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CHAPTER I. - Gouverneur Morris, The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, vol. 1 
The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France; Member of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Anne Cary Morris (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
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Gouverneur Morris. Birth. Education. Graduates at King’s College. Studies law. Licensed to practise. Early development of a taste for finance. Takes an active part in the events which ended in the Declaration of Independence. Elected a member of the first Provincial Congress in 1775. Speaks on finance. Leads in debates in the New York Congress. Draws up instructions for Franklin, then Minister to France. Reports to Congress on the subject of a treaty with the British Commissioners. Practises law in Philadelphia. Appointed assistant to the Superintendent of Finance. Practises his profession after the war. Becomes known to the French Ministry through a letter written to the Marquis de Chastellux. A delegate to the Convention which formed the Constitution. Sails for France in 1788.
Gouverneurmorris was born at Morrisania—to quote the record made by his father in the family Bible—“On the 31 of January about half an hour after one of the Clock in the morning, in the year 1752, according to the alteration of the style, by act of Parliament, and was christened the 4 of May 1754, and given his mother’s name.” Gouverneur’s father probably discovered signs of unusual promise in the boy; for in his will, which is dated November 19, 1760, is the following request: “It is my desire that my son, Gouverneur Morris, may have the best education that is to be had in England or America.” Lewis Morris died when his son was twelve years old, and the care of his education, in consequence, devolved upon his mother. Great pains were taken that his training should be of a kind to fit him for any career that might open for him.
When quite a child he was placed in the family of Monsieur Tetar, at New Rochelle; and here he laid the foundation of a thorough knowledge of the French language, which, in after life, he spoke and wrote with much fluency and correctness. In 1768 Morris graduated at King’s College (now Columbia), and immediately after graduating he studied law in the office of William Smith, afterwards Chief Justice of the Province of New York, but better known as Colonial historian of the State.
The bar was undoubtedly the profession where the qualities of Morris’s mind, his vigorous and penetrating intelligence, were most likely to excel. His elocution was animated and persuasive, his voice sonorous and pleasing, his figure tall and exceedingly graceful; all the attributes of an orator seemed to have fallen to his share. Ambitious to excel, full of hope, with perfect confidence in his own powers, and therefore entire self-possession, it was possible for him to say, with all sincerity, that in his intercourse with men he never knew the sensations of fear, embarrassment, or inferiority.
Licensed to practise as an attorney-at-law full three months before he was twenty, in 1771, his ambition was to make for himself a distinguished position at the Colonial bar. Two years before this a series of anonymous articles on finance, occasioned by a plan proposed in the Assembly of New York to issue paper money, appeared in a newspaper. They all attracted much attention—but particularly one deprecating the evil of a paper currency as mischievous in its effects and wrong in principle, and only a means of postponing the day of payment, which should be met by substantial funds, collected from the province.
His studies completed and his admission to the bar secured, Morris’s thoughts and desires turned toward Europe and foreign travel. “To rub off in the gay circles of foreign life a few of those many barbarisms which characterize a provincial education; to form some acquaintances that may hereafter be of service to me, to model myself after some persons who cut a figure in the law,” were some of the reasons he gave his friend William Smith for wishing to go abroad. In further excuse of the scheme he says: “I have somehow or other been so hurried through the different scenes of childhood and youth, that I have still some time left to pause before I tread the great stage of life, and you know how much our conduct there depends upon the mode of our education. It is needless to add that my inclinations have taken part in the debate.” His friend evidently saw serious difficulties in the way—principally pecuniary, for he told him that his mother must give up much before he could have his wish, and advised him, even when the guineas lay at his feet, to “think! think! think!” The voyage was abandoned for the time, and for the next three years Morris applied himself closely to his profession.
