The Reading Room

The Written Legacy of Gouverneur Morris: Constitutional Wisdom We Cannot Afford to Forget

We the People. It is a phrase that shows up everywhere, on the banners of protestors on both sides of an issue, as the name of an expletive-laden song by Kid Rock, in the title of many books, many art exhibitions, and, of course, on t-shirts.  Who wrote "We the People of the United States of America"?  And what are we--we the people of the United States of America -- missing out on if we don't know about that man and what he has to teach us about being Americans, and what he meant when he wrote those words?  The short answer: a great deal. 
The Preamble to the US Constitution was written by a 35-year-old man named Gouverneur Morris. He wrote with a beautiful but spare eloquence that resembles that of Lincoln, and he was considered one of the greatest speakers of his day. George Washington respected Morris and enjoyed his company, Since Alexander Hamilton receives much attention these days, it is worth mentioning that they were great friends: indeed, Hamilton's wife told Morris he was her husband's "best friend" when Hamilton was dying, and it was Morris who gave his funeral oration. Morris despised and opposed slavery; he admired and respected women. He had an extraordinary life and performed extraordinary services for our country, but he had no interest in popularity in his own time, or in his posterity, one of the reasons he has largely been overlooked. Among his services: chairing (and doing the work of) critical committees of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War; managing, along with his friend Robert Morris, the finances of the country during the Revolution; playing a major role at the Constitutional Convention - some scholars are now beginning to suggest he deserves to be considered its "Father" more than James Madison; serving as our minister to France during the worst violence of the French Revolution; advocating and initiating the Erie Canal; and overseeing the design of the Manhattan street grid we walk today. 
This post, however, is concerned with the phrase "We the People of the United States." Because Morris was well known for his talents as a writer, he was chosen to compile and polish the final draft of the Constitution and to write the Preamble. As originally drafted in the Convention, the sentence began "We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts," etc. At first glance that might seem to say the same thing, but look again. Morris changed the lead-in words in a way that was practical, because it was not yet known if all the states would sign on -- Rhode Island had not sent a delegate -- but it was also profound because it reflected his strong belief that we are first and foremost a united people without regard to our states of residence, and that the Constitution was not to be an agreement between the states but an agreement among all of the people. During the Convention, Morris reiterated this position forcefully. As recorded in Madison's notes, he told the delegates that he had come "as a Representative of America; he flattered himself he came here in some degree as a Representative of the whole human race."  Morris’s experiences during the Revolution had left him with little respect for the governments of the states or their ability to rise above local prejudices and interests for the good of all citizens. "State attachments, and State importance have been the bane of this Country," he urged. This position was relevant in many of the most important debates at the Convention: for example, Morris pushed for senators to be elected from the population at large; and in the debates regarding representation in the House, specifically, whether slaves should be counted in determining the number of representatives a state could have, something the southern states demanded. Morris denounced this in the most searing anti-slavery speech of the summer. 
But returning to "We the People" - here, there is a critical adjunct to Morris's conception of the Constitution as a commitment by the people of all the states, one that seems to be forgotten or ignored by many in the current day: the necessity of compromise if the Constitution was going to work. As Morris pointed out in the cover letter sent with the Constitution to the states, "Individuals entering into Society must give up a Share of Liberty to preserve the Rest." Further on, he noted that "In all our Deliberations on this Subject we kept steadily on our View that which appears to us the greatest Interest of every true american. The Consolidation of our Union in which is involved our Prosperity Felicity Safety perhaps our national Existence." 
The Constitution is our greatest national treasure, but only if we understand it. Morris had a profound grasp of human nature, and knew that unless this concept of the necessity of sacrificing some liberty was understood and accepted by the American people, the Constitution would have failed at the outset. That message could not be more on point for our country today.  


Barbara Logan

This is really relevant to our current state of affairs! Morris thought ahead.

Michael Picheny

Beautifully written piece; I learned a lot about one of our lesser known founding fathers. So relevant to today! Growing up in the South Bronx, I knew Morrisania well, but did not realize what a key role Morris played in the history of our country. Thanks for bringing this to light!

Melanie Miller

Gouverneur Morris is still largely unknown and unappreciated, but we hope that will change. He had a remarkably modern voice, and his diaries and letters contain many observations about politics and politicians that are both entertaining and penetrating. The Gouverneur Morris Papers project is working to make him better known -- here's a link to our site -- -- through modern documentary editions of his diaries and, eventually, his letters. (The diaries, which run from 1789 until shortly before his death in 1816 are online at the University of Virginia's Founding Era website.) Morris had many things to say about issues we currently face, including the concept of "original intent," the Bill of Rights (something he thought largely unnecessary because he considered the rights to be inherent in the original Conatitution), etc.
Morris's contributions to the Constitution are being re-examined by scholars, including William Treanor, who believes Morris used his opportunity as the final draftsman at the Convention to subtly alter several provisions to suit his own convictions. Whether one agrees with this thesis or not, it reflects an increasing appreciation of the significance of Morris's role in the creation of the document.

Jim Hauser

So much to understand and admire

Ed Barker

Very well written article and great summary of the man who is undoubtedly the most underrated Founding Father of our country. And what a life he lived! From his crucial role during the American Revolution, his friendships with Washington, Hamilton and other important early Americans, his significant contributions to our Constitution, followed by his many years in Europe during a most consequential period. Much of which he documented with an incredible diary of the times. If he hadn’t left the Country shortly after the Constitution was passed, I believe he would have played an even more important role in our country’s first few decades.

Liz Flint

Such a fascinating read!