A piece of Morrisania comes to light: a mahogany table from Gouverneur Morris’s library



 One of the most thrilling aspects of being an historian is when you get the chance to physically touch an item that in real life belonged to the person of your interest. Something she or he has touched, sat on, used, worked with. Diaries and letters written by that person have that effect too, but an artifact is even more moving.

 On November 16, 1792, Gouverneur Morris, then America’s minister to France,  recorded in his account book the purchase of two mahogany tables, “one of them a Dressing Table.” He paid 216 pounds for the two tables:



He did not indicate where he had bought them, but it is very likely that they were in a sale of items belonging to a distressed French aristocrat. The King had fallen three months earlier, and would be guillotined two months later, and aristocrats had been forced to flee France or face imprisonment and possible execution.  Morris bought quite a few pieces of furniture, beddings, curtains, etc. in these sales, and shipped them to his home in the Bronx. When he returned from Europe in December 1798, he started extensive renovations to the family mansion, which had suffered during the American revolutionary war.  Morris had purchased the house and land from his oldest half-brother Staats Morris before he had left for Europe in 1788.  He used his French aquisitions to furnish it in a grand style.

 The editors were recently surprised and excited to learn that the dressing table had surfaced in the home of a private collector who had bought it at auction nearly 30 years ago; the table had been in the hands of Morris’s descendants until that sale.

 This elegant but modest piece, with decorative brass, was made in France in the late 1700s though it may well have been the work of a German cabinetmaker; there were several German “ébénistes” at work in Paris, and though there is no apparent signature indicating its workshop of origin, its style indicates it could have very well have come from one of them.  


The table, with its lid open, showing the mirror, can be seen in this print of the Morrisania library, which appeared in an 1890 article in Art Journal about the Morrisania mansion.  at the New-York Public Library:

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Gouverneur Morris" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 5, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/6b0efb70-cd39-9c8e-e040-e00a18065a96

The prints in the article also show the reception room and front hall of   Morrisania, and several other items purchased by Morris (the large desk by the dressing table, a clock, etc.) are still known to be in existence.

It is thrilling to think that Morris probably looked at himself in that mirror.


Morris comments on the Constitution in 1803

 In December 1803, Morris responded to a request from his nephew, Lewis R. Morris (1760-1825), a representative from Vermont, to provide his views on constitutional amendments in general and, in particular, the amendment to change presidential voting from the arrangement that had led to the problematic election of 1800 - the deadlock between Jefferson and Burr -- to one which would provide separate voting in the Electoral College for president and vice-president. The letter is an interesting one because it combines Morris's personal views on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (something he had not endorsed) and his analysis of the Republican effort, in his view, to subvert it, with purely political suggestions geared to a man representing one of the small states - Vermont - and how to get his constituents to oppose the amendment as inimical to their interests. Morris, it will be remembered, was a principal advocate at the Convention of the view that the Constitution was made by the people of the United States, not the individual states, and opposed giving the small states equal representation in the Senate, most particularly as an improper trade-off for increased House representation for the South based on their slave population. However, in providing political strategy for his nephew, he suggested taking the opposite tack, to demonstrate to them that the amendment would undo the protections they had demanded and received in the document. 

It is important to keep this in mind in reading the letter, which could otherwise seem a gross inconsistency in Morris's constitutional convictions; but if one separates out his outrage over Republican actions and the practical purpose of his suggestions to Lewis Morris, his core constitutional views are evident and unchanged. He was dismayed by Jefferson's actions as President and as leader of the Republican Congress, and believed that they had utilized the Constitution's compromises and would use the proposed amendment to further cement their control of the government. He excoriated their hypocrisy in extolling the Bill of Rights which, in his view, they were currently violating with impunity, Many of his comments resonate today. 

The letter: 

Lewis R. Morris Esqr.                                                             Morrisania 10 Decr. 1803

                                   Springfield Vermont

My dear Sir

            Yours of the 30 Novr. reached me last Evening. I am so much occupied that I must steal Time to make a hasty Reply. If I were to defend the Constitution against the present Attack in Vermont, under the Circumstances which you mention, I think I should make some general Observations on the Danger of frequent Change in an Instrument of that Sort. These must lessen the Reverence for it essential to that prompt Compliance with it's Injunctions witht. which we cannot enjoy a mild and free Governmt. I should then proceed to state that if Changes are at any Time necessary they should not take Place till after mature Examination, lest we should not foresee Mischiefs resulting from them which may exceed those it is intended to remedy. That we ought most particularly to be cautious not to make any Change when our Minds are heated by the Provocation of a particular Circumstance, because the Suffering of the Moment always appears greater than it really is while remote Evils appear smaller than they ought. That the Constitution was a Compact, not between solitary Individuals, but between political Societies, the People, not of America, but of the United States, each enjoying Sovereign Power and of Course equal Rights. That if in the new Legislature, as in the old Congress, each had been equally represented and each preserved an equal Vote, the Sacrifice of Rights would have been equal. But when it was admitted that in the national Legislature the Representatives should be apportioned according to the Number of Citizens, the Sacrifice of Rights was great, in Proportion as the States were small. Thus Delaware which had but one Representative out of sixty five, retained only one sixty fifth Part of the national Authority; and Virginia which had ten Representatives, obtained two thirteenths. Wherefore since each had previously enjoyed one thirteenth, Delaware lost four fifths of it's Power and that of Virginia was doubled: so that Delaware compared to Virginia was reduced (under the new Establishment) from Equality to one tenth. It was moreover evident that the Course of Population would daily encrease this decided Superiority of the Great States. That of Course if the whole Power of the Union had been expressly vested in the House of Representatives the smaller States would never have adopted the Constitution. But in the Senate they retained an equal Representation, and to the Senate was given a considerable Share of those Powers exercised by the old Congress. One important Point however, that of making War, was divided between the Senate and House of Representatives. That the legislative Authority being thus disposed of, in a Manner which appeared reasonable, Care was taken to preserve to the Senate a feeble Share of the antient executive Power of Congress by their Negative on the Appointments to Office. That it was however certain the President and Vice President would be taken from the larger States unless the smaller had some Proportion of their original Right preserved, and therefore the Number of Electors is compounded of the Number of Senators, who represent States, and of the Number of Members who represent the People. Still however the Chance was, from the Superiority of Numbers, so greatly in Favor of the large States, that a further Right was reserved to the smaller ones by the particular Mode of Election. The Necessity of Voting for two Persons, as President, one of which should not be of the State voting, and the Right of chusing a President out of the five highest on the List where no absolute Choice was made by the Electors, is perhaps the most valuable Provision in favor of the Small States which can be found in the Constitution. By the former, the Chance of an absolute Choice is greatly diminished, and by the latter, the Decision among five Candidates is preserved to the States in their political Capacity. It will of Course be, under such Circumstances, always in the Power of the smaller States to judge of the personal Character of the Parties presented for a Choice, and tho Natives and Citizens of large States one of them may possess such Attachment to the Country at large and such Sense of Justice that from his Administration there would be no Danger of Encroachment on their political Rights. That the Constitution having thus secured to the smaller States a Part of the Rights they had precedently enjoyed; in Consideration of other Part[1] which they were called on to sacrifice, was for that Reason odious to the Great States of Virginia and New York. They, as is well known, strenuously oppos'd the Adoption of it: or at least a very large Party in each State who preferred the old Constitution or what is equivalent no Constitution at all. That the Party who opposed the Constitution in those States is now possessed of all Power under it, and tho they cannot at once break the Constitution, are still actuated by the same Principle and are steadily pursuing their Object which is to mould it by Degrees into such a Form as that all Power shall be substantially vested in the large States. That in Consequence of this Plan the Independance[2] of the Judiciary has been impaired, because the Judges would it was foreseen resist Assaults on the Constitution by Acts of Legislation. That more effectually to rob the smaller States of their Rights, it became necessary to render their Citizens Accomplices in the Conspiracy. That for this Purpose the plausible Doctrine has been preached that Men have equal Rights, and of Course that Inequality is Usurpation; that all Authority resides in the People, and that a Pretence in any one Set or Society of Men to greater Privileges than those enjoyed by others is contrary to the first Principles of Equality, and of Course that an equal Representation in the Senate, of political Societies unequal in Number, is in direct Contradiction to those Maxims of free and equal Government according to which the United States have been originally constituted. That the Sincerity of the Virginia Apostles of this Doctrine can best be known by travelling thro their Country and seeing a thousand Slaves tremble under the Lash of a Tyrant who insists, in our national Councils, on the native inalienable Rights of Man not only to enjoy civil Liberty but to participate equally in every political Privilege. That the present Amendment is a direct Consequence of that false Doctrine, which seeks the Attainment of Power under the humble Pretext of Equality. That to designate the Person voted for as President, must of Necessity lessen the Chance of an Election by the House of Representatives, and is declaredly intended for that Purpose. The specific Object of it is that the Choice of the People, that is to say of the Great States who contain a Majority of the People may not be defeated by the House of Representatives that is to say by the small States  who have on such Occasions an equal Vote in the House. That the necessary Consequence of Measures grounded on that specious Principle must be an eventual Subjection of the Union to Virginia and New York. These States urge the present Amendment for the Purpose of dividing between them, at the next Election, the two first Offices of the Union. That during the Administration of Mr. Adams, Virginia was almost in open Revolt agt. the national Authority, merely because a Yankee & not a Virginian was President.of That the Proof of this important Fact is derived from reviewing late Events. We shall find that not one of the Pretexts used to overturn what was called the federal Administration has served as a Principle for the Guidance of what is called the republican Administration. There is no Reduction of Taxes, except such as bore exclusively on the Rich. There is no Diminution of Salaries. The discretionary Power of the Administration over the national Treasure has been enormously encreased. Tho the national Revenue, from the Wealth accumulated by national Industry has rapidly advanced the national Debt has been made to advance still more rapidly by the improvident Purchase of a World to share in our national Authority. In fine, Maxims are assum'd from the british Constitution, and Laws are passed in Conformity, which give to a Virginia President Royal Power. From all which it follows, not by mere Inference but by downright Demonstration, that the Leaders of what is called the Republican Party are not dissatisfied because the Power of the Government was too great, but because it was not in their Hands. That their Attachment to the Constitution was pretended that they might the better mould it to their Purpose. That the false Principles which they have dignified with the Name of Republican, Principles hostile to all Government and immediately fatal to all Republican Government, were only assumed in Order to lead honest Men by slow but sure Degrees to abjure the Principles of our Constitution, and cooperate in their own Subjugation to the Aristocracies of Virginia and New York. I should conclude by an Appeal to the Reason the Recollection and the Feelings of my Audience and insist that by paying our Share of 15 000 000 for the exclusive Benefit of the Southern States, we had given sufficient Evidence of Submission to our Masters without agreeing to perpetuate their Power and our own Humiliation.





[1] sic, not "the other Part" or "other Parts"

[2] sic

More Views of Houdon's bust of Morris

These are additional images of the bust made by Houdon in 1791 in Paris, from a life mask he took of Morris on June 9, 1789. (See the diary entry.)  

Morris and the Constitution and Congress - Part II

 Since writing the previous blog entry, we have been able to fully transcribe a letter written by Morris to Aaron Ogden on December 28, 1804.  "Fully transcribe" refers to the fact that Ann Cary Morris published this letter but left out much text, with no indication to the reader; and Sparks, though he did a more thorough job, left out the final half-page of the letter, without saying that he had done so, or why.  As usual, both earlier versions were marred by the revision of Morris's own punctuation. 

