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Finding a Founder

Monday, December 1, 2003

William Howard Adams.
Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life.
Yale University Press. 296 pages. $30.00

Gouverneur morris is one of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution, although he was neither wholly general, orator, nor political philosopher. A little of all three, he was merely (if merely is the appropriate adjective) a man of immense natural gifts: a powerful charisma, an iron resolution, vast industry, tremendous sensibility, and a devotion to the ideals of the American experiment so fierce but so ambivalent that one could only find its like in early Republican Rome. William Howard Adams’s Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life shows a marked lack of the quality — sensibility — possessed in such great abundance by Morris. Nonetheless, Morris’s story is substantial enough to bear telling and retelling, however dry the teller may be.

Morris was born in New York in 1752 to Lewis Morris, an inheritor of one of the most respected names in the colonies as well as one of the largest fortunes. His mother, Sarah Gouverneur, was the descendant of Huguenots, although her Protestantism was far less rabid than that of her forebears. Educated in a lycée at New Rochelle, the prestigious Philadelphia Academy, and King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York, Morris showed early aptitude at his studies — although his innate “taste for pleasure,” as he put it, prevented him from ever being much of a grind. Indeed, even in his childhood and early adolescence, his personality was already fascinating his peers and annoying his superiors. Finishing school at 16 and beginning a clerkship in the offices of William Smith Jr., New York’s most prominent attorney, Morris seemed poised to become another of the extraordinary breed we know as “colonial gentry.” But by the time Morris was in his middle twenties, history had begun to happen. Morris’s mettle was about to undergo the most serious and difficult testing imaginable.

Morris’s roles in the revolution, particularly in the various Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, are incredibly various. In the spring of 1775, he served as a delegate to New York’s first Provincial Congress, where he helped organize the in-state resistance to the British and to convince the Provincial Congress to adopt the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Association. Later that year, he was appointed to the Continental Congress as an expert in finance, to help them take on the problem of issuing a currency to fund the revolution. By early 1776, he was serving as a liaison between his new friend Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, helping them to coordinate the Continental and New York armies. In these three endeavors, Morris played a vital role in the early years of the revolution — the successful assimilation of New York, one of the wealthiest and most divided colonies, to the revolutionary cause.

Once the American cause got off the ground, he continued to play an extremely important role. He spent most of 1777 to 1779 saving the new government from its failures of resolve. He more or less single-handedly convinced the Congress to allocate money to the wretchedly underfunded Continental Army when it was at the point of its most desperate need — late 1777, encamped in Valley Forge, after a run of shameful defeats at the hands of the British. He put his formidable skills as an advocate to work when a series of bills aimed at “reconciliation” with the American Colonies went the rounds in Parliament in 1778. When one thinks that he was only 26 at the time, and a New York landowner with a “taste for pleasure” laboring day and night in the desolate village of York, Pennsylvania, these accomplishments take on positively heroic dimensions. But they pale beside the culminating work of his career as a statesmen: the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. He contributed perhaps more than any other single framer to the sculpting of the executive branch, an office with which, in light of his aristocratic, republican temperament, he would have felt a naturally close connection. He also wrangled with Patrick Henry and James Madison over the two subjects that have caused America more grief than all others together: slavery and religion. Morris, despite his patrician birth, was a staunch abolitionist and proponent of toleration — deeply offensive to Patrick Henry and the committed anti-Catholic John Jay. The leading member of the brilliantly named Committee on Style, Morris condensed the first drafts of the Constitution into the compact and powerful final form over the course of September of 1787. Equally important, he forced a vote on the final form of the Constitution, and convinced the still-wavering delegates of its worth. Morris was, perhaps, the closest thing to a midwife the American government ever had.

Morris’s post-Convention life was, to put it mildly, action-packed — he relocated to France for the years 1789 to 1794. He became romantically entangled with Adelaide de Flahaut, the brilliant, independent wife of Charles de Flahaut, a minor court functionary. They began a passionate affair that lasted the duration of Morris’s time in France. This did not, however, prevent Morris from continuing to serve his country. He was America’s primary financial agent in France, a crucial position in the fiscally shaky years after the revolution. He was an astute observer of the French Revolution — eventually, through its excess, becoming wholly suspicious of all egalitarian sentiment in politics. In doing so he grew ever more disenchanted with the vaporings of Thomas Jefferson — this would become a point of lifelong enmity between them. Morris eventually became minister to France, despite the fact that, by 1790, he had been labeled as a “counter-revolutionary” by James Madison, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette. It is a testament to Washington’s faith in Morris that he did not let these attacks sway his faith in his appointment.

