Nation Building, Colonial Style

Richard Brookhiser captivates the imagination once again in his retelling of yet another bit of early American history. Gouverneur Morris, the man who drafted the Constitution, gave his early life for the foundation of the country and his later years in the service of diplomacy for the fledging nation.

Although James Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” it was admitted by Madison after Morris’ death that the “finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris.”

A wealthy and propertied man, Morris was a bit slow in warming to the idea of breaking from the mother country. The thought of riots and mobs unsettled him but he eventually came round to the patriotic way of thinking as he realized that independence didn’t mean a loss of honor or integrity.

Morris was a resourceful financier of the revolution and a great admirer of Gen. Washington. Seeing the plight of Washington’s army hunkered down at Valley Forge with disease, inadequate clothing, food and leadership, Morris resolved to do his utmost to help Washington while serving in the Continental Congress.

Still in his youth, Morris was a bit rough around the diplomatic edges when he began to aid Gen. Washington. He suggested at one point that Washington fine the city of Philadelphia for giving harbor to the enemy. The general turned down this suggestion.

Though Morris had a withered arm and his leg broken in several places as a result of a carriage accident, these disfigurements did not cast long gray clouds over his life. Rather, he remained cheerful and ever ready to be of whatever service he could to the nascent nation. His friend Robert Livingston described him as a man of great fortitude.

Morris was opposed to slavery although Morrisania (the family estate) had many slaves. Morris served in his state legislature, the Continental Congress, and on the committee to draft the Constitution from the resolutions drawn up by the convention.

The importance of the historical drama of the Constitutional Convention was not lost on Morris. The young nation was on the brink of financial disaster and the fractious states threatened to break apart from internal squabbles. Morris was an indefatigable speaker on behalf of the adoption of the Constitution. After the convention was over, Morris returned to dabble in private business ventures and land speculation though retirement from public life in colonial times never lasted long.

Morris replaced Jefferson as ambassador to France. The French monarchy was in great trouble after years of a corrupt monarchy and clergy. Having also helped the Americans in their quest for independence, France was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Louis XVI did not impress Morris as an effective ruler. Morris, an aristocrat by birth, was amazed at the hostile treatment Marie Antoinette received at the National Assembly.

Morris originally feared the revolution in America. His fears were realized in the manner in which the French conducted theirs. (Paine and Jefferson felt differently about the French Revolution.) He was aghast and appalled at the way bodies were taken through the streets and heads mounted on pikes. A man who had felt compassion for even his opponents, he found this type of behavior very hard to comprehend.

Louis was guillotined and the government was more and more annoyed with Morris’ diplomatic bubble and his assistance to escaping aristocrats.

Why were the results of the two revolutions so different, Morris wondered? The two conclusions he made were that the French had only one legislative house which acted upon the whims of the mob, and that the French simply were not ready for freedom.

Morris delivered the eulogies for both the father of his country and for his friend Alexander Hamilton.

The story of Gouverneur Morris is no doubt an enthralling tale of action and adventure from a time when America was but a new nation in need of devoted sons, and that Gouverneur Morris was one of them is not a fact in dispute.


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