “It is one of my great pleasures.” For Gouverneur Morris, power lacked the charm of unfamiliarity. It was something he could always take or leave, because his family had taken so much of it.

A third distinguishing characteristic of Gouverneur Morris can only be called affliction. Morris was handsome, intelligent, rich, and successful. But he also lived through more than his share of troubles, two of them especially painful and disfiguring. When he was home from school at age 14, he upset a kettle of boiling water on his right side, burning his arm so badly that the doctor feared gangrene. The arm was saved, but one man who saw it, or heard of it, described the limb as “fleshless.”

As if to emphasize some point about the frailty of the flesh, fate next deprived Morris of a leg. When he was 28 years old, he was mounting a carriage in haste when the horses started up. His left foot was caught in the spokes of the wheel, and the ankle was mangled. The doctors who attended him—his own was out of town—removed the leg below the knee. When his own doctor returned, he opined that the leg could have been saved.

Morris never complained, except when he occasionally slipped on muddy cobblestones. His injuries never slowed him down—he danced, rode, and sailed all his life, and pursued other sports to which we shall turn—and his arm at least could be concealed. But every day when he looked at himself, he saw what he lacked. The Founders who fought in the Revolution saw death and destruction, but that is what soldiers expect. Franklin and Hamilton rose from poverty, and Hamilton from shame, but they could imagine that they had put it all behind them. Morris bore the inescapable mark of two heavy blows. Perhaps as a result, he believed even less than his realistic colleagues that all problems could be fixed by human ingenuity.

He was certainly unusually sympathetic to fellow sufferers. In the stress of the American Revolution, one of Morris’s friends, by no means a die-hard Tory but unwilling to become an active rebel, felt obliged to move to England. “I would to God,” Morris wrote him, “that every tear could be wiped from every eye. But so long as there are men, so long it will and must happen that they will minister to the miseries of each other. . . . It is your misfortune to be one out of the many who have suffered. In your philosophy, in yourself, in the consciousness of acting as you think right, you are to seek consolation.” To his aged mother, at a time when public business kept them apart, he offered a measure of grave hope. “There is enough of sorrow in this world, without looking into futurity for it. Hope the best. If it happens, well; if not, it will then be time enough to be afflicted, and at any rate the intermediate space will be well filled.”

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Morris had been living in Philadelphia, first as a congressman and assistant superintendent of finance, then as a lawyer and businessman, for nine years; he was chosen to serve as a delegate from Pennsylvania rather than his native New York. He had not sought the appointment, which took him by surprise, but he threw himself into the Convention’s work, giving more speeches than any other delegate, even though he missed a month of meetings, and serving on the Committee of Style, which gave him the job of putting all the resolutions into words. Unlike Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration, Morris mostly worked up preexisting material, though he did it very well. “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris,” said James Madison. “A better choice could not have been made.” The preamble, however, was altogether Morris’s own. The draft supplied by the Committee of Detail simply began: “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . . ” and so on, through Georgia. Morris transformed this into a little essay on the ends of government, whose authority he derived from “the people of the United States,” as citizens of the whole, not of its parts.

His first experience of constitution writing had come in 1777, when he was a member of the New York Provincial Congress that had the task of writing the state’s first post-independence constitution in Kingston, New York. (The Provincial Congress had fled New York City, White Plains, and Fishkill steps ahead of British armies and would flee Kingston for the tiny villages of Marble Town and Hurley.)

At 25, Morris was one of the youngest members, but he and his good friends John Jay and Robert Livingston took leading roles in the deliberations.

At neither the state nor the national convention—nor at any time in his career—was Morris a democrat. His first political letter, written when he was 22, described a turbulent New York City meeting in 1774 to discuss British iniquities. Young Morris, observing the scene from a balcony, wrote this haughty description. “The mob being to think and reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning, they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite.” He never changed these views. In Kingston in 1777, he moved to raise the property qualifications for voting in Assembly elections to £20, or about $780. In Philadelphia in 1787, he argued that the few and the many were inevitable rivals, and that each be given a house of the legislature to dominate, to prevent their contentions from rending the state.

