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. 


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