Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris

As is well known, Gouverneur Morris, the New York aristocrat who represented Pennsylvania in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, wrote the Constitution of the United States. When the Convention completed its substantive deliberations on September 10, it turned its various resolutions over to a Committee of Style and Arrangement, consisting of Morris, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Rufus King, and William Samuel Johnson. The other members, aware of Morris’s considerable skills as a pensman. entrusted the drafting to him. Morris, in correspondence with Timothy Pickering many years later, asserted that the Constitution “was written by the fingers, which write this letter”—an assertion substantiated by Madison in a letter to Jared Sparks in 1831. [1]

Despite his importance in the Founding, however—before and after as well as during the Convention—there has been no systematic effort to analyze Morris’s political thought. There have been a number of biographies and studies of his role in the Revolutionary epoch, including those by Sparks (1832), Theodore Roosevelt (1888). Daniel Walther (1934), Howard Swiggett (1952), Max Mintz (1970), and Mary-Jo Kline (1978). in these books and in various works pertaining to the Founding, several of Morris’s positions concerning constitutional questions have been delineated. Thus, for example, we know that Morris was an ardent nationalist, supported a strong executive, favored a Senate appointed for life, opposed granting statehood to western territories, insisted that provision be made for the public debt, and abhorred slavery. But, while such positions say a great deal to anyone familiar with the public issues of the times, they scarcely represent a thoroughgoing and cohesive body of political ideas. [2]

The closest approximation to a study of the subject is a doctoral dissertation in political science completed at Georgetown University in 1992, Arthur Paul Kaufman’s “The Constitutional Views of Gouverneur Morris.” Kaufman has made some significant contributions to what was generally known, though by limiting his focus to constitutional views he all but leaves out of account the larger corpus of thought in which those views were contained. What is more, Kaufman confines his study to writings and orations of Morris’s between 1774 and 1787. Virtually all these materials are argumentative, publicly supporting one cause or another in specific contexts; and like the adept debater, propagandist, and polemicist that he was, Morris (as Madison noted) frequently said things that contradicted other statements he made. The surest guide to what he genuinely believed is what he said or wrote in private, in personal letters to intimates and in his voluminous diaries. The only important private document that Kaufman draws upon, a series of brief essays on liberty written for himself in 1776, not coincidentally forms the basis for the most valuable part of the dissertation. [3]

And yet, private sources for an analysis of Morris’s political thinking are abundant and accessible. The main collection of his papers. comprising 53 volumes, is housed in the Library of Congress and is available on microfilm. The microfilm reproductions are not particularly good and are at times quite illegible, but much of the collection has been published. Sparks excerpts a goodly amount of Morris’s correspondence. though he leaves out some important letters; and he quotes lengthy entries from the diaries kept during Morris’s decade in Europe, 1789-1798, though he carefully expurgated the many references in the diaries to Morris’s amatory heroics. Beatrix Cary Davenport’s edition of the diaries is unabridged, containing the sexual adventures, though unfortunately her work covers only the four years in which Morris was in Revolutionary France, but she also includes, for that period, various of his personal letters. And additional Morris letters are to be found in the published papers of Hamilton. Washington, Jefferson, and others. [4]

Study of these sources indicates that Morris formulated and articulated a body of political ideas which, though considerably different from the prevailing political cultures as described by historians, were cogent and coherent and were fairly widely shared among the more influential of the Founders. [ed., see also To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris]

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Isolating the influences upon Morris’s thoughts about politics is more complex than ascertaining the thinkers who influenced, say, Madison or Hamilton. Morris was obviously familiar with the standard authors that Americans read, the likes of Locke and Montesquieu, David Hume and Adam Smith, but in dealing with ideas that such men formulated or popularized, he commonly gave them a personal twist that made them into something the originators would not have recognized. Too, though he was not a scholar in the sense that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were scholars, the range of his reading was enormous, and when he quoted someone in a letter or in conversation, as he frequently did, he was more likely to cite Shakespeare or Lord Chesterton than some political thinker.

