This magistrate is not the king. The people are the king. Gouverneur Morris
Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but fewer know that Gouverneur Morris wrote the Constitution. In both cases, men gathered at the Philadelphia State House and voted for each element of the respective documents, but it was up to Jefferson and Morris to edit the language of the resolutions, organize the presentation, and prepare a preamble. Both men wrote with such consummate skill that their words have reverberated through time and distance.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention, Morris was assigned to the Committee of Style. This committee’s task was to take the work of the Committee of Detail and compose a clear and coherent constitution.
For example, the preamble from the Committee of Detail read:
“We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachussetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.”
Morris volunteered to take this draft home and prepare a more polished version. He did a masterful job. Beyond organizing the document and language clarification, Morris wrote a short, but eloquent preamble.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.”
James Madison, another member of the committee, gave Morris credit for “the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution.”
Morris was only thirty-five years old at the convention. He was wealthy, a graduate of Columbia, and spoke several languages. During the war, he had served in the militia and then Congress. Originally a New Yorker, he moved to Philadelphia after losing reelection to Congress.
Richard Brookhiser titled his biography of Gouverneur Morris, the Gentleman Revolutionary, but the subtitle might have been more accurate: the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. He was a character. For example, he lost a leg in a carriage accident, but reveled in telling strangers that he lost it jumping from a lady’s balcony. William Pierce, another delegate, wrote, “Mr. G. Morris is one of those genius’s in whom every species of talents combine to render him conspicuous and flourishing in public debate: he winds through all the mazes of rhetoric and throws around him such a glare that he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him.”
Perhaps his speaking prowess was one reason why he spoke (173 times) more than any other delegate at the convention. The other reason was that he was a man of firm opinions.
He was a strong proponent of separation of powers, with effective checks and balances. “[T]o minimize potential for corruption, power had to be divided between the president and the Senate. As the president was to nominate … and as the Senate was to concur, there would be security.”
He was an ally of James Madison and fought against splintered nations and for a strong, unified national government. Only Alexander Hamilton may have been a stronger nationalist.
He supported gun ownership. “Americans need never fear their government because of the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”
Morris did not always get what he wanted. He was an abolitionist, saying he would gladly pay taxes to free all Africans, and called slavery the “curse of heaven.” He wanted both the House and Senate to be proportional by population, and supported the popular election of the president. Before the Bill of Rights, he fought for a Constitutional guarantee that anyone could practice their chosen religion without interference.
What advice would he give us today? He would remind all Americans that we each have a duty to assist our great republic wherever we are needed. In his old age, he said, “It has been the unvarying principle of my life, that the interest of our country must be preferred to every other interest.”
Gouverneur Morris was a patriot, who contributed substance as well as style to our Constitution. Near death, he wrote, “You may, then, opening your mind’s eye, behold your friend as he descends, with tottering steps, the bottom of life’s hill … looking back, I can with some little self-complacency, reflect that I have not lived in vain….”
No, he did not. We should remember him every time we read, We the People …