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CHAPTER LII. - Gouverneur Morris, The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, vol. 2 
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. 2.
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The summer of 1815. The last year of Morris’s life. He opposes the heavy tariff. His sixty-fourth birthday. Letter to Rufus King. The ratified Convention. Disapproves of direct taxation. Letter to Moss Kent. Writes of the exhausted commercial state of the country. Elected President of the New York Historical Society. Letter to the federal party. Dies at Morrisania.
During the summer of 1815 Mr. and Mrs. Morris, with their son, made a journey to Northern New York. While there Morris mentioned in the diary the news of Waterloo, but only as an announcement of “Bonaparte’s surrender of himself and his suite to the British ship Bellerophon and of the British generosity.” By the middle of October the travellers were again at home. There are not many more entries in the diary of general interest, and the work of the editor is almost finished.
It remained for Morris, during this last year of his eventful life, to state clearly, through the medium of his pen, his opinions on the plan of a national bank, and to oppose, so far as was possible, the heavy tariff which the Government saw fit to lay upon the people—already heavily taxed. Throughout his diary he rarely failed to mark the first day of each new year with some more or less significant entry. The solemnity of the moment always found a response in his heart. On this, the last that he was destined to record—January 1, 1816—he touchingly expressed his entire reliance on the mercy of God; and, with a sure faith, he said, “Another year is buried in the abyss of a past eternity. What the coming, or, rather, the arrived year may bring is known only to the Omniscient. But we know that, whatever may be its course and incidents, they will be what they ought to be.”
On his birthday (January 30th) he says: “My friend Doctor Hoffman comes to dine and take a glass in commemoration of this, my birthday. Sixty-four years since I came into this breathing world.” This winter was perhaps a more than usually quiet one at Morrisania. Morris’s health was delicate, and frequent attacks of gout and other maladies confined him much to his room. On the 9th of February he mentioned being “confined to my bed; the parson and doctor come to celebrate my son’s birthday. Company from town requested not to come, because of my ill-health.”
Notwithstanding ill-health and many business perplexities which beset him during this last winter, his pen was very actively employed against what, in his judgment, were grave abuses in public places. Of the ratified Convention he wrote to Rufus King, January 11th:
“I am to thank you for a copy of the President’s message transmitting the ratified Convention, which reached me last evening. I had just read in a newspaper that which communicated to your body the account of the negotiation given by our plenipotentiaries. It would be impertinent in me to make comments on this transaction to you. Our so glorious war, and so glorious peace, and so wise Convention will all appear to the honor of the parties concerned in the page of history.”
His opinion of the new bank scheme was given to Mr. Moss Kent in the following letter, dated January 23d:
“I would have made an earlier reply to your letter of the 12th, but, ever since I received it, have been confined by influenza and gout to my chamber, and chiefly to my bed; nor am I now in a condition to be as full and explicit as the subject requires. We must confine ourselves to a general view. I state it, then, as my opinion that the proposed bank is unnecessary, incompetent, and dangerous. The plan now before me, instead of checking corruption; will subserve the views of a wicked minister. What is the evil to be remedied? An excess of paper money which, by reason of the excess, has depreciated. And what is the remedy proposed? To issue more paper. The seven millions of treasury bank-notes are avowedly irredeemable, and the other bank-notes will be equally irredeemable when payment becomes inconvenient. The greatest mischief is to be apprehended from the success of the scheme. On this bank, is to depend, should it succeed, the pecuniary interest of the community. Look then at its provisions. It is, you see, in the hand of the Executive, whose influence is already felt in the remotest corners of our country: what will it be when aided by this formidable engine? Reflect that money has more power here than in other countries, from the disproportion between movables and immovables. It will, when collected, embodied, and directed by one will, be irresistible.”
To Rufus King, a day later, he wrote on this same subject:
“I am pressed by private business, and days, my dear friend, seem to shorten as the sun of life declines. I enclose, therefore, my letter to Mr. Kent, and pray you will both have the goodness to pardon this half way of obeying your orders. In addition to what the enclosed contains, I will observe here that the scheme is calculated, should it succeed, to make the commercial and pecuniary interests of the country blindly subservient to the powers which are for the time being. The Eastern States would be completely revolutionized. In the probable failure, I think I see a clash of personal property and an obstacle to the proper arrangement of our finances—a thing not difficult now, unless I am much deceived respecting a matter which, from the course of my life, I ought to know something about, if I be not a very stupid fellow.”
