Morris and the Constitution- letters

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 in He very 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.

French Translation of the Paris diaries in progress.

10 October 2016: the Editors of the Gouverneur Morris Papers, were invited to give a talk at a seminar at research institute LERMA of Aix-Marseille University in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Editor Dr. Melanie Miller and PhD student Emilie Mitran in front of LERMA.
As the attendants of this seminar were interested in the historical, cultural and linguistic aspects of the Era of Enlightenment, they were eager to learn more about our Morris editing project. A golden opportunity to spread the latest news on that.... in France! And, at the same time lay some bricks on the road of future cooperation for research on Morris.

Professor Gerard Hugues and PhD-candidate Emilie Mitran are currently working on a French translation of Morris's Paris diaries. The availability of the diaries in French would obviously open up this magnificent historical source to many people beyond the anglophone world.

Morris's observations and his involvement with the major figures of the time have been of great interest for scholars of the period. In his Paris diaries of 1789-1793, Morris gave a lively (and sometimes intimate) report of his life during the French Revolution. A very accurate transcription of those diaries was published in 1939 by editor Beatrice C. Davenport, and recently we were able to make some additions in the revised online edition published by ROTUNDA of the University of Virginia Press.

Page in diary June 5, 1789 with  many cross outs
Why the additions?
In the original diary there are illegible parts because of crossed out and blotted sentences, rendered in the text as three dots by Davenport. Usually these dots concern Morris's sexual escapades, but sometimes they are about medication and disease. Anything that was considered unsuited for the public eye.

The question is: who did it?
These cross-outs were perhaps partly done by Morris himself, obscuring some passionate moments with former lovers from his wife's eyes. But some other blot-outs could have been done by Morris's wife Ann Cary Randolph in the 1830s before handing the diary to Morris's first biographer Jared Sparks. Even his granddaughter Ann Cary Morris (another editor of his papers) in the 1880s is a possible "suspect."

During our work with the diaries, we discovered that some omissions were applied by Davenport herself in the 1930s. She used dots in place of a perfectly legible phrase; for example on 1 November 1789:  "Madame is ill ..." whereas it says in the original: "Madame is ill she has the Infirmity of her Sex in a great Degree" Each editor was uneasy about something that was taboo in their own time. Of course, the modern scholar would like to know which parts were crossed out or left out.

Hyperspectral image of diary cross outs.
At the seminar we could discuss the results of hyperspectral images taken of some crossed-out sections. This state of the art technique was performed at the Library of Congress, but unfortunately those images did not reveal much. The goal was to show the difference between the original ink at the time of writing and the ink used later for blotting.

It turned out both inks were iron gall ink with the same spectral response and it was impossible to distinguish between them in order to date them. Thus, we still don't know when the cross-outs were done. We could however reconstruct a few phrases and fill in part of the "dots" in Davenport's online edition. See American Founding Era Collection,

The Story of Grace Coxe Le Ray de Chaumont


With words to that effect Gouverneur Morris ended his last letter to Mrs. Le Ray de Chaumont on February 27, 1807. Although the exact words Morris used were “some Years hence you will thank me” --more in the style of the early 19th century-- it suggests something unpleasant had been decided, and even though she could not see that yet, it would all be for the best. 

Morris, this goes without saying, knew better. In fact, he was certain he knew best. He went on to inform her husband, James Le Ray de Chaumont (Morris’s business partner and friend, who was in Paris at that time) of the latest commotion involving his wife Grace (who resided in Philadelphia), telling him she would probably "call me a cross old Devil and feel much hurt.

What was going on? Why would Morris reprimand his friend’s wife? It is time for some further investigation.

James Le Ray de Chaumont (1760-1840)
From Morris’s Letterbooks, that contain copies of the thousands of letters he sent out during his lifetime, we can tell that (business-) correspondence with Le Ray took place on a regular basis. About one letter every fortnight went back and forth during the times the men were not at the same location. From the period 1799-1816 (when GM lived at Morrisania near New York City), we have 136 letters to James Le Ray. 

And, surprisingly, there are also eight letters to Grace Coxe Le Ray.  These date from the period December 1805 to February 1807. This is in itself exceptional, because Morris would not have a reason to write to her personally, except in special cases.

However, by the end of 1805, a special case had arisen. 


The Coxes were one of the prominent families in Philadelphia. At the age of 27, in 1789, Grace married James Le Ray. The young Frenchman had come to America in 1785 to resolve some financial matters concerning his father, who had made large loans to the Continental Congress during the American War of Independence. The loans had been repaid in devalued paper money, causing an enormous loss for the family.