These were stirring times, the colonies and the mother country were disputing, a rupture was imminent, the port of Boston was already closed. His aristocratic relations, rather than, as is generally supposed, his Tory antecedents, led him to advocate a reconciliation rather than a break with the mother country, and in June, 1775, when this question occupied a large share of the attention of the Provincial Congress of New York, he was made a member of a committee to draft a plan to settle all difficulties with Great Britain. In a paper written in 1774 he says: “Taxation is the chief bar, and a safe compact seems in my poor opinion to be now tendered—internal taxation to be left with ourselves. Reunion between the two countries is essential to both—I say essential. It is for the interest of all men to seek reunion with the parent State. The spirit of the English constitution has yet a little influence left, and but a little. The remains of it will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it, they must banish all schoolmasters, and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be—the mob begin to think—the gentry begin to fear this—their committee will be appointed—they will deceive the people and again forfeit a share of their confidence. And if these are instances of what with one side is policy, with the other perfidy, farewell aristocracy. I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions—the dominion of a riotous mob!”
When the crisis finally came, Morris, illustrating the justice of Madison’s subsequent eulogy of him, namely, that “to the brilliancy of his genius was added what is too rare, a candid surrender of his opinions, when the lights of discussion satisfied him,” came promptly forward to aid his country in the struggle, and from that moment he was to be found among the patriots who were bravest and most constant. He was already an expert in finance, and at once rendered most efficient service in drawing up a plan to raise money for the expenses of the army, and other military operations. This subject was one of the first and most important which occupied the attention of the members of the first Provincial Congress of New York, to which he was elected a member in 1775. The extent of his knowledge of this exceedingly intricate subject surprised his fellow-workers on the committee, and when the report was read, before a large audience of interested persons, he spoke with a remarkable force and eloquence. His dignity and persuasive manner strongly appealed to the sympathy of his audience, and the young orator of twenty-three carried off the honors of the day. The report as it came from his pen was forwarded to the Continental Congress and adopted without amendment or change.
Matters had by this time come to such a pass, between England and her colonies, that in May of this year, 1776, the Continental Congress recommended to the various assemblies and conventions of the colonies, the adoption of such regular constitutions and forms of government as might best suit their several needs. In the third New York Congress, then assembled, Morris took the lead in the debates relative to the adoption of a new form of government. The Tory element in the Congress still feared to take any decided step that might show absolute disloyalty to the King. And among the many wealthy families owning large estates and with Tory proclivities, there was still a hope of at least a patched-up reconciliation with Great Britain. Up to this time, indeed, the question of independence had seemed scarcely a serious one. But Morris earnestly favored in the Congress the formation of a new government. He believed that the time had come to take such a step; that the dignity of a free people had been outraged by the oppressions of England; that to submit longer would be a crime against justice and a mockery of liberty. Fragments of a speech made by him during the course of the debates still exist, in which he touched upon the already hackneyed theme of reconciliation as the phantom which had long deluded the fancy of his associates in the Congress. “A connection with Great Britain cannot exist, and independence is absolutely necessary. … We run a hazard in one path I confess, but then we are infallibly ruined if we pursue the other. … Some, nay many, persons in America dislike the word Independence; for my own part I see no reason why Congress is not full as good a word as States-General—or Parliament; and it is a mighty easy matter to please people when a single sound will effect it. … It is quite a hackneyed topic boldly insisted on, though very lightly assumed, that the instant an American independence is declared we shall have all the powers of Europe on our backs. Experience, sir, has taught those powers and will teach them more clearly every day, that an American war is tedious, expensive, uncertain, and ruinous. Nations do not make war without some view. Should they be able to conquer America, it would cost them more to maintain such conquest, than the fee simple of the country is worth.” He made a strong appeal for the political liberty of the country, which he thought might be secured by the simplest contrivance imaginable—“dividing the country into small districts, the annual election of members to Congress, and every member incapacitated from serving more than one year out of three. Why should we hesitate? Have you the least hope in treaty? Will you trust the Commissioners? Trust crocodiles, trust the hungry wolf in your flock or a rattlesnake near your bosom, you may yet be something wise. But trust the King, his Ministers, his Commissioners, it is madness in the extreme. Why will you trust them? Why force yourself to make a daily resort to arms? Is this miserable country to be plunged in an endless war? Must each revolving year come heavy laden with those dismal scenes which we have already witnessed? If so, farewell liberty, farewell virtue, farewell happiness!”
