Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution

Overview

Since 1996, Richard Brookhiser has devoted himself to recovering the Founding for modern Americans. The creators of our democracy had both the temptations and the shortcomings of all men, combined with the talents and idealism of the truly great. Among them, no Founding Father demonstrates the combination of temptations and talents quite so vividly as the least known of the greats, Gouverneur Morris.

His story is one that should be known by every American -- after all, he ...

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Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution

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Overview

Since 1996, Richard Brookhiser has devoted himself to recovering the Founding for modern Americans. The creators of our democracy had both the temptations and the shortcomings of all men, combined with the talents and idealism of the truly great. Among them, no Founding Father demonstrates the combination of temptations and talents quite so vividly as the least known of the greats, Gouverneur Morris.

His story is one that should be known by every American -- after all, he drafted the Constitution, and his hand lies behind many of its most important phrases. Yet he has been lost in the shadows of the Founders who became presidents and faces on our currency. As Brookhiser shows in this sparkling narrative, Morris's story is not only crucial to the Founding, it is also one of the most entertaining and instructive of all. Gouverneur Morris, more than Washington, Jefferson, or even Franklin, is the Founding Father whose story can most readily touch our hearts, and whose character is most sorely needed today.

He was a witty, peg-legged ladies' man. He was an eyewitness to two revolutions (American and French) who joked with George Washington, shared a mistress with Talleyrand, and lost friends to the guillotine. In his spare time he gave New York City its street grid and New York State the Erie Canal. His keen mind and his light, sure touch helped make our Constitution the most enduring fundamental set of laws in the world. In his private life, he suited himself; pleased the ladies until, at age fifty-seven, he settled down with one lady (and pleased her); and lived the life of a gentleman, for whom grace and humanity were as important as birth. He kept his good humor through war, mobs, arson, death, and two accidents that burned the flesh from one of his arms and cut off one of his legs below the knee.

Above all, he had the gift of a sunny disposition that allowed him to keep his head in any troubles. We have much to learn from him, and much pleasure to take in his company.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Without a wasted word or a false sentiment, Brookhiser smoothly and insightfully guides readers through two dramatic revolutions. He makes the most of a genial and mercurial protagonist, who could spice his own folly with keen perception. — Alan Taylor
Publishers Weekly
This biography ought to rehabilitate an appealing, major if second-ranking figure of the early nation. Gouverneur Morris has been overlooked, surmises Brookhiser (America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918), because he was among "the solid rather than the glittering." If so, Morris had a more penetrating mind, a more buoyant disposition and a more lusty character than most of his contemporaries. He may have been a rake, but he appears to have been a lovable and admirable one-a thoughtful lover (greatly loved in return by women, including Talleyrand's mistress, whom he shared with the Frenchman), a keen observer of history, an early opponent of slavery, and an optimistic and unembittered man despite grievous bodily injuries. More important, he played key roles in the nation's first years. We owe the Constitution's great preamble, as well as many of the document's key phrases and all of its style, to Morris's pen. Observing the French Revolution up close in Paris and serving as ambassador to France at the height of the Terror, he recorded what he saw in a classic diary. The author's characteristic strengths are on display here, no doubt because he's writing of another of the founding generation's conservative figures, his longtime subjects. Sometimes letting facts suffice for interpretation, Brookhiser, a senior editor for the National Review and a columnist for the New York Observer, leaves a reader unsure of where to place Morris, how to understand his significance. But no one will fail to be charmed by this man of fortitude and achievement who "savored life." (June 3) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Forbes Magazine
An absorbing biography of one of America's least-known and least-appreciated Founding Fathers. Gouverneur Morris played a critical role in financing and supplying the Revolutionary War. He was an important figure at the Constitutional Convention, where, as a nationalist, he rose above state and sectional interests. He was an opponent of slavery and tried to get the Constitutional Convention to ban it. He wrote the stirring preamble to the Constitution and edited the Constitution itself. His prose withstands the test of time. (15 Mar 2004)
—Steve Forbes
Library Journal
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words "We the people" and continues with other stirring phrases, all written at hectic speed by a man whom the general public has largely forgotten: Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Penned by well-known journalist Brookhiser, the author of two well-received earlier biographies (Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and Alexander Hamilton: American), this brief but reliable and well-written biography should help to rescue Morris from his undeserved oblivion. The paradoxical Morris was a bon vivant who enjoyed the finer things in life, including the favors of numerous ladies both in America and in Europe. That a later carriage accident left him with a peg leg dampened neither his spirits nor his attractiveness to the opposite sex. But Morris was also a talented writer, skilled businessman and attorney, and ardent patriot. Brookhiser expertly traces all the phases of Morris's career, from the New York Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress in the 1770s, through his writing of the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, to his years at U.S. minister to France during its revolution and his later disillusionment with the very government he had helped to create. This book belongs in all public and academic libraries.-T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Third in National Review senior editor Brookhiser’s series on the heroes of the American Revolution (Founding Father, 1996; Alexander Hamilton, American, 1999). Gouverneur Morris was less celebrated in his own day than either Hamilton or Washington, but not for want of trying: he had an endlessly high regard for himself, chased women on two continents, led a life of wealth and influence before and after the Revolution (the seat of his family estate stretched from the Harlem River to Long Island Sound, and as a lawyer he commonly earned fees of $10,000 a pop), and was altogether satisfied with his abilities and accomplishments. The scion of French Huguenot and Dutch forebears, Morris enjoyed an aristocratic heritage that "represented something that existed nowhere else in the Thirteen Colonies [but New York]--an old world of European settlement that preceded the arrival of Englishmen." For all that, Morris was quick to choose the Continental side when the war came, and unwavering in his devotion to the American cause. Although his leanings were fundamentally conservative, Morris championed religious freedom, disagreeing with fellow Federalist John Jay that "Americans were a united people . . . professing one religion"--which, Brookhiser points out, meant not Christianity but Protestantism--and holding vigorously that "matters of conscience and faith, whether political or religious, are as much out of the province, as they are beyond the ken of human legislatures." Brookhiser also asserts, intriguingly, that Morris mistrusted democracy and favored national over states’ rights--and that he foresaw the Civil War as early as 1812, when he urged New York and New England to break away from theslaveholding states. As the lead author of the Constitution, Morris had ample opportunity to insert his views on such matters. Brookhiser might have done more to examine the text with an eye to that question, but this remains a balanced and thoroughly interesting study of the man and his time all the same. Agent: Michael Carlisle/Carlisle & Co.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743256025
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/25/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 795,629
  • Product dimensions: 8.24 (w) x 5.48 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Brookhiser is the author of America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 (2002), Alexander Hamilton, American (1999), Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1995), and The Way of the WASP (1991), all published by Free Press. He is a senior editor at The National Review and a New York Observer columnist. He contributes to such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage, and The New York Times. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