Indeed, like many another Framer, particularly those of the Federalist persuasion, he distrusted speculative theory and preferred to rely upon observation, history. and common-sense judgment. “Anything which has the air of a system is.” he wrote to Jefferson, “very apt to disgust, and that too in the same proportion that the system maker is attached to his work.” He was particularly caustic in commenting upon the naiveté of French revolutionists. “They have all that romantic spirit, and all those romantic ideas of government,” he wrote to Washington in 1789, “which happily for America we were cured of before it was too late.” “In their Closets,” he recorded in his diary. “they make Men exactly suitable to their Systems, but unluckily they are such Men as exist nowhere and least of all in France.” Again to Washington, “as it happens somewhat unfortunately that the Men who live in the World are very different from those who dwell in the Heads of Philosophers, it is not to be wondered at if the Systems taken out of Books are fit for Nothing but to be put into Books again.” In the same letter, commenting on the celebrated financier Jacques Necker. Morris wrote that “he does not understand Mankind, a Defect which is Remediless. He is utterly ignorant also of Politics. by which I mean Politics in the great Sense, or that sublime Science which embraces for its Object the Happiness of Mankind.” And to William Short: “It will be very long before political Subjects will be reduced to geometric Certitude.”‘ [5]

The most pervasive influence on Morris’s thinking was the Christian religion. That statement would have met with shocked disbelief among his many enemies, if for no other reason than that his womanizing was well known. John and Samuel Adams and other New England arch-republicans despised him, and the rigidly puritanical Roger Sherman went so far as to say that “with regard to moral character I consider him an irreligious and profane man.” But no irreligious and profane man could have written, as Morris did to his Loyalist mother from whom he was separated during the war, “Let me earnestly recommend to you so much of religion, as to bear inevitable evils with resignation.” As for himself, he told her, “I look forward serenely to the course of events, confident that the Fountain of supreme wisdom and virtue will provide for the happiness of his creatures.” In the same vein, he wrote to a woman whose daughter had died, “Religion offers higher and better Motives for Resignation to the Will of our Almighty Father. Infinite Wisdom can alone determine What is best to give What to leave and What to take away. . .. Grief . . . turns our Affections from the World to fix them more steadily and strongly on the proper Objects and bends our Will to the Will of God.” Elsewhere he made numerous specific references to Jesus Christ as “Our Saviour.” [6]

Morris cared little for rituals and forms of religion, however, and he was extremely tolerant. Early in his career, in the convention that drafted the New York Constitution of 1777, he frustrated John Jay’s attempt to exclude Roman Catholics from a religious freedom clause. From France he wrote to Robert Morris that “I like real Piety as much as I detest the Grimace of that which is false. I think I have more Religion than formerly since I have been in Paris: perhaps because the People here have or appear to have so little.” He added that he did not consider himself “of sufficient Consequence to share in the immediate Attention of divine Providence,” but was confident of his own “good Fortune,” which, he said, was “but another Name for the same Thing.” In conversation with a Frenchman who insisted that every country had an established religion. Morris assured him that it was not so in America, and went on to “tell him that God is sufficiently powerful to do his own Business without human Aid, and that Man should confine his Care to the Actions only of his fellow Creatures,” leaving it to God “to influence the Thoughts as he may think proper.” [7]

In Morris’s thinking, religious ideas and political ideas were inextricably linked. He said, in uncharacteristically dogmatic fashion, “I believe that Religion is the only solid Base of Morals and that Morals are the only possible Support of free governments.” Morality and religion, in turn, depended for their perpetuation upon education, a subject upon which Morris had firm opinions. In response to a circular letter from the chairman of the New York committee on schools, he said there were “two distinct kinds of education. One, of small comparative value, is the education of the head, or instruction. The other, of great importance both to individuals and to society, is the education of the heart. or virtuous habits.” Manners, he said, derived from example. from customs, and from usage, and thus “there are national virtues and vices, as also virtues and vices attached to different stages in the progress of civilization.” Commenting on the French Revolution in 1796, he wrote that “Time is needful to bring forward Slaves to the Enjoyment of Liberty. Time. Time. Education.” But what, he asked rhetorically, was education? He answered, “It is not learning. It is more the Effect of Society on the Habits and Principles of each Individual, forming him at an early Period of Life to act afterwards the Part of a good Citizen and contribute in his Turn to the Formation of others. Hence it results that the Progress towards Freedom must be slow.” [8]

