Posted: February 10, 2014
Gouverneur Morris has always been enigmatic. Most commonly known as the penman of the Constitution, Morris in fact had a long record of service in the early republic, as is ably demonstrated in To Secure the Blessings of Liberty, the new selection of his writings edited by J. Jackson Barlow. During the revolution, he sat in the New York Provincial Congress and Assembly and the Continental and Confederation Congresses, and served for four years as assistant superintendent of finance under Robert Morris (no relation). After the Philadelphia convention he travelled to Europe where he served as an unofficial emissary to the Court of St. James's for the Washington Administration before becoming minister plenipotentiary to France. Upon his return to the United States he did a brief stint in the United States Senate and then, in the final decade of his life, served on New York commissions that created the Erie Canal and the present-day rectilinear urban grid for Manhattan north of Houston Street. Throughout his life he proved an able publicist, drafting numerous newspaper essays and state papers, and delivering celebrated funeral orations for George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
Despite these accomplishments, Morris never captured the affections of his countrymen. The reasons are not hard to discern. He hailed from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in colonial New York, which also happened to have a marked proclivity for eccentricity and worldliness. When it came to libidinal matters, Gouverneur more than lived up to that reputation. During a dinner party in Paris, he famously divided the world of men into two classes, "one made to head families, the other to give them children." He classed himself among the latter. By his mid-20s he had earned a reputation as an unrepentant rake. Despite his complaints of a heavy congressional workload, his friend John Jay quipped that he was "daily employed in making oblations to Venus." Although afflicted with physical impairments—he had singed much of the flesh of one arm in his youth, and lost a lower leg in an accident at age 28—Morris was an extremely attractive and charming interlocutor who enjoyed dancing on his peg leg and seducing married women. Most believe he lost his leg in a carriage accident, but some contemporaries and several current scholars claim he lost it leaping from a bedroom window to avoid the ill-timed return of a cuckolded husband. In either case, he found consolation for his loss in the arms of Elizabeth Plater while he convalesced in her husband's home. So notorious was his reputation that when Anne Willing Bingham climbed into his carriage for a ride during a picnic, her husband dispatched a runner to command her to get out immediately (she refused).
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Perhaps his most famous illicit affair occurred during his sojourn in Paris. There he fell in love with Madame Adelaide de Flahaut, the young wife of an aged veteran whose pension included a residence in the Louvre. By all accounts it was a passionate and fraught affair—Mme. Flahaut maintained throughout a relationship with the father of her child, the notorious bishop of Autun, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and eventually added to her mix a young British nobleman, Viscount Henry Wycombe—with furtive sacrifices "to the Cyprian Queen [Venus]" in carriages, antechambers, and even the waiting room of a convent. Adelaide seems to have been the only sustained relationship among his many casual assignations until his eventual marriage on Christmas day 1809, at the ripe age of 57. To the great surprise of his assembled guests, he suddenly announced that they were about to witness his marriage to his housekeeper, Ann Cary Randolph. To marry one's housekeeper was in itself eccentric, but when that housekeeper was Miss Randolph it was downright scandalous.
A scion of one of the first families of Virginia, Ann or "Nancy" as she was known, had been embroiled in one of the great sex scandals of the Old Dominion. After a falling-out at home, the 16-year-old Nancy moved in with her older sister who had recently married her cousin, Richard Randolph. At their aptly named plantation, Bizarre, she was pursued both by Richard and his two brothers, Theodorick and John (the later leader of the Quids in Congress), and subsequently claimed to have agreed to marry Theodorick. In any event, some seven months after Theodorick died of tuberculosis, Nancy give birth to a child that was found dead on a pile of shingles and was widely believed to be Richard's. Richard shortly found himself on trial for murder and incest for having impregnated his sister-in-law. With the help of his legal team of Patrick Henry and John Marshall, Richard was acquitted but died not long after of a mysterious ailment. Nancy's reputation was utterly ruined. Finally in 1805, over a decade after her disgrace in 1792, her cousin John exiled her to a life of wandering that brought her to Morris's attention in New York. Morris's choice of a wife, one over 20 years his junior and mired in scandal, elicited howls of protest from his family. His response was vintage Morris. "[I]f the world were to live with my wife, I should certainly have considered its taste," he wrote to one relative, "but as that happens not to be the case, I thought I might, without offending others, endeavor to suit myself."
