Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Usually associated with New York, Gouverneur Morris represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention and edited that document.
Gouverneur Morris, born in New York, made his mark on American History in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a promising and privileged young man, Morris took nothing for granted, working hard as a lawyer and budding politician. His commanding presence and unfaltering vision for America made him an influential player in post-revolution government formation. Morris set the stage for our modern currency system, since he helped found the Bank of North America. In his crowning achievement, he edited the United States Constitution to what it is today. In the wake of his political success, Morris turned to his love of business, traveling Europe, and increasing his vast fortune. A perpetual playboy, Morris did not marry until he was 58, settling back into his private estate in Long Island, New York. Morris died in the same house he was born in, leaving a legacy of a true Founding Father.
The Morris family of New York was the closest thing to aristocracy in the pre-revolutionary colonies. Lewis Morris’s nearly 2,000 acre estate in Westchester County was christened Morrisania, and it held a stately nine room manor house overlooking Long Island Sound (Brookhiser). It was in this manor house that Gouverneur Morris was born in late January 1752. The seventh child of his father, but only the first of his mother, young Gouverneur Morris was the only child of Lewis Morris’s second marriage. Lewis Morris died when Gouverneur was only ten, leaving him only a modest inheritance. Knowing he would have to work to make a living, Morris attended a Huguenot academy in New Rochelle, where he learned his first French (Swiggett). His genius manifested itself early, earning him a B.A. from King’s College (now Columbia University) at age 16 and an M.A. two years later. As he grew intellectually, Morris also grew physically, with such an imposing physique that he was later used as the body model for a sculpture of George Washington (Swiggett). Morris was admitted to the New York bar in late 1871, where he began his long career as a lawyer and a womanizer, flirting with the head of the firm’s two daughters by writing them poetry. Morris’s famous name, brilliant mind, and good looks were natural prerequisites of a life in public service in this time period. He was elected to the Provincial Congress held at New York City in May 1775. Congress sought little more than reconciliation for English led grievances, still wary of questioning the sovereign power of the King. It was here that Morris came into his own as a staunch republican, holding “little faith in extreme democracy” (Roosevelt). He was placed on almost every important committee of the Provincial Congress, and he even recommended the issuing of paper money to cover colony debts, which was one of the first steps toward a separate government (Roosevelt). Morris worked to convince his reluctant home state of New York to side wholly with the colonies against Britain, which was a major feat, espeically considering that while Congress was in session New York was under constant attack by British forces. In the tumultuous years following the Declaration of Independence, Morris served on various legislative committees and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1778. As a delegate, Morris traveled to Valley Forge, and upon seeing the ragged and emaciated soldiers, he took it upon himself to serve as the Continental Army’s spokesman to Congress (Wright & MacGregor). Despite his overwhelming success in politics, Morris could never shake his love of business, so he returned to Philadelphia to practice law in 1779 after his senatorial term expired. While his private life kept Morris busy, he never lost his political connections, writing and publishing many papers concerning the U.S. financial policy. Again, he reiterated his strong vision for taxation over paper money and was a strong skeptic of credit. Unfortunately, he was not able to convince Congress, but it got him a job back in politics. From 1781 to 1785, Morris served as the assistant to Robert Morris (no relation), the Superintendent of US Finance, where he helped establish the Bank of North America. 1782 brought great success and great tragedy, beginning with Morris’s drafting plans for national coinage, which were accepted but later modified slightly. Morris is credited with coining the term “cent” and popularizing “dollar” (Roosevelt). That same year, Morris overturned his carriage at a high speed, resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. Always a pillar of strength, Morris took the accident in the best of spirits, and his handicap never appeared to slow his work progress (Roosevelt). Gouverneur Morris’s greatest achievement came in September 1786 during the Constitutional Convention at Annapolis, Maryland. In a move reminiscent of Jefferson’s work on the Declaration of Independence, the rewriting of the Constitution fell solely on Morris’s shoulders (Brookhiser). He streamlined and focused the Constitution’s wording, turning 23 articles into only seven. Morris’s changed the phrase “we the states” to “we the people,” which has ramifications still felt today. Though his editorial skill shaped the laws that continue to govern us today, Morris was largely absent from the nine month ratification process that followed. In 1787, Morris returned for a brief part in the National Convention to form the Constitution, where he argued for a strong national government. Morris also spoke in favor of an aristocratic class system similar to Britain (Roosevelt). Morris was passionate about America’s future, as he writes in a letter to John Jay, “although some of the present generation may feel the result of colonial oppositions of opinion, that generation will die away and give place to a race of Americans” (Roosevelt). Morris’s greatest contribution at the National Convention was his instrumental role in creating laws governing the executive branch, such as the presidential veto and re-election. That same year, Morris once again disengaged himself from public life, traveling to France with Robert Morris in pursuit of a business venture. True to his reputation as a playboy, Morris was an active socialite, claiming many lovers while in France, despite being in a relationship with a woman in America (Tansill). While living the life of social and political discourse, Morris witnessed the beginnings of the French Revolution. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he expressed his doubts on its success when he wrote, “In their Eagerness to abolish ancient Institutions they forgot that a Monarchy without intermediate Ranks is but another Name for Anarchy and Despotism” (Morris). In the years that followed, Morris remained in Europe, first as the London diplomat for the U.S. in 1790, then as the Minister to France in 1792. Morris’s social life and penchant for travel led to him to be recalled from the position in 1794. Relieved of his political duties, Morris traveled the continent for the next five years, increasing his business assets. The turn of the century brought Morris back to American politics for one last time, which is when he was elected to an unexpired term in the Senate. His return to politics was brief, lasting only two years, after which Morris retired to his manor in Morrisania. Gouverneur Morris’s legacy in politics was a roller-coaster of success and apathy, but no one can deny the impact of his genius on the formation of America. Relaxed and free to do what he pleased, Morris found love in 1809 at the age of 58. He married Anne Cory Randolph and eventually had his only son, Gouverneur Morris II. In his private life, Morris remained a strong voice from behind the scenes of American politics, voicing his opposition to the War of 1812. From 1810 to 1813 he served as the Erie Canal Commission Chairman, where he presided over his long-term pet project until his death. Morris saw the canal as a symbol of America’s greatness, “The proudest empire in Europe is but a bauble, compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of 2 centuries; perhaps of one!” (Brookhiser). Gouverneur Morris died in his bed at Morrisania after losing his battle with chronic gout. He was sixty-four.
A Diary of the French Revolution: 1789-1793. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939.
Brookhiser, Richard. Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Gouverneur Morris. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 182-183. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Sep. 2011. New citation.