Morris believed that God gives every man the right to liberty (hence his regarding slavery as an abomination), and he believed that legitimate government derives its authority from the consent of the governed; but to these largely Lockean notions he added some fine distinctions to minimize their threat to political stability. He conceived of liberty as being of two orders. One was political liberty, meaning participation by the people in the enactment of legislation and in holding government accountable. The other was civil liberty, the right of individuals to be left alone, and especially to do with their property what they choose without interference from government. He saw political liberty as being necessary for the protection of civil liberty, but also as posing a danger to it: “Political Liberty considered seperately from civil Liberty can have no other Effect than to gratify Pride”; “Where political Liberty is in Excess Property must be insecure and where Property is not secure Society cannot advance”; and “A Nation of Politicians, neglecting their own Business for that of the State, would be the most weak miserable and contemptible Nation on Earth.” The remedy was to limit political liberty by checking the power of the legislative through the establishment of independent executive and judicial branches. This sounds quite Montesquieuan until one recalls that Montesquieu thought that free commerce would totally undermine a republic, whereas Morris believed that commerce, as the most dynamic part of civil liberty, was an indispensable agent promoting the advancement of civilization. Commerce, he said, “requires not only the perfect Security of Property but perfect good Faith,” and thus its effects were “to encrease civil and to diminish political Liberty.- For those reasons, and because the standards of behavior in commercial transactions were so high when conducted honorably, commerce could make possible an increase in the general stock of virtue and “Obedience to the moral Law,” which were “the best Means of Promoting human Happiness.” [9]

In a related matter. that of the principle of equality before the law, Morris likewise took an unorthodox but perceptive position. Discussing the subject with a French intellectual and disciple of Voltaire, he flatly denied that the principle would lead to justice. Where there is considerable inequality of rank and fortune, Morris remarked—and he believed such inequality marked any but the most primitive societies—”this supposed Equality of legal Dispensation would destroy all Proportion, consequently all Justice.” If the punishment for wrong-doing were a fine, for example, it would oppress the poor but would not appreciably affect the rich. Corporal punishment, by contrast. “degrades the Prince but does not wound the Beggar.” He drew from these examples only one Conclusion, that in Morals every general Position requires numerous Exceptions, [wherefore] logical Conclusions from such Positions must frequently be erroneous.” He ended this portion of his diary entry by remarking that the “Legislator therefore who would pare down the Feelings of Mankind to the metaphisical Standard of his own Reason would shew little Knowledge tho he might display much Genius.” [10]

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On one point of political thought Morris was adamant: “Different constitutions of government are necessary to the different societies on the face of this planet.” Once again this resembles a dictum of Montesquieu’s. but only superficially. Montesquieu, as system-builder par excellence, stipulated that virtue is the actuating spring of a democratic republic, moderation of an aristocratic republic, honor of a monarchy, and fear of a despotism; and he insisted that the suitability of one form or another varied with the size of the governed territory, republics being adaptable only to small states, despotisms more appropriate for large ones. Morris, by contrast. believed that governments should conform to the morals, manners, customs, prejudices, histories. and circumstances of a people. Thus, for instance, France required “a higher toned Government than that of England.” for England was “surrounded by a deep Ditch and being only assailable by Sea can permit many Things at Home which would not be safe in different Situations.” [11]

This does not mean that Morris rejected the idea of human nature, of universal impulses that propel individuals everywhere. He accepted the conventional belief that men are driven by their passions, though his thinking was more sophisticated than the cliché that public men are commonly governed by ambition or avarice. He thought vanity and desire for applause were equally potent, as were, among the young, “the headlong fury of love” and a prodigality that far outweighs avarice. He also accepted the notion that it was through appeals to their baser motives that men could be induced to act for the public good. “Men do not go into administration as the direct Road to Heaven.” Instead, they are moved by self-love, and therefore “the only Way to secure the most virtuous is by making it their Interest to act rightly.” [12]

Be that as it may, Morris was sensitive to the differences among people. His countrymen were egalitarian, at least in comparison to Europeans, and that was why their political liberty must be limited. Some other peoples he regarded as more or less hopeless, and his observations about them could be stereotyped, flippant, even frivolous. He mentioned an acquaintance, for example, who spoke of “the Want of Cleanliness in the Italians as very shocking. and speaks of it with the same Air of Horror which some People put on when they notice a similar Defect in the French.” He thought the Austrians dull, their nobility on the decline; he was disgusted with the grossness of German sexual behavior; he declared that “the Dutchman is avaricious, the Englishman proud, the Frenchman vain.” But he observed the French with considerable care, for after all it was they who were attempting, before his very eyes, to reconstitute their ancient form of government. Too, inasmuch as their efforts concerned the United States—which, for a time. Morris officially represented as minister to France—he was an interested party in the undertaking. [13]