In Philadelphia, Morris gave his anti-reptilian politics an additional twist, arguing that enfranchising the poor would empower the rich. “Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them.” Anyone who would dismiss this argument out of hand should be required to explain what the endless battles over campaign finance reform are about, if not the fear that rich contributors will buy lawmakers. And how do they buy them? Seldom by outright bribery: generally by footing the bills for their campaigns—campaigns that have swollen in cost in the effort to woo the mass of often indifferent voters. Today reformers attack the demand side, proposing to restrict spending. Morris looked at the supply side and proposed to restrict voting. But it is the same problem.

Though he doubted the efficacy of the franchise, Morris was a dogged defender of rights. Even though the Morris family had owned slaves for generations, Morris unsuccessfully moved that the New York constitution condemn slavery and he gave a blazing anti-slavery speech at the Constitutional Convention, attacking his home state, among others. “Travel through the whole continent and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the eastern states [New England] and enter New York, the effects of the institution become visible; passing through the Jerseys and entering Pennsylvania [which forbade slavery] 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.”

Morris was ahead of his time in these views. He had more luck in Kingston defending the rights of Roman Catholics. John Jay’s grandfather had been a Huguenot refugee from the anti-Protestant persecutions of Louis XIV, and Jay vowed to “erect a wall of brass” against Catholicism in New York, tirelessly advancing restrictive measures. Morris just as tirelessly shot them down, not out of sympathy for Catholicism—when he lived among European Catholics in the 1790s, he found the clergy corrupt and the laity superstitious and stupid—but out of a conviction that men should be allowed to believe what they would. “[M]atters of conscience and faith, whether political or religious, are as much out of the province, as they are beyond the ken of human legislatures.”

Morris defended rights because he believed his social position obliged him to. In 1775, James Rivington, a Loyalist printer in New York City, drew the hostile attention of the Sons of Liberty, who sicced both the law and the mob on him. Morris intervened with powerful friends on Rivington’s behalf, ending one letter with this credo: “I plead the cause of humanity to a gentleman.” Here the Enlightenment and the class system both speak at their best. As a political thinker, Morris believed that humanity had rights; as the descendant of governors, he believed that a gentleman should defend the rights of others, even of those whom in other contexts he called “reptiles.”

The Rivington episode highlights a truth about the American Revolution that we have forgotten, but that the participants knew well—that both the war and the politics had their dark side. Morris knew it better than many revolutionaries, since New York, thanks to multiple British invasions and a divided populace, had the bitterest wartime experience of any northern state. In October 1777, the British burned Kingston, then New York’s third-largest town, for no military reason except to terrorize a place where the state legislature had sat. Morris and his fellow lawmakers escaped a few days ahead of the British force, and Morris wrote a letter describing the local Dutch families weeping as they loaded their possessions on wagons. Morris’s own family was politically split: one elder half-brother signed the Declaration of Independence; another was a general in the British army. Morris’s mother was a Loyalist throughout the war; two of his sisters married Loyalists; a third sister married a patriot, but her father-in-law turned Loyalist. Morris kept in touch with his family members on the other side throughout the Revolution, even though his political enemies, who included a crazy brother of John Jay, questioned his loyalty for doing so.

For all the destruction of war and the pain of divided loyalty, Morris never doubted the justice of the American cause or its eventual triumph. In the darkest days of the Valley Forge winter, he wrote Robert Livingston: “This is the seed time of glory as of freedom.”

Morris saw revolutionary politics at its worst when he lived in Paris from March 1789 to October 1794. He first went to Paris as a businessman, and in 1791, Washington appointed him minister to succeed Thomas Jefferson. Morris kept a detailed diary, which French and American historians have quarried ever since portions of it were first published in 1832.

Morris knew the liberal aristocrats who led the Revolution in its early phase, some of whom, like the Marquis de Lafayette, he had met when they served in the American Revolution. He found them intelligent, well-read about politics, and pleasant company. But he never thought that they had the slightest chance of successfully reforming, or even running, the state. His savage estimate of Lafayette—“there is no drawing the sound of a trumpet from a whistle”—is typical.

The French Revolution would fail, Morris believed, because the French elites lacked political experience. Versailles had sucked all initiative to itself, and there were no tried and tested Frenchmen—no Morrises—to rule in its stead. Ten days before the fall of the Bastille, he wrote an American friend that “our American example has done [the French good]; but like all novelties, liberty runs away with their discretion, if they have any. They want an American constitution . . . without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that constitution.” Morris predicted the revolution would end in despotism, either through a royalist reaction or revolutionary tyranny. In time, France would get both.

