Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life

Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life

by William Howard Adams

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Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life by William Howard Adams

A plainspoken, racy patrician who distrusted democracy but opposed slavery and championed freedom for all minorities, an important player in the American Revolution, later an astute critic of the French Revolution, Gouverneur Morris remains an enigma among the founding generation. This comprehensive, engrossing biography tells his robust story, including his celebrated love affairs during his long stay in Europe.

Morris’s public record is astonishing. One of the leading figures of the Constitutional Convention, he put the Constitution in its final version, including its opening Preamble. As Washington’s first minister to Paris, he became America’s most effective representative in France. A successful, international entrepreneur, he understood the dynamics of commerce in the modern world. Frankly cosmopolitan, he embraced city life as a creative center of civilization and had a central role in the building of the Erie Canal and in laying out the urban grid plan of Manhattan.

William Howard Adams describes Morris’s many contributions, talents, sophistication, and wit, as well as his romantic liaisons, free habits, and free speech. He brings to life a fascinating man of great stature, a founding father who receives his due at last.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300127041
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

William Howard Adams is also the author of The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, published by Yale University Press.

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Gouverneur Morris


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09980-0

Chapter One

The Pedigree

* * *

FOR all of his reputation, Gouverneur Morris did not come from an aristocratic family. By the strict code of the English aristocracy, even those on the top rung of colonial society could not make that leap. Although his family was certainly illustrious and its fortune had been established three generations before Morris was born, the Morrises were still parvenu. Families in the American colonies simply lacked the layers of traditions and official props needed to be accepted on anything like an equal footing with the Whig grandees of the home country. Morris understood this fundamental difference very well when he pointed out that established "family, wealth, prejudice or habit to raise a permanent mound of distinction" was not a part of American society. It had already evolved in its unpredictable mixture beyond the ancient aristocracies of Europe, which held little appeal for the endless waves of immigrants who continued to alter the country's inner dynamics.

Yet without the aristocratic underpinnings of feudal privileges, Morris's family, like other prominent colonial families, had managed to create its own native version of an established ruling class. They were, like all good Whigs, opposed to democracy and anarchy, believing in ordered liberty and a say in Parliament's tax policy. In the words of Gouverneur's cousin, the family "relished" public affairs and was quick to defend, if not always successfully, its liberty, property, and above all, its habit of making most of the political decisions that, in its opinion, were important.

Gouverneur Morris inherited an impressive New York name that also reached into the political affairs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. No other member of the founding generation in the colonies could claim such a long tradition of conspicuous leadership. With the Morris name, he also inherited a matter-of-fact awareness of a deference, a respect taken as a matter of course. Although he spent long stretches of his sixty-four years away from Morrisania, Morris's identification with this large piece of family real estate facing Long Island Sound, some nine miles above the city of New York, gave him a sense of his place in the world. Raised in a vague atmosphere of eighteenth-century rationalism combined with rural common sense, Gouverneur was, like his ancestors, robustly prepared to face life honestly and hold his ground in a tumultuous world.

Morrisania's nineteen hundred acres stretched from the Harlem River on the south and touched the East River at its southeast corner opposite Montresor's, now Randall's, Island. The hospitable front porch of the dignified, solid two-story manor house set in the checkered shade of oaks and elms looked out beyond the edge of the yard to the East River and the mist of the sound in the distance. Its voluptuous meadows were well stocked with cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs. Morris's father, Judge Lewis Morris ran the place with a staff of forty-six Negro slaves. Valuable stands of timber where Gouverneur first learned to hunt were intended for harvesting when the trees were mature, but instead they were cut for firewood by British soldiers who for six cold winters during the Revolution occupied New York City.

The Morris brothers, Lewis and Richard, who first installed the family in the Colony of New York in the 1670s were born near Tintern in Monmouthshire County, Wales. Although imaginative genealogists have tried to link them with the dim world of noble Welsh warriors of the twelfth century, the claim remains a family romance. Like that of most colonial gentry, the Morris rootstock was sturdy but commonplace.

Given their accomplishments, the Morrises hardly need any soaring family trees or noble crests (invented or real). By Gouverneur Morris's generation, they had acquired the attributes of what Thomas Jefferson called "the Patrician order"-the trappings of property, taste, gentility-qualities the ambitious young Jefferson so coveted and yet found difficult to accommodate in his own democratic ideology or his bank account. Morris's legacy included the impressive family makeup of natural abilities, self-confidence, and bursts of energy spiked with what might be called eccentric habits, time-honored ingredients of any aristocracy. If he shared the family indifference to conventions, he also expressed its instinctive mastery of the social arts as if he had been bred to be a citizen of the world.

