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



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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Morris comments on the Constitution in 1803

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

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

The letter: 

Lewis R. Morris Esqr.                                                             Morrisania 10 Decr. 1803

                                   Springfield Vermont

My dear Sir

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





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

[2] sic