The first taste in Morris’s diary of what is to come occurs on July 22, 1789. After a day of business, Morris has dinner and coffee at his club. “After dinner walk a little under the arcade of the Palais Royal waiting for my carriage. In this period the head and body of M. de Foulon [an unpopular government minister] are introduced in triumph. The head on a pike, the body dragged naked on the earth. Afterwards this horrible exhibition is carried through the different streets. . . . Gracious God what a People!” The next entry goes back to business, as normality seemingly returns. But the horrible outbreaks recur, more and more rapidly, until they are the norm. By December 1793, Morris is writing: “Some days ago a man applied to the [government] for damages done to his quarry. . . . The damage done to him was by the number of dead bodies thrown into his pit and which choked it up so that he could not get men to work at it.” Morris’s diary is like the Berlin novels of Christopher Isherwood, on a higher social plane, but with the same sense of descending into a political and social whirlpool.

Like Isherwood’s novels, Morris’s diary is also full of sex. Morris’s father had been 54 when Morris was born, and the age gap must have imprinted him, for he would not marry until he was 57. Until then, he pursued a series of love affairs. His friends Livingston and Jay teased him about his frequent “oblations to Venus,” and Jay even wrote, after he lost his leg, that it might have been better if he had lost “something else.” Morris was tall and handsome, which helped him cut a swath; in a perverse way, the peg leg apparently helped too. But the real key to his success with women was that he liked them, and he listened to them. (When I told a male friend this, he urged me not to reveal it, lest such behavior set the bar too high.) Morris’s preferred lovers were married women with dull or vicious husbands. One of his American conquests, Sarah Apthorp Morton, was a wealthy poet and novelist, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Her life was not unclouded, however, for in 1788 her husband, Perez Morton, had seduced her sister, Frances, who then killed herself. Fifteen years later, Morris heard all this from Mrs. Morton as he was seducing her. Morris describes one dinner à trois with his lover and her brutish husband: “Monsieur was cordial all things considered.”

But his most thoroughly documented affair is his relationship with another novelist, Adélaide de Flahaut. Her husband was a count, 30 years older than she. He held a no-show royal job, whose perks included two apartments in the Louvre, one for him and one for Adélaide and her many visitors.

Adélaide’s lover when Morris first met her, and the father of her child, was Talleyrand, at that point in his career the bishop of Autun and a novice politician. Morris freely gave his rival political and constitutional advice, which caused Adélaide to say, “Enfin, mon Ami, vous et moi nous gouvernerons la France” (Well, my friend, you and I will govern France). “The kingdom is actually in much worse hands,” he noted dryly in his diary.

Adélaide told Morris she wanted to leave her husband, marry him, and move to America. Morris refused, and also refused to see her only as a friend. So they kept snatching intimate moments—in her apartment, in the halls of the Louvre, in carriages, and in the convent where Adélaide’s old governess lived.

The count was finally guillotined (he nobly turned himself in when the revolutionaries made a hostage of his lawyer). Adélaide fled the country, and Morris, the only diplomat to stay in Paris through the Terror, was asked to leave after the United States demanded the recall of the bumptious Citizen Genêt, the French diplomat who insulted George Washington and meddled in American politics. Morris never took his lover to America, and she finally married a Portuguese diplomat, who treated her well.

The reason for studying this affair, apart from its novelistic and prurient interest, is that sexual politics intersected with actual politics in the early stages of the French Revolution. The Revolution was an uprising of manly virtue against a corrupt and effeminate old regime, its court dominated by royal mistresses. Even the liberal wing of the aristocracy took its tone from the salons of bluestockings. The power and prominence of women seemed part and parcel of a decadent system. Rousseau had set the misogynistic tone in his Letter to D’Alembert. “Follow the hints of Nature, consult the good of society, and we will find that the two sexes must meet occasionally, but live apart.” The chief victim of such talk would be Marie Antoinette, who became the subject of a flood of revolutionary pornography, in which the kindest epithet bestowed on her was “L’Autri-chienne,” or the Austrian bitch (she was by birth a Hapsburg). This political gynophobia culminated in her trial in 1793, when she and her sister were accused—fantastically—of molesting her son.

