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Gouverneur Morris on the proper balance between commerce, private property, and political liberty (1776)

In his Political Enquiries (1776) Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was ruminating on key political questions on the eve of American independence. In this section “Of Commerce” he worries about the tension between private property rights and commerce on the one hand, and the exercise of political liberty which might be used to violate property rights:

Now as Society is in itself Progressive as Commerce gives a mighty Spring to that progressive force as the effects both joint and Separate are to diminish political Liberty. And as Commerce cannot be stationary the society without it may. It follows that political Liberty must be restrained or Commerce prohibited. If a Medium be sought it will occasion a Contest between the spirit of Commerce and that of the Government till Commerce is ruined or Liberty destroyed. Perhaps both.

Of Commerce

The most rapid Advances in the State of Society are produced by Commerce. Is it a Blessing or a Curse? Before this Question be decided let the present and former State of commercial Countries be compared. Commerce once begun is from its own Nature progressive. It may be impeded or destroyed not fixed. It requires not only the perfect Security of Property but perfect good faith. Hence its Effects are to encrease civil and diminish political Liberty. If the public be in Debt to an Individual political Liberty enables a Majority to cancel the Obligation but the spirit of Commerce exacts punctual Payment. In a Despotism everything must bend to the Prince. He can seize the Property of his Subject but the Spirit of Commerce requires that Property be secured. It requires also that every Citizen have the Right freely to use his Property.

Now as Society is in itself Progressive as Commerce gives a mighty Spring to that progressive force as the effects both joint and Separate are to diminish political Liberty. And as Commerce cannot be stationary the society without it may. It follows that political Liberty must be restrained or Commerce prohibited. If a Medium be sought it will occasion a Contest between the spirit of Commerce and that of the Government till Commerce is ruined or Liberty destroyed. Perhaps both. These Reflections are justified by the different Italian Republics.

About this Quotation:

In this collection of musings about the object of government, the nature of human happiness, public virtue, and the tension between political and commercial liberty Morris believes that there exists a possible contradiction between the “natural rights” as espoused in the “Declaration of Independence” and the “social rights” which men enjoy when they live in communities. Morris dismisses natural rights as suitable only for individuals who live in a state of nature, perhaps alone on an island, where the rule of the strongest holds sway. Since men are naturally sociable the only rights they hold are those that make societies function. Once societies have been established, this automatically extinguishes “natural liberty”, or the right of every man to do what he pleases. He makes similar arguments in his “Remarks upon the Principles and Views of the London Corresponding Society” (1795) in which he rejects their ideas about “equal rights” for all men. He concludes that “that same state of Nature is not the natural state of Man. He is a social animal. His rights, therefore, and his duties, are social. Consequently, to talk of his natural rights, in contradistinction to the social, seems about as proper as to talk of his angelic rights, or his bestial rights … Man, therefore, being a social Creature, can have no rights inconsistent with the social state.” This way of thinking seems to place Morris on the conservative side of the political spectrum when compared to Thomas Jefferson.

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