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The Story of the Real—and Mostly Unknown—Author of the U.S. Constitution, Gouverneur Morris

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 2, 2024 3:01 am

The Story of the Real—and Mostly Unknown—Author of the U.S. Constitution, Gouverneur Morris

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 2, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our next story is about a Founding Father who wrote the most famous seven words in American history: “We the People of the United States.” Professor of political science at Syracuse, Dennis C. Rasmussen is also the author of The Constitution's Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America's Basic Charter—he is also a Jack Miller Center Fellow.

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Those words, of course, appearing in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. Dennis C. Rasmussen is a professor of political science at Syracuse University. He's also a Jack Miller Center fellow. Dennis is also the author of the Constitution's penman, Governor Morris and the Creation of America's Basic Charter.

Let's take a listen to the story. Governor Morris is relatively little known today, but he is one of the most important and fascinating figures of the American founding era. One scholar declared recently that Morris may have been the most colorful individual in all of North America at the time of the founding.

And frankly, that sounds about right. Morris was a peg legged ladies man with a really wicked, sardonic sense of humor. He was without question one of the funniest of the founders, although granted, that's perhaps not a super high bar.

Morris also led an immensely full life. He was originally from New York. He came from a wealthy family that owned most of the southwest part of what's now the Bronx. As a young man, he helped to push New York to belatedly join the independence movement.

And he's one of the principal architects of the first New York State Constitution. I mentioned that Morris had a wooden leg. He had his leg amputated when he was 28 years old as a result of a bad carriage accident.

Although there were always rumors throughout his life that he did in fact shattered the leg jumping out a bedroom window in order to escape the wrath of an ill-timed husband. In 1778, Morris became a delegate to the Continental Congress. And spent that terrible winter at Valley Forge with George Washington and his troops, where he was sent to oversee the army's needs. He was also a signer of the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first stab at a national constitution. Although he deemed the confederation government to be woefully inadequate from the get-go.

Morris served as the confederation's deputy superintendent of finance for several years. In that role, he drew up a plan for a new national currency in which he proposed to use the word dollar after the widely used Spanish dollar. And he invented the word cent to denote one of the smaller coins.

So Americans use words chosen by Morris pretty much every day. It's thanks to him that we have dollars and cents for our currency. Morris was destined to be an important player in not just one, but two of the great revolutions of the modern age. Because in 1789 he went to Paris, and eventually followed in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson by becoming the American minister to France. He was there at the convening of the Estates General, and he was the only foreign diplomat from any nation to remain in country all the way through the bloody terror. After Morris' ministry ended, he traveled around Europe for a few more years, and then came back to the U.S. and served the second half of his senatorial term during a critical period when Jefferson and the Republicans came into power and the capital moved to Washington, D.C.

This was from 1800 to 1803. In 1804, after the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Morris was the one who sat by Hamilton's side at his deathbed, and then gave his official eulogy at the request of Hamilton's widow, Eliza, who told Morris that he was the best friend that Hamilton had in the world. Not that that would be enough to earn Morris even a bit role in the musical, which is a real shame and a real missed opportunity, if you ask me.

In any case, late in life Morris undertook two more great projects, one helping to lead a commission that planned the grid layout for the streets of Manhattan, and another that planned the Erie Canal. On the more personal side of things, at age 57 Morris finally became the last of the founders to marry. He married a woman named Nancy Randolph, who was a sort of fallen aristocrat who was then serving as his housekeeper, and who had earlier been accused of conspiring to murder her own newborn baby fathered by her brother-in-law.

That's a long story in itself, as you may imagine. They had a son together, although Morris died before he even turned four. Even Morris's death was colorful, if rather grisly. He seems to have frequently suffered from painful blockages in his urinary tract, perhaps the result of venereal disease, and when he was 64 he tried using a whale bone to remove the blockage, and he died from the resulting lacerations.

My sincere apologies for getting bat image stuck in your mind. In the summer of 1787 Morris played an absolutely pivotal role at the Philadelphia Convention that formulated the U.S. Constitution. Morris spoke more often at the convention than any other delegate, he proposed more motions than any other delegate, and he had more of his motions accepted than any other delegate.