Morris had reason to be discouraged in December 1804. Hamilton had died in July, to his grief, a senseless death that left his family in dire straits, which GM and other friends had done their best to mitigate. Morris had been home at Morrisania for most of the year, and was feeling concern and frustration about the failure of the Marquis and Mme. de Lafayette to repay the considerable personal loan he had made to them in 1792.  He continued to feel disillusioned about the Jefferson-initiated repeal of the Judiciary Act in by the new Republican Congress of 1802; this repeal had, in his view, left the Constitution "broken," and nothing that had happened in the interim under the Jefferson administration had changed his view.  

Aaron Ogden was a New Jersey lawyer and served in the Senate from 1801 to 1803; as noted in our annotations in the diary volume, he "is known to legal history as the losing litigant in Gibbons v. Ogden, the 1824 Supreme Court decision proclaiming federal authority over interstate commerce."  We do not currently have the letter written by Ogden, which raises a "dilemma" as described by Morris in his response:

Aaron Ogden Esqr.                                 Morrisania 28 Decr. 1804

           Elizabeth Town

 My dear Sir[,]

          You ask a Question, telling me (at the same Time) it can be answered by none but a Prophet. I hope you do not mean to confer that Title on one who pretends only to compare present Events with what happened in the antient Day. Those who will not believe Moses and the Prophets neither will they believe tho' one should rise from the dead; and those who will not trust the Experience of History are incapable of political Knowlege. Your Question is a Kind of Dilemma. If by the former Part you mean to ask whether the Power of our federal Constitution will be committed to able respectable Men, I answer no. That Constitution received, thro' the Judiciary, a mortal Wound, and has declined more rapidly than was apprehended by the most fearful. To the second Part of your Dilemma I say that if the Morals of our Country were sound, we might foster high Hopes: but, Thanks to the present Administration, we have travelled farther in the Road of Corruption during three Years than England did in Half a Century. British Corruption has indeed been greatly exagerated. It is far from general either in the House of Commons or in the Election of Members to that House. A Choice in the Counties, being made (as you know) by Freeholders, is generally speaking out of the Reach of corrupt Influence: and it is to be noted, in reasoning on English Affairs, that the Ministers always on important Questions consult the Wishes of County Members; so that a Measure is abandoned if disagreable to them. Matters of Importance therefore are decided by the Voice of those to whom the Country belongs; and indeed no Administration can stand when opposed by those whom they call the landed Interest. With us Corruption begins where, by the Analogies of England, it should have ended.  Our People are deeply corrupted by that licentious Spirit which seeks Emolument in the Prostration of Authority. The Outwork of Respect has long since been carried and every new Election presents a more hideous Picture of the public Mind, so that if the Character of the People is to be estimated by the Objects of their Choice we shall find it difficult to support a Claim to Wisdom or Virtue. No Parrallel can perhaps be found to such morbid Affection, unless among the Athenians: and even the Mob Government of that extravagant Tribe was, in some Respects, preferable to representative Democracy. A Mob is indeed a whimsical Legislature and a wild Tribunal, but it has, in the Midst of it's Madness, some Sense of national Honor and some Regard for Justice. A Body of Representatives, when influenced by Faction, will do Acts of Cruelty and Baseness which the most profligate among them would, in his personal Character be ashamed to avow. A Man accused before a Town Meeting might have some Chance, but if his Fate were decided by a Midnight Cabal Innocence would be no Excuse, Virtue no Defence, and Fame, far from exciting Respect, would stimulate Envy to seal his Condemnation.

          You conclude perhaps that I adopt the second Part of your Dilemma: If so, you are mistaken. Our Population is sparse and (pardon a coarse Allusion) like small Beer more susceptible of acetous than spirituous Fermentation. It is probable that the Relaxation of Morals will operate chiefly on the judicial Department, be more characterized by Fraud than Violence, and terminate rather in Baseness than Tyranny. But there is, you know, a Point of Depression from which Things return in a contrary Course. There are also Chances which may befal us before we reach that ultimate Point. Being one in the Great Family of Nations, our Brethren cannot be ignorant of our Condition. They must percieve that without Force to protect a Territory and Commerce widely extended, without Wisdom or Vigor in our Councils, we present a fair Object to their Cupidity. If then we do not recieve a broad Hint, within ten Years, it must be numbered among the moral Phenomena. Nations, like Individuals, are not to be reasoned out of Vice, much less out of Folly; but learn Wisdom and Virtue in the School of Affliction. To speak without Metaphor, Rascals are more likely to repent at the Gallows and Whipping-Post than at the Gaming Table and Dram Shop. If we are visited by Misfortune, Knaves will not trust Fools with the Management of public Affairs; and if the wise and the virtuous are then united by the Bands of Honor and patriotic Affection, they may (holding in their Hand the Torch of Experience) palliate, perhaps remedy, the Defects in our System. America, my good Friend, will at length learn some of those Things which an attentive Study of the Antients long since taught you. The People of these United States will discover that every Kind of Government is liable to Evil. That the best is that which has fewest Faults. That the Excellence, even of that best, depends more on it's Fitness for the Nation where it is established than on intrinsic Perfection. In short, after ringing round the Changes, they will find that there is a single Alternative, in which they must decide, according to their actual and probable State, whether Vigor or Wisdom be most requisite. How far the Influence of Habits Manners and Opinions will permit them to pursue the best Road, is a Problem of no easy Solution. One Thing is certain. Democracy cannot last. It is not so much a Government as the Dissolution of Government; being indeed the natural Death of Republics: so that in Reality there are but two Forms Monarchy and Aristocracy. That either should exist unmixt is next to impossible. The Despot must employ many who will both check and direct his Power, and the most cunning Senate cannot avoid giving to Individuals a considerable Share of Authority. Moreover be the Complection of a Government monarchic or aristocratic, it can do little when unsupported by popular Sentiment.