Ignoring the opinion of others, the Morrises had a way of assuming a certain style, prompting the historian and lawyer William Smith Jr. to call Gouverneur's rich and powerful grandfather-the first of a long line of native-born Morrises called "Lewis"-who loved and played the music of Arcangelo Corelli, "whimsical in his temper ... grave in his manners and of penetrating parts." Gouverneur's father, a dignified judge of the New York Court of Vice-Admiralty, is remembered for going around in a hat made from the skin and feathers of a loon. There is a touch of family bravura in Gouverneur's impulsive purchase of some of Marie Antoinette's furniture at the Versailles auctions in 1793 to use in his drawing room while serving as the American minister in Paris. These trademark attitudes, some genuine, some probably feigned, were adequate to allow the first native-born Morris, Gouverneur's grandfather (known as "the Governor") to flaunt his freshly minted title of Lord of the Manor of Morrisania, a title he had secured in 1697 at the age of twenty-six. The same recurring characteristics of provincial pride and a strong family will to play a part in government seemed to set the Morrises apart in their bailiwick. Laced with a normal amount of human greed, their artless abilities survived through three generations of influence to the founding of the American republic and the writing of the Constitution.

This family background endowed Morris with cosmopolitan sensibilities even before he set foot in Europe. The marquis de Chastellux, a sophisticated Parisian, found the New Yorker, who was eighteen years younger, already "refined in the dark history of political intrigue" when the two first met in Philadelphia during the Revolution. The prince de Broglie who also knew Morris in Philadelphia thought he had more "spirit and nerve" than anyone else he had met in America. He added, however, that "his superiority, which he has taken no pains to conceal, will prevent his ever occupying an important place."

Morris also inherited a family political tradition bred in New York's turbulent colonial politics and defined by the debate over the question of who should rule at home. It is never hard to find one or two of his ancestors somewhere in the fray, by turns defending their rights against the royal governors or courting and manipulating their favor according to their own political judgment and shifting interests. Daily political maneuvers, public harangues, printed attacks on the opposition, partisan caucuses, and raucous elections combined with a native, common-sense support of the separation of governmental powers were the political grist of the earlier Morrises and their New York neighbors. Seemingly minor rows over who should pay judicial salaries or who could vote in a county election "skidded off their tracks," in Bernard Bailyn's memorable words, "onto elevated planes of disputation and ended deadlocked in the realm of principle."

The Morrises acted mostly in defense of what Madison called in the first Federalist paper their "distinctive interests," meaning their property and their extended mercantile connections. High-flown ideology did not get in the way of their main objectives, nor was it a part of Morris's temperament. Politics for the Morrises, who opposed the De Lancey clan and supported the powerful Livingstons, first of all meant extended families. Matters of principle, which they expressed rather than thought about, were secondary considerations in the tough world of New York politics. All this would be an important political legacy, "a common idiom" for Morris. It would carry him beyond his provincial roots, beyond class, beyond religion, and beyond partisan politics into the age of Revolution.

The Morris family fortune in the American colonies was founded in the last part of the seventeenth century by Richard and Lewis Morris, two immigrant soldiers-of-fortune from Barbados. In a contract dated 1670, Richard Morris is styled as a merchant in New York and his older brother Lewis as a merchant and planter in Barbados. Behind the two Morrises stretched mixed, tenacious careers, marked by another family characteristic-to follow their often erratic impulses.

Because many of the details are missing, the opening of the family saga unfolds at a brisk pace, from misty accounts of captivity on the Spanish Main, a turn at privateering, then building a tidy fortune in the West Indies before successfully fishing in the troubled waters of colonial New York not long after the British defeated the Dutch in 1664. As with many accounts of adventure in the seventeenth century, there are large gaps in the narrative that follows the two brothers from an obscure early life in Wales to finally settling in the colony of New York. Richard would produce the family's only heir, but his older brother Lewis seems to have provided much of the initial wherewithal. For the Morrises, as in the tribute Gouverneur Morris admiringly paid to the Mohawk Indians, perhaps the "most strongly marked ... of their moral features, was a high sense of personal independence."