“The materials for a revolution in this country,” he wrote to Washington in the spring of 1789, “are very indifferent. Everybody agrees that there is an utter prostration of morals; but this general position can never convey to an American mind the degree of depravity.” There were “eminently virtuous” people among the French. “but they stand forward from a back ground deeply and darkly shaded. It is however from such crumbling matter, that the great edifice of freedom is to be erected here.” In his diary. Morris mused about how it would all terminate: “Badly, I fear, that is to say in Slavery.” This was months before Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, predicting the same outcome. It should be added that Morris admired many things about the French, including the attributes that made them great as artillerymen, having in their “blood and marrow to act suddenly and without deliberation. . . . The same enthusiasm of enterprise, the same contempt of danger, the same impetuosity of valor, and the same impatience of control, still mark the nation” which once was ancient Gaul. These were not, however, characteristics fitting the French for the sober business of erecting stable political institutions. [14]

He was especially critical of the French for disregarding the principle of suitability, for proceeding as if they were dealing with an abstract mankind rather than the eighteenth-century French. He irritated and confused the idealistic Lafayette by emphatically pointing out that American institutions could not be transplanted to French soil, In his diary Morris wrote, “I reiterate to him the Necessity of restoring the Nobility,” which had been abolished in August of 1789. “I tell him that an American Constitution will not do for this Country & that two such Chambers would not answer where there is an hereditary Executive. That every Country must have a Constitution suited to its’ Circumstances.” Elsewhere he wrote that “Our American example has done them good; but like all novelties, liberty runs away with their discretion, if they have any. They want an American Constitution, with the exception of a King instead of a President, without reflecting, that they have not American citizens to support that constitution.” Anyone who “desires to apply, in the practical science of government, those rules and forms which prevail and succeed in a foreign country. must fall into the same pedantry with our young scholars, just fresh from the university, who would fain bring everything to the Roman standard.” [15]

Morris was predictably skeptical about the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, both because of its universalist claims and because he was doubtful about the efficacy of bills of rights in any constitution, including the American. Because he did believe in natural rights, however, he had an open mind concerning the subject. He read Burke’s Reflections and agreed with Burke’s book attacking the Declaration, but he also read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, answering Burke; and he indicated in his diary that “There are good Things in the Answer as well as in the Book.” [16]

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As for the distribution of powers in a government, Morris was by no means a dogmatist, but he believed that good government required “an active and vigorous executive,” and that in America “the due Establishment of the executive Authority” was the “Key Stone in the great Arch of Empire.” The executive needed to be energetic not, as some would have it, to protect the wealthy and well-born from the ravages of the demos, but the other way around, to protect the people from the avarice of the wealthy. In helping draft the New York Constitution of 1777, Morris was instrumental in making his state’s governorship the strongest by far in the United States. At the Philadelphia Convention he opposed the election of a president by Congress because such a method would create a dependency, favored popular election but accepted the electoral college as a satisfactory compromise, proposed an absolute veto and (at one point) supported a motion for life tenure, changed his mind about impeachment after first opposing it, and opposed requiring the Senate’s approval for presidential appointments. In the end he accepted the presidency as constituted, partly because he was confident that Washington would be the first occupant of the office and partly because, after the electoral college was agreed upon, the Convention shifted a number of important powers from the Senate to the President. [17]

Unlike most Americans, he was not coy about discussing monarchy. In 1781, nearly in despair over the impotence of the Confederation Congress, he wrote to General Nathanael Greene that he had no hope “That our union can subsist, except in the form of an absolute monarchy,” but he hastened to add that “this does not seem to consist with the taste and temper of the people.” In 1787 Madison recorded him as saying, -If a good government should not now be formed, if a good organization of the Execu[ti]ve should not be provided, he doubted whether we should not have something worse than a limited Monarchy.” He never advocated establishing a monarchy in America; he thought that in France, by contrast, the monarchy was indispensable if that nation was not to sink into anarchy and then tyranny. Similarly, he advocated far more power for the king of France than would have been either safe or popularly acceptable in an American presidency. [18]