A biographer can feel a moment's hesitation when it comes to introducing his subject, for every traditional means has its drawbacks. If the hero appears in medias res, in the midst of some great action, the reader may feel manipulated, even coerced: his attention is being claimed before it has been earned. If the story of a life begins where the life does, in a cradle, then the reader might experience a sense of delay: he wished to read about great men, not infants. For the biographer of Gouverneur Morris, it is perhaps best to let him be introduced by a woman.

In 1795, Harriet de Damas, a French countess, wrote a portrait of a tall, handsome American who had become a fixture of Parisian society.1 Gouverneur Morris had come to France in 1789, age thirty-seven, as a businessman; three years later, he was appointed the American minister to that country. Mr. Morris had a French first name (his mother's maiden name), which Americans insisted on pronouncing "Gov-er-neer"; he had learned French as a child, and wrote it well enough to produce papers on French politics, or little poems for his friends. Mme de Damas called his spoken French "always correct and vigorous," though other Frenchwomen teased him for his mistakes. Mr. Morris cut a figure for many reasons: his impressive bearing (the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon used him as a body double for a statue of George Washington); his wit; his severely elegant clothes and carriage, so different from French silks and colors; and what was severe in a different way, his wooden left leg. When he arrived at a party, the servants watched him; the guests watched him; he watched himself, mindful of the impression he made.

"Superficial observers," wrote Mme de Damas, "...might be acquainted with Mr. Morris for years, without discovering his most eminent qualities. Such observers must be told what to admire." The Frenchwoman confronts a difficulty with her portrait head-on: she had known Mr. Morris for only a small part of his life, since his first thirty-seven years had been spent in America. But she plunged ahead confidently.

The superficial observers of his early life "regard Mr. Morris as a profound politician," and indeed he had been involved in politics, often of the most eventful kind. When he was twenty-three years old the American Revolution began, and he watched it pull society and family asunder (one of his elder half brothers signed the Declaration of Independence; another half brother was a general in the British army). He left American towns a step ahead of marauding British armies, and when Morris visited his mother, who supported the crown throughout the war, he had to get passes from both sides to cross their lines. He eventually followed his patriot half brother into the Continental Congress, where he helped accomplish great things, but also engaged in endless petty wrangling. ("We had many scoundrels" in Congress, he would remember as an older man.)

When he was still a young one, age thirty-five, Mr. Morris drafted the Constitution of the United States. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret, to allow the delegates maximum freedom to speak their minds, so Mr. Morris's role on the Committee of Style was not generally known. But in later years he admitted to a correspondent that "that instrument was written by the fingers which write this letter." Years after Morris's death, an elderly James Madison told an inquiring historian that "the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris." James Madison, the careful and learned theorist, is commonly called the Father of the Constitution, because he kept the most complete set of notes of the debates, and made cogent arguments for ratification after the debates were done (he wrote one third of the Federalist Papers). But Gouverneur Morris, who put the document into its final form and who wrote the Preamble from scratch, also deserves a share of the paternity. The founders were voluminous writers, and much of their writing is very good, but few of them had the combination of lightness and force that generates a great style. Jefferson had it; Franklin had it; Thomas Paine, the passionate and ungainly English immigrant, had it. The only other one of their number who hit that note consistently was Morris. "A better choice" for a draftsman "could not have been made," Madison concluded.