With the crisis in the affairs of the colonies in 1776, public sentiment in New York underwent a change, and five days after the Declaration of Independence the Congress of that Colony declared their intention to support that independence at all risks. When the Constitution of the State of New York was made, in August, 1776, Morris labored to introduce into it an article prohibiting domestic slavery, but he was not successful. A letter to his mother in this year expressed the deep feeling with which the prospect of the war filled him. “What may be the event of the present war,” he says, “it is not in man to determine. Great revolutions of empire are seldom achieved without much human calamity, but the worst which can happen is to fall on the last bleak mountain of America, and he who dies there, in defense of the injured rights of mankind, is happier than his conqueror, more beloved by mankind, more applauded by his own heart.”
After the new Constitution of New York had been adopted, Morris was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, but owing to the critical state of affairs in his own State he was unable to attend. In October he was elected a second time. He had been in public life for nearly three years and had established a reputation for talents of no ordinary kind. Congress honored him the day he presented his credentials by appointing him one of a committee of five of great importance. The army with Washington at Valley Forge were discouraged and demoralized by the terrible winter, and there, in concert with the general-in-chief, a plan was prepared to reorganize the army, clothe and feed them, and regulate the medical department. Approved and adopted by Congress, the effects of the plan were soon manifest. During this winter which Morris spent at Valley Forge he formed a life-long and intimate friendship with Washington. After the occupation of New York by the British, he had been entirely cut off from his home at Morrisania; and the strong Tory proclivities of his friends subjected him to suspicion on the part of certain mischief-making persons. Mr. Jay wrote to him from Philadelphia; “Your enemies talk much of your Tory connections. Take care, do not unnecessarily expose yourself to calumny and perhaps indignity.” In reply Morris says, “As to the malevolence of individuals, it is what I have to expect, and is by no means a matter of surprise. But by laboring in the public service, so as to gain the applause of those whose applause is worth gaining I will have my revenge.” It was whispered abroad by his enemies that Morris’s letters to his mother, which had to pass through the British lines before they reached her, contained matter other than that intended for her and to the advantage of the enemy.
A curious history is told of a letter written to Mr. Morris, in 1775, by his brother-in-law in London, expressing his interest in Morris’s career, bidding him deserve well of his country, and endeavor to insure peace and preserve good order. “The most vigorous preparations,” he continued, warningly, “are making to carry on the war. The nation is united, although the pulse does not beat so high as if they were waging war against a foreign enemy.” Detained at New York because addressed to a rebel, then sent to Halifax, the letter was thence despatched to New York by a vessel which was lost off the coast of New Jersey. The mail-bag drifted on the coast, and the letter found its way to Burlington, N. J. Morris heard of its existence and asked for it, but a mystery surrounded it, and its contents had something suspicious about them in the opinion of those who had read it. Eventually it was forwarded to Morris by the President of Pennsylvania, who had been prejudiced after reading it, although, during the three years that it had been drifting about, all Morris’s energies had been given to resisting Great Britain and making the government secure. The letter is still preserved at Morrisania.
His letters to his mother were few and unimportant. In 1778 he wrote to her that since he had left Morrisania he had never heard directly from her, and “never had the satisfaction of knowing that of the many letters I have written, you have ever received one. It would give me infinite pleasure,” he adds, “to hear of my friends, yourself in particular. But since it is my lot to know no more than the burthen of general report I must be contented. I received great pain from being informed that you are distressed on my account. Be of good cheer I pray you, I have all that happiness which flows from conscious rectitude. I would it were in my power to solace and comfort your declining years. The duty I owe to a tender parent demands this of me; but a higher duty has bound me to the service of my fellow creatures. The natural indolence of my disposition, has unfitted me for the paths of ambition, and the early possession of power has taught me how little it deserves to be prized. Whenever the present storm subsides I shall rush with eagerness into the bosom of private life, but while my country calls for the exertion of that little share of abilities which it has pleased God to bestow on me, I hold it my indispensable duty to give myself to her. I know that for such sentiments, which are not fashionable among the folks you see, I am called a rebel. I hope that your maternal tenderness may not lead you to wish that I would resign these sentiments. Let me entreat you, be not concerned on my account; I shall again see you—perhaps the time is not far off. Hope the best. Adieu.”