His commitment to republicanism for America was complete, though it was not made without qualms. As he put it, “In adopting a republican form of government. I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better for worse, but what few men do with their wives. I took it knowing all its bad qualities.” The worst of these, in his view, was the tendency of republics to degenerate into “Democracy, that disease of which all Republics have perished, except those which have been overturned by foreign force.” [19]

His distrust of democracy was shared by many if not most of the Framers, but it was of a substantially different variety from that expressed by such delegates to the Convention as Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. He thought the people fickle, governed by their feelings and prejudices, “not to be reasoned out of their Notions.” “Expect heroism from a sheep, charity from a wolf, and music from a crow, and perhaps you may not be disappointed”; but it was futile to expect reason from the people. “Those who court the People have a very capricious Mistress. A Mistress which may be gained by Sacrifices, but she cannot be so held for she is insatiable.” He told Lafayette in June of 1789 that he was “opposed to the Democracy from Regard to Liberty,” and that the revolutionists were “going Headlong to Destruction.” Lafayette responded “that he is sensible his Party are mad, and tells them so, but is not the less determined to die with them.” That kind of attachment, combined with what Morris witnessed during the next three years. made him appreciate Americans more than he had before: in a letter to Rufus King, he referred to “the People or rather the Populace. a Thing which thank God is unknown in America.” He also maintained, in a speech written for Louis XVI that was never delivered, that “History informs us, that, both in ancient and modern times, the leaders of popular Assemblies have been bought by foreign powers, and that thus nations un-conquerable by arms, have become the victims of seduction.” [20]

It was susceptibility to being “bought” that especially concerned Morris about popular participation in government. More than a decade after the Constitution had been established, he wrote that “the strongest aristocratic feature in our political organization is that, which democrats are most attached to, the right of universal suffrage. This takes from men of moderate fortune their proper weight; and will, in process of time. give undue influence to those of great wealth.” He had elaborated this idea in the Philadelphia Convention. Speaking in support of his own motion to have a freehold requirement for voters, he said, “Give the votes to people who have no property. and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them.” At that time, he declared, nine-tenths of the white adult males were freeholders, but the “time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics & manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers.” Such people could not be “faithful Guardians of liberty” or a “barrier agst. aristocracy,” for they could not be regarded as having a “will of their own.” [21]

On the other hand. he was equally chary of aristocrats and plutocrats, though many doubted the sincerity of his protestations in that regard. After all, he was an aristocrat himself, having been born into an old landed family, and while he did not inherit the bulk of the estate, he became quite wealthy through his own endeavors. Besides, as Washington candidly pointed out to him in explaining why some Senators had opposed his appointment as minister, his “habit of expression, indicated a hauteaur disgusting to those who happen to differ from you in sentiment,” and they considered him “as a favourer of Aristocracy” in France. Morris thought talk of the “natural equality of mankind” was absurd. and regarding that great bugbear of arch-republicans, luxury, he said that “it is not so bad a thing as it is often supposed to be,” and, indeed, “there is a less proportion of rogues in coaches than out of them.” Even so, his distrust of aristocracy was deeply felt; it may have stemmed from his reaction to the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Tory DeLancey family connection in exploiting the rabble of New York on the eve of the Revolution. [22]

His feelings were revealed in comments about the aristocracies in England, Poland, and France. Traveling in England with his friend John Penn, he was shown the elegant, mansion-like stables of the Duke of Clarence and was told that “this Prince” was allowed £12,000 a year by the British government. Morris responded “that the Effects of monarchic Government are wonderful when from the Force of the Term Loyalty a Man must take Bread from the Mouths of his own Children to bestow the Means of Luxury and Dissipation upon those of another.” As to Poland, he observed that that country had recently established a hereditary (in place of elective) monarchy, enfranchised its peasants, and given the towns a share in government: “These are the great Means of destroying pernicious Aristocracy.” And as to France, though he thought abolishing the nobility had been a grave mistake, inasmuch as it destroyed the balance of power. he nonetheless had contempt for most of the aristocrats. They were “burning with the lust of vengeance” and hoped with the support of foreign armies to “re-establish that species of despotism most suited to their own cupidity.” They were, to Morris, simply a necessary evil. [23]

