The role Gouverneur Morris played in the Miracle at Philadelphia is one that is often cropped out of the greater American Story. However, based on James Madison’s detailed account of the proceedings of the Convention, Morris has had a much greater impact on American political institutions than what Americans give him credit for.

The American Founding produced not only some of the greatest minds in our nation’s long and storied past, but the most important political documents in human history. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed self-evident truths of human equality and liberty and, through debate and compromise, the Constitution codified these principles into amendments and laws. With each Constitution Day, Americans are given an opportunity to pause and reflect upon how miraculous the Miracle at Philadelphia really was and the great figures who helped shape the American civic order as we know it.

Traditionally, when one thinks of the Constitution they think of James Madison. As the “Father of the Constitution” and the fourth President, Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention have provided generations of Americans an unprecedented insight into the prudence of the Founders. For many, Madison is to the Constitution as Jefferson is to the Declaration. What many Americans forget, however, in their glorification of the Virginian presence in the Constitution is the influence and penmanship of a single principled Pennsylvania delegate whose influence on our shared history and institutions is widespread—even as his name has fallen into disrepair.

Gouverneur Morris was born in 1752 to a wealthy New York family. He was admitted to King’s College and earned his admission to the bar after studying under Judge William Smith. As a young man of no more than twenty-four, Morris was elected to represent his district in the New York Provincial Congress before representing New York in the Continental Congress. While there, he served as an important advocate for General Washington and casted the tie-breaking vote in favor of keeping Washington at his post in 1778. On top of all of this, he was the youngest signer of the Articles of Confederation—and all of this was before he reached the age of thirty![1]

His impressive accomplishments are a mere shadow of the statesmanship Morris displayed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While Madison recorded the proceedings of the Convention, it was Morris who seized the opportunity to become the dominating voice in Philadelphia. By the end of the Convention, he had given more speeches than any other delegate with a total of 173. Based on Madison’s detailed account of the proceedings, one quickly discerns that Morris has had a much greater impact on American political institutions than what Americans give him credit for.

For instance, consider the concept of national union. In the Convention, Morris was the leading advocate for what he called a “national, supreme government.” He rightly asserted that the loose confederation established by the Articles of Confederation could not successfully accomplish the very objectives proposed by the document (i.e., common defense, security of liberty, and general welfare). His solution, as a passionate nationalist, was a strong central government. As early as May 1787, he and Edmond Randolph took steps to propose the basic outline for a whole new polis which reflected his belief in a unifying federal power with constitutionally granted powers. “That a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.”[2]

Morris believed that the best way to secure human liberty and prosperity is to bestow certain limited powers into a strong central government. Not only this, but he contended that the Americans were one people, not thirteen separate and independent peoples. As the author of the Preamble, Morris’s most famous contribution to the final draft demonstrates his belief in a unified nation: We, the People of the United States of America.

Indeed, Morris’s rhetoric and underlying philosophy was a powerful weapon in future political fights. When the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1832 came, two-thirds of the Great Triumvirate channeled Morris. As Daniel Webster declared in 1830, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” And again, twenty years later, when Henry Clay reiterated the points made at the height of the crisis. “This Union is my country. The thirty states is my country.… But even if it were my own state—if my own state, contrary to her duty, should raise the standard of disunion against the residue of the Union, I would go against her, I would go against Kentucky in that contingency as much as I love her.”

The rebellion of the southern states in late 1860 and early 1861 forced Americans to consider the constitutionality of secession. Abraham Lincoln argued in his First Inaugural that nothing within the principles of the country and the Constitution proper allowed for dissolution of the Union. Tragically, war came shortly after, thereby fulfilling Morris’s eerie prophecy at the Convention: “This country must be united.… If persuasion does not unite it, the sword will.”[3] In many ways, Lincoln is heir to many of the great political ideas of Morris, having acquired them through his prolonged admiration of Clay.

The second and more volatile of the two is his deep faith in human equality and profound hatred of American slavery. A proud abolitionist from an early age, Morris always denounced slavery in the strongest possible terms. During the Convention, he aligned with other northern abolitionists such as Alexander Hamilton and declared that he could never agree with upholding domestic slavery. Bluntly, he deemed it to be a “nefarious institution. It was the curse of Heaven on the States where it prevailed.”[4]

Morris never hesitated to make his views undoubtedly clear. By August 1787, it was all but settled that representation in one house of Congress and the Electoral College would be determined by population. Southerners wanted each of their slaves to be counted as one whole person to ensure greater representation. Northerners feared the prospect of a Dixie-dominated government, in which the African people would not reap any benefits from this greater representation. Morris responded accordingly:

The admission of slaves into the representation, when fairly explained, comes to this,—that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away from his fellow creatures their dearest connexions, and damns them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey, who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.[5]

Unfortunately, his passionate condemnation did not sway the other members of the Convention. The solution, according to James Wilson and Roger Sherman, would be to count Africans as three-fifths of a person and thus the Connecticut Compromise was agreed upon. Though it demonstrated a tremendous amount of prudence on the part of the delegates to prevent complete Southern control of the government, Morris’s searing condemnation serves as a powerful example of the Abolitionist presence at the Convention and a precursor to the popular anti-slavery sentiments which would precede the Civil War.

Yet even with these admirable principles, the man was not without his faults. Many of his enemies labeled him as an aristocrat. He denounced democracy at every possible turn, even going as far as proposing that the rich and the poor have their own branches in the new Congress. Nor did he very much like the West. In the Convention, Morris said that he could not support admitting western states to the Union on an equal political footing with those already in the Union, concluding that no enlightened statesman could possibly come from the rough wilderness.

The American civic order is a product of the generations that have preceded us in time and thought. To sustain it is to understand it, and to understand it is to study it. In his recent book Land of Hope, Wilfred McClay says that history is a carefully cropped photograph, “organized wisely and truthfully, which allows us to focus in with clarity on a particular story, with particular objectives in mind.”[6]

The history of America is the story of our shared struggle to live up to the principles of the Founding, as proclaimed in the Declaration and codified in the Constitution. The role Gouverneur Morris played in the Miracle at Philadelphia is one that is often cropped out of the greater American Story, but one that should never have been removed from view in the first place. So, this Constitution Day, when you hear the words We the People, think about the man who wrote them and how, in some ways (but not all), we live in his America.

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Notes:

[1] For the best biography on Mr. Morris, see: Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris—The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (New York: Free Press, 2003).

[2] See James Madison and Gordon Lloyd, Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 By James Madison, a Member (Ashland: Ashbrook Press, 2014) p. 11.

[3] Brookhiser, p. 82.

[4] Madison and Lloyd, p. 332.

[5] Ibid., p. 333.

[6] Wilfred M. McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (New York: Encounter Books, 2019), p. 4.

The featured image is a terracotta bust of Gouverneur Morris, from a life mask, (1792) by Jean-Antoine Houdon and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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