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: