Gouverneur Morris was a statesman who became a Founding Father of the United States of America. He signed the Articles of Confederation; he also signed the U.S. Constitution after writing large sections of the document as well as its Preamble. Morris advanced the idea of being a “citizen of a single union of states” when most Americans considered themselves as “citizens of their respective states.”
Morris was born on January 31, 1752, in New York City, New York. He was a “gifted scholar” that entered King’s College (now Columbia College of Columbia University) in New York City in 1764 at age 12. He graduated in 1768 and went on to receive a Master’s degree in 1771.
Morris began his political career when he was elected on May 8, 1775, to represent his family estate in southern Westchester County (now Bronx County) in the New York Provincial Congress. Most of the delegates to this congress, including Morris, “concentrated on turning the colony into an independent state,” an advocacy that was in direct opposition to his family and his mentor, William Smith. Morris was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1777-78.
In August 1776, after the Battle of Long Island, the British seized New York City and the Morris family estate across the Harlem River from Manhattan. His mother gave the estate to the British Army for military purposes.
Taking his appointed seat in the Continental Congress on January 28, 1778, Morris “was immediately selected to a committee in charge of coordinating reforms of the military with George Washington. After witnessing the army encamped at Valley Forge, he was so appalled by the conditions of the troops that he became the spokesman for the Continental Army in Congress, and subsequently helped enact substantial reforms in its training, methods, and financing. He also signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778.”
Morris lost his campaign for re-election to Congress in 1779, probably because his advocacy for a strong central government was opposed to the views of those he represented. He did not let defeat bother him; he simply moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to open a law office and become a merchant.
In 1780, Morris had the unfortunate situation of shattering his left leg and having it replaced with a wooden peg leg. There is some question about how the leg got shattered. He said “it happened in a carriage accident, but there is evidence” that his story was to hide the possibility that he jumped from a window in order to escape the wrath of a jealous husband. “Morris was well known throughout much of his life for having many affairs, with both married and unmarried women, and he recorded many of these adventures and misadventures in his diary.” His shattered leg gave him an exemption from military duty but so did his legislative service. After his accident he joined “a special `briefs’ club for the protection of New York City, a forerunner of the modern New York Guard.”
Morris worked as a merchant in Philadelphia; there he became interested in financial affairs and worked with Robert Morris (no relation). He was appointed assistant superintendent of finance (1781-1785). Robert Morris and George Washington recommended that he attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
During the convention held in Philadelphia, he was a “friend and ally of George Washington and others who favored a strong central government.” He served with four other men on a committee charged with “drafting the final language of the proposed constitution.” He did, in fact, write most of the draft and the “final polished form” of the United States Constitution. He gave a total of 173 speeches at the convention, more than any other delegate. “As a matter of principle, he often vigorously defended the right of anyone to practice his chosen religion without interference, and he argued to include such language in the Constitution.” He was one of the few delegates to speak openly against domestic slavery. James Madison, who kept notes of the convention, wrote that Morris spoke against slavery on August 8, 1787: “He [Gouverneur Morris] never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed….”
Gouverneur Morris was “an aristocrat to the core” who believed that “there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy.” He thought that “common people were incapable of self-government because he feared that the poor would sell their votes to the rich. Consequently, he thought that voting should be restricted to property owners.” He “opposed admitting new western states on an equal basis with the existing eastern states, fearing that the interior wilderness could not furnish `enlightened’ statesmen to the country.”
Morris moved his residence back to New York in 1788 and traveled to France on business in 1789. He served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792 to 1794. He kept “a valuable chronicle of the French Revolution” in his diaries and captured “much of the turbulence and violence of that era, as well as documenting his affairs with women there. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Morris was far more critical of the French Revolution and considerably more sympathetic to the deposed queen consort, Marie Antoinette.”
In 1798 Morris returned to the United States and was elected in 1800 to the United States Senate after James Watson resigned. He served from May 3, 1800, to March 3, 1803, but he failed to win re-election in February 1803.
Morris left the U.S. Senate and became Chairman of the Erie Canal Commission (1810-1813). “The Erie Canal helped to transform New York City into a financial capital, the possibilities of which were apparent to Morris when he said `the proudest empire in Europe is but a bubble compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of two centuries, perhaps of one.’ There have been publishers who have described Morris’ religious affiliation as deism.”
When he was 57, Morris married Anne Cary (“Nancy”) Randolph. Nancy was the sister of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. who was married to Martha Jefferson Randolph, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson. Morris and Nancy had one son, Gouverneur Morris Jr., who became a railroad executive.
Gouverneur was not the only member of his family to become famous. His half-brother, Lewis Morris (1726-1798) signed the Declaration of Independence. Another half-brother, Staats Long Morris was a loyalist and served in the British Army during the American Revolution as a major-general. A nephew, Lewis Richard Morris, served in the Vermont legislature and in the U.S. Congress. A grandnephew was William M. Meredith, United States Secretary of the Treasury under Zachary Taylor. A great-grandson named Gouverneur (1876-1953) wrote novels and short stories during the early-twentieth century.
Gouverneur Morris died November 6, 1816, at the family estate “Morrisania” in New York City, New York, at age 64. He “died after sticking a piece of whale bone through his urinary tract to relieve a blockage. He was buried at St. Ann’s Church in The Bronx.
An important landowner in northern New York, Morris has the honor of having the Town of Gouverneur and Village of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County named for him. The SS Gouverneur Morris, a United States liberty ship, was launched in 1943 but scrapped in 1974.