Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Gouverneur Morris
    Book Description:

    A plainspoken, racy patrician who distrusted democracy but opposed slavery and championed freedom for all minorities, an important player in the American Revolution, later an astute critic of the French Revolution, Gouverneur Morris remains an enigma among the founding generation. This comprehensive, engrossing biography tells his robust story, including his celebrated love affairs during his long stay in Europe.

    Morris's public record is astonishing. One of the leading figures of the Constitutional Convention, he put the Constitution in its final version, including its opening Preamble. As Washington's first minister to Paris, he became America's most effective representative in France. A successful, international entrepreneur, he understood the dynamics of commerce in the modern world. Frankly cosmopolitan, he embraced city life as a creative center of civilization and had a central role in the building of the Erie Canal and in laying out the urban grid plan of Manhattan.

    William Howard Adams describes Morris's many contributions, talents, sophistication, and wit, as well as his romantic liaisons, free habits, and free speech. He brings to life a fascinating man of great stature, a founding father who receives his due at last.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12704-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Redeeming Mr. Morris
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    This book is about one of the most original, engaging, and controversial personalities among the architects of the early republic. Part of Morris’s irresistible appeal is his playful, questioning mind. Of greater consequence is his unsurpassed capacity for confident, rational thinking combined with a passion for justice and order, which he applied to the organization of the American experiment in government. Yet his stature has dwindled to passing references by historians. The last full biography was written by the young Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.

    Gouverneur Morris’s majestic vision of a national government and his relentless bargaining in the Constitutional Convention...


    • CHAPTER 1 The Pedigree
      (pp. 3-20)

      For all of his reputation, Gouverneur Morris did not come from an aristocratic family. By the strict code of the English aristocracy, even those on the top rung of colonial society could not make that leap. Although his family was certainly illustrious and its fortune had been established three generations before Morris was born, the Morrises were still parvenu. Families in the American colonies simply lacked the layers of traditions and official props needed to be accepted on anything like an equal footing with the Whig grandees of the home country. Morris understood this fundamental difference very well when he...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Profession
      (pp. 21-38)

      Morris was only sixteen when, in 1768, he became a clerk in the office of William Smith Jr., New York’s leading lawyer. His education had been rushed, giving him the disposition of someone who had come of age early in life. Judge Thomas Jones, who knew the family well, thought he had “more knowledge (though still a youth) than all his brothers put together.” It was not just that he was brighter than his much older half-brothers, now settled with families and in unremarkable careers, his intelligence seemed to operate on totally different lines—imaginative, skeptical, disinterested.

      With his self-confident...


    • CHAPTER 3 Things Fall Apart
      (pp. 41-58)

      After the final meeting of the Moot in early January 1775, events in New York moved inexorably to a climax. Only rhetoric and pious illusions now held the colonies and empire together. But given the peculiar mixture of New York politics, where the establishment had usually managed to accommodate the exuberance of the radicals—visionaries and troublemakers alike—Morris still could not believe that a complete break with Britain was inevitable. The dilemma he and his well-connected friends—“sensible and disinterested men”—wrestled with was how to remain a part of the empire on terms that would pacify Parliament yet...

    • CHAPTER 4 “The Great Question of Independency”
      (pp. 59-72)

      When Gouverneur Morris learned that the Continental Congress had, on April 6, 1776, declared American ports open to the entire world—except Great Britain—he knew that the breach had suddenly widened. The colonies had cut themselves adrift under the banner of a new government in all but name. Morris had always considered the regulation of trade one of the essential elements of a government’s sovereignty. His failed peace plan of a year earlier had, in fact, conceded the ordering of colonial trade to Parliament in a futile attempt to find a compromise to the quarrel. Simply put, the congressional...

    • CHAPTER 5 Breaking the Fetters
      (pp. 73-92)

      On August 12, 1776, Morris could see from the Battery the sails of Sir William Howe’s fleet, now numbering three hundred warships, hovering off Staten Island. Loaded with troops, mostly hired Hessians, the expeditionary force stood at nearly thirty thousand. Having abandoned the police action in Boston, the British ministry was now ready to reconquer the insurgent colonies, striking first at New York with the largest military force it had ever launched against a foreign enemy. Faced with such an armada, Washington ordered his men to keep their canteens filled and have two days rations on hand. He also thought...


    • CHAPTER 6 The Continental Congress, 1778–1779
      (pp. 95-122)

      An impressed George Washington had already taken the measure of the young New Yorker and wrote to congratulate him on his appointment to Congress when he heard the news. Morris’s reputation for a certain genius and eloquence preceded him, but the reviews were mixed. Writing to a correspondent a few days after Gouverneur reached the town of York at the end of January 1778, Robert Morris, the financial juggler who had just met him, thought he had “first rate abilities.” He hedged his assessment, however: “I think he will be immensely useful if he pursues his objects steadily (for I...

