“a Representative Of America”


Of all the remarkable men who forgathered in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, and perhaps to do even more, Gouverneur Morris was certainly the most talkative. Between May and September, when the delegates adjourned, he made a hundred and seventy-three speeches—twelve more than Madison, his nearest competitor. Yet he was never tedious, and though there was often a vein of cynicism in him that distressed Madison, he was very much in earnest when he spoke about the absolute necessity of founding a strong central government. In the controversies that developed between the small states and the big states, Morris asserted that “state attachments and state importance had been the bane of the country” and that he was present not as a mere delegate from one section but “as a representative of America,—a representative in some degree of the whole human race, for the whole human race would be affected by the outcome of the convention.”

At the same time Morris was very much a New York aristocrat. In the convention he served as one of the eight delegates from Pennsylvania, but that was because he had moved to Philadelphia after the politicians of New York had refused to re-elect him to the Continental Congress at the end of 1979. They were disgusted with him for giving too much of his attention to the affairs of the nation instead of devoting himself to the affairs of his own state. The particular quarrel New York had with him was over his lukewarm attitude in the dispute with Vermont. Under the leadership of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, Vermont settlers had applied to the Congress for admission to the Confederation. New York bitterly opposed their claim on the ground that the New Hampshire Grants, the original name for Vermont, had been legally acquired by New York. Morris did not sympathize with the position taken by his state. He was wise enough to see that the Vermonters had much of the right on their side in addition to the great fact of possession. When in 1791 Vermont became an independent state, which, as Morris had foreseen, was inevitable, the small politicians of New York never forgave him. It was twenty years before he was again chosen to represent his state.

There were other reasons why Morris was never popular with the electorate. He made no secret of the fact that the strong government he had in mind was always to be in the hands of the rich and well-born. The responsibilities following from political liberty could only be appreciated and exercised by the gentry. “Give the votes to the people who have no property,” he argued, “and they will sell them to the rich.”

In this connection he was deeply suspicious of the West. His Americanism did not extend beyond the Atlantic seaboard. No one had championed the cause of the Thirteen Colonies with more vigor or more conviction, but his patriotism stopped at the Appalachians. There was nothing of the pioneer about Gouverneur Morris. In his philosophy “the Busy haunts of men not the remote wilderness, was the proper school of political Talents. … The back members are almost always averse to the best measures.” Along with Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Morris wished to see the Constitution limit the admission of new states “in such a manner that they should never be able to outnumber the Atlantic states.” The Westerners would inevitably bring on a war with Spain on account of their claims to the Mississippi River. What could be more absurd than “to quarrel about a country inhabited only by red men, and to claim a territory we cannot occupy, a navigation we cannot enjoy”?

With these exceptions Gouverneur Morris was one of the most valuable of the Founding Fathers. If some of the positions he took seem to us absurd, as indeed they did to his contemporaries, in other respects he was more in tune with posterity than with his own age. He was outspoken in his opposition to slavery and to the extension of the slave trade for twenty years, a measure that was passed against his protest to satisfy the delegates of Georgia and South Carolina. He was also a firm believer in religious liberty; and when his friend John Jay, the descendant of Huguenot forebears who had been driven out of France, declared that he wished to erect “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics,” Morris would have none of it.

Except on a few such issues Morris was not a fighter by temperament. When some of his pet theories were rejected, he took it philosophically and continued to work shoulder to shoulder with Hamilton and Madison for a strong central government. In the end he loyally accepted the bundle of compromises that make up the Constitution and devoted his talents to putting the document in its final literary form. “The finish given to the style and arrangement,” wrote Madison, “fairly belongs to the pen of Mr Morris.” Madison, though occasionally distressed by Morris’ veneer of cynicism, paid him a further compliment on his services to the convention: “To the brilliancy of his genius he added, what is too rare, a candid surrender of his opinions when the light of discussion satisfied him that they had been too hastily formed, and a readiness to aid in making the best of measures in which he had been overruled.”