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Two themes run through Morris's amatory intrigues. His preference for married women suggests both a fear of commitment and an utter indifference to accepted moral conventions. But his choice of lovers also suggests an attraction more to wit and learning than to mere beauty. In fact, his own principal charm was a willingness to engage with and listen to women. His diary gives evidence of his respect and admiration for the views of intelligent women, particularly in matters of politics. And there is plenty of evidence that Morris genuinely cared about his lovers. When in a social gathering in London he learned of Elizabeth Plater's death, he left the room immediately lest his comrades see him break down in tears. Like Aaron Burr, Morris genuinely liked women and took them seriously. Nonetheless, his libertine life disqualified him from the role of a national icon.
Morris's eccentricities and moral lapses were not confined to his sex life. His long record of public service was marred by extended and unexplained leaves of absence from his official duties. His support of the rule of law was stained by his attempt at Newburgh to use the Continental Army to pressure Congress into adopting more nationalist policies. For all his avowed eagerness for diplomatic engagement with France, his intrusion into French Revolutionary politics on behalf of the monarchy—a practice he persisted in even after his appointment—compromised his standing as American minister during the ascendancy of the Jacobins. His nationalist credentials were certainly tarnished by his dalliance with disunion in the run-up to the Hartford convention, the meeting in the winter of 1814-15 in which New England Federalists opposed to the War of 1812 considered secession from the Union.
Perhaps most damning of all, however, was his unabashed elitism. His observations of a gathering of "the mob" with their gentry counterparts at a protest meeting in Manhattan in 1774—undoubtedly his most quoted remarks after the preamble to the Constitution—drip with aristocratic scorn: "Poor reptiles! It is for 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, depend on it." It is no wonder that Morris has seemed a fundamentally flawed founder.
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In the last decade, however, a small but impressive body of books has sought to rehabilitate him, among them, William Howard Adams's Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life (2003); Richard Brookhiser's Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (2003); and Melanie Randolph Miller's Envoy to the Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution (2005). These historians make a good case for Morris's real virtues and political achievements.
Although Morris may have been absent during his tenure in the New York legislature, he was a critical figure in drafting that state's constitution, pushing for a strong executive, a bicameral legislature, and protections for religious freedom. During his sojourn in Congress, he served on a disproportionate number of committees and drafted an even more disproportionate number of papers and committee reports, helping to reorganize the army and Congress itself, and to articulate diplomatic positions toward France, Britain, and Spain. During his tenure as assistant superintendent of finance, he drafted almost all the documents and formulated many of the policies of Robert Morris, policies that raised the funds to keep the Continental Army intact during some of its darkest hours and gave it the resources to eventually achieve victory at Yorktown. More than merely the penman of the Constitution, Morris had an outsize influence on both the form and substance of that document, speaking more than any other delegate and leaving a large imprint on the design of the senate and executive.
If his diplomatic tenure was rocky, this was largely the result of tumultuous conditions within the French government, as one faction gave way to another and terror became the order of the day. Morris, the only foreign ambassador to remain in Paris during the Jacobin carnage, dealt with no fewer than seven different ministers of foreign affairs, one of whom ended his tenure upon the guillotine, another murdered in prison. For extended periods he received neither instruction nor information from then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Given the circumstances, William Howard Adams has argued that "the record of his intelligence, courage, and honesty in the face of one of history's major political earthquakes remains with few counterparts in American diplomatic history." If his attempts to influence French constitutional development in a more moderate direction proved impolitic, they were certainly no less so than his predecessor Jefferson's, who collaborated with leading elements of Lafayette's Patriot faction and Brissot de Warville's Girondins to undermine the monarchy at whose court he was a representative. And for all his elitism, Morris was also a staunch abolitionist, whose denunciations of slavery are among the more piquant speeches at the constitutional convention.
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In this new edition of Morris's writings, the focus shifts from public-spirited deeds to the thought behind them. Barlow is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Politics at Juniata College and To Secure the Blessings of Liberty comprises 45 separate writings, each with a brief introduction. The selections focus on matters of public finance, constitutional design, and domestic and foreign politics. Underlying them all, however, is a strikingly enlightened theory of politics first expressed in 1776 in Morris's short memo called Political Enquiries. Private musings at the moment he finally embraced independence,Political Enquiries drew heavily on stadial theories of history associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. Whereas Lockeans saw the roots of society and government in a compact among individuals in a state of nature, Morris envisioned a process of evolution from a "rude" society based on hunting and pastoralism to a more civilized one based on agriculture and private property in land. The ultimate and most progressive stage, however, was that "produced by Commerce," one that Morris thought Europe had achieved in the 16th century. Each stage of social evolution required different political institutions as the need grew to secure the property rights that underlay social progress. Since the goal of government was social happiness and since that happiness was produced by commerce, Morris privileged civil over political liberty. The maximum of political liberty, marked by strict democratic equality, was thus a direct threat to civil liberty and needed to be checked. "Every separation of the Executive and judicial Authority from the Legislative is a Diminution of political and Encrease of civil Liberty" as was every other "Check and Balance" on majoritarian democracy. Only by such checks could "political Liberty itself be secured" because its "Excess becomes its Destruction."