    • CHAPTER 7 Money Matters
      (pp. 123-144)

      In November 1779, a relieved Gouverneur Morris moved out of Congress and into the life of a well-connected lawyer about town. “I learn from your quarter,” he wrote Robert Livingston, “that I am no longer to be that wretched creature a statesman.” Livingston himself had just returned to Congress to take the seat of John Jay. Now that he was free of politics, Morris made it clear that he would resist any attempt to lure him back. “My restoration to the beau Monde,” he told Livingston, “is like a resurrection from the grave.”¹

      With New York still in enemy hands,...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Convention
      (pp. 145-168)

      Morris maneuvered in and out of public and private affairs with seamless ease, fitting into the exclusive enclaves of power. After resigning as Robert Morris’s assistant secretary of finance at the beginning of 1784, at the age of thirty-two, he was ready to invest his energy and talents in his own private interests. Business, banking, and his legal practice, centered in Philadelphia now absorbed much of his time.

      In 1786, he was the youngest member to join with the decrepit Ben Franklin, a near contemporary of his grandfather; James Wilson, an ambitious Scottish lawyer with literary tastes; Robert Morris; and...


    • CHAPTER 9 Paris, 1789
      (pp. 171-198)

      The convulsions of the North Atlantic in the winter of 1789 were the prelude to the turbulent world Morris was about to enter, a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The crossing to France took forty days “at a Season,” the traveler noted, “when the greatest Part of the twenty four Hours was clothed in Darkness.” The heavy sea also served as a metaphor for Morris’s complex private life in Paris, a tangle of money, politics, and romance. Admiring rumors of his success in finance, “gallantry” and constitution-making had preceded him.¹

      The New Yorker’s ability to think and...

    • CHAPTER 10 Business as Usual
      (pp. 199-208)

      Life in Paris tested Morris’s bent for self-indulgence precariously balanced by an inner discipline. But for all of his love-making and political intrigue, Morris never lost sight of his primary mission, to carry out an audacious plan to buy the American debt from the royal treasury and at the same time straighten out Robert Morris’s troubled tobacco business with the farmers-general. The first was grandiose, the second mundane. Until he succeeded Jefferson as minister in 1792, business affairs continued to press him relentlessly and are noted in virtually every entry of the diary. His private commercial correspondence conveys in numbing...

    • CHAPTER 11 A Presidential Mission
      (pp. 209-221)

      On the morning of January 21, 1790, before celebrating “the connubial Misteries” with Adèle in her Louvre apartment, Morris received three letters from the president of the United States all written on October 13, 1789. In a private letter, Washington reported to his friend that the paper government Morris had left in New York was now organized at the top. He had appointed Edmund Randolph attorney general, Hamilton to the Treasury, Jay as chief justice, and Henry Knox in the War Department. Jefferson, now on his way home from Paris on leave, was asked to be secretary of state but...

    • CHAPTER 12 Minister to France
      (pp. 222-250)

      After a month’s side trip through Flanders and Germany looking at both paintings and architecture, Morris arrived back in Paris on November 6, 1790. His traveling companion was a large Newfoundland dog he had ordered from America while in London. It was to be a present for his friend the duchesse d’Orléans. He called on Adèle on his first day back but left abruptly when he found a handsome young Englishman, Lord Henry Wycombe, at the apartment, “un peu enniché.” When Adèle assured the New Yorker of her fidelity and chastity, he said to himself that he was “obliged to...


    • CHAPTER 13 The Long Journey Home
      (pp. 253-262)

      Morris remained in Paris long enough for James Monroe to present his credentials to the National Convention and to prepare for his own departure. He had shipped his furniture, books, wine, and carriages back to Morrisania, which he had not seen for five years, but any homecoming was indefinitely on hold. Over the next four years, his business affairs and curiosity carried him on a long, slow journey around Europe, visiting Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Prussia, Austria, and England—and always well received wherever he went. Many of his Parisian friends, now fugitives, were scattered like leaves by the revolutionary...

    • CHAPTER 14 On native ground
      (pp. 263-296)

      After eighty days of a rough ocean crossing, Morris arrived at New York City on December 23, 1798. A few days were spent seeing old friends and family members and adapting his wooden leg to solid ground. Hamilton lost no time in giving him a political briefing. “Colonel Hamilton, now General Hamilton . . . tells me the state of our affairs.” Morris’s disagreeable half-brother Richard also paid a call. Morris charitably thought him less foolish than he had remembered, forgiven of “the past for he is always the Son of my Father.”¹

      At dusk on January 5 of the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 297-323)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 324-334)
  12. Index
    (pp. 335-345)