We learn a little more about their courtship (or rather, lack of courtship) from a letter Morris wrote to Le Ray in August 1807:
“... your conjugal Union arose from a Sense of Honor and Delicacy in you. That you accused yourself of having undesignedly, by Attentions which in your own Country pass for Nothing, and of Course make no Impression, interested her Feelings in such Way as (from her Account) to impair her Happiness thro Life. That you offered your Hand, provided your Parents would consent. That the same Sentiment of Honor had induced them to shut their Eyes also to Considerations of Fortune and splendid Connection.
 Apparently Morris seemed to think Le Ray had made a mistake in marrying her, but had done the honorable thing in doing so. Regardless, their wedding took place on July 14, 1789. Le Quartorze Juillet, but of course no one in Philadelphia had any idea yet of the important role this specific day was to play as the start of the French Revolution. News from overseas took several weeks to reach America.
Fall of the Bastille in 1789

Morris on the other hand, was in Paris at that time and witnessed how events spun out of control. By the time the young couple left for France in the spring of 1790, they would have known things were in turmoil overseas, but they went anyway and soon afterwards their oldest son Vincent was born.

Gouverneur Morris’s diary first mentions meeting Grace in Paris at her sister-in-law’s house in January 1791. It sounds as if he met her then for the first time; he described her as “looking like a fool,” but what he meant with his remark remains unexplained. Was she not particularly bright, or perhaps not as fashionable or well-spoken as the other ladies in the elegant circles Morris was by then accustomed to?

By the way, two years before, in May 1789, Morris described a meeting in Paris with “Madame Chaumont,” who talked to him “very serious, considering that she is said to be crazy.” The editor of the Paris-part of the diary, the erudite and otherwise very accurate Beatrice C. Davenport, misidentified her as Grace instead of Le Ray de Chaumont’s mother, who was by then estranged from her husband. She lived off and on with her married daughters in Paris.

Back to Grace’s story.
While Morris met Le Ray frequently during the next few years in Paris, he only mentions Grace four times, offering no additional information on her. When the situation in Paris became too dangerous after the fall of the Louis XVI, the Le Ray family took leave in September 1792, but Morris stayed behind (he was by now the American minister). After his successor had arrived by mid-1794, Morris left France to meet the Le Rays in Switzerland. It is evident that Grace was with her husband, for Morris stood as godfather to their newborn daughter Thérèse in a church in Lausanne in November.

No word on Grace for three and a half years, until 1798 when we learn that the family had traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, where Morris waited to meet them. Together they went north to Hamburg; from there they would take a boat back to the United States. Grace, James, toddler Thérèse and baby Alexander (born between 1795 and 1798), traveled together in their carriage(s), Morris in his own. There is no indication that 8-year old Vincent accompanied them; it could well have been that he was already enrolled in a school in Lausanne or Paris.
A three-masted schooner.

In the meantime it had become possible for James to return to France and he decided he would go to Paris for a while. He would try to convince potential French settlers of the advantages of living in the wilderness of upstate New York, while Morris would take care of the American side of the business.

Morris, who had already delayed his departure from Europe for more than a year, was eager to go home, but then young Alexander Le Ray became dangerously ill with smallpox, and the journey was again delayed. As soon as the boy had recovered by September 1798, they could search for a suitable ship that would take them and their considerable luggage, including Morris’s two horses, to New York.

At the time of departure on the ship Ocean, Grace had to be distracted in order not to upset her too much with the upcoming separation from her husband. Morris wrote: “The Ship gets under Way and we part with our friend Leray which is after all Preparation a painful Thing for his Wife. We deceive her therefore and he is off before she knows a Word of the Matter.” They finally left, rather late in the season, on October 4, 1798.

Arrival of a ship at Battery Park, New York c. 1800

Morris accompanied Grace and her two young children on a horrendous voyage across the Atlantic, but during the eleven-week ordeal he mentions their presence on the same ship only once, when he commented on having to take care of “Poupon” (baby) during a storm in which the water flowed into the nurse’s bed. Both his horses died at sea. A man fell overboard and drowned. They almost ran out of food. They almost shipwrecked near Rhode Island. They finished the last stretch of the journey on another ship. Finally, they reached New York on December 23, 1798, where Grace’s brother Richard welcomed her home.  