Thus it is easy to understand the rather outré reasoning he used in the Convention to justify his advocacy of a Senate that would not represent states, would receive no salaries, would be appointed by the President, and would serve for life. ‘It will then do wrong, it will be said. He believed so; He hoped so. The Rich will strive to establish their dominion & enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. The proper security ag[ain]st them is to form them into a separate interest.” The democracy would thereby be able to recognize and “controul” the aristocracy, and the aristocracy the democracy. But, “Let the rich mix with the poor and in a Commercial Country, they will establish an Oligarchy.” Some scholars have questioned whether Morris really meant what he said, but his remarks about aristocracy are perfectly consistent with his position regarding the democracy. [24]

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Two other matters require brief attention. The first is less a point of political philosophy than a principle of public behavior. Morris, like Washington, Hamilton, and many another High Federalist. had as a polestar a principle that has generally been given rather short shrift by historians, namely honor, in the sense in which Joseph Addison used the term in his popular play Cato. True honor, Addison explained, operates out of desire for “the esteem of wise and good men.” He elaborated, “Religion embraces virtue, as it is enjoined by the laws of God; honour, as it is graceful and ornamental to human nature.” As a religious man as well as a man of honor. Morris was impelled by both. Hence he could write, in a letter to Senator Oliver Ellsworth thanking him for supporting the appointment as minister to France. “the favorable Sentiment of virtuous and judicious Men has ever appeared to me (next to an approving Conscience) the highest earthly Reward for our Exertions.” He could refuse to join a speculative enterprise that was certain to be profitable because it was based on inside information, say to one who talked of legal obligation that ‘There is a moral Obligation anterior and paramount to Law,” and tell another who was torn between the dictates of duty and conscience that he knew of “no Duty but that which Conscience dictates.” The sanctity of contracts, of giving one’s word, was integral to the concept of honor; early on. Morris wrote that among the French “there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks. It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements.” [25]

The other matter is somewhat more complex. After the Jeffersonian Republicans took control of the federal government, they exercised power vigorously, prompting Morris to comment that they had not been dissatisfied “because the power of the government was too great,” as they had professed, “but because it was not in their hands.” The same could be charged in reverse of Morris himself: from ardent nationalist when power was in Federalist hands, he grew progressively more hostile to federal power, becoming increasingly a champion of the rights of states until, by the War of 1812, he was advocating state resistance to federal measures with actions little, if any, short of secession. [26]

But it can at least plausibly be argued that he was consistent. In 1814 he wrote Timothy Pickering that his “sentiments and opinions” on questions of government had “undergone no essential change in forty years.” He had always attempted to strike a balance of forces inside governments and a balance between governmental power and individual freedom, leaning ever toward the latter. When the Jeffersonians repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 and passed the act of 1802, he believed they had destroyed the balance in the federal government, and when they later enacted Draconian measures to enforce the Embargo Act, they had instituted despotism. As for his nationalism. Morris had always supported a strong national government but one which would operate in a narrowly limited sphere. So limited did he regard its legitimate activities that he proposed in the Convention to strike the requirement that Congress meet once a year, his ground being that there might not be enough public business to warrant an annual meeting. As for states’ rights, he regarded the constitutional union as “a compact, not between solitary individuals, but between political societies, the people not of America but of the United States, each enjoying sovereign power, and of course equal rights”—the essence of the states’ rights doctrine. And as for going into organized opposition to federal measures, Morris had approved the formation of an opposition party in the early 1790s, as a further check on government. That was at a time when most people thought parties a life-threatening bane in a republic. Thus his behavior from 1807 to 1815 seems not to have been aberrant, after all. [27]

But he did turn out to be as inaccurate in his predictions about the effects of Jeffersonian policies as he had been accurate in his predictions about the French Revolution. Upon the impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase, he wrote that the Jeffersonians had “engaged themselves to the notable Business of pulling down our Constitution to rear a Monarchy on its Ruins. That such is their intention I do not believe. That such is the natural Effect of their Measures I am perfectly convinced.” He continued to prophesy doom and gloom for most of the rest of his days. [28]

It may be asked whether, if he could be so entirely wrong in his forecast for America, his whole body of political thought was fundamentally unsound. Perhaps it was, but there is a charitable explanation, and one that squares with his conviction that a system of government must be in accordance with the character and circumstances of its people. Morris’s error was in supposing that the genius of the American people suited them to constitute a republic. Their real genius was not republican, but democratic.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History, (Spring 1998).

1. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols. (New Haven. 1937), II, 553 (Madison’s notes. Sept. 8); Morris to Pickering, December 22, 1814, ibid., III, 420; Madison to Sparks, April 8, 1831, ibid., III, 499.
2. Jared Sparks, The Life of Gouverneur Morris, with Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers, 3 vols. (Boston, 1932); Theodore Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris (New York. 1888); Daniel Walther, Gouverneur Morris: Witness of Two Revolutions (New York, 1934); Howard Swiggett, The Extraordinary Mr. Morris (Garden City, N.Y., 1952); Max M. Mintz, Gouverneur Morris and the American Revolution (Norman. 1970): Mary-Jo Kline, Gouverneur Morris and the New Nation. 1775-1788 (New York. 1978).
3. Arthur Paul Kaufman, “The Constitutional Views of Gouvemeur Morris,” 2 vols.. Ph.D. dissertation. Georgetown University, 1992. For Madison’s pointing to a contradiction, see Farrand, Records, I, 584 (Madison’s notes, July 11). Kaufman includes a transcript of Morris’s 1776 “Liberty: several essays on the nature of liberty-natural, civil. political,” as an appendix to his study at II, 448-54.
4. Sparks, Life of Morris; Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed., A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris 1752-1816 Minister to France during the Terror, 2 vols. (Boston. 1939). In the Library of Congress collection, the letters are marked, in a handwriting other than Morris’s, with a “C” (for “Copy”), a plus sign, or “Omit.” These are presumably Sparks’s markings. for they indicate which letters Sparks published or extracted. Letters that are extracted contain indications of bracketing. Similar markings are sometimes found in the diary entries, but not always. These signs enable the student to know which manuscripts need to be read in the original and which can be read in print.
5. Morris to Jefferson, November 7, 1791, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 21; Morris to Washington. July 31, 1789, ibid., II, 79; entry of June 3, 1789, Davenport, Diary, I, 104; Morris to Washington. January 24, 1790, ibid., I, 381, 385: Morris to Short, September 18. 1790, ibid., I, 593-94. Compare Hamilton: “A great source of error… is the judging of events by abstract calculations, which though geometrically true are false as they relate to the concerns of beings governed more by passion and prejudice than by an enlightened sense of their interests.” Hamilton to_, December 1779-March 1780, Harold C. Syrett and others. eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 27 vols. (New York 1961-1987), II, 242.
6. Swiggett, Extraordinary Mr. Morris, 225; Morris to Sarah Gouverneur Morris, April 17, 1778, Sparks, Life of Morris, I, 158: Morris to Mrs. Lena Rutherford, January 4, 1804, Morris Papers, Library of Congress; For references to Christianity, see, for example, Morris to Washington, May 21, 1778, Sparks, Life of Morris, I, 167; Morris to John Parish, January 14, 1803, and October 25, 1804, ibid., III, 176-77, 212, 214; Morris to William Hill Wells, March 3. 1814, ibid., III, 305.
7. Sparks, Life of Morris, I, 124-25; Morris to Robert Morris (n.d., 1789), Davenport, Diary, xvii; entry of February 28. 1790, ibid., I, 430.
8. Morris to George Gordon, June 28, 1792. Davenport, Diary, II, 452; Morris to John Murray, Jr.. September 23, 1811, Sparks, Life of Morris, III. 269-70: Davenport, Diary, II, 387 n. See also Morris to Thomas Pinckney, December 3, 1792, ibid., II, 581.
9. These observations are derived from Morris’s 1776 manuscript “Liberty.” in the Gouverneur Morris Papers, Columbia University. as transcribed in Kaufman, “Constitutional Views,” II, 448-54. The quotations are at II. 453, 452, 450, 453, 449, in that order. Kaufman treats the subject of this paragraph ably and fully in his opening chapters. It may be that Morris was romanticizing commerce; later he was to encounter a number of dishonorable traders. Nonetheless it remains true that the international merchant of the eighteenth century had no other asset worth anything near as much as his credit, his reputation for integrity.
10. Morris, “Liberty,” Kaufman, “Constitutional Views,” II, 451; entry of January 29, 1791, Davenport, Diary, II, 110.
11. Morris to William Carmichael, July 10, 1789, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 75; Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Thomas Nugent trans. (New York. 1949), Book III, chs. 1-9, pp. 19-27, Book VIII, chs. 16-17, 19., pp. 120-22; entry of November 26, 1790, Davenport, Diary, II, 72.