With the ascension of Jefferson to the presidency and the collapse of the Bourbons, Morris was left rather adrift in Paris. He returned to America in 1794, just as a young and just-famous Corsican’s star was beginning to rise. He broke things off with Adele and settled down to a life of leisure, interrupted only by a late marriage to Ann Cary Randolph (a severe shock to those of his kin who saw, with their eyes on his property, Morris as a confirmed bachelor). He took quite poorly to the fact that the three-fifths clause had been allowed to stand, and that the difficulties with Britain culminating in the War of 1812 had been allowed to escalate, seeing in them a sure sign of the Union’s demise. He died peacefully, disillusioned but charming and charismatic as ever, at his estate in 1816, having lived through a second war with Britain.


It is an understatement to call this a full life. Morris is one of the most important figures in the founding of this country. But his importance is of a kind that is usually overlooked by history. Morris was a deeply principled man, an aristocrat with intense republican sentiments, but a realist nonetheless. His labors were of the unpleasant, inglorious kind that do not involve stunning military victories, brilliant speeches, or violent self-sacrifice. Morris bore, with the exception of his sincerity, a surprisingly close resemblance to the modern politician — one can see him as a truly brilliant speaker of the House, or perhaps secretary of state. He was a fixer, a schemer, a conciliator, and a diplomat — someone concerned far more with political realities than with the verities of political philosophy. This is not to say he neglected his principles in favor of the practical — his passionate stances on abolition and toleration, his wrangling with Henry and Jay, attest to this. Rather, his realism was, in a way, dictated by his principles. His struggle to get the Continental Army funded was a disinterested one, ultimately — he struggled so that the government in which he believed so strongly might have a proper birth. But, as with all truly great committeemen, Morris has never really captured the popular imagination. William Howard Adams is, therefore, to be praised for undertaking to write a comprehensive academic biography of this obscure but important man.

Sadly, like so much of what is comprehensive and academic, this book lacks feeling for its subject. It is, merely, an almost verbatim transcription of the life of Gouverneur Morris. Events important to readers’ understanding of Morris are blithely skimmed over. Morris was, famously, one-legged — he lost a leg to a carriage wheel. Adams glosses over what must have been a deeply traumatic event (serious injury in the eighteenth century was a dreadful affair, and Morris was, if not vain, conscious of his physical charms) in a few paragraphs. A writer with a deeper sense of psychological curiosity would have seen in this a rich vein of narrative ore.

Similarly, sometimes trivial events are treated at length. There is, at the end of the book, an unsatisfying and unnecessary digression on the subject of Ann Randolph’s past. Filled with suspicious death and alleged incest, it is certainly luridly interesting. But it has the distinct feel of filler. And one must ask: How does this contribute more to our knowledge of Morris than the story of the loss of his leg? Indeed, the entire final section of the book is problematic. Morris did very little but reflect for the final years of his life. Such reflection in old age is usually accompanied by inactivity, making for a paucity of facts left in the historical record. Adams’s final section, “Settling Down” is a bit scanty (even with the addition of the Ann Randolph imbroglio) because of this. But instead of availing himself of the opportunity to do a bit of delving into the mind of his subject, he merely records the scarce activities of his final years. The book literally ends with Morris’s death — with nary a word of afterthought, postscript, or reflection. Adams’s announcement of it drops with a palpable thud.

Adams’s insensitivity to his subject results in a series of similar thuds when he begins to quote the man himself. Morris’s pithiest utterances are let fall with the carelessness that his rhetorical boilerplate is. Morris may not have been an aphorist, but he certainly scored a few good ones. “Protection, Sir, is a very good thing, yet a man may pay too much for diamonds” — this in response to an advocate of “reconciliation” with Britain. It’s not brilliant, but it bespeaks a certain consciousness of style on the part of the speaker. To Adams, this is apparently indistinguishable from Morris’s much drearier ruminations on the political necessities of the founding, which are deadly earnest and quite platitudinous. There are also repeated references to Morris’s reputation as a daring, if decorous, rake (as well as a whole host of fatuous quotes on the order of “There is a lack of pretty women here in York”). But for all this teasing, Adams never actually gets around to investigating this side of Morris’s personality. He had one affair, and married once, and these are not even fully explored. He comes off, in Adams’s hands, as practically a monster of rectitude. I do not object to this out of prurience, but in the interest of authorial coherence — what is the point of even mentioning the sex life of a man if one treats it in such a cursory manner?

The Revolutionary War is, too often, seen as an ineluctable working of history, whose conclusion was long foregone. Morris’s role in the American military victory (as well as the victory of principle the framers of the Constitution won) bears a far greater resemblance to that of a modern politician than we usually ascribe to the half-mythical generals and statesman of the revolution. If we still await a study of this nearly forgotten figure that truly fascinates, Adams’s book reminds us that politics has always, in this country and in all countries, been about getting things done and keeping as true to your principles as is allowed to you. In his Gouverneur Morris, we cannot fail to recognize an ideal marriage of principle and practice.