After arriving in the United States, Grace Coxe Le Ray, alone with the two youngest children but of course with the help of a nurse and footman and probably other servants, spent five months in New York City. By late spring 1799 she found herself in Sidney, New Jersey, where her parents lived, and in January 1800 she had settled in Burlington, NJ. There she socialized with French émigrés, the elite that had fled the violence in their country. One of them was the later King Louis -Philippe I of France.
King Louis-Philippe I de Bourbon, 1830.
He spent some years in exile in America, meeting
Morris again at the end of 1799/early 1800.

In August 1802, her husband finally came back from France, leaving their son behind in Paris. Vincent was twelve years old now and ready for higher education at the Ecole Polytechnique. James was in charge of the affairs of the French investors in land in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, a job that kept him on his toes. But unfortunately, fairly soon afterwards in 1804, he had to go to France again: his father had passed away and he was needed to take care of the inheritance. 

Again, he would stay away a long time, three years this time, until July 1807. During his absence, Morris was given power of attorney to deal with business affairs in America. He also was to give Grace a monthly allowance of 200 dollars. To put this in perspective: a laborer’s wage was 10-20 dollars a month. So, 200 does not sound bad at all, one would think.

During the periods Le Ray resided in France, the correspondence between the two men intensified; those letters mostly concern the business of their landholdings, but sometimes they touch on political or personal aspects. As mentioned before, we also have a few letters in our files from Morris to Grace in the period 1805-07; from reading through them, it becomes clear that Morris was getting more and more annoyed with her about her spending habits.


Sans Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa c.1850.
As soon as Le Ray had left in July 1804, Grace took off to the hot springs in northern New York taking 6 to 7-year old Alexander with her. Whether this was merely vacationing or for health reasons is not clear. It is likely that 10-year old Thérèse was left behind at Madame Grelaud’s school in Philadelphia (but that remains to be confirmed through more research of archival material). 

The first sign of trouble surfaced after Grace stopped by at Morrisania in October 1804 on her way home to Philadelphia (where she and James had recently moved to) from Ballston Spa, New York. It was then that she submitted some unexpected bills. 

On November 15, 1804, an alarmed Morris wrote to Le Ray in Paris:
                 I think her Expenditures besides travelling Charges will rather exceed $200 per Month. Her Board and that of Alexr. who was with her at Ballstown and may perhaps be with her at Phila[delphia]: $15 per Week--four Servants viz [= that is] Coachman, Footman, and two black Women $20—Two Horses $6—Add Cloaths, Washing, Wine, Tea, Fuel, Black Smith’s Bill, Footman’s Wages, &ca.
These expenses added up to much more than the two hundred dollars she received per month. Her allowance was supposed to cover her cost of living, the servants, and the cost of education for the children. She, however, spent it on other things like a $300 coach repair, and the expensive trip to the spa up north. Apparently, she did not spend any of the money on the children’s schools, and instead of boarding them out Grace tried to keep the children with her. On top of that, she quarreled with headmistress Madame Grelaud.

Morris was very annoyed with her behavior, “If you prefer keeping the Children with you, it will be an Injury to them.” He demanded she put Thérèse as a boarder in school in Philadelphia, and Alexander in a seminary in Baltimore, according to their father’s wishes. He thought “Ladies in general” were not equipped to handle money, so he decided he would pay the education costs for the children directly to their schools, thereby cutting Grace's allowance to 150 dollars per month per January 1807. If she still would not obey, it would go down to 100.

Morris wrote to congratulate Mrs. Le Ray after Vincent had won a prize at his school in Paris, and wished for similar success for her other children. Thérèse could win a prize too, he wrote sarcastically on New Year’s Day 1807, since she “excells all the young Ladies in Philadelphia in the Art of lying abed all the Morning.” 
This of course was all her mother’s bad influence.

Ballroom fashion anno 1807.

It looked like his threat had effect. Soon afterwards Thérèse was placed as a boarder at the renowned school of Mrs. Rivardi, therefore not allowed to go home during the nights, because “she goes late, comes away early, attends Balls, and wastes Time which can never be recalled.”  In March 1807 Morris wrote his last letter to Grace, which he ends with: “some Years hence you will thank me.

In bringing Le Ray up to date about his family affairs, Morris wrote, “I shall get the Children placed as they ought to be. I suppose the good Lady will call me a cross old Devil and feel much hurt. He genuinely thought she was being unreasonable. However, things only got worse.......


It seemed that Morris's strict approach to Mrs. Le Ray earlier in the year had not worked; she was even contemplating a divorce from her husband now. The first letter from Gouverneur Morris to James Le Ray de Chaumont after his return to the States mid-1807 is dedicated solely to the worrisome home situation of the Le Rays: “all was wrong: very wrong.”
Morris's letter to James Le Ray,  16 August 1807. 
In his letter, Morris analyzed the situation and advised accordingly. He suggested Le Ray limit the contact his wife was to have with the children. That it had been a mistake to marry her in the first place, due to cultural differences in American and French society. Sure, it had been the honorable thing to do to marry her, and Le Ray had been good to her, indulgent, even. 