Three years after this Mrs. Morris was dangerously ill. He earnestly desired to go to her, and she as earnestly desired to see her only son. But public opinion of both friends and foes was so strong against his making the visit that it was never made. Indeed, in order that his motives for contemplating this visit might be publicly known, he published a letter in the Freeman’s Journal in which he plainly stated what may be called his “position” in these difficult circumstances, as follows: “In the year 1776 I left all for the sake of those principles which have justified and supported the revolution. This sacrifice was made without hesitation or regret, but it gave me real concern to leave an aged parent at the mercy of the enemy. It is true, I was for some time honored by my countrymen beyond my desert and beyond my ambition. When our prospects were very gloomy, I was deeply engaged in public business of an intricate nature, and placed in a variety of arduous and critical situations. I have thought much, labored much, suffered much. In return I have been censured, reproached, slandered, goaded by abuse, blackened by calumny, and oppressed by public opinion. I have declined many pressing solicitations to visit my mother within the enemy’s lines. But when a violent disease endangered her life, and I learnt of her anxiety to see me before her eyes were closed forever, I promised to go. The necessary passport of the British general was obtained, but not the permission of the President and Council of the State of Pennsylvania. But since my intentions are disagreeable to you, I will persist no longer. Having already devoted the better part of my life to your service, I will now sacrifice my feelings to your inclinations.” After an absence of seven years, and only when peace was concluded, did Morris return to his mother, and his home. He reached Morrisania in time to help his mother prepare her claim of the estate for damages done there-to by the British army. Besides the large number of animals taken for food, timber had been cut on four hundred and seventy acres of woodland for ship-building, artillery, and firewood. The claim amounted to £8,000, but it was not paid during Mrs. Morris’s life-time.
In October, 1778, Morris was intrusted with the task of drawing up the first instructions ever sent to an American minister. Dr. Franklin was then at the Court of Versailles. When the report of the American Commissioners abroad came in 1778, Morris was elected chairman of a committee of five to consider and report upon the so-called conciliatory propositions of Lord North offering to abandon the vexed point of taxation and to send commissioners to treat with the Americans. Morris drew up the report which declared that the United States could not treat with any commissioners from Great Britain unless British fleets and armies should be withdrawn and the independence of the United States acknowledged. This report, the most important during the war, was unanimously adopted by the Continental Congress and became the basis of the peace. As the time approached for the expiration of his term in Congress, rumors reached him that a scheme had been set on foot to defeat his re-election, principally on the ground that he had neglected the interests of his State for those of the general Government. He was advised to make a visit to the State legislature and attend to his interests there. This he did, but too late; he lost his election.
It is much to be regretted that he has left no record of his relations with the Government during these years, but from the multiplicity of his labors it seems remarkable that he could have found time to devote to the necessary practice of his profession. Years afterward, when applied to for some written account of the events of the Revolution in which he personally took part, he says: “I have no notes or memorandum of what passed during the war. I led then the most laborious life which can be imagined. This you will readily suppose to have been the case when I was engaged with my departed friend Robert Morris, in the office of finance, but what you will not so readily suppose is, that I was still more harassed while a member of Congress. Not to mention the attendance from 11 to 4 in the house, which was common to all, and the appointments to committees, of which I had a full share, I was at the same time Chairman, and of course did the business, of the Standing Committees; viz., on the commissary’s, quartermaster’s, and medical Departments. You must not imagine that the members of these committees took any share or burden of the affairs. Necessity, preserving the democratical forms, assumed the monarchical substance of business. The Chairman received and answered all letters and other applications, took every step which he deemed essential, prepared reports, gave orders, and the like, and merely took the members of a committee into a chamber and for form’s sake made the needful communications, and received their approbation which was given of course. I was moreover obliged to labor occasionally in my own profession as my wages were insufficient for my support. I would not trouble you, my dear sir, with this abstract of my situation, if it did not appear necessary to show you why, having so many near relations of my own blood in our armies, I kept no note of their services. Nay I could not furnish any tolerable memorandum of my own existence during that eventful period of American history.”
