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: ;
 -- but the horse itself has been running spectacularly well and may well run in the Kentucky Derby this year:
 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.
            After the War, in 1785, Morris helped found the Manumission Society of New York, which worked for abolition in the state laws and established a school for freed slaves.  There is no indication that he 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. 

We are delighted to announce that The Diaries of Gouverneur Morris: New York, 1799-1816, is now out in hard cover. (University of Virginia Press, 2018, ISBN 9780813939797; The volume contains Morris's diaries from shortly after his return to New York from Europe until his death in 1816.  In that time, Morris continued to be an active political figure, serving in the Senate, heading the commission that initiated the Erie Canal project, chairing the commission designing Manhattan's grid, establishing the northern New York towns of Gouverneur and Morristown, and opposing the War of 1812.  He also delivered the official New York eulogy for George Washington and gave the funeral address for Alexander Hamilton.

The diaries are extensively annotated and provide meaningful new information about this last chapter of Morris's life, permitting a much deeper comprehension of his contributions, his experiences, and his trials.  We believe they will provide a springboard for research in to such matters as the actual events leading to the origin of the Erie Canal; the nature of Morris's financial catastrophe and its cause; and his scathing condemnation of the diplomacy of Jefferson and Madison which led to the entirely avoidable (in Morris's view) War of 1812.  

The new volume is also available in digital form on the University of Virginia Press ROTUNDA Founding Era website.

Gouverneur Morris and the Annular Eclipse of 1811

On Tuesday, September 17, 1811, Gouverneur Morris, at home in Morrisania, the Bronx, noted in his diary "An Eclipse of the Sun this Day." It was an annular eclipse, one that lasted nearly seven minutes, and occurred at 18:43 universal time, during the afternoon. An annular eclipse differs from the total eclipse we will experience next Monday, August 21, in that the moon is further from the earth when it blocks the sun, so that it does not entirely hide the sun, leaving a bright band of light around the dark circle of the moon.  Morris did not state whether he looked directly at the eclipse or not, but we can only hope he did not, because it would have been as dangerous for him as today. It was undoubtedly a dramatic event for all who observed it.  

Gouverneur Morris was the father of the Erie Canal, not Dewitt Clinton

This entry concerns a June 2017 article in the New York Times regarding the origins of the Erie Canal, which gave us pain because it repeats misinformation that has been accepted since the late 1820s regarding Dewitt Clinton’s importance in the project, and incredibly, omits mention of the man who was truly the originator of the concept and at the forefront of the start of its implementation, Gouverneur Morris.

As early as 1775, Morris had articulated a vision of the future greatness of New York and the contribution to be made by a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson. He repeated this concept to Simeon Dewitt, the New York surveyor general, in 1803 (after many years in Europe, where Morris visited a number of canals); Dewitt, who gave Morris full credit as the visionary of the Canal, wrote later that “I very naturally opposed the intermediate hills and valleys, as insuperable obstacles. His answer was, in substance, labor improbus omnia vincit, and that the object would justify the labour and expense, whatever that might be.”  In 1808, a canal commission was established, with Morris at its head –Simeon Dewitt and Dewitt Clinton were also commissioners-- and Morris wrote all of its reports until 1816, traveled with them to scout out routes, and proposed a feasible means of financing it through loans from Europe after the federal government refused to lend support (an effort he led in a trip to Congress).  Morris also published anonymous essays in support of the canal.  When the War of 1812 came, however, the project was rejected by the legislature, probably to some extent because of Morris’s known (and fierce) opposition to the War, though Morris continued to publish pieces supporting the canal. When the war ended, interest in it surged once more. By this time, Morris was frequently ill, and though he drafted a last commission report, it was apparently modified by fellow commissioners and his name omitted. In May 1816, six months before his death, Morris wrote to a friend about the project that he had had “a Presentiment that when it became popular I should no longer be trusted with the Management.” He saw “with Concern that it is now, like every Thing else, swallowed up in the Vortex of Party” but he had noted previously that he was happy to have the credit given to “any person you please” as long as the canal would come to pass. 

The belief that Clinton was the father of the canal seems to be due to an 1829 pamphlet compiled by a devoted friend of the governor, after Clinton’s death. The pamphlet quoted Simeon Dewitt’s comments about Morris, but also cited other contrary sources, who claimed, falsely, that Morris had been a hindrance to the project, that his proposals regarding financing had been rejected with horror, and that he had abandoned the project out of pique. It also gave great credit to a man named Jesse Hawley, a merchant in Genesee, who had published a number of essays advocating a canal from Erie to the Hudson  in the local newspaper, the Genesee Messenger, from late 1807-1808. The essays were detailed and were later considered prescient because of their predictions about the best route, and discussions of the benefits of an Erie to Hudson canal.  I take this opportunity to point out that I originally attributed these essays to Morris, whose flights of rhetoric about the future of New York State, and personal information about European canals, recorded during his time in Europe, seemed the only likely source.  I believe I am wrong about this, though I am looking forward to hearing more from someone who is currently working on Mr. Hawley.  In any event, the 1829 pamphlet asserted that these essays had inspired Clinton had been inspired to pursue the canal, but we have seen no evidence of this as of yet, for Mr. Hawley's name and pseudonym of "Hercules" don't appear in the materials we reviewed about the Canal, including Morris's diaries and correspondence, which is surprising, or in Clinton's diary of the Canal survey trip.  In any event, many historians, including the author of the Wedding of the Waters, apparently rely on this questionable pamphlet to dismiss Morris with scorn.

Whether Hawley's essays were a factor or not, the verifiable truth of Morris’s work for the canal can be seen in Morris’s essays and in his diaries, both with respect to his visits to canals in Europe and his tireless efforts on behalf of the project during the 1800s. The diaries appear in a new transcription published by the University of Virginia Press. Of course others made major contributions as the engineering planning and construction began; but for the editors of his papers, there is no question that Morris has been shamefully ignored for his enlightened foresight and selfless dedication to what is one of America’s most extraordinary achievements.

Sincerely, etc.