12. Morris. “Observations on government, applicable to the political state of France,” private memorandum written in July, 1789; Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 468-69; entry of October 11, 1789, Davenport, Diary, I, 252.
13. Entry of May 19, 1789, Davenport, Diary, I. 83; “Observations of government,” Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 464; Swiggett, Extraordinary Mr. Morris, 313-14.
14. Morris to Washington, April 29, 1789, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 68; entry of October 21, 1789, Davenport, Diary, I, 266; Morris to Jefferson, December 21, 1792, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 251.
15. Entry of November 26, 1790, Davenport, Diary, II, 72; Morris to William Carmichael, July 10, 1789, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 75.
16. Entry of April 8, 1791, Davenport, Diary, II, 156. For Morris on bills of rights, see Morris to Robert Morris, July 16, 1791, ibid., II, 220, and Morris to Robert Walsh, February 5, 1811, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 266-67.
17. Morris to William Carmichael, July 4, 1789, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 73; Morris to Washington. January 24, 1790, Davenport, Diary, I, 380; Kaufman, “Constitutional Views,” I, 184-210; Farrand, Records, II, 29-31, 33, 52-55, 68-69, 103-04, 113 (Madison’s notes, July 17, 19, 20, 23, 25).
18. Morris of Nathanael Greene, December 24, 1781, Sparks, Life of Morris, I, 240; Farrand, Records, II, 104 (Madison’s notes, July 24); Davenport, Diary, 1789¬1792 passim. See also Morris’s draft constitution for France, 1791, Sparks, Life of Morris, 111, 481-500.
19. Morris to John Dickinson, May 23, 1803, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 181; Morris to Robert R. Livingston, April 23, 1803, ibid., III, 180.
20. Farrand, Records, I, 26-27, 48, 49 (McHenry’s notes, May 29. Madison’s notes, May 31); Morris to William Short, September 18, 1790, in Davenport, Diary, I, 595; Morris to Simeon Dewitt. December 18, 1807, Morris Papers, Library of Congress; Morris to Benjamin Walker, December 28, 1814, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 325; Morris to Short, July 20, 1790, Davenport, Diary, I, 564; entry of June 23, 1789, ibid., I, 121; Morris to King, October 23, 1792, ibid., II, 570; Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 497.
21. Morris to Robert R. Livingston, October 10, 1802, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 172; Farrand, Records, II, 202-03 (Madison’s notes, August 7).
22. Washington to Morris, January 28, 1792, Davenport, Diary, II, 401; Morris to Jay, January 10, 1784, Sparks, Life of Morris, I, 266-67; “Observations on government.” ibid., II, 470-71; Kaufman, “Constitutional Views,” I, 95ff., 105ff.
23. Entry of September 5. 1790, Davenport, Diary, I. 586; entry of May 22, 1791, ibid., II, 188; Morris to Washington, February 4, 1792, Sparks, Life of Morris, II, 161.
24. Farrand, Records, I, 512 (Madison’s notes, July 2). Gordon Wood, for example. is skeptical of the honesty of Morris’s observations in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, 1969), 554.
25. Cato is in Richard Hurd. ed., The Works of Joseph Addison, 6 vols. (London, 1881), I, 172-226; the Addison quotation is from an essay he wrote explaining the play, ibid., IV, 308; Morris to Ellsworth, April 6, 1792, Morris Papers, Library of Congress; entry of August 23, 1791, Davenport, Diary, II, 242-43; entry of April 6, 1790, ibid., I, 476; entry of July 12, 1789, ibid., I, 144; Morris to Washington, April 29, 1789, ibid., I. 61. For a brilliant treatment of the matter of honor, see Joanne B. Freeman, “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser. 53 (1996), 289-318.
26. Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 161-333 passim. The quotation is from Morris to Lewis R. Morris. December 10, 1803, ibid., III, 196.
27. M. Morris to Pickering, December 22, 1814, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 322-323; Morris to Robert Walsh, February 5, 1811, ibid., III, 267; Farrand, Records, II, 198 (Madison’s notes, August 7); Morris to Lewis R. Morris, Dec. 10, 1803, Sparks, Life of Morris, III, 193; Morris to Washington, March 9, 1791, ibid., II, 130-31.
28. Morris to Samuel Hunt, January 31, 1804, Morris Papers, Library of Congress.


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