Friday, September 15

Gouverneur Morris

His words are among the most recognizable in our nation's history--yet most Americans would have a hard time recognizing his name: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In his own day, Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), was an eloquent, though sometimes windy, speaker who literally set the rhetorical course for the Founding Fathers as they launched their fledgling experiment in freedom. Thus, he was charged with the primary responsiblity to write the final draft of the Constitution. Members of the New York legislature, the Constitutional Convention, and the Senate were often swayed by his masterful blend of logic, wit, and imagination. Although he had strong aristocratic tendencies, and as late as 1774 wrote, “It is in the interest of all men to seek for reunion with the parent state,” in 1776 Morris spoke in the New York legislature on behalf of the colonies and against the King. He early recognized the need for a united, strong national congress. Of Morris, historian David Muzzey wrote, “he was a nationalist before the birth of the nation.”

In the Continental Congress Morris was chairman of several committees and his gifted pen produced such important documents as the instructions to Franklin, as minister to France, and detailed instructions to the peace commissioners, which contained provisions that ultimately appeared in the final treaty. As a member of Congress, he supported and signed the Articles of Confederation.

At the Constitutional Convention Morris participated in debates more than any other delegate. He argued that the President and the Senate should be elected for life, and that the Senate should represent the rich and propertied, to counterbalance the democratic character of the House of Representatives. This was, of course, rejected, but his proposal for a Council of State led to the idea of the President’s Cabinet, and he proposed that the President be elected, not by Congress, but by the people. When the Constitution was completed, Morris was given the task of editing and revising it, and he then wrote the famous words of the preamble.

Once the Constitution was formally accepted, Morris proved one of its most devoted supporters. On September 15, two days before the delegates signed it, Morris made an impassioned speech answering Edmund Randolph, who refused to sign. Many of the delegates later attested that it was his speech that swung the tide of opinion in favor of ratification.

As minister to France in the 1790s, Morris found himself in the wrong country at the wrong time. Although he was recognized by the French revolutionists as one of the leaders of the American Revolution, he was nonetheless a Federalist with clear aristocratic sympathies. In Paris he became involved in attempts to help French nobles escape--including the Marquis de Lafayette and the King, and the revolutionists demanded his removal. After he returned he served in the Senate and, later, as chairman of the group that developed the plan for the Erie Canal, the waterway that opened the path for westward expansion.

But for all of his other accomplishments, he will forever be known as the author of those immortal words in the Preamble to the Constitution.


Delmar Smith said...

You've got to stop doing this to me! I'm starting to feel like a dunce! And I teach at the university! OK. Yes, at least I knew who Morris was. But, I had no idea what all he had done and how influential he was. What biographies could I read to know more?

Thank you, thank you for reminding me that education is a lifetime journey. You are greatly impacting my life and the lives of my students.

Sira Birac said...

Are you ever planning to do a book about all these American heroes you write about here? I think that would be something many of us, including those of us who are not Americans, would greatly appreciate.

Lawrence Underwood said...

I am with both Delmar and Sira on this. My knowledge of American history is fast becoming gunshy! I'm humbled and spurred on to study once again.

gileskirk said...

Actually, yes. I am currently researching and writing a book on the forgotten founding fathers. It should be out sometime next year.