Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, by Richard Brookhiser, New York: Free Press, 221 pages, $26
Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life, by William Howard Adams, New Haven: Yale University Press, 296 pages, $30
In 1887 a young Teddy Roosevelt penned an appreciation of the life of his fellow New York pol, the founding father Gouverneur Morris. From this middling pinnacle of historical recognition, Morris slipped to a low plain of neglect and obscurity on which he has languished ever since, consigned to footnotes, unmentioned in civics classes, and omitted from the national mythology.
But it's hard to keep a brilliant, peg-legged man down. The recent glut of Morrisania -- two full-length biographies -- marks a welcome revival of the Founding Father Time Forgot. It's an important resurrection. The Founders would still recognize their Morris-drafted Constitution today; it has proven a sturdier instrument than they had dreamed. But most of the Founders would hardly recognize their America in ours.
Gouverneur Morris, however, just might. Though Morris' visage was never carved into a mountain, immortalized in marble on the National Mall, or emblazoned on legal tender, our America -- this cosmopolitan, materialist, commercial republic we call home -- is in no small part his monument.
Richard Brookhiser's Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution -- the latest book in his series on the American Founders -- is an easy, rollicking sketch of a suave, determined yet mercurial, razor-witted strategist with a heart of gold. William Howard Adams' Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life is a more academic and comprehensive treatment. Adams is so intent on thoroughness that his narrative, though often elegantly written, at times drags on like an annotated list of events.
Any way you write him, Morris is damned interesting. Both Brookhiser and Adams recognize they've stumbled on a biographical treasure. This is not to say that they approve of the man in all his particulars. But here is a perfect specimen of pater patriae, preserved from the ravages of scholarly disputation, free from the accretions of mythmaking and ideology. Because his legacy has so long slumbered, Morris has not been inflated, valorized, or spun for dubious political purposes.
This neglect may have been a consequence of Morris' all-too-transparently human life and his evident unconcern for the respect of posterity. You can't be knocked from a pedestal you refuse to mount. Morris was no statue of Republican virtue. He liked making money, and he was good at it. He also liked sleeping with other men's wives. He was good at that, too, and he wasn't sorry about any of it.
Morris had the good sense to be born to a family of "winners in the lottery of the British Empire," as Brookhiser puts it. Morris' grandfather and uncle were colonial governors of New Jersey and New York. His father was a powerful judge. After graduating from King's College (Columbia) at 16, the fresh-faced Morris commenced a clerkship in the law offices of William Smith Jr., a power player in New York politics and finance. His precocious intelligence and savoir-faire were evident to everyone, including himself.
By the mid 1770s, when tensions with His Majesty's government began to mount, Morris, now in his early 20s, found himself in a family of divided loyalties. Morris was never a revolutionary zealot; his penchant for law and order led him initially to plump for some kind of reconciliation with England. But the depredations of Parliament eventually proved too much, and Morris soon stood resolutely for the patriot cause. During the next several years he would become a man of many roles in the Revolution. Despite his self-professed "taste for pleasure," Morris was a dynamo of committee work, never flinching from long nights of tedious but necessary administrative scutwork in often atrocious conditions.
Morris spent the latter half of the 1770s as a delegate in New York's Provincial Congress and then as a New York representative to the Continental Congress. While serving in New York, he was appointed to a secret committee to coordinate with George Washington. The competent though sassy young man impressed Washington, who would later rely on Morris in Paris after others had judged him "counter-revolutionary."
In 1777 Morris and old friends John Jay and Robert Livingston drafted the New York Constitution. Morris grappled with Jay, a vehement anti-Catholic, on religious toleration, and argued alongside Jay for the inclusion of language encouraging the abolition of slavery in New York. (To their everlasting credit, Morris and Jay founded the New York Manumission Society, and New York got around to abolishing slavery in 1799.)
When he joined the Continental Congress, Morris was appointed to report on Washington's winter encampment in Valley Forge. He discovered there a dispirited, shivering, half-starved, mutinous congregation, and proceeded to save the Revolution. Applying talents both financial and political, Morris overhauled the Continental Army's supply chain and financing, and on Washington's behalf floor-managed the passage of a bill guaranteeing the troops half-pay for seven years, without which they refused to fight.
Morris applied himself with gusto to the business of crafting law and devising strategy. But the aggressively eloquent young man won enemies even as he scored debate points. Transfixed by the heady chores of nation building, he neglected his constituency and was booted from Congress in the election of 1779. Shortly thereafter, at age 28, Morris shattered his leg in a carriage accident. The leg was amputated. Morris displayed his unflappably upbeat temperament and sly sense of humor in response to friends who assured him that the pain and struggle would build character: "you...point out so clearly the advantages of being without legs that I am tempted to part with the other," he wrote. Morris, who also had a maimed arm, seems never to have sulked. The peg did not appear to have cramped his style on the dance floor, or with the ladies.
Although out of office, Morris was not long out of power. The young financial wiz soon teamed with Robert Morris (no relation), the Warren Buffet (or perhaps Halliburton) of Colonial America, to whom almost all government financial power was ceded in his role as superintendent of the newly created Office of Finance. Morris and Morris labored to rescue the wrecked finances of the American Confederation by creating the Bank of North America, issuing sturdier currencies, and launching a variety of other precarious, Enronesque financial schemes. Once again Morris may have helped rescue the Revolution from ruin, although he also managed to get on Washington's bad side when he fomented discontent among Army officers as part of a failed scheme to pass a national tax through Congress.