In 1630 at the age of twenty-nine, Lewis Morris, the first Morris in the New World, signed on as a "servant" or indentured apprentice with the Providence Island Company of English Puritans, a colonizing venture that combined good works with an eye for potential profit. The company's first efforts to plant settlements in Massachusetts had been discouraging. During a hunt for a new, warmer climate in which to settle and through a series of unlikely adventures, Lewis Morris became for a time a member of William Jackson's band of "English pirates," preying on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. In command of one of Jackson's ships in 1643, Morris and his cohorts in a single raid captured the island of Jamaica and then ransomed it for a princely sum.

The trail of the first Lewis Morris-a common name in seventeenth-century Anglo-American records-is faint, the evidence skeletal. It appears, however, that the Lewis Morris of the Jamaican adventure was in Barbados in the late 1640s, taking up the cause of the island Roundheads against the royalist supporters among the island's plantocracy. Returning to England, Morris then signed onto an expedition of Parliamentary forces but was wounded while leading a landing party against the Barbadian government in the fall and winter of 1651-52.

After a successful blockade by the Roundhead fleet, the proceeds from seventeen Dutch merchant ships captured by the Parliamentary expedition was divided up among its leaders. Instead of returning to England, Morris decided to settle on the island, investing successfully in a Barbados sugar plantation. Sometime after becoming a Barbados planter and ignoring his new status as a slave owner in a colony that discriminated against all nonconformist Protestants, Lewis Morris converted to the Quaker faith, a faith that may have been latent in his Welsh past. The former privateer's strict new religious convictions predictably stirred up trouble with the island's Anglican establishment when Morris refused to pay his annual tithe to the Church or provide men and horses for the island's militia, which was necessary to keep the huge slave population under control. The heavy fines repeatedly levied against Morris failed to teach him discretion.

Growing increasingly militant, the restless Morris was more than ready to abandon Barbados when word of New York's more tolerant atmosphere of "Ecclesiastical liberties" drifted down to the island. But the commercial interests first developed by his brother Richard were as important to the family's move as was any question of religious doctrine. Richard Morris had joined Lewis in Barbados after the English Civil War, sometime in the 1650s, and had married Sarah Pole, the daughter of a local planter. Acting as a factor for Lewis, Richard, who was fifteen years younger, soon began scouting out the newly won British colony of New York, making a number of business trips there in the 1660s to establish a trading business. In 1670 Richard and his wife decided to move permanently to the colony after Richard bought in partnership with Lewis a 520-acre tract "upon the main over against the Town of Haerlem, commonly called Bronk's Land's." This purchase formed the core of the future Manor of Morrisania in what is now the southwest portion of the Borough of the Bronx. The population of the town of New York at the time was something like three thousand souls.

The family saga took an abrupt turn in 1672 when Richard Morris and his wife suddenly died, leaving in New York the Bronx land, a townhouse on Bridge Street, and "one poor blossom," a son and heir less than a year old. The orphan, the first native-born Morris in Gouverneur's line was immediately placed by the authorities "entirely in the hands of strangers." It was not an auspicious beginning. When word of Richard and Sarah Morris's death reached Lewis, already a man of seventy-two, he and his wife lost no time moving from the West Indies in September 1673 to rescue his Creole nephew and namesake and take charge of the family property.

Once in New York, the Barbadian emigre, invigorated with new challenge, quickly asserted another family characteristic: Morris managed to increase his land holdings nearly eightfold when between 1675 and 1683 he acquired "Tintern and Monmouth," a large estate and a profitable ironwork and sawmill operation in East Jersey, amounting to 3,900 acres. Not content with the modest 520-acre tract in Westchester County, Morris added another 1,400 acres to it by a grant from Governor Edmund Andros in 1676. With his growing wealth, political doors were opened. As a staunch supporter of the duke of York's regime in New York, in 1683 he was appointed to both the New York Council and the East Jersey Council, paving the way for his family's later, more spectacular political rise.

The elder Morris's connections with the West Indies coincided with the boom of New York trade with the islands in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. By the time of Lewis Morris's death, the West Indian market was becoming a cornerstone of the city's economy. Gouverneur Morris's grandfather would build on this island trade.


Excerpted from Gouverneur Morris by WILLIAM HOWARD ADAMS Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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