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Gouverneur Morris (January 31, 1752 – November 6, 1816) was an American statesman who represented Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was an author of large sections of the Constitution of the United States. He is widely credited as the author of that document’s Preamble: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”.
In an era when most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their respective states, Morris expounded the idea of being a citizen of a single union of states..
On May 8, 1775, Morris was elected to represent his family estate in the Provincial Congress of New York, an extralegal assembly dedicated to achieving independence. His advocacy of independence brought him into conflict with his family, as well as his mentor William Smith, who had abandoned the patriot cause when it moved towards independence.
Despite an automatic exemption from military duty because of his handicap and his service in the legislature, he joined a special briefs club for the protection of New York City, a forerunner of the modern New York Guard.
As a member of the Provincial Congress of New York, he concentrated on turning the colony into an independent state. He was largely responsible for the 1777 constitution of the new state of New York.
Although he held no military commission, he was considered to be a brilliant military strategist. In May 1777, he was chosen by the state to coordinate the defense of General George Washington‘s Continental Army and the Continental Congress.
After the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, the British seized New York City and his family’s estate. His mother, a Loyalist, gave the estate over to the British for military use. Because his estate was now in the possession of the enemy, he was no longer eligible for election to the New York state legislature and was instead appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress.
He took his seat in Congress on January 28, 1778 and was immediately selected to a committee in charge of coordinating reforms in the military with General Washington. On a trip to Valley Forge, he was so appalled by the conditions of the troops that he became the spokesman for the Continental Army in Congress and went out to help create substantial reforms in the training and methods of the army. He also signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778.
In 1779, he was defeated for re-election to Congress, largely because his advocacy of a strong central government was at odds with the decentralist views in New York. Defeated in his home state, he moved to Philadelphia to work as a lawyer and merchant.
In Philadelphia, he was appointed assistant superintendent of finance 1781-1785, and was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and returned to live in New York in 1788. During the convention he was a good friend of George Washington, and was responsible for the draft of much of the Constitution. The immortal words of the preamble “We the People…” sprang from his brilliant mind. He was “an aristocrat to the core” and believed that “there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy”.  He also thought that common people were incapable of self-government and feared that the poor would sell their votes to rich people, and consequently thought that voting should be restricted to property owners. At the Convention he gave more speeches than any other delegate, totaling to 173. He had no role in the ratification of the Constitution.
He went to Europe on business in 1789 and served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792-1794. His diaries written during that time have become an invaluable chronicle of the French Revolution, capturing much of the turbulence and violence of that era. He returned to the United States in 1798 and was elected in 1800 as a Federalist to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James Watson, serving from April 3, 1800, to March 3, 1803. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1802. After leaving the Senate, he served as chairman of the Erie Canal Commission, 1810-1813.
Personal life and legacy
Morris graduated from King’s College, known since the American Revolution as Columbia University, in 1764. Morris was unhampered by his wooden leg, which he got after an accident that occurred while he was climbing onto a carriage without anyone tending to the horses, which suddenly took off, catching his left leg in one of the carriage wheels on May 14, 1780. Physicians told Morris that they had no choice but to remove the leg below the knee. Morris understood and agreed. At the advanced age of 57, he married Anne Cary (“Nancy”) Randolph, who was the sister to Thomas Mann Randolph, husband of Thomas Jefferson‘s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. He died at the family estate of Morrisania and is buried at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx borough of New York City.Morris also became an important landowner in northern New York, where the Town of Gouverneur and Village of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County are named after him.Morris’s half brother Lewis Morris (1726-1798), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Morris’s great-grandson, also named Gouverneur (1876-1953), was an author of pulp novels and short stories during the early twentieth century. Several of his works were adapted into films, including the famous Lon Chaney, Sr. film The Penalty.
- ^ Gouverneur Morris, accessed November 14, 2006
- ^ ANB “Gouverneur Morris”
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- ^ Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life, William Howard Adams, Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN 0300099800
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- Brookhiser, Richard (2003). Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-2379-9.
- Crawford, Alan Pell (2000). Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman—and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-century America. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83474-X. (A biography of Morris’s wife.)
- Fresia, Jerry (1988). Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution & Other Illusions. Cambridge: South End Press.
- Miller, Melanie Randolph, Envoy to the Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution (Potomac Books, 2005)
- The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France; Member of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Anne Cary Morris (1888). 2 vols. online version
- U.S. Army Biography
- Congressional Biography
- Mintz, Max, Gouverneur Morris, George Washington’s War Hawk, Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2003.
|U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to France
|United States Senator (Class 1) from New York
Served alongside: John Armstrong, Jr., De Witt Clinton