          Our poor Friend Hamilton bestrode his Hobby to the great Annoyance of his Friends and not without Injury to himself. More a theoretic than a practical Man, he was not sufficiently convinced that a System may be good in itself, and bad in Relation to particular Circumstances. He well knew that his favorite Form was inadmissible, unless as the result of civil War; and I suspect that his Belief in that which he called an approaching Crisis arose from a Conviction that the kind of Government most suitable, in his Opinion, to this extensive Country could be established in no other Way. When our Population shall have reached a certain Extent his System may be proper, and the People may then be disposed to adopt it; but under present Circumstances they will not, neither would it answer any valuable Purpose.

         Statesmen are frequently obliged to acknowlege that the Things which they consider as best are unattainable. It would be a Misfortune, under present Circumstances, to be chosen Member of a Convention for the Purpose of mending our Constitution. A Man may easily put his fingers on it's Faults. But let it be remembred that Nothing human is perfect, and that every Change is hazardous. If your Country, sensible of it's Defects and determined to run all Risques, should call on you for the Remedy, you would see that any Thing short of a System strong enough to protect itself would be a mere Quack Nostrum, and you would, I think, find that the Patient is not yet sick enough to swallow the proper Medicine.

          But now supposing the worst, viz. that the Prostration of Character Morals and Authority should enable an Usurper to seize all Power, it is evident that he could not long occupy the Throne, unless he rendered his Domination both respectable and agreable. With a View to the former, Prudence would dictate the Appointment of respectable Men to the first Offices. To effect the latter, he would find it necessary to provide for the impartial Administration of Justice by independent Tribunals. A Regard to his own Ease and Convenience would lead him to submit the general Conduct of Business to a Council of intelligent Men. This Sort of Government would answer many valuable Purposes of social Union, and is, in Effect, what most of them amount to, when fairly analized: tho' neither of us would chuse, nor even submit to it, but under the Pressure of Necessity.

          When a general Question is raised as to the best Form of Government [,] it should be discussed under the Consideration that this best, being presupposed, is, if unable to preserve itself, good for Nothing, wherefore Permanency is an essential Object to which minor Advantage must be sacrificed. But an absolute, that is an unmixed, Monarchy, would hardly last three Lives. Perhaps, on impartial Enquiry, it may appear that a Country is best governed (taking for a Standard any long Period such as Half a Century) when the principal Authority is vested in a permanent Senate. But there seems little Probability that such a Body should be established here. Let it be proposed by the best Men among us, and it would be considered as a Plan for aggrandizing themselves. Experience alone can incline the People to such an Institution. That a Man should be born a Legislator is now, among unfledged Witlings, the frequent Subject of Ridicule. But Experience that wrinkld Matron which Genius contemns and Youth abhors, Experience the Mother of Wisdom, will tell us that Men destined from the Cradle to act an important Part will not, in general, be so unfit as those who are Objects of popular Choice. But hereditary Senators could not long preserve their Power. In Order to strengthen the Body it might be needful to weaken the Members; and fixing the Office for Life, fill up Vacancies from (but not by) the People. Not long since the New York Legislature appointed a Senator. Mr. King had a few Votes. Those who gave their Voices to Doctor Mitchell hung down their Heads ashamed, but carried him by a great Majority. When a general Abuse of the Right of Election shall have robbed our Government of Respect, and it's Imbecility have involved it in Difficulties, the People will feel, what your Friend once said, that they want Something to protect them against themselves. And then, Excess being their predominant Quality, it may be a patriot Duty to prevent them from going too far the other Way. Is thy Servant, said the Syrian General, a Dog that he should do this Thing? Put down the Names of fifty leading[1] Democrats from the North you will, on a Change of Times, see them as obsequiously cringe to Individuals as they now servilely flatter the Populace; for a Courtier and Demagogue differ only in Forms, which like Cloaths are put on and off as suits the Occasion. Interiorly there is the same Rottenness, the same Duplicity, the same Fawning, the same Treachery, the same Baseness. Hold up to each his Picture, and each will, like the Syrian, exclaim, is it possible thy Servant could be such a Dog. Yet Dogs, vile Dogs like these, possess themselves of Power under despotic or democratic Rule --


[1] The word "leading" is inserted.

Morris and the Constitution- letters - part I

Morris had on a few occasions to respond to letters concerning the Constitution; interpretation, original intent, and how effective - or not - it was proving to be. These discussions can provide considerable food for thought, particularly so given that he rarely mentioned his role in the final drafting of the Constitution, but there were a few exceptions. We have been reviewing some of these letters  and hope to publish more. Here is one, responding to a question about Hamilton and the Constitution, and containing a remarkable discussion of why Morris opposed the Bill of Rights.  It was written in 1811 to Robert Walsh, Jr., as the Madison administration continued toward with England, to Morris's dismay and disgust.

As usual, this gives the editors a chance to point out the value of accurate and modern transcription. As published by Anne Cary Morris in her two volume edition, it was scrambled, paragraphs dropped, a paragraph from another letter entirely inserted, punctuation changed, etc., etc.:

Robert Walsh junr.[1] Esqr.                                 Morrisania 5 Feby. 1811