On the question of taxation Morris had equally strong views, which he expressed in a letter to Rufus King, dated January 26th, as follows:
“I fear we differ in opinion on the subject of taxation. Disliking heavy duties, I would raise revenue principally by internal but not by direct taxes, which are ungracious and tormenting, and when pushed are no longer taxation but confiscation. A land-tax is just nowhere, and sovereignly unjust here. Some patriots (sans terres, if not sans culottes) cry out, ‘Tax land-speculators and oblige them to sell.’ Take care, gentlemen patriots. If taxing speculalators should become fashionable, stocks may perchance be annoyed. Considering the extent of our territory, it might be politic, I do not say just, to tax those who have no land because they have none, or place them under civil disabilities. Speculators, as such, are not respectable, but they are necessary, and in no case more so than in the settlement of wild land. It has been tried to prevent accumulation of large tracts in few hands by confining grants to small tracts, but experience has proved that, until rich men purchase up these small tracts, the country cannot be settled. It is absurd to suppose a person with scarce a second shirt to his back can go two or three hundred miles to look out a farm, have it surveyed, travel back again to the office for a patent, etc., clear the land, cut a road, make a settlement, and build house and barn, and then an owner under a prior grant may come forward and take possession. As things now stand, the conflict of title is generally between men able to stand the shock. I think it both unwise and unjust to tax money, or unproductive land. Direct taxes overturned the federal party, because the adversary knew how to use that weapon. The party now in power seems disposed to do all that federal men ever wished, and will, I fear, do more than is good to strengthen the Federal Government. They are adroit, and if their schemes fail it will not be for want of address, but of that higher order of talent to conduct public affairs which is not abundant in any country.”
A few days later, having received from Mr. King and read the secretary’s report on a general tariff, Morris quoted therefrom the following paragraph, and commented upon it at some length: “Having classed the manufactures of the United States, the secretary says of ‘the first class, which,’ he thinks, are ‘firmly established, and wholly or almost wholly supply the demand for domestic use and consumption,’ that high duties (amounting to a prohibition), can do no harm, because ‘competition among the domestic manufacturers alone would sufficiently protect the consumer from exorbitant prices.’ That, by imposing low duties upon the imported articles, ‘importations would be encouraged and the revenue increased, but, without adding to the comfort or deducting from the expense of the consumer, the consumption of the domestic manufacture would be diminished.’ If I understand this, it means that people will prefer imported goods when they can get home-made as good and as cheap. Perhaps it may be so, but if the imported goods be only as cheap in the seaports, they must be dearer in the country. Moreover, I believe, if duties were so lowered as to produce foreign competition, our mechanics would do more and better work, to their own advantage and that of the community. Among the articles in his first class are hats and manufactures of leather. Fifty years ago our hatters so rivalled those of England in their West India Islands that a British statute was passed making American hats seizable when water-borne; and thirty years ago the leather manufactures of Philadelphia were as good and cheap as those of Britain. Indeed, before the Revolution, little leather was imported by the Northern States. None of us then wore British hats or British boots. American hats and boots cost but $5, and we should, I believe, export them now, if they could be imported duty free.
“Our system of revenue is, in my opinion, vicious, and the secretary’s tariff will make it worse. The duty on Bohea tea is nearly as much as the cost in China. The duty on coffee, tea, sugar, ardent spirits, and wine will yield ample profit to contraband trade. The coffee and sugar plantations in our neighborhood will soon glut again the markets. Coffee, when imported duty free, was retailed at from thirteen to fifteen cents. The present duty, therefore, of five cents (and six is proposed) is a full third of its value. It will not cost more than half a cent a pound to place coffee and tea and sugar from Montreal along the line east of the St. Lawrence which separates us from Canada. There is little chance of collecting a duty of $1 per gallon on spirits, when for less than a fifth of it the article can be smuggled. Forty years ago it was smuggled to save a duty of less than ten cents. It is not my duty to form a system for the support of public credit, but it is the duty of us all to oppose what is wrong in any system.”