Morris thought little enough of Louis XVI and his queen as political actors, but this campaign of vilification revolted him. As early as May 1789, at the opening of the Estates-General, he wrote of the first signs of public disrespect that “I cannot help feeling the mortification which the poor Queen meets with for I see only the woman and it seems unmanly to break a woman with unkindness.” Two and a half years later, when things are very far gone, Morris sees her at another public function. This time, like the hero of a Hitchcock movie, caught in an indifferent crowd, he tries to show her sympathy and support. “I sit directly over her head and somebody I suppose tells her so, for she looks up at me. . . . My air, if I can know it myself, was that of calm benevolence with a little sensibility.” In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, no stranger to sensibility, noted that the revolutionaries regarded Marie Antoinette as a mere woman—and thus an animal “and an animal not of the highest order.” For Morris, women were valued equals, and in the awful atmosphere of revolutionary Paris, his erotic life, however chaotic, made a political statement.

Morris stayed in Europe until 1799, earning the money that would enable him to buy the Morris estate from his half-brothers. He returned to the United States in time to witness the demise of the Federalists, his political party. When Jefferson and the victorious Republicans attacked the judiciary, the last Federalist bastion, by cutting down the number of federal judges and impeaching a Federalist justice of the Supreme Court, Morris became alarmed. When they launched the War of 1812, he despaired. He felt contempt for President Madison, whom he called a sexless drunkard; he thought the war was immoral and unwinnable, and when die-hard Federalists in New England began to plot secession, he cheered them on. The man who wrote the Constitution judged it to be a failure and was willing to scrap it—the one great error of his career.

Counterbalancing this misjudgment, however, were two autumnal achievements. Morris was an early and zealous advocate for the Erie Canal. He served as a commissioner and explored possible routes himself, trekking through the swamps of western New York. Lewis and Clark went farther and saw more, but DeWitt Clinton, Morris, and the other projectors of the Erie Canal, accomplished more, and their handiwork, by linking heartland farmers, East Coast merchants, and foreign markets, gave economic reality to the union whose political arrangements Morris had despaired of.

On Christmas Day 1809, Morris hosted a dinner party, which he described in his diary. “I marry this day Anne Cary Randolph, no small surprise to my guests.” Well might they have been surprised, since Nancy Randolph was 22 years younger than her new husband, and his housekeeper.

Her story was as interesting as his. As a Randolph, Nancy belonged to a first family of Virginia. But in 1793, when she was 19, she was rumored to have conceived a child by Richard Randolph, her cousin and brother-in-law, and then to have killed it the night it was born. She claimed that the father was yet another Randolph, who had (conveniently?) died, and that her baby was stillborn. When Richard was indicted for the affair, he hired the first and greatest Dream Team—Patrick Henry and John Marshall. He was acquitted; but, the double standard being what it was, Nancy lived under a cloud until her relations, tiring of her, banished her from the Dominion State. She found her way to New York, where she taught school, until Morris hired her and wooed her. The late marriage enraged his nieces and nephews, who had hoped to be his heirs. One was unwise enough to tell him so by letter. His answer was pure Morris. “If the world were to live with my wife, I should certainly have consulted its taste.” Nancy and Gouverneur had a devoted marriage and one son; she survived him by 21 years.

In the last year of his life, Morris corrected even his great political mistake. The Battle of New Orleans ended both the War of 1812 and the secessionist movement, and Morris advised his fellow Federalists not even to contest the election of 1816. “If our country be delivered, what does it signify whether those who [save it] wear a federal or a democratic cloak?”

Morris died in November 1816, in the same room in which he had been born. The house is long gone, as is the estate, except for the son’s church. If Morris could come back and see the little that remains of his patrimony and his reputation, I think he would be less disturbed by the prospect than any other Founder. He had enjoyed his life; let the strangers on 138th Street enjoy theirs.

Morris, as a champion of religious freedom at the New York Constitutional Convention, and as author of the preamble of the American Constitution, was an important Founding Father, but he was also something less important but still necessary—a gentleman. The Founders can show us how to live as citizens. Morris can show us how to live our daily lives—how to enjoy its blessings and bear its hurts with good spirit and humanity.

 

 


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