Dear Sir
          Genl. Hamilton had little Share in forming the Constitution. He disliked it, beleiving all republican Government to be radically defective. He admired, nevertheless, the british Constitution which I consider as an Aristocracy in fact though a Monarchy in Name. The King can do Nothing but appoint Ministers who then become the acting responsible Executive. And even in the Nomination of those (who by the Curtesy are stiled) his Ministers he is rarely a free Agent. In getting Rid of one Set another stands ready which he must take or see the Men of his Choice in a Minority and the Machine of Government stand still. But you know all this better than I do.
          Genl. Hamilton hated republican Government because he confounded it with democratical Government & he detested the latter, because he beleived it must end in Despotism; and be in the mean Time destructive to public Morality. He beleived that our Administration would be enfeebled progressively at every new Election and become at last contemptible. He apprehended that the Minions of Faction would sell themselves and their Country as soon as foreign Powers should think it worth while to make the Purchase. In short his Study of antient History impressed on his Mind a Conviction that Democracy, ending in Tyranny, is while it lasts a cruel and oppressing Domination. One marked Trait of the General's Character was the pertinacious Adherence to Opinions he had once formed. From his Situation in early Life it was not to be expected that he should have a Fellow Feeling with those who idly supposed themselves to be the natural Aristocracy of this Country. In maturer Age his Observation and good Sense demonstrated that the Materials for an Aristocracy do not exist in America: wherefore taking the People as a Mass in which there was Nothing of Family Wealth Prejudice or Habit to raise a permanent Mound of Distinction in which (moreover) the Torrent of Opinion had already washed away every Mole Hill of Respect raised by the Industry of individual Pride, he considered the Fate of Rome in her meridian Splendor and that of Athens from the Dawn to the Sun Set of her Glory as the Portraits of our future Fortune. Moreover the Extent of the United States led him to fear a Defect of national Sentiment. That which at the Time our Constitution was formed had been generated by Fellowship in the revolutionary War was sinking under the Pressure of State Interest commercial Rivalry the Pursuit of Wealth and those thousand giddy Projects which the Intoxication of Independence an extravagant Idea of our own Importance, a profound Ignorance of other Nations, the Prostration of public Credit and the Paucity of our Ressources had engendred.
           He heartily assented nevertheless to the Constitution because he considered it as a Band which might hold us together for some Time, and he knew that national Sentiment is the Offspring of national Existence. He trusted moreover that in the Changes and Chances of Time we should be involved in some War which might strengthen our Union and nerve the Executive[.]  He was not (as some have supposed) so blind as not to see that the President could purchase Power and shelter himself from Responsibility by sacrificing the Rights and Duties of his Office at the Shrine of Influence. But he was too proud and, let me add, too virtuous to recommend or tolerate Measures eventually fatal to Liberty and Honor. It was not, then, because he thought the executive Magistrate too feeble to carry on the Business of the State that he wished him to possess more Authority but because he thought there was not sufficient Power to carry on the Business honestly. He apprehended a corrupt Understanding between the Executive and a dominating Party in the Legislature which would destroy the   's Responsibility, and he was not to be taught (what every one knows) that where Responsibility ends Fraud Injustice Tyranny and Treachery begin.
          Genl. Hamilton was of that Kind of Men which may most safely be trusted, for he was more covetous of Glory than of Wealth or Power. But he was of all Men the most indiscreet. He knew that a limited Monarchy, even if established, could not preserve itself in this Country. He knew also that it could not be established, because there is not the regular Gradation of Ranks among our Citizens which is essential to that Species of Government. And he very well knew that no Monarchy whatever could be established but by the Mob. When a Multitude of indigent profligate People can be collected and organized their Envy of Wealth Talents and Reputation will induce them to give themselves a Master provided that, in so doing they can humble and mortify their Superiors. But there is no Instance to prove and it is indeed flatly absurd to suppose that the upper Ranks of Society will, by setting up a King, put down themselves. Fortunately for us no such Mass of People can be collected in America. None such exists. But altho Genl Hamilton knew these Things from the Study of History and perceived them by the Intuition of Genius he never failed on every Occasion to advocate the Excellence of and avow his Attachment to monarchical Government. By this Course,  he not only cut himself off from all Chance of rising into Office but singularly promoted the Views of his Opponents, who with the Fondness for Wealth and Power which he had not, affected a Love for the People which he had and which they had not. Thus Meaning very well he acted very ill and approached the Evils he apprehended by his very Solicitude to keep them at a Distance.
          Those who formed our Constitution were not blind to its Defects. They beleived a monarchical Form to be neither solid nor durable. They conceived it to be vigorous or feeble active or slothful wise or foolish mild or cruel just or unjust according to the personal Character of the Prince. It is a Dupery to cite the Duration of french Monarchy at Eight Centuries. In that Period the Provinces which lately composed it passed by various Fortune from their Subjection to Rome thro the Conquest of Barbarians the Ferociousness of feudal Aristocracy and the Horrors of Anarchy and civil War to their Union under the Bourbons. That Union was not consolidated untill the soaring Spirit of Richelieu and the flexible Temper of Mazarin had tamed an indignant Nobility to the Yoke of Obedience. By the Vanity the Ambition and the Talents of Louis the Fourteenth, France became the Terror of Europe. By the facile Immorality of the Regent & and the lascivious Feebleness of Louis the Fifteenth she sunk almost into Contempt. After a few Years of distempered Existence under the mild and virtuous Louis the Sixteenth the Lamp of that boasted Monarchy was extinguished in his Blood.
Fond, however, as the Framers of our national Constitution were of republican Government, they were not so much blinded by their Attachment as not to discern the Difficulty, perhaps Impracticability, of raising a durable Edifice from crumbling Materials. History the Parent of political Science had told them that it was almost as vain to expect Permanency from Democracy as to construct a Pallace on the Surface of the Sea. But it would have been foolish to fold their Arms and sink into Despondence because they could neither form nor establish the best of all possible Systems. They tell us in their President's Letter of the 17th Sepr 1787 "The Constitution which we now present is the Result of a Spirit of Amity and of that mutual Deference and Concession which the Peculiarity of our political Situation rendered indispensible." It is not easy to be wise for all Times. Not even for the present; much less for the future: and those who judge of the past must recollect that when it was present, the present was future. Supposing however that one or two solitary Individuals, blessed with an unusual Portion of the divine Afflatus, could determine what will fit Futurity; they would find it no easy Task to prevail so far with the present Generation as to induce their Adoption of a Plan at variance with their Feelings. As in War, after the best Disposition which the Ground, the Soldiers you command the Arms they use their Numbers Courage and Skill compared with the Arms the Skill and the Courage of your Enemy will admit of, much must be left to Chance or in other Words to Combinations of which we are ignorant; so in Politics after all that human Prudence can do Events which no Genius could foresee will often direct a Course wholly different from the high Road of Probability. The Materials of which Society is formed are continually changing, and altho while floating together on the Tide of Time the Progress is unobserved by all, yet any one on looking back and comparing Conditions will perceive a great Difference. It was therefore pardonable to suppose that what would in one Day be neither advisable nor practicable might in another Day be safe and easy. Perhaps there is still in my old Bosom too much of the youthful Ardor of Hope, but I do not despair of our Country. True it is that the present State of Things has approached with unlooked for Rapidity. But in that very Circumstance there is a Source of Comfort. In Spite of the Power of Corruption there is still, perhaps, enough of public Sentiment left to sanctify the approaching Misfortunes. Let not good Men despair because the People were not awakened by what has past.[2] It should be considered that in Proportion to the Size and Strength of the Patient and to the Dullness of his Organs the Dose must be large to operate with Effect. The Embargo produced so much of Nausea that our State Doctors perceived the Necessity of an Opiate. Thus the incipient Spasm was lulled, but Causes must eventually produce their Effects.
