Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), American statesman and diplomat, was one of the important authors of the U.S. Constitution.

Gouverneur Morris was born on Jan. 31, 1752, in his family's manor house at Morrisania, N.Y. After graduating from King's College, New York City, in 1768, he studied law under the chief justice of New York and in October 1771 was licensed as an attorney.

Although some members of his family remained loyal to the British crown, Morris supported the rebel cause during the American Revolution. In 1775 he served as a member of New York's provincial congress and in the following year sat in its constitutional convention. With John Jay and Robert R. Livingston, he drafted New York's first constitution. In 1778 he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served as chairman of some of the Congress's most important standing committees. His authorship of a number of essays on public finance brought him to the attention of Robert Morris, the Congress's superintendent of finance, who appointed Gouverneur Morris his assistant, a post he held until 1785. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he played a leading role, speaking more often than any other delegate and contributing substantially to the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1788 Gouverneur Morris sailed for Europe to attend to Robert Morris's extensive business affairs. In Paris he branched out into speculative enterprises of his own and over the next decade amassed a considerable fortune. His wit, charm, and fluent command of French soon made him the most popular American in Paris. Among his acquaintances were leading members of the Parisian nobility and influential crown officials. His diary gives a lively account of his social life and is one of the best sources on the early stages of the French Revolution.

Early in 1792 Morris was appointed U.S. minister to France. He served until 1794, when the French government demanded his recall, but he traveled in Europe instead and returned to the United States in 1799. The following year he accepted an interim appointment of 3 years as U.S. senator from New York. An extreme Federalist partisan, he was one of President Thomas Jefferson's most severe critics.

Morris was not elected to a new term, and during his retirement, after 1803, he supervised his numerous business activities and carried on an active correspondence with acquaintances abroad and at home. In his correspondence he was sharply critical of the foreign policy pursued by Jefferson and James Madison, particularly their alleged hostility to Great Britain. Believing the War of 1812 to be "unjust, unwise, mismanaged," he supported the disastrous Hartford Convention of 1814. He died at Morrisania on Nov. 6, 1816.


Further Reading on Gouverneur Morris

Morris's diary was edited by Beatrix Cary Davenport, A Diary of the French Revolution (2 vols., 1939). The standard life is still Jared Sparks, The Life of Gouverneur Morris with Selections from His Correspondence (3 vols., 1832). Theodore Roosevelt, Gouverneur Morris (1888; repr. 1917, 1980), remains useful. The best popular biography is Howard Swiggett, The Extraordinary Mr. Morris (1952).

Additional Biography Sources

Kline, Mary-Jo, Gouverneur Morris and the new nation, 1775-1788, New York: Arno Press, 1978, 1971.