MORRIS, GOUVERNEUR. (1752–1816). American statesman. New York. Born on 30 January 1752 in the manor house at Morrisania (now the Bronx), Gouverneur Morris was reared as a cultured provincial aristocrat and the son of a judge of the court of vice-admiralty. His mother, Sarah Gouverneur, was the daughter of the speaker of the New York Assembly.
Morris graduated from King's College (now Columbia) in 1768, studied under William Smith, later chief justice of New York, and was admitted to the bar at the age of 19, in 1771. He soon built up a successful practice in New York City. As a member of the landed aristocracy, he naturally had misgivings about revolution. Although his half-brothers, Lewis and Richard, were Patriots, his mother was a Loyalist and his half-brother, Staats Morris, was a general in the British army. Gouverneur Morris nevertheless adhered to the Patriot cause when it appeared that war was inevitable, despite expressing fears, in 1774, that this would bring "the domination of a riotous mob." In 1775 he was elected to the New York Provincial Congress, where he proposed a plan for a Continental paper currency that was adopted by the Continental Congress. Over the next two years he promoted a strong central government, with representatives selected from electoral districts rather than states.
With John Jay and Robert L. Livingston, he drafted the constitution under which New York was governed for the next 50 years. Responsible for the constitution's conservative franchise-property qualification, Morris surprised many contemporaries with his consistent and impassioned opposition to slavery. He strongly supported General Philip Schuyler and, with Jay, attempted to prevent Schuyler from being superseded by Horatio Gates. Elected to Congress in October 1777, the youthful Morris was interested primarily in financial, military, and diplomatic matters. He drafted many important documents, including the diplomatic instructions for Benjamin Franklin and, later, for the peace commissioners. One of his most dramatic actions came in the official response to the Britain's conciliatory Carlisle Commission of 1778. Morris called for the United States to be "an Assylum to mankind. America shall receive to her bosom and comfort and cheer the oppressed, the miserable, and the poor of every nation and of every clime." He visited Valley Forge early in 1778, and returned to Philadelphia committed to military reforms, and was a firm supporter of General George Washington.
Defeated for re-election to Congress because he refused to enlist congressional support for the claims of New York in the dispute over Vermont, Morris transferred his citizenship to Pennsylvania and set up his home and law practice in Philadelphia. Pursuing an early interest in currency and credit, he contributed a brilliant series of financial articles to the Pennsylvania Packet from February to April 1780, under the pen name "An American." This brought him an invitation to serve as assistant to Robert Morris (the "financier of the Revolution," no relation to Gouverneur) in 1781. He held this post until 1785, while Robert Morris performed his remarkable feat of keeping the United States solvent. Gouverneur Morris worked out a decimal system of coinage later perfected by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton that spared America the miserable pounds, shillings, and pence of the mother country. That same year he put forth a proposal for a Bank of North America, which Congress chartered in December 1781 and funded with a large French loan.
By a narrow majority, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose Morris as one of its delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. An opponent of democracy—"Give the votes to the people who have no property and they will sell them to the rich," he said—Morris worked at the Convention to craft a conservative constitution that would respect private property, except for ownership of slaves, and which would foster a strong central government. Morris was almost responsible for the collapse of the Convention when he demanded that they take a stand against the spread of slavery. He lost this battle to the supposed compromise of the three-fifths clause, but put aside his doubts in support of the finished document. Now only 35, Morris abandoned his political career and returned to Morrisania, which he had bought from his elder half-brother, but soon went to Europe (in 1789) as agent for Robert Morris and other business associates.
Early in 1792, Washington appointed Morris to the post of minister to France. Morris openly supported the monarchy and feared the consequences of the revolution, which did not endear him to most French. In 1794, in retaliation for the American dismissal of its envoy to the United States (Edmund Charles "Citizen" Genet), the French government requested that Washington recall Morris, which he did. Morris went from Paris to London and attempted to persuade Britain's prime minister, William Pitt, to invade France.
After another four years traveling through Europe, Morris returned to the United States in 1798. In April 1800 he had what he called in his diary "the misfortune" to be elected a Federalist senator to fill an unexpired term. With the Jeffersonians in control of the legislature, Morris was not re-elected and in 1802 again retired to Morrisania, spending the last thirteen years of his life there. In 1810 he joined with De Witt Clinton in proposing the construction of the Erie Canal, serving as chairman of the board of canal commissioners from 1810 to 1816. By 1814 he had lost all hope that the United States could survive, and proposed that New York and New England secede and form a separate country.
SEE ALSO Burr, Aaron.
Adams, William Howard. Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), American statesman and diplomat, was one of the important authors of the U.S. Constitution.
Gouverneur Morris was born on Jan. 31, 1752, in his family's manor house at Morrisania, N.Y. After graduating from King's College, New York City, in 1768, he studied law under the chief justice of New York and in October 1771 was licensed as an attorney.
Although some members of his family remained loyal to the British crown, Morris supported the rebel cause during the American Revolution. In 1775 he served as a member of New York's provincial congress and in the following year sat in its constitutional convention. With John Jay and Robert R. Livingston, he drafted New York's first constitution. In 1778 he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served as chairman of some of the Congress's most important standing committees. His authorship of a number of essays on public finance brought him to the attention of Robert Morris, the Congress's superintendent of finance, who appointed Gouverneur Morris his assistant, a post he held until 1785. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he played a leading role, speaking more often than any other delegate and contributing substantially to the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1788 Gouverneur Morris sailed for Europe to attend to Robert Morris's extensive business affairs. In Paris he branched out into speculative enterprises of his own and over the next decade amassed a considerable fortune. His wit, charm, and fluent command of French soon made him the most popular American in Paris. Among his acquaintances were leading members of the Parisian nobility and influential crown officials. His diary gives a lively account of his social life and is one of the best sources on the early stages of the French Revolution.
Early in 1792 Morris was appointed U.S. minister to France. He served until 1794, when the French government demanded his recall, but he traveled in Europe instead and returned to the United States in 1799. The following year he accepted an interim appointment of 3 years as U.S. senator from New York. An extreme Federalist partisan, he was one of President Thomas Jefferson's most severe critics.
Morris was not elected to a new term, and during his retirement, after 1803, he supervised his numerous business activities and carried on an active correspondence with acquaintances abroad and at home. In his correspondence he was sharply critical of the foreign policy pursued by Jefferson and James Madison, particularly their alleged hostility to Great Britain. Believing the War of 1812 to be "unjust, unwise, mismanaged," he supported the disastrous Hartford Convention of 1814. He died at Morrisania on Nov. 6, 1816.
Morris's diary was edited by Beatrix Cary Davenport, A Diary of the French Revolution (2 vols., 1939). The standard life is still Jared Sparks, The Life of Gouverneur Morris with Selections from His Correspondence (3 vols., 1832). Theodore Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris (1888; repr. 1917, 1980), remains useful. The best popular biography is Howard Swiggett, The Extraordinary Mr. Morris (1952).
Kline, Mary-Jo, Gouverneur Morris and the new nation, 1775-1788, New York: Arno Press, 1978, 1971. □