After five years of active work in public affairs, Morris could not entirely dissociate himself from the great events of the day, and although, when he lost his election to Congress, he became a citizen of Philadelphia and settled down to the practice of his profession, his mind was still actively interested in the deplorable financial condition of the country, and he found time to write a series of essays in the Pennsylvania Packet, signed “An American.” In these essays he discusses the currency, the coinage, the undesirability of a compulsory fixed value for paper money, and the banks of America; and it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive view of the financial proceedings of the old Congress, and the effects of the paper currency, than these essays contain.
In Philadelphia in May, 1780, while trying to control a pair of runaway horses, Morris was thrown from his phaëton, dislocated his ankle, and fractured the bones of his left leg. The two physicians who were called to him recommended an immediate amputation as the only means of saving his life, and, although this must have been a painful alternative for so young a man to contemplate, he submitted to the decree of the doctors with philosophy and even cheerfulness, and to the operation with extreme fortitude. The leg was taken off below the knee, and the operation has been cited by physicians knowing the particulars as most unskilful and hasty. The day after it took place a friend called upon him, full of sympathy and prepared to offer all the possible consolation on an event so melancholy. He painted in vivid words the good effect that such a trial should produce on his character and moral temperament, enlarging on the many temptations and pleasures of life into which young men are apt to be led, and of the diminished inducement Morris would now have to indulge in the enjoyment of such pleasures. “My good sir,” replied Mr. Morris, “you argue the matter so handsomely and point out so clearly the advantages of being without legs, that I am almost tempted to part with the other.” Morris seems to have felt the force of his friend’s arguments in regard to the balancing effect on his character of the loss of a portion of his person, for to another friend, also deeply sympathetic and full of regret that he should have met with so grave a misfortune, he remarked: “Sir, the loss is much less than you imagine; I shall doubtless be a steadier man with one leg than with two.” For the remainder of his life he wore a wooden leg, of primitive simplicity, not much more than a rough oak stick with a wooden knob on the end of it.
This simple contrivance, however, suited him better than any of more elaborate construction which he afterwards tried in Paris and London. Owing to this accident, when he was presented at Court at Paris he asked to be allowed to appear without a sword, and, though a serious departure from court etiquette, the favor was granted. During one of the years of his ministry in Paris, when carriages were abolished as being aristocratic, and the chances were against the escape of any person discovered driving in one, Morris, who seems always to have defied the mob though by no means averse to saving his life, drove through the streets followed by hoots and cries of, “An aristocrat,” and, quietly opening the door of his carriage, thrust out his wooden leg, and said: “An aristocrat! yes, truly, who lost his leg in the cause of American liberty;” whereat followed great applause from the mob.
When Robert Morris was made Superintendent of Finance, and Congress provided for an Assistant Superintendent, knowing intimately the character and abilities of his friend Gouverneur Morris, he at once made choice of him to fill the position. Together they labored to establish public credit and confidence, and with the small sum of four hundred thousand dollars they established, and Congress incorporated, the “Bank of North America.” Gouverneur Morris says, in a letter to a friend not long before his death: “The first bank in this country was planned by your humble servant.”
The serious charge was made against Morris, during the years of his connection with the Finance Department, that he was a monarchist and had advocated using the army to establish such a form of government. In a letter to General Nathaniel Greene, in 1781, he says: “Experience must at last induce the people of America if the war continues to entrust proper powers to the American Sovereign, having compelled that Sovereign reluctantly to relinquish the administration and entrust to their ministers the care of this immense republic. I say if the war continues or does not continue, I have no hope that the Government will acquire force; and I will go further, I have no hope that our Union can subsist except in the form of an absolute monarchy, and this does not seem to consist with the taste and temper of the people. From the same attachment to the happiness of mankind, which prompted my first efforts in this revolution, I am now induced to wish that Congress may be possessed of much more authority than has hitherto been delegated to them.” He feared war between the States, “for near neighbors are very rarely good neighbors,” and advocated a centralization of power; but his actions, as well as writings, are his best vindication from any wish to form a monarchy in America. His creed was rather to form the government to suit the condition, character, manners, and habits of the people. In France this opinion led him to take the monarchical view, firmly believing that a republican form of government would not suit the French character.
