Gouverneur Morris was born January 31, 1752.
In 1764, at the age of 12, Morris enrolled at King’s College, now Columbia College of Columbia University in New York City.
Morris graduated in 1768 and went on to receive his Master’s degree in 1771.
On May 8, 1775, Morris was elected to represent his family estate in southern Westchester County (now Bronx County), in the New York Provincial Congress.
As a member of the congress, he, along with most of his fellow delegates, concentrated on turning the colony into an independent state. However, his advocacy of independence brought him into conflict with his family, as well as with his mentor, William Smith, who had abandoned the patriot cause when it pressed toward independence.
After the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776, the British seized New York City and his family’s estate across the Harlem River from Manhattan.
Morris’s mother, a loyalist, gave the family estate to the British for military use.
Morris became a member of the New York State Assembly from 1777-78.
Morris was then appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and took his seat on January 28, 1778. He was immediately selected to a committee in charge of coordinating reforms of the military with George Washington.
After witnessing the Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge, he was so appalled by the conditions of the troops that he became the spokesman for the Continental Army in Congress, and subsequently helped enact substantial reforms in its training, methods, and financing.
Morris also signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778.
In 1779, Morris was defeated for re-election to Congress, largely because his advocacy of a strong central government was at odds with the decentralist views prevalent in New York.
Morris then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to work as a lawyer and merchant.
In 1780, Morris’s left leg was shattered and replaced with a wooden pegleg. Morris’s public account for the loss of his leg was that it happened in a carriage accident, but there is evidence that this was a false story concocted to cover for a dalliance with a woman, during which he jumped from a window to escape a jealous husband. Morris was well-known throughout much of his life for having many affairs, with both married and unmarried women, and he recorded many of these adventures and misadventures in his diary.
Despite his automatic exemption from military duty because of his handicap and his service in the legislature, Morris joined a special “briefs” club for the protection of New York City, a forerunner of the modern New York Guard.
In Philadelphia, Morris was appointed assistant superintendent of finance (1781–1785), and he was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
During the Philadelphia Convention, he was a friend and ally of George Washington and others who favored a strong central government. Morris was elected to serve on a committee of five (chaired by William Samuel Johnson) who drafted the final language of the proposed constitution.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, in Miracle at Philadelphia, called Morris the committee’s “amanuensis,” meaning that it was his pen that was responsible for most of the draft, as well as its final polished form.
“An aristocrat to the core,” Morris believed that “there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy”. He also thought that common people were incapable of self-government because he feared that the poor would sell their votes to the rich. Consequently, he thought that voting should be restricted to property owners. Morris also opposed admitting new western states on an equal basis with the existing eastern states, fearing that the interior wilderness could not furnish “enlightened” statesmen to the country.
At the convention Morris gave more speeches than any other delegate, a total of 173. As a matter of principle, he often vigorously defended the right of anyone to practice his chosen religion without interference, and he argued to include such language in the Constitution.
Morris was one of the few delegates at the Philadelphia Convention who spoke openly against domestic slavery. According to James Madison who took notes at the Convention, Morris spoke openly against slavery on August 8, 1787:
“He [Gouverneur Morris] never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves…. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.
Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are the property? Why, then, is no other property included? The Houses in this city [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina.
The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.”
Morris resumed his residence in New York in 1788.
Morris then went to France on business in 1789 and served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792 to 1794. His diaries during that time have become a valuable chronicle of the French Revolution, capturing much of the turbulence and violence of that era, as well as documenting his affairs with women there.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Morris was far more critical of the French Revolution and considerably more sympathetic to the deposed queen consort, Marie Antoinette.
Morris returned to the United States in 1798, and was elected in April of 1800, as a Federalist, to the United States Senate, filling the vacancy caused by the resignation of James Watson.
Morris served as Senator from May 3, 1800, to March 3, 1803, but was defeated for re-election in February 1803.
In 1809, at the age of 57, Morris married Anne Cary (“Nancy”) Randolph, who was the sister of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., husband of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph.
Morris served as Chairman of the Erie Canal Commission from 1810 to 1813.
The Erie Canal helped to transform New York City into a financial capital, the possibilities of which were apparent to Morris when he said “the proudest empire in Europe is but a bubble compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of two centuries, perhaps of one.”
November 6, 1816, Morris stuck a piece of whale bone through his urinary tract to relieve a blockage. He died later that day at his family estate, Morrisania, and was buried at St. Ann’s Church in the The Bronx.
Today, Gouverneur Morris is not well known as Founding Father of the United States, and a signatory to the Articles of Confederation.
Morris was an author of large sections of the Constitution of the United States and one of its signers.
Morris is widely credited as the author of the document’s preamble, and has been called the “Penman of the Constitution.”
In an era when most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their respective states, Morris advanced the idea of being a citizen of a single union of states.
Morris also established himself as an important landowner in northern New York, where the Town of Gouverneur and Village of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County are named for him.
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