The Fun-Loving Founding Father

Gouverneur Morris, the first modern American.


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.

Morris hit his stride several years later as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He threw himself completely into debates over constitutional design, standing to speak more often than even James Madison, the document's chief theorist and architect. As he had when hashing out the New York Constitution, Morris argued for a strong executive, and this time he more or less won.

In debates over the rules of representation, Morris set forth arguments against slavery of powerful verbal fluency, moral clarity, and withering wit: "Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The houses in [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves that cover the rice swamps of South Carolina….The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina 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 and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice."

Morris makes it impossible to lightly dismiss the grievous hypocrisy of the slaveholding Founders on grounds that "it was a different time." If they didn't know exactly what they were doing, Morris made it abundantly plain. Morris often lost his arguments, as he lost this one, but he was tenacious in making whatever marginal improvements were possible.

For his widely recognized skill at articulate conciliation, Morris was chosen to compose the final draft of the Constitution. He substantially reworked and streamlined the document's final form. Constitutional scholars have Morris to thank or blame for many of the Constitution's constructions. He was accused of slipping a semicolon, and thus his nationalism, into the "general welfare" clause, allegedly to create the provision of the general welfare as a distinct power of the government apart from the enumerated mechanisms of finance. (It was excised.)

His nationalism rings clearest, however, in his elegantly crafted preamble, which famously begins "We the people of the United States" rather than with the original roll call of states. Patrick Henry, for one, was incensed.

If Morris had then dropped dead at 35, we'd have to say he'd had a good run. But he lived to be 64. In the intervening years Morris made a fortune in business and went to Paris on behalf of Robert Morris and his monopoly on tobacco sales to the French. While he was there, his old friend, now president, George Washington appointed him ambassador to France. Sophisticated and clever, Morris was happily accepted into Parisian aristocratic circles. He flirted with Madame de Staël and conducted an intense affair with the Countess de Flahaut, whom he shared with Talleyrand, the impious, clubfooted bishop.

Having helped win one revolution, Morris had a front row seat for a second. This one he deplored. Stationed simultaneously in Paris, Morris and Thomas Jefferson shared the occasion to speculate on the prospects of French liberty. Jefferson, in the grip of visionary ideology, was naively hopeful. Morris, recognizing that France's genius for political theater far outran its cultural capital and political sense, rightly predicted a bloody, illiberal resolution. Morris did what he could to help the king keep it together, and when the heads started rolling, he stowed some highborn acquaintances in his apartments and bluffed out the bloodthirsty revolutionaries who soon came knocking. He set it all down in his Parisian journals, which are a treasure.

Clearly, Morris will pass no one's ideological purity test. That this is so clear is one of the benefits of the unclouded view of Morris afforded by these excellent biographies. Because both books are works of resuscitation, not of exaltation or debunking, we are able to see the Revolution more clearly than usual through the lens of Morris' life and work.

Morris shows us that winning wars is not just about being passionate or being right; it's also very much about coordination and money. Libertarians tend to eschew Hamilton and his Yankee ilk, like Morris, for dirtying their hands actually trying to erect the economic groundwork of the richest nation in the known universe. Morris demonstrated a keen awareness of the collective action problem inherent in a loose confederation. He worked mightily to make sure soldiers got paid, that pensions were assured, and that American credit did not collapse. In order to do this, he did indeed strengthen the American state. We can sketch alternate histories to our heart's content, but it is not clear that our cherished republic would exist but for Morris' labors.

Morris appears to have had immense integrity and an enormous capacity for kindness. Yet he had little time for Puritan morals. Morris sensibly assured Mme. de Flahaut, his soon-to-be amour, that "I never lost respect for those who consented to make me happy on the principles of affection." That is, "I'll respect you in the morning." Smooth? Yes. But he meant it.

Morris' reputational problem is undoubtedly connected to the fact that the debonair, funny, omnicompetent man does not fit our template of a Founder. He lacked that most ineffable of qualities: gravitas. The contrast between Morris and the tenured members of the national pantheon may be best exemplified by the (perhaps apocryphal) incident wherein a coltish Morris gives Gen. Washington, gravitas incarnate, a jocular slap on the back, only to be rebuked by a bone-chilling, imperious stare. Yet it is Morris more than Washington who is the model for the American mind. As with the epicurean, tech-dabbling Franklin, there is something distinctly modern in the urbane and ironic Morris that is absent in many of his revolutionary compatriots.

Morris was not impressed with the abstemious ethic of classical republican virtue whereby the best men are expected to bankrupt themselves for the sake of the commonweal. Echoing the logic of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith, Morris asked, "Would not as much good have followed from an industrious attention to his own affairs?" Want, he suggested, is no friend of virtue: "If I were to declare my serious opinion, it is that there is a lesser proportion of whores and rogues in coaches than out of them." Moreover, the "good life" really is part of a good life: "The goods of fortune are worth the attention of a man of understanding…because they are necessary to the gratification of certain wishes which every man ought to have."

Morris foresaw that American power would be economic power. As American commerce began to pick up pace, he observed with wonder the quantities of money rolling into the Treasury, which moved him to conjecture that "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."

He was not only an architect of institutions. Morris also left an indelible mark on the city that would become the jewel in the crown of capitalism. Love it or loathe it, Morris laid out the grid pattern for Manhattan and was instrumental in the creation of the Erie Canal, which transformed New York City into the commercial capital of North America and helped align the loyalties of the frontier territories with the Northern states. Morris went so far as to claim that had the gods only known, instead of a temple atop Olympus, they would "have reared to commerce a golden throne on the granite rock of Manhattan."

We live under a constitution shaped by Morris' smart pen. But in more ways than this, we live in Gouverneur Morris' America. The worldly patron Founder of cities, trade, materialism, wit, pleasure, and style, Morris stood athwart history and waved it in. He saw the pluralistic, commercial form our freedom would take, and he saw that it was good.

Readers weary of churchy, censorious New Englanders and stiff-backed Virginians infatuated with their humid plantations, towering abstractions, and lofty but compromised ideals will find Morris' principled, jaunty cosmopolitanism a rush of fresh air.