After the war was over, Morris retired from the position of Assistant to the Superintendent of the Finances of the United States and again betook himself to the practice of the law, intending to settle at New York; but various ties of business kept him in Philadelphia and more or less associated with Robert Morris, sometimes acting as his agent, sometimes on his own account. Together they devised plans and projects, new adventures of many kinds which promised success and pecuniary advancement. As early as 1782 Congress had instructed Robert Morris to report on the foreign coin then circulating in the United States. A letter with a full exposition of the subject was sent to Congress, officially signed by Robert Morris, but written, as Mr. Jefferson said, by the Assistant Superintendent of Finance. The most interesting part of this report was a new plan for an American coinage, which originated with Gouverneur Morris, and which was, in fact, the basis of the system now in use. In 1784 it is worth noting that Morris became known to the French Ministry through two letters written to the Marquis de Chastellux in regard to the commercial relations between France and the United States, but particularly the West India trade. M. de Chastellux says: “Your letters have been communicated to M. le Maréchal de Castries, Minister of Marine, who is delighted with them; he told me that he had seen nothing superior or more full of powerful thought on the subject of government and politics.”
In 1786 his mother, who had been an invalid for several years, died. By his father’s will the estate of Morrisania, after the death of Mrs. Morris, devolved upon the second son, Staats Long Morris, who had married in England the Duchess of Gordon, and was a general in the British army. Lewis, the eldest son, had received his portion before his father’s death, and, under his father’s will General Morris, when he should become possessed of the property, was to pay a legacy of £7,000 to the other children. Of this sum £2,000 were to come to Gouverneur. General Morris was quite willing to part with Morrisania, never intending to live there, and Gouverneur determined to make the purchase. By the aid of loans and accommodations he became possessed of this estate and part of the general’s lands in New Jersey. Commercial adventures, large shipments of tobacco to France, and other undertakings had already laid the foundation of a fortune.
In 1787, as a delegate from Pennsylvania, of which State he was, after a seven years’ residence, considered a citizen, Morris took his seat in the Convention assembled for the great task of framing the Federal Constitution. But here again he made no notes, and left no account of his personal action in the Convention. In a letter to Colonel Pickering, written two years before his death, he says: “While I sat in the Convention my mind was too much occupied with the interests of our country to keep notes of what we had done; my faculties were on the stretch to further our business, remove impediments, obviate objections and conciliate jarring opinions.” President Madison, in a letter to Jared Sparks, bears testimony to his endeavor to preserve harmony, and to his active and able assistance in that difficult and momentous work. “He certainly,” says Madison, “did not incline to the democratic side, but contended for a senate elected for life,” the suffrage to be given only to freeholders, and property to be represented. He vigorously opposed slavery, moved to insert the word “free” before “inhabitants,” and denounced the slave system as a “nefarious institution, the curse of Heaven on all the states in which it prevails,” boldly asserting that he never would concur in upholding the institution. In the same letter Madison says: “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris. A better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved. The talents and taste of the author were stamped on the face of it.” Morris speaks in a manly way of the Constitution in a letter to a gentleman in France: “You will, ere this,” said he, “have seen the Constitution proposed for the United States. I have many reasons to believe that it was the work of plain, honest men, and such I think it will appear. Faulty it must be, for what is perfect? Should it take effect, the affairs of this country will put on a much better aspect than they have yet worn, and America will soon be as much respected abroad as she has for some time past been disregarded.”
During the winter of 1787 Morris was in Virginia superintending the mercantile affairs in which he and Robert Morris were jointly interested. It was necessary to have an agent on the spot who understood the business, to manage the shipment of tobacco to France, for which large contracts had been taken by the farmers-general. In November, 1788, Morris determined to take his “departure from Philadelphia for the Kingdom of France,” he wrote to General Washington, who supplied him with letters of introduction to many persons, giving him also several commissions to execute for himself. Among them was one to purchase in Paris a gold watch for his own use. “Not a small, trifling nor a finical, ornamental one, but a watch well executed in point of workmanship, large, flat, and with a plain, handsome key,” were the instructions. Morris sailed from Philadelphia in the ship Henrietta, and passed the Capes of Delaware on the 18th of December, 1788.