“I am sorry to see, by a late newspaper,” Morris wrote to Mr. Moss Kent, on March 3d, “that our friend King has eloquently supported a perpetual land-tax. While you offer millions of acres to sell, is it wise to threaten those who buy with an everlasting yoke of taxation? The collection from wild land can only be made by sale. So long, therefore, as the tracts you dispose of remain unsettled, you annually resume a part of your grant. If you will have a land-tax, lay it on revenue. But why resort to this pernicious mode of replenishing your treasury? Why amerce those who leave a settled country to lay open the bosom of an unproductive wilderness? Is it not enough that you entice the youth of our country, by high premiums, to quit the wholesome tillage of her soil for manufacturing sloth and debauchery? Is it not enough that you subject the busy bees, on whose honey you live, to the extortion of drones who must quit the hive or perish if not supported by your profusion? Why travel on in the down-hill road to ruin? Why degrade a yeomanry, our country’s pride, by a useless, pernicious, tormenting imposition? There was a time when American farmers could cheer their friends with a glass of generous wine. Heavy protecting duties have exposed them, an unprotected prey, to the rapacity of mechanics whose riot insults their want, and, bereaving them of comforts, have deprived the public of that rich revenue which might be raised by a moderate impost on their enjoyments. Now, to cure the wounds wantonly made on your farmers and finances, you try to squeeze out the last drop from their penury by the pressure of direct taxation. Why, in the name of heaven, why uphold a system radically wrong?”
That Morris was no pronounced party man he very plainly stated in a letter to Randolph Harrison, written in March, and speaking of the different parties.
“In general,” he wrote, “the policy of federal men was agreeable to me; but they did some things which I cannot reconcile to my notions of political economy. You are perfectly correct in supposing that Mr. Madison will have my feeble support so long as I approve of his measures in public life. I regard men only as they are likely to pursue a wise and just course. I have no personal object, and regard only the public welfare. I cannot persuade myself that heavy duties to force on hotbed manufactures, at the risk of smuggling (and with a certainty of diminishing the revenue which would be derived from a moderate impost), are consistent with the morals, wealth, or comfort of the community; or that those who till the soil should be laid under heavy contribution to support the scum of England and Ireland who come out to live in ease and idleness as mechanics. Those who regard measures only as they tend to the partial advantage of particular districts will rejoice in a system which gives a profit to the Northern, drawn from the very vitals of the Southern, States. You cannot have manufactories. We can. We already have some, and shall soon have many poor children who can be pent up, to march backward and forward with a spinning-jenny, till they are old enough to become drunkards and prostitutes. But we can effect this sacrifice of the body and of the soul only by previous sacrifice of our wealth and comfort. I stop, for if I pursue the subject it would fill many sheets.”
That the direct tax should become a law, and, still more, that it had federal aid, was a matter of regret to Morris; but he was glad to learn later that the “direct tax was to be only an annual weed.”
“But it requires, my good friend,” he continued in this letter to Moss Kent, written March 15th, “much attention, much observation, much reflection, with sound sense and honest impartiality, to impose taxes in such a manner as to promote national prosperity without impairing individual felicity. Mend your bank as you may, it will be but a sorry beast at last; too weak to drag you out of the mire. The first bank in this country was planned by your humble servant. It was one of many contrivances to rescue our finances from ruin, and I hesitate not to affirm that the difficulties you have now to contend with are children’s play to those we then encountered. I have as little hesitation in saying that what was medicine then would be poison now. The cases differ in every essential circumstance.”
In a very long and exhaustive letter, dated May 3d, to Randolph Harrison on the commerce of the country, which was nearly at a stand-still, Morris wrote: “I shall say nothing new—nothing that I have not said and written when required by the occasion ten years ago. Let us now turn to what particularly concerns us who cultivate the soil. I see, in a late paper, that out of twenty-six millions sterling, the British revenue, one million is derived from a land-tax. Observe, I pray you, that in England there is no unproductive land. Even their pleasure-grounds yield something in venison and the pasturage of cattle, besides the increase of timber. The British land-tax, therefore, falls on revenue. But not a fifth part of our land yields anything. We have been taught to speak with self-complacency of our happy condition in respect to taxes compared with miserable British subjects. Note here, I pray you, by way of parenthesis, that these same miserable subjects, who it was supposed would perish unless fed by our munificence, have sent to New York and made there a profitable sale of wheat, beef, pork, and butter. . . . You may ask, as others have done, why the aid of my counsels was not offered. Experience, my friend, has taught me that he who pretends to advise men clothed with authority is treated as a self-conceited cox-comb. If he happens, moreover, to be of a proscribed party, his reflections may be considered as satire. I could not therefore, deeply as I felt for my country, presume to offer information or suggest resources. The welfare of our country is my single object, and although I never sought, refused, nor resigned an office, there is no department of government in which I have not been called to act, with what success it is not for me to say.”
