Gouverneur Morris (17521816), by Thomas Sully, 1808
Morris, Gouverneur (17521816), revolutionary politician and diplomatist in the United States of America, was born on 31 January 1752 at Morrisania, Westchester county, New York, son of Lewis Morris jun. (d. 1762), New York landlord and politician, and his second wife, Sarah Gouverneur (d. 1786). His father was of Welsh descent and his mother belonged to a French Huguenot family that migrated to New York after the revocation of the edict of Nantes.
The Morris family ranked among New York's landed gentry. Their estate (in what is now the Bronx) enjoyed formal manorial status, though it was small by comparison with other New York manors. The Morrises were extremely well connected within their own province, in other colonies, and in England. Gouverneur Morris's grandfather and father were judges and assemblymen. His uncle , became lieutenant-governor of Pennsylvania and royal governor of New Jersey. His half-brother entered the regular army and went to England, where he rose to lieutenant-general, married a dowager duchess, and won a seat in parliament. Gouverneur Morris's own mother was a committed loyalist during the war.
Young Gouverneur received his early education in the Huguenot school at New Rochelle, acquiring the fluent French that served him very well later in life, and then at the Academy of Philadelphia. He earned his BA at King's College in 1768, which meant that he had the chance to observe closely New York's tumultuous resistance to the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend taxes, and the New York Restraining Act (both 1767). That may have stimulated his lifelong mistrust of street politics. He trained for the bar in the office of William Smith jun., future loyalist chief justice and foremost attorney in the province. He began practising law when he was nineteen.
Morris recorded his earliest political position in 1774, as he observed a popular meeting to elect a revolutionary committee. He saw the mob who were beginning to think and to reason as poor reptiles enjoying their vernal morning. Ere noon, he predicted, they will bite. By contrast Morris considered reunion with the parent state to be the interest of all men (Sparks, 1.236). Yet he did not become a loyalist. Instead he joined a group of young upper-class New Yorkers, most of them fellow King's graduates, who moved slowly toward independence and sought to limit its social consequences. To a large extent they succeeded, taking advantage of unfolding events and creating a state government with institutional protection for private property and a strong governorship to check popular desires. But despite his conservatism on class relations among white New Yorkers, Morris was deeply radical on the subject of black slavery, seeking its abolition as part of New York's revolutionary settlement.
Morris represented New York in the continental congress at Philadelphia in 1778 and 1779, where he drafted a number of major state papers and closely observed the effects of runaway inflation. He stayed in Pennsylvania after leaving congress, practising law, writing a major series of essays on the problem of American finance, and working with the revolution's financier Robert Morris (no relation) to stabilize the American economy.
Morris's adopted state made him a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1787, which gave him the chance to take a major role in the creation of the American republic. He still distrusted the mob and his ideal government would have had a life presidency and a senate whose appointed members would amount to life peers. That government would virtually obliterate the power of the separate states. On slavery Morris remained radical. His stance against counting slaves for the purpose of apportioning the house of representatives and against the slave trade nearly split the convention. As a member of the convention's committee of style Morris had the largest role in the final wording of the constitution. Its memorable preamble (We the People of the United States of America … do ordain and establish this Constitution) was the product of his facile pen.
Morris went to France on private business in 1788 and stayed in Europe for the next decade, serving from 1792 to 1794 as American minister. His undoubtedly brilliant personality, his bon vivant style, and his complete command of the French language served him very well. Appalled by what he saw as the French Revolution developed, he advised French conservatives including Louis XVI and the marquis de Lafayette, sheltered possible terror victims, and established good relations with other diplomats who shared his perspective. Unlike all other envoys he stayed in Paris throughout the terror, and the diary he kept is a major historical source for the period. Though formally recalled in 1794, he stayed in Europe for another four years, acting in part as an informal adviser to the British Foreign Office.
Despite Morris's opposition to slavery his French experience confirmed his hostility to popular politics so strongly that he favoured putting down the great uprising in San Domingo. When he returned to America and took up residence at Morrisania, the conservative Federalist Party controlled both the national government and New York, and the state legislature sent him to the United States senate in 1800. He served until 1802 and then left formal politics, although he opposed most policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, especially in regard to foreign affairs. He endorsed the abortive secession movement of New Englanders in 1814, in protest against the Anglo-American War of 181214. On 25 December 1809, after many amorous adventures, he married the Virginian Anne Cary Randolph (b. 1774), showing complete contempt for rumours that she had been the mistress of her brother-in-law. They had one son. Morris died at Morrisania on 6 November 1816 of infection caused by an attempted self-remedy for a urinary blockage. His wife survived him.
M. M. Mintz, Gouverneur Morris and the American revolution (Norman, OK, 1970) · M. Swiggett, The extraordinary Mr Morris (1952) · T. Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris (New York, 1908) · J. Sparks, The life of Gouverneur Morris (1832) · M. Knobloch, The French Revolution as seen through the eyes of Gouverneur Morris, Bulletin of Bibliography, 50/1 (1993), 5573 [annotated bibliography] · M. Mintz, Morris, Gouverneur, ANB
E. Quenedy, physionotrace, 1789, repro. in A. C. Morris, ed., Diary and letters of Gouverneur Morris (1888) · T. Sully, oils, 1808, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia [see illus.] · J. Sharples, pastel, 1810, Frick Art Reference Library, New York · G.-L. Chrétien, engraving (after E. Quenedy) · B. L. Prévost, engraving (after P. E. Du Simitière, 1779), NYPL, Emmet Collection