- Historic Sites
“a Representative Of America”
Vain, snobbish, distinctly upper-class in his libertine social habits, Gouverneur Morris nevertheless saw himself justifiably as
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
No one had a better claim to high office than Gouverneur Morris, a friend of Washington and one of the most prominent members of the Continental Congress. His father, Lewis Morris, had served on the bench and in the assembly of New York, as had his grandfather also. This grandfather was the first native-born chief justice of the supreme court of New York from 1715 until 1733, when Governor William Cosby, angered by a decision Morris had handed down denying Cosby’s suit for arrears in salary, dismissed him. The publication of Morris’ attack on Cosby by John Peter Zenger resulted in the famous trial in which the governor met with humiliating defeat and Zenger was acquitted. This trial constituted a landmark in the continuous battle for freedom of the press, of which Morris’ grandson Gouverneur was very proud.
He also inherited a tradition of public service from his ancestors. He learned that the rights of the colonists must be defended at all times against the encroachments of royal governors, and also against the unseemly demands of the mob. The Morrises of Morrisania ranked among the first families of New York. Their two-thousand-acre manor, just outside New York in what is now the Bronx, was according to one account “the pritdest and best conditioned Farm in America.”
Lewis Morris the father was married twice, first to Tryntje Staats, by whom he had three sons and a daughter, and then fifteen years after her death to Sarah Gouverneur, a descendant of a Huguenot family driven out of France by the religious wars. One of the sons of the first marriage, another Lewis Morris, became a general in the Revolutionary army and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another son, Staats Long Morris, became a major general in the British army and married the Dowager Duchess of Gordon. Gouverneur Morris, born January 30, 1752, was the only son by the second marriage. We know little about his mother except that she insisted on sending her son to the French Huguenot school at New Rochelle, where he learned the excellent French that proved such an asset to him later on in his career. John Jay, a lifelong friend of Gouverneur, was educated at the same school. Mrs. Morris lived on her estate, which was within the British lines, throughout the war, and was suspected of having Loyalist sympathies. There is no question that the war made a cleavage in the Morris family, as it did in many others, particularly among the well-to-do.
In the growing controversies that preceded the Revolution, Morris, like most conservatives, hoped for a compromise. He looked upon the resort to arms as an extreme step forced upon the colonists by the tide of events. As a member of the landed aristocracy he dreaded the social upheaval that he feared war and the resulting separation from the mother country would bring in its wake. Yet when the breach came, he championed the patriot cause unreservedly. Theodore Roosevelt (who wrote a biography of Morris) thought he clung too long to the hope of a reconciliation and to a policy of half measures; but wherever questions of war and peace were involved, Roosevelt had no patience with those who were not as impulsive as himself.
Morris took his time, but having made his choice after the most careful consideration, he at once became a leader in the insurgent movement. He was among the first to realize that the colonists must present a united front if they were to win their rights from Great Britain either by compromise or by force. Throughout the war he was a strong defender of the dignity and power of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Even as early as 1768, when at the age of sixteen he graduated from King’s College, New York, he spoke of himself in his graduation address as among those “who can boast the glorious Title of free born Americans.” Ten years later, when he had become a member of the Continental Congress, it is not surprising that this far-sighted young man had so far outdistanced his colleagues that he had become a nationalist before the nation was born.
In Congress Morris managed to establish himself as an authority on financial, military, and diplomatic matters. In the spring of 1776 he had met George Washington in New York; he would remain devoted to the general for the rest of his life. Nor was there anything one-sided about the friendship. Washington came to rely on him as his most able and vigorous defender in Congress. Usually very formal in his correspondence, Washington, on one occasion at least, in writing to Morris pleading for regimental reorganization in the army, suddenly lets out a cry for help: “For Godsake my dear Morris, let me recomd. it to you to urge the absolute necessity of this measure.”
Morris was only in Congress for two years, but they were fruitful ones. His influence dominated the rejection of the British peace mission of 1778, and he was chairman of the committee that drafted the instructions for Benjamin Franklin when he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to France. Morris’ persuasiveness and sophistication played a crucial role in swaying the French alliance to favor American, rather than French, interests. And he drafted a letter of instructions for a treaty of peace with Britain that John Adams was instructed to carry out and that formed the basis of the final peace treaty four years later.