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Morris's fixation on checks and balances gave his constitutional thought a distinctly Adamsian cast (John Adams had also drawn heavily on historical studies in his mature political writings). Like the sage of Braintree, Morris was dismissive of exaggerated claims "about the natural equality of mankind," claims belied by their literary champions who "have taken so much pains to show their own superiority." That aristocratic privilege should give way to strict legal equality was morally undeniable, but that in no way would obviate differences of wealth, talent, and reputation. In fact it was this natural inequality that lay behind Morris's embrace of bicameralism; given the ineluctable split between common property owners and the social elite, each should control one branch of the legislature to defend their interests against the other. It was these checks and balances rather than some abstract declaration that secured political and civil liberties because "if the constitution secures these rights" such a declaration "is unnecessary, and otherwise it is useless." Like Adams, Morris saw the people and the elite with the same jaundiced eye.
Given Morris's belief in the socially progressive character of commerce, it is little surprise that his fiscal and economic writings had a decidedly modern, Hamiltonian hue. Attempts to impose wage and price controls were self-defeating because "unless the rewards of industry are secure, no one will be industrious"; and besides, such controls were politically detrimental because "the temptation of interest to contravene or elude" them led to their inevitable violation. This in turn resulted in "the dangerous lesson, that laws may be broken with impunity." Any fiscal or economic policy must appeal to interest rather than public-minded patriotism if it was to be successful. Even speculators and monopolists, despite their base motives, "may produce actions beneficial to society" by establishing markets and driving competition. The free market activities of self-interested individuals were also essential to establishing the public credit of the fledgling nation. The utility of paper money could only depend on the public's confidence that it would retain its value, a confidence that was destroyed by too many emissions and requiring citizens to accept them as legal tender. Instead, Congress should limit the volume of paper money and back it with foreign loans and import taxes and excises. By the second half of the 1780s, Morris was calling for an assumption of state debts by the national government, the funding of the debt at par, and the establishment of a national bank, the central features of Hamiltonian finance.
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Perhaps most striking of all is the light Morris's vision of historical progress shed on his political musings. Like Edmund Burke, he was mortified by the abstract theory driving the leaders of the French Revolution. Given the mass illiteracy, inequality, and primitive commercial development of France, any attempt to impose a democratic republic could only result in disaster. Instead Morris proposed a constitutional monarchy modeled on Great Britain, with an upper house appointed by the crown but shorn of all legal and aristocratic privileges. On the American front, the struggle between Republicans and Federalists had little to do with democrats and monocrats; it was a conflict between an agricultural slave system and a commercial society based on free labor. It was from that perspective that Morris condemned the dismantling of the Navy, President Jefferson's disastrous embargo, and the dogmatic brinkmanship leading to war in 1812 under President James Madison. These were the policies of "an administration of slave holders, who, envying the prosperity of the northern states, endeavored to dry up its source by ruinous and commercial restrictions and have now, actuated by the same spirit, exposed them to the desolation of a war alike unnecessary and unjust." Given the choice between dismantling the Union or submitting to the anti-commercial domination of a slaveholding elite, Morris reluctantly embraced the former.
The portrait that emerges from Morris's writings, expertly collected and annotated here by Barlow, is that of a founder in full, both gifted and flawed and profoundly worldly. Lacking the brilliance of Hamilton, the profundity of Adams, the inspiring vision of Jefferson, or the character of Washington, Morris will likely forever be relegated to the second tier of early national statesmen. Yet, given his distinguished service and agile and enlightened mind, he should rank toward the top of that cadre. To look for affection for Morris is to ask too much, but respect is more than his due. Perhaps his legacy is best captured in his own words: "I have frequently been the servant of the people, always their friend; but at no moment of my life their flatterer, and God forbid that I ever should be." There was never much danger of that.