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Gorham, Nathaniel (1738–1796), merchant and revolutionary politician in America, was born in May 1738 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest of five children of Nathaniel Gorham, packet boat operator, and his wife, Mary Soley (b. c.1714). After a six-year apprenticeship to Nathaniel Coffin, merchant of New London, Connecticut, Gorham returned in 1759 to Charlestown to open his own business, which was quickly successful. He gained considerable wealth from privateering and speculation during the American War of Independence. He was one of five incorporators of the Charles River Bridge corporation in 1785, and was active in the First Congregational Church of Charlestown. In 1763 he married Rebecca Call; they had nine children.

Because Gorham opposed British taxation and customs duties enforcement, Charlestown elected him to the Massachusetts house of representatives in 1771. He sat in the colonial and then state legislature until 1788, except for two years during the war. He was speaker of the house in 1781, 1782, and 1785. He also served in the Massachusetts provincial congress, 1774–5, on the Massachusetts board of war, 1778–81, and as a county court judge beginning in 1785. In 1779–80 he was a delegate to the Massachusetts state constitutional convention.

Gorham began serving in the continental congress in December 1782, and sat in it intermittently while he was continuously re-elected to the Massachusetts house. He did not attend congress when house speaker. In his first term he supported measures calculated to restore public credit, which Massachusetts favoured because it wanted its war expenses reimbursed. Gorham foresaw that if the New England states did not get fair treatment from congress, they might form a separate northern confederation. He voted with other nationalistic delegates for the commutation of military officers' half pay for life to full pay for five years, which Massachusetts opposed, and accordingly, after leaving congress in June 1783, he was not re-elected delegate until November 1784. He resumed attendance in January 1786, attending sessions through much of 1786–7, except during sessions of the federal convention in Philadelphia.

In June 1786 he replaced the ill John Hancock as president of congress, serving until November. During this period Gorham supported the calling of a convention to establish a federal government with power to protect commerce and establish a uniform monetary system. He also supported the sectional view that, in exchange for a commercial treaty with Spain, the United States should be willing to renounce its claim to free navigation of the Mississippi. He has been accused of inviting Prince Henry of Prussia to become king of the American confederation and put down the disorders in Massachusetts and other colonies. P. H. Smith, in his Letters of Delegates to Congress, shows this is almost certainly untrue.

As delegate to the federal constitutional convention of 1787, Gorham provided important leadership. He chaired its executive committee for several weeks in June. He was a member of the five-man committee of detail, and given credit by Oliver Ellsworth as being a major framer of the federal constitution. His most significant and influential belief was that the constitution should establish general principles, and that the legislature work out the details. His élitist ideas that, as in Massachusetts, both wealth and numbers should be represented, and, as in Britain, plural office holding by representatives would give stability to government, were rejected. His populist ideas—extending the possibility of enfranchisement to ‘mechanics’ and raising the maximum ratio of representatives to people to one to every 30,000—were adopted. Discarding his earlier acceptance of sectional separation, he was anxious to compromise with the south, seconding South Carolina's motion to extend the time limit on the slave trade to 1808 in exchange for southern acceptance of the provision that navigation acts could be adopted by mere majority vote. He was also a powerful member of the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788. Here he convinced one anti-federalist delegate, his partner in speculation William Phelps, to return home rather than vote against the constitution.

Gorham's political stature faded as he became more involved in land speculation. Although he remained in the national congress until the spring of 1789, he was inexplicably denied re-election to his seat in the Massachusetts legislature in May 1788. He withdrew as candidate for congress in November 1788. He and Phelps contracted to purchase 6 million acres for $1 million face value in depreciated Massachusetts securities. They planned to buy up these depreciated securities cheaply, but the federal policy of assumption of state debts caused the securities to appreciate. Gorham faced bankruptcy, suffered apoplexy, and died on 11 June 1796 at Charlestown, where he was buried.

Benjamin H. Newcomb

Sources  

J. T. Adams, ‘Gorham, Nathaniel’, DAB · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000), vols. 18–26 · M. Farrand, ed., The records of the federal convention of 1787, rev. edn, 4 vols. (1937); repr. (1966) · F. McDonald, We the people: the economic origins of the constitution (1958) · R. J. Lettieri, ‘Gorham, Nathaniel’, ANB · E. C. Burnett, The continental congress (1941) · J. T. Main, The antifederalists: critics of the constitution, 1781–1788 (1961) · V. B. Hall, Politics without parties: Massachusetts, 1780–1791 (1972) · Journal of the Honourable House of Representatives of the state of Massachusetts-Bay (19 May 1776–31 Dec 1779) · J. F. Hunnewell, A century of town life: a history of Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1775–1887 (1888) · R. A. East, ‘The Massachusetts conservatives in the critical period’, The era of the American revolution, ed. R. B. Morris (1939), 349–91

Archives  

Mass. Hist. Soc., MSS · Massachusetts Archives, Boston, MSS · NYPL, MSS


Likenesses  

etching (after unknown portrait), L. Cong., prints and bibliographic division · portrait, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

bankrupt: Lettieri, ‘Gorham, Nathaniel’