Writing Lessons from the Founders
Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and the Adamses, but none of them, he says, were as good company as Gouverneur Morris, the subject of his latest book, Gentleman Revolutionary . “Morris, alone among the founding fathers, thought that his private life was as important as his public life. … When public life was not going well, he could go home—not to bide his time before his next opportunity, or to enjoy the retirement on a pedestal of a Cincinnatus, but because he enjoyed farming, reading, eating, fishing, making money, and making love as much as founding a state.” But the infant nation was fortunate that Morris could bring himself to leave the comforts of the bed and the dinner table. Here is Brookhiser speaking of what made a fellow writer so good:
“When he was still a young one, age thirty-five, Mr. Morris drafted the Constitution of the United States. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret, to allow the delegates maximum freedom to speak their minds, so Mr. Morris’s role on the Committee of Style was not generally known. But in later years he admitted to a correspondent that ‘that instrument was written by the fingers which write this letter.’ Years after Morris’s death, an elderly James Madison told an inquiring historian that ‘the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris.’ James Madison, the careful and learned theorist, is commonly called the Father of the Constitution, because he kept the most complete set of notes of the debates and made cogent arguments for ratification after the debates were done (he wrote one third of the Federalist Papers ). But Gouverneur Morris, who put the document into its final form and who wrote the Preamble from scratch, also deserves a share of the paternity. The founders were voluminous writers, and much of their writing is very good, but few of them had the combination of lightness and force that generates a great style. Jefferson had it; Franklin had it; Thomas Paine, the passionate and ungainly English immigrant, had it. The only other one of their number who hit that note consistently was Morris. ‘A better choice’ for a draftsman ‘could not have been made,’ Madison concluded.”
Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution has just been published by the Free Press.