          This Digression leads us however from the Point of your Enquiry: how far has the Senate answered the End of it's Creation? I answer further than was expected but by no Means so far as was wished. It is necessary here to anticipate one of your subsequent Questions "What has been and what is now the Influence of the State Governments on the federal System? To obtain any Thing like a Check on the Rashness of Democracy it was necessary not only to organize the Legislature into different Bodies (for that alone is a poor Expedient) but to endeavor that these Bodies should be animated by a different Spirit. To this End the States in their corporate Capacity were made Electors of the Senate; and so long as the State Governments had considerable Influence and the Consciousness of Dignity which that Influence imparts, the Senate felt Something of the desired Sentiment and answered in some Degree the End of it's Institution. But that Day is past. This opens to our View a Dilemma which was not unpercieved when the Constitution was formed. If the State Influence should continue, the Union could not last, and if it did not the Utility of the Senate would cease. It was observed in the Convention at an early Day (by one who had afterwards a considerable Share of the Business) when the necessity of drawing a Line between national Sovereignty and State Independence was insisted on "that if Aarons Rod could not swallow the Rods of the Magicians their Rods would swallow his." But it is one Thing to perceive a Dilemma and another Thing to get out of it. In the Option between two Evils that which appeared to be the least was preferred, and the Power of the Union provided for. At present the Influence of the general Government has so thoroughly pervaded every State that all the little Wheels are obliged to turn according to the great one.  Factious Leaders sometimes snarl and growl but the Curs cannot bite and are easily lashed into Order by the great executive Thing. It is pleasant enough to see them drop their Tails and run yelping to the Kennel.
          A factious Spirit prevails from one End of our Country to the other. And by that Spirit both Senators and Representatives are chosen. By that Spirit the Government acts; and as to the Provisions of the Constitution, however they may serve to fill up the Space of a Speech to round off a Period or perfume a Flower of Rhetoric, they cannot restrain Men heated in the Chase of Party Game. Mr. Poindexter lately observed with no little Truth that it would be vain to oppose what should be enjoined under Form of Law, because it was forbidden by the Constitution. The Senate (in my poor Opinion) is little if any Check either on the President or the House of Representatives. It has not the Disposition. The Members of both Houses are Creatures which tho differently born are begotten in the same Way and by the same Sire. They have of Course the same Temper. But their Opposition, were they disposed to make any would be feeble. They would easily be borne down by the other House in which the Power resides. The President can indeed do what he pleases provided always it shall please him to please those who lead a Majority of the Representatives. This Matter is understood among the Parties concerned. The Representatives, however, do not yet know that their Power has no Bound except their Discretion: but a pleasant Lesson is easily learnt and the more they feel their Power the less will be their Discretion. Authority so placed is liable as well to Excess as to Abuse, and this Country, unless I am much mistaken will experience not a little of both.
          In what has already been said you may find some Answer to your Question "How far have the Amendments to the Constitution altered it's Spirit? These Amendments are, generally speaking, mere Verbage. They served to deck out pretending Patriots and dupe those who clamored against an Instrument which it had not pleased God such as they should understand. One of them, however, that a State should not be made amenable to Justice thro the Medium of the supreme Court was perhaps proper. To bring a State into a Court of Justice has more of what the French call le beau ideal than of rational Policy: for it would not be easy to coerce a Corporation (such as New York for Instance) which contains near a Million of Souls. The other Amendments resemble those Bills of Rights which, to use a fashionable Phrase, were all the Rage some Years ago. It is unwise to annex such Things to a Form of Government. If the Rights are secured by the Constitution, to detail them is unnecessary; and if they are not, it is worse than useless: for the Contradiction between two such Instruments becomes a Source of dangerous Contention. Finally however the Controversy must be decided by the Voice and, of Course, according to the Will of the Legislature; whose Power a Bill of Rights is intended to restrain. Moreover the Uncertainty of Words when used by those who understand them best renders it difficult, perhaps impossible, to express the same Thing precisely in two different Ways.  Now it has been said that our Constitution is remarkable for the Perspicuity of it's Language: and if so there was some Hazard in attempting to cloathe any of it's Provisions by the (so called) Amendments, in different Terms. It would be a tedious Work of Supererogation to shew that the original Constitution contained those Guards which form the apparent Object of the Amendments. A more curious as well as comprehensive View of the Subject will present itself by a Recurrence to Facts fresh in our Memory. Those Gentlemen who patronized and matronized the Amendments have long governed the United States according to their own Will and Pleasure, as I suppose, tho there are who say they act under the Dictation of a severe Task Master. Now put your Finger (I pray) on the sixth Article of the Amendments or Bill of Rights call it which you please. It is there written. "The Right of the People to be secure in their Persons Houses Papers and Effects against unreasonable Searches and Seizures shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable Cause supported by Oath or Affirmation and particularly describing the Place to be searched and the Persons or Things to be seized." Had this Provision been made after the last Supplement to the late Embargo Law, it might be considered by a giddy Populace as giving them sufficient Security against the outrageous Proceedings directed by that Supplement. But considerate Men are not the Dupes of patriotic Professions neither will they confide the Defence of their Liberty to Paper Bulwarks. Such Men never beleived the Amendments gave any additional Security to Life Liberty or Property. But very few in America, perhaps not twenty, could imagine that the very Authors of the Article just cited would be the first to violate it; and that in a Manner so flagrant and shameless. Let noisy Dram Shop Politicians roar out their Adoration of our divine System their Detestation of Despots and their Contempt for the Slaves of Britain; You Sir well know that neither would a british Monarch suggest nor a british Minister propose nor a british Parliament dare to enact a Statute so hostile to Freedom as that last Supplement to the Embargo. It must not however be concluded that the American People are prepared for the Yoke of Despotism. Should Power revert to federal Hands, and should they, presuming on the Precedent, attempt any Thing one tenth Part as improper, they would soon be made sensible of the Difference. But it is an Evil inseparable from Democracy that the Leaders of that Faction which includes the lower Class of Citizens may commit the greatest Excesses with Impunity. This my friend Hamilton distinctly foresaw and would, were he now alive, reproach his intimate Friends for their Attachment to a Government so liable to Abuse. The Reproach however would be ineffectual. They would defend themselves by observing that the great Body of American Freeholders have such direct Interest in the Preservation of Law and Order that they will stand forth to secure their Rights when the Necessity for it shall appear. They would say farther that such Necessity cannot be shewn by a Course of political Ratiocination. Luckily, or to speak with a Reverence proper to the Occasion, providentially, Mankind are not disposed to embark the Blessings they enjoy on a Voyage of syllogistic Adventure to obtain Something more beautiful in Exchange. They must feel before they will act. This is proved not only by the History of other Nations but by our own. When Misfortunes press hard, and not before, the People will look for that Wisdom and Virtue in which formerly they found Safety. They will then listen to the Voice which, in the Wantonness of Prosperity, they despised. Then, and not till then, can the true Patriot be of any Use.
          But it is high Time to close this long Letter. Beleive me I pray with Esteem & Respect &c:

[1] Robert Walsh, Jr. (1784-1859). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson has a lengthy annotation about him, describing him as an "author, educator, and diplomat." 
[2] Morris wrote "passed" at the end of the page but "past" at the top of the next.


The editors were quite surprised recently to receive this remarkable picture:

and were even more startled when they were advised that the name of this beautiful three-year-old race horse is none other than "Gouverneur Morris," aka "The Gouvernator." 

The horse was christened by Mr. Ed Barker, a Morris enthusiast who lives in Bellevue, Washington. It seems that Mr. Barker conditioned his investment in a share on being allowed to name the colt.  Since the colt's sire was Constitution, Mr. Barker has taken the opportunity to introduce our favorite Founding Father into the national consciousness by a very unusual route.

His mission has so far gone extremely well:  Not only has the horse and the story behind his christening caught the interest of several commentators - see, e.g., this TV clip:  pic.twitter.com/amINixCcLg ;
 -- but the horse itself has been running spectacularly well and may well run in the Kentucky Derby this year:  http://www.tampabaydowns.com/news/2020/02/14/gouverneur-morris-rules-in-2020-debut-morales-wins-three-again
 If this is the case, our goal at the Papers will at last have been achieved, though by a route we editors never imagined: Gouverneur Morris will become a household name!

UPDATE July 26 2020:  Unfortunately, this wonderful horse contracted a serious case of colitis, an ailment that often kills young horses.  He recovered, though he will not be participating in the Derby.  His trainers believe he still has races to run, however.

Mr. Barker is going all out:  Here is a Tshirt he has had made:


Morris and Immigration

Here is an excerpt from Arthur Paul Kaufman, The Constitutional Views of Gouverneur Morris (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Dissertation Services, 1994):

        Several times in his early writings, Morris referred to a future American nation as "an asylum to mankind." At the conclusion of Morris's Observations on the American Revolution, written for the Continental Congress in 1779, he elaborated on that concept in terms suggestive of the inscription, partially taken from Emma Lazarus's historical poem, now affixed to the Statue of Liberty:

The portals of the temple we have raised to freedom shall then be thrown wide, as an asylum to mankind.  America shall receive to her bosom and comfort and cheer the oppressed, the miserable and the poor of every nation and of every clime.  The enterprise of extending commerce shall wave her friendly flag over the billows of the remotest regions.  Industry shall collect and bear to her shores all the various productions of the earth, and all by which human life and human manners are polished and adorned. In becoming acquainted with the religions, the customs and the laws, the wisdom, virtues and follies and prejudices of different countries, we shall be taught to cherish the principles of general benevolence.

Gouverneur Morris and Slavery: Part II

We now turn to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Morris's part in crafting a document that preserved slavery while establishing a government intended to preserve freedom for everyone else. 

The origin of this can be a bit confusing, because so many issues in the debates affected each other. The issue of slavery came to the fore in the discussions concerning the mode of taxation, the census, and representation in the House and Senate. A direct tax was under discussion (rather than on duties on imports), to be based on the wealth of each state, including slaves, and the Southern states, arguing that slaves were "wealth," proposed that 3/5 of the slave population be counted for purposes of the census and thus the resulting number of seats in the House. This was a pretty obvious maneuver to protect the institution of slavery by increasing power of the slave holding states in the new government.