Morris’s last letter to his long-time friend John Parish was dated at Morrisania, July 6th, and concerns almost exclusively himself and his family life. “Your son David,” he wrote, “who will deliver this letter, and who has lived in the midst of our world, is so much better able to tell you what passes there than I, who only peep out occasionally from the threshold of my hermitage, that it would be a sort of impertinence to say more than what regards myself. And even on that subject I would add little to what he may tell you of my health and appearance.
“There is, then, nothing of which I can pretend to inform you, except it be what relates to my sentiments and interior condition. But is that worth while? I have the vanity to believe it is, because the pleasure I always felt in hearing from you tells me you will not be indifferent to what you may read from me. I will, then, assure you that I indulge the same friendly sentiments which we felt at parting on the banks of the Elbe nearly seventeen years ago. How large a portion of human life! How eventful a period in the history of mankind! I lead a quiet and, more than most of my fellow-mortals, a happy life. The woman to whom I am married has much genius, has been well educated, and possesses, with an affectionate temper, industry and a love of order. That I did not marry earlier is not to be attributed to any dislike for that connection. On the contrary it has long been my fixed creed that as love is the only fountain of felicity, so it is in wedded love that the waters are most pure. To solve the problem of my fate it was required to discover a woman who, with the qualities needful for my happiness, should have also the sentiments. In a word the postulate was that fine woman who could love an old man. Our little boy is generally admired. The sentiments of a father respecting an only child render his opinions so liable to suspicion that prudence should withhold them even from a friend. I will only say, therefore, that some who would have been more content had he never seen the light acknowledge him to be beautiful and promising. His parents, who see him almost every minute of every day, are chiefly delighted with the benevolence that warms his little heart.
“You may, then, opening your mind’s eye, behold your friend as he descends, with tottering steps, the bottom of life’s hill, supported by a kind companion, a tender female friend, and cheered by a little prattler who bids fair, if God shall spare his life, to fill, in due time, the space his father leaves. He will, I trust, bequeath a portion larger than his heritage of wealth and fame. Nevertheless, looking back, I can, with some little self-complacency, reflect that I have not lived in vain; and at the same time look forward with composure at the probable course of future events. At sixty-four there is little to desire and less to apprehend. Let me add that, however grave the form and substance of this letter, the lapse of so many years has not impaired the gayety of your friend. Could you gratify him with your company and conversation, you would find in him still the gayety of inexperience and the frolic of youth.”
In August Morris pronounced an inaugural discourse as President of the New York Historical Society. It seems a fitting ending to a long life of labor for his country, that almost the last letter he wrote was to plead with the federal party to “forget party and think of our country. That country embraces both parties; we must endeavor, therefore, to save and benefit both. This cannot be effected while political delusions array good men against each other. If you abandon the contest, the voice of reason, now drowned in factious vociferation, will be listened to and heard. The pressure of distress will accelerate the moment of reflection; and when it arrives, the people will look out for men of sense, experience, and integrity. Such men may, I trust, be found in both parties, and, if our country be delivered, what does it signify whether those who operate her salvation wear a federal or a democratic cloak? Perhaps the expression of these sentiments may be imprudent; but when it appears proper to speak the truth I know not concealment. It has been the unvarying principle of my life, that the interest of our country must be preferred to every other interest.”
Morris died at Morrisania on the 6th of November, 1816. Courageously he had lived, and courageously he met the great change, with entire resignation to the Divine will. “Sixty-four years ago,” he said, just before his death, “it pleased the Almighty to call me into existence—here, on this spot, in this very room; and now shall I complain that he is pleased to call me hence?” On the day of his death he asked about the weather, and, on being told that it was fine, he replied: “A beautiful day, yes, but—