Rediscovering Americans: Gouverneur Morris

Written by Bradley Deitzen, Director of Civic Programs at ResponsiveEd George Washington. James Madison. Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin. These are the names that come to mind when most people think of the “Founding Fathers.” That being said, many others were instrumental in forming our country.

Gouverneur Morris was one of these men. He contributed in many ways including signing both the Articles of Confederation and Constitution, serving as a Minister to France at the beginning of the French Revolution, and representing New York in the U.S. Senate. While James Madison is recognized as the primary author of the Constitution, Morris’s legacy is best cemented in the seven words he penned: “We the People of the United States…”

Gouverneur Morris was born on January 31, 1752 to a wealthy family in New York. Early in life he lost a leg in a carriage accident, spending the rest of his life with a peg leg. He came from a divided family with one half-brother signing the Declaration of Independence (Lewis Morris) and another half-brother serving as a major general in the British army during the American Revolution (Staats Long Morris). Morris himself served as a member of the Continental Congress and worked to bring reforms to the Continental Army.

Later, Morris was selected as a Pennsylvania delegate for the Constitutional Convention, serving on the Committee of Style and Arrangement. Morris was known as one of the most outspoken members of the convention, speaking a total of 173 times, more than any other delegate. He was especially open about his views against slavery. James Madison wrote in his notes:

He [Morris] never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. ... Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.

Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included? The Houses in this city [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina.

After the Constitutional Convention Morris moved to France and served as the U.S. Minister to France. While there Morris was highly critical of the French Revolution and was later replaced by James Monroe. Morris also served in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Federalist party from 1800 until 1803. Morris died from complications related to self inflicted wounds when attempting to operate on himself.

Had you heard of Gouverneur Morris before reading this? Which other American historical figures would you like to learn about? Like what we do at the Center for Liberty and Learning? Donate here to preserve liberty and promote education!

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