But now, Morris insisted, time had come to put his foot down because it concerned the education of his children.
 That on one only Subject you had found it a Duty to use the Authority of a Husband—to protect your Children. That their Education, on which must depend their future Respectability and Happiness, was too near your Heart to permit any Consideration whatever to deter you from superintending it. Then appeal to her Reason and Conscience. Desire her finally to consult with any Person in whom she has Confidence, since unfortunately she no longer confides in her best Friend [i.e. Le Ray himself]—Entreat her, above all Things, not to think of a Divorce the Consequence of which must be both injurious and disgraceful.

Only to continue with revealing the underlying purpose of his advice:
If I mistake not, this Course will lead her to insist more strongly on a Divorce. Then, when all is ripe, you will take an Opportunity to say very coolly; well Madam since you wish a Divorce, apply for it to the proper Authority—from this Moment, if you continue to be my Wife, you shall obey your Husband; and if (as I too clearly perceive) you are insensible to Reason, you shall be sensible to Correction. The Law gives me a Right to administer moderate Correction to a disobedient Wife, and at the first Moment you shall receive it from my Hand.”

Is he suggesting some domestic violence would help the situation here? 
Morris concludes, clearly satisfied with himself:
“This would I think change a vain foolish Woman into a decent well behaved Wife”.

The clever plan, however, did not work. Grace gave in, the children were placed solidly in boarding schools and she and James stayed married. The marital issue does not come up again in any of Morris's letters.


The following year the Le Rays made use of their newly built house in remote Leraysville (later Le Ray), in the relative wilderness of upstate New York. The couple (there is no evidence of the presence of the children in Morris's papers) only spent time there during late summer and fall in 1808 and 1809, winters were spent in Philadelphia. When Morris visited the last week of August 1808, and again from mid-October till mid-January 1809, he complained of the terrible cold, the snow, the impassible roads and the empty stores. He does not comment on the new house, nor does he mention seeing Grace there. 
The question is, did she even go there?

View of Utica in 1807, by Anne Hyde de Neuville.
A stop on the way to Leraysville in remote upstate New York, where Le Ray had built a house.

In the summer of 1810, James, Grace and Thérèse left for France; Alexander probably stayed in school in Baltimore and 20-year old Vincent certainly stayed behind in the US in charge of his father’s landholdings. Morris kept up a correspondence with Vincent as well: 45 letters went to him in Leraysville right up to Morris’s death in 1816. 

Grace died in 1812 in (French occupied) Switzerland. As far as we know, she was never mentioned again in Morris’s diary or letters. Rumor has it her health had never been good, but we have not found evidence for that in Morris’s papers.

Vincent Le Ray de Chaumont (1790-1875)

Vincent married Cornelia Jumel in 1821 and was widowed by 1823; after the land business in New York failed in c.1836, he also went to France. He remarried there and died in 1875.

Thérèse married Hippolyte, marquis de Gouvello de Kériaval in 1816, and they both joined James Le Ray on his return to the States in 1816. Their first born child is buried on the property at Leraysville (now military territory of Fort Drum). The text on her grave reads: "CLOTILDE de GOUVELLO died Sept 20th 1818 aged 1 year and 3 months. She was endeared to her Parents and relatives and beloved by all who witnessed her fifteen months of suffering  life. Strew flowers on her grave." The young people went back to France and had at least one son there, in 1821.

Alexander was with his father and sister in 1816, when they visited Morris. It is not clear yet whether Alexander moved back to France at some point. He was still alive in 1830.

James Le Ray worked with Vincent on the upstate New York land enterprise for many years, until 1832 when he made a short trip to France, and then again until 1836, when the business went bankrupt. He died in France in 1840; he never remarried.

-The cited letters are in Morris’s Letterbooks in the Gouverneur Morris Papers at the Library of Congress in Washington.
-For information on the Le Ray family, see Thomas J. Schaeper, France and America in the Revolutionary Era, the Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725-1803 (1995).
-For pictures and details on settling of upstate New York, see Franklin Benjamin Hough, A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York (1854).
-For Cornelia Jumel, see Peter M. Kenny et al., Honoré Lannuier, Cabinet Maker from Paris (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), 129.
-For family tree website with dates and their historic sources:, e.g.