            At the same time, the smaller states wanted equal representation in the Senate to provide "security" for their interests against the larger states.  This was the basis of the trade-off: The South would keep their slaves by virtue of having more representatives in the House; the small states could keep their equal voice in the Senate. Morris vigorously opposed both provisions, but the 3/5 rule passed in committee. 
            However, when the census provision went to the floor, he tried to neutralize the 3/5 rule by moving to have the word "free" inserted in front of "inhabitants" to be counted. He had traveled in Virginia in early 1785 and his comments on the floor reflected his experience:

He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. Travel thro' ye. whole Continent & you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance & disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave ye. E. Sts. & enter N. York, the effects of the institution become visible, passing thro' the Jerseys & entering Pa. every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed south wdly & every step you take thro' ye great region of slaves presents a desert increasing, with ye increasing proportion of these wretched beings.

Morris then began one of the greatest speeches of the Convention: “Upon what principle is it,” he asked,

that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?   The Houses in this city are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina.   The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice. 

He continued:
Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution. The vassalage of the poor has ever been the favorite offspring of Aristocracy. And What is the proposed compensation to the Northern States for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity. They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the S. States; for their defence agst. those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels & seamen in case of foreign Attack. The Legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises, and duties on imports: both of which will fall heavier on them than on the Southern inhabitants; for the bohea tea used by a Northern freeman, will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag that covers his nakedness. On the other side the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack [i.e., a slave uprising], and the difficulty of defence; nay they are to be encouraged to it by an assurance of having their votes in the Natl. Govt. increased in proportion, and are at the same time to have their exports & their slaves exempt from all contributions for the public service. Let it not be said that direct taxation is to be proportioned to representation. It is idle to suppose that the Genl. Govt. can stretch its hand directly into the pockets of the people scattered over so vast a Country. They can only do it through the medium of exports imports & excises. For what then are all these sacrifices to be made? He would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the U. States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.

This speech made Morris enemies in the southern states, like Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who later declared “If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world.” 

In the end, of course, as Morris had feared, the smaller states, acting according to what one historian calls “realpolitik,” chose to protect their own particular interests through the Senate and agreed to the 3/5 rule for the House, and, later in the summer, a fugitive slave law.  Further protection for the South was contained in a provision prohibiting Congress from barring the importation of slaves until 1808.

  Morris did not renounce the Constitution despite this defeat. This might seem an abandonment of his principles. However, Morris was very much a pragmatist, and it was now clear that the Southern states would not accept any limitation on slaves, and that unless this shameful bargain was incorporated, the Constitution would not be completed and approved in Convention, much less ratified by the states.  His experience in the Continental Congress, in New York, and in Pennsylvania, had made him fully aware of the need for a unification of the states under a strong federal government. Without it, the country would disintegrate.  This was the impetus for the Constitution: and the other delegates who had variuos (and to them, serious) objections, also voted to approve it based on the same calculation.  

The questions regarding the apparent hypocritical disconnect between the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the actions of their framers should really be directed at those Founding Fathers who denounced slavery but did not free their slaves. Jefferson, for example, spoke of slavery with revulsion, advocated some laws limiting the trade, and others that would have resulted in relocation of freed slaves outside of the United States, but he freed only a handful of slaves in his lifetime and died owning over 100.  Such a contradiction would have been no surprise to Morris, who had no illusions about human nature, and the abuses we are capable of. 

Gouverneur Morris and Slavery, Part I

The project was recently contacted by a writer for the New York Times magazine, who was curious about the contradiction embodied by the Founding Fathers' rhetoric of liberty and their slave holding practices.  He had read about Morris's denunciation of slavery at the Constitutional Convention but had understood that Morris owned slaves, that his family had become wealthy in part on the labor of slaves, and wondered what the editors had to say about this. 

In fact, Morris did not own slaves.  Here was our response:


Your letter raised two matters: one, how is it that a Constitution that purports to describe a government that guarantees justice and liberty could have resulted in a system that far too often has provided neither?. The second, about slavery, is one that strikes all of us who compare the oratory of the American Revolution with the perpetuation of slavery deliberately permitted by the Constitution.  The second question is the one I'll address first.
            It is a fact that some of the most revered Founding Fathers (e.g., Jefferson, Madison) gave considerable lip service to the principle that slavery was wrong, but continued to own slaves; others made no such hypocritical assertions to try and disguise their embrace of slavery; and others chose to ignore it in the interest of securing their own measure of power in the new nation.  When it comes to Morris, however, there was no hypocrisy in his denunciation of the institution.  Before addressing his role in designing the Constitution, I want to clear up a couple of things about him. Morris was born into a well-to-do family, and his father, an admiralty judge, owned at least forty, maybe more than sixty slaves.  When the judge died in 1762, half of the estate went to one of Gouverneur's half-brothers, and the remainder, including the ancestral home, went to Morris's mother. Gouverneur received a relatively small cash bequest. By the time his mother died in 1786, she had three slaves, and she left them to Morris's sisters. Her half of Morrisania went to her stepson Staats, and Gouverneur bought it from him in 1787.

Morris's aversion to slavery was already evident in 1777 (he was 25), early in the Revolutionary War, when he and John Jay were among those given the task of drafting the first New York constitution. Morris unsuccessfully proposed a provision recommending that future New York legislatures take steps to abolish domestic slavery so that "every being who breathes the air of this State, shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman." (The language called for a delay because it was believed at that time that liberating the slaves in war time would be dangerous.)  He was, however, successful in squashing an attempt by Jay (who opposed slavery but detested Catholicism) to bar Catholics from voting unless they took an oath.
            There is no indication that Morris had any slaves before he left for Europe in late 1788. After he returned in late 1798, until his death in 1816, his practice was, if he bought any -- he seems to have bought two -- to immediately manumit them but bind them to indentures for a period of time.  He paid them wages, which appear in his account books, and periodically hired free black men  to work on the Morrisania farm.

The next post addresses Morris's actions at the Constitutional Convention regarding slavery.