Mme de Damas and her French friends certainly knew about Mr. Morris's political activity: it was one facet of his social cachet, a point of interest like his wardrobe and his leg. A more striking feature of their friend was his manner. Mme de Damas called him "the most amiable" of men. "His imagination inclines to pleasantry, and being abundantly gifted with what the English call humor, united to what the French name esprit, it is impossible not to be delighted...." Humor and esprit: Mr. Morris delighted in the incongruities and follies of life, including his own, and his comments — quick, shapely, and bold — communicated that delight to others. Women found him especially pleasing, perhaps because he took special pains to please them. "Govr Morris kept us in a continual smile," was how one young lady put it. His women friends did more than smile. At the cardtable of the sexes, his wit and looks always trumped his disability, and the one-legged American left a trail of lovers on two continents.

Mr. Morris's good company went beyond good times. When the French Revolution, more stressful than the American, began to suck his glittering friends into poverty, exile, and danger, he gave many of them refuge, and saved several of their lives. Mme de Damas was not one of his lovers, but he did save her life.

But more important than Mr. Morris's career or his behavior was his nature. "Nothing really worthy of him," wrote Mme de Damas, "will be said by any one, who does not ascend to the source of all that is great and excellent in his character." That, she decided, was "a belief that God can will nothing but what is good." This gave him confidence, charity, and hope. "Ever at peace with himself...seldom ruffled in his temper, not suffering men or events to have a mastery over his spirit, he is habitually serene, alike ready to engage in the most abstruse inquiries, or to join in the trifles of social amusement." Gouverneur Morris took his life as it came. "He conceives it to be following the order of Providence to enjoy all its gifts. 'To enjoy is to obey.' And upon the same principle he submits, with a modest fortitude, and sincere resignation, to the ills inflicted by the same hand." Living among tottering thrones and shaky republics, Mr. Morris showed the gift of poise.

Gouverneur Morris belonged to that band of brothers that we now call the founding fathers. Some were his friends: he knew and worshipped George Washington for almost twenty years; he knew and squabbled with Paine for almost as long; he was at Alexander Hamilton's deathbed. Some of them were enemies: he thought James Madison was a fool and a drunkard. He knew them all, and was one of their number. The founding fathers-to-be were guided by the pursuit of greatness. They measured themselves by their service to the country they were making. Mr. Morris was moved by the same tidal pull of public good. "This is the seed time of glory," he wrote in one of his sweetest phrases. The second half of his life, after Mme de Damas finished her portrait, had two great public occasions in store for him. He was one of those New Yorkers who pushed early and hard for what became the Erie Canal, a project that made the paper structure of national union economically vital. At the same time, and paradoxically, he was one of those northerners who decided, during the War of 1812, that the nation should be broken up, and the Constitution scrapped. Other Americans would come to the same conclusion, from abolitionists calling the Constitution a deal with the devil to southerners arguing that it gave them a right to secede. But Morris's abandonment of the document he had written is more astonishing than later repudiations.

Yet Mr. Morris, alone among the founding fathers, thought that his private life was as important as his public life. Being a gentleman mattered as much to him as being a great man. When public life was not going well, he could go home — not to bide his time before his next opportunity, or to enjoy the retirement on a pedestal of a Cincinnatus, but because he enjoyed farming, reading, eating, fishing, making money, and making love as much as founding a state. "A characteristic trait, which I must not forget," wrote Mme de Damas, "is his faculty and habit of applying his mind to a single object, of suddenly collecting the whole force of his attention upon one point." That point might be a stumbling economy, or an imperfect constitution; it might also be the parade of domestic life. "He is fond of his ease, does his best to procure it, and enjoys it as much as possible. He loves good cheer, good wine, good company." Mr. Morris's ability to switch from public to private life — his inability ever to banish his private frame of reference, even in the midst of public business — did limit his effectiveness as a public man. He lacked the persistence of the other founders. He could focus on one political idea, but soon he might be focusing on another. One delegate to the Constitutional Convention called him "fickle and inconstant," a charge that rang down the years. But this limitation brought benefits. In an era when American politics was as poisonous as it would ever be, he was remarkably free from rancor. Though a war would finally drive him to it, once the war ended, rancor receded. Even James Madison could not long disturb his peace of mind.

Mr. Morris had many reasons to be happy. He was born to privilege, he worked hard to make himself rich, and he was successful in politics, business, and love: after all his affairs, he married a devoted and intelligent woman (accused, it is true, of being a double murderess, though the accuser, her brother-in-law, was commonly supposed to be somewhat insane). But Mr. Morris also saw many things that could have made him gloomy, bitter, perplexed. He witnessed two revolutions, up close and on the ground, one more turbulent than we remember, the other as turbulent as any has ever been. He fled a town that was about to be burned to the ground, and he saw a corpse that had just been torn apart by a mob. His own body was not only missing a leg, but most of the flesh of one arm. Pessimists and misanthropes have been made of less.

In 1936, as Europe slid to war, William Butler Yeats wrote that there is a gaiety in art, even tragic art, that transfigures the dread of life. Gouverneur Morris was no artist, unless living is an art. He carried his gaiety within himself. It was, we might say, constitutional.

Copyright © 2003 by Richard Brookhiser

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