Gouverneur Morris (January 31, 1752 - November 6, 1816) was a statesman, ambassador, orator, senator, Founding Father, and the person most responsible for the wording of the Constitution as the head of the Committee on Style. He also spoke more at the Constitutional Convention than any other delegate.
Born in New York, Morris was educated by French Huguenots and graduated from King's College (now Columbia University). He was once defeated in an election because he was suspected of being pro-British in the 1770s. Morris helped finance the Revolutionary War, however, and he was an advocate for a strong central government afterwards, including election of a president for life. An Episcopalian, Morris had a deep faith in God and felt that He intervenes in the world.
Gouverneur Morris was born at Morrisania, near the city of New York, January 31, 1752. He is the brother of another Founding Father, Lewis Morris. He was educated at King's College, New York, where he was graduated bachelor of arts in May, 1768.
Immediately after he entered the office of William Smith (the historian of the colony), as a student of law. In 1771, he was licensed to practice law. His proficiency in all his studies was remarkable. He acquired early much reputation as a man of brilliant talents and various promise. His person, address, manners, elocution, were of a superior order.
Entry into Politics
In May, 1775, Mr. Morris was chosen a delegate to the provincial congress of New York. In June of that year, he served on a committee with general Montgomery, to confer with General Washington respecting the manner of his introduction to the congress. He entered with zeal and efficiency into all the questions and proceedings which referred to a vigorous resistance to the pretensions of the mother country. In December, 1776, he acted as one of the committee for drafting a constitution for the state of New York, which was reported in March, and adopted in April, of that year, after repeated and very able debates, in which John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert R. Livingston were the principal speakers.
New York State Constitution
In July, 1777, he served as member of a committee from the New York congress, to repair to the head-quarters of Schuyler's army, to inquire into the causes of the evacuation of Ticouderoga.
In October 1777, he joined the Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania, and, in 1778, wrote the patriotic and successful pamphlet called Observations on the American Revolution, which he published at the beginning of 1779.
In July, 1781, he accepted the post of assistant superintendent of finance, as the colleague of Robert Morris. He filled every office to which he was called with characteristic zeal and ability. After the Revolutionary War, he embarked, with Robert Morris, in mercantile enterprises. In 1785, he published an Address to the Assembly of Pennsylvania on the Abolition of the Bank of North America, in which he cogently argued against that project. In December, 1786, he purchased from his brother the fine estate of Morrisania, and made it his dwelling-place. Here he devoted himself to liberal studies.
In 1787, he served with distinction as a member of the convention for framing the constitution of the United States.
Re-entry to Private Life
December 15, 1788, he sailed for France, where he was occupied in selling lands and pursuing money speculations until March, 1790, when he proceeded to London as private agent of the American government with regard to the conditions of the old treaty, and the inclination of the British cabinet to form a commercial treaty. In November, 1790, he returned to Paris, having made a tour in Germany. In the interval between this period and the beginning of the year 1791, lie passed several times on public business between the British and French capitals.
Ambassador to France
February 6, 1792, he received his appointment as minister plenipotentiary to France, and was presented to the king June 3. He held this station with great idol until October, 1794. He witnessed the most interesting scenes of the French Revolution, and maintained personal intercourse with the conspicuous politicians of the several parties. The abundant memorials which he has left of his sojourn in France, and his travels on the European continent, possess the highest interest and much historical value. He made extensive journeys after he ceased to be minister plenipotentiary, of which he kept a full diary.
United States Senate
In the autumn of 1798, Mr. Morris returned to the U. States, to engage in politics, with enhanced celebrity and a large additional stock of political and literary knowledge. He was universally admitted to be one of the most accomplished and prominent gentlemen of his country. In 1800, he entered the senate of the United States, where his eloquence and information made him conspicuous. The two eulogies which he pronounced - one on General Washington, and the other at the funeral of General Hamilton - are specimens of his rhetorical style. His delivery was excellent.
Mr. Morris, at an early period, gave special and sagacious attention to the project of that grand canal by which the state of New York has been so much honored and benefited. In the summer of 1810, he examined the canal route to lake Erie. The share which he had in originating and promoting the Erie Canal, is stated in the regular history which has been published of its conception and progress. In May, 1812, he pronounced a public and impressive eulogium on the venerable George Clinton; in the same year, an oration before the New York historical society; in 1814, another on the restoration of the Bourbons in France; in 1816, a discourse before the New York historical society.
Mr. Morris died at Morrisania, November 5, 1816.
Morris, like many other Founding Fathers, was ardently opposed to the institution of slavery. He spoke out against slavery several times at the Constitutional Convention.
- (Gouverneur Morris) was compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States or to human nature, and he must therefore do it to the former. For he could never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing them a representation for their negroes, and he did not believe those States would ever confederate on terms that would deprive them of that trade.
- William Howard Adams. Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life (2003) 345 pages excerpt and text search
- Richard Brookhiser. Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake who Wrote the Constitution (2003) 272 pages excerpt and text search
- James J. Kirschke. Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World (2005) 370 pages excerpt and text search
- Theodore Roosevelt. Gouverneur Morris (1896), 341 pages; written before TR became president; full text online
- Encyclopædia Americana: a popular dictionary of arts, sciences, literature, history, politics, and biography
- Madison Debates, July 11, 1787