His interventions were often extremely blunt and provocative, so they all but jump off the page at you when you read through James Madison's notes of the debates. He also served on a number of the committees that did so much of the hard work in actually crafting the Constitution that summer. And most importantly of all, Morris was the one who wrote the Constitution itself. At the end of the summer the delegates formed what was called a committee of style to compose the final draft of the Constitution, and the committee in turn simply handed the task to Morris. It is absolutely remarkable that so few people know this. Everyone knows most American school children can tell you that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and yet very few people know that Morris wrote the Constitution.

Even among folks with PhDs in political science, there's probably a pretty small fraction who could tell you that. I haven't done any kind of formal poll, but I've asked many, many people this question over the past couple years, and most assume that it must have been James Madison, the so-called father of the Constitution, who wrote it, or that it was just a collective effort. Now, in some senses, of course, the Constitution was a collective effort. His provisions had been laboriously debated and voted on over the course of the summer before Morris took up his pen, and so his leeway in choosing the structure and powers of the proposed government was minimal. But Morris single-handedly and rather radically reorganized the draft Constitution that had been produced by the Committee of Detail midway through the summer.

He consolidated 23 sprawling articles down to a neat seven, and he changed or chose a great deal of the wording on his own initiative, oftentimes in consequential ways. So when constitutional lawyers and scholars pore over the fine details of the Constitution, looking for clues regarding its meaning, they have Morris to thank or to blame for many of those details. And Morris wrote the famous Preamble, the Constitution's ringing statement of purpose, basically from scratch. All the stuff about forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, and the like.

That was all Morris. The Preamble has become one of the most celebrated sentences in the annals of democracy, so it's something of an irony that it was written by a man of somewhat elitist inclinations who's all but forgotten today. But perhaps Morris's finest hour at the convention, from today's perspective, came in the debates over slavery. No one spoke more passionately or eloquently or at greater length about the evils of slavery than Morris did.

He described it as a nefarious institution and the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed. A long speech that Morris delivered on August 8th has been called the first abolitionist speech in American public life, which may be a bit of an exaggeration but does have at least a grain of truth to it. And it's all the more remarkable when you remember the audience, that probably a couple dozen people sitting there in the room listening to him were themselves slaveholders. So Morris gave this speech in opposition to the notorious Three-Fifths Clause, that is to counting three-fifths of the enslaved population toward representation in the House of Representatives, and hence also, at least eventually, the Electoral College that would choose the president. And his basic point was that there was no good reason why enslaved people should count at all according to any ratio. After all, he suggested, if enslaved people were human beings, then they should be made citizens and allowed to vote.

But if they were mere property, as some of the southern delegates contended, then they shouldn't have been included in the population counts at all, given that no other property was included. The Three-Fifths Clause was just a way of augmenting the political power of the slaveholding South and moreover one that would encourage them to import still more enslaved people so that their political clout would be still further increased. Let me read the climax of Morris' speech in opposition to this clause. The admission of slaves into the representation, when fairly explained, comes to this, that the inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina, who goes to the coast of Africa and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and dams them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice. Morris goes on to say that giving the South extra representation on behalf of the people whom they'd enslaved would require a sacrifice of every principle of right of every impulse of humanity. This was as courageous and farsighted as any speech that was delivered that summer. Of course, for all of his moral clarity and passion and eloquence, Morris failed to make much headway against slavery. The Three-Fifths Clause, as well as the clause protecting the overseas slave trade until 1808, and the Fugitive Slave Clause were all included in the Constitution over his fierce objections. On that note, there's a sense in which Morris' speech against slavery not only makes him look pretty good, but also makes many of the other founders look worse by comparison.

After all, Morris was one of them, and he knew better, and he told them so. about America's founding principles and history. To learn more, visit

It's a terrific organization worthy of your support. And my goodness, what a story he told here. We all know that Thomas Jefferson was given the assignment of writing the Declaration of Independence. But I didn't know until recently most people don't know who Governor Morris is, the role he played in the framing and formation of the Constitution, and the fact that he and he alone wrote the document to preamble, and indeed, all of it, and his arguments against slavery a man ahead of his time. The story of Governor Morris, one of the most important founding fathers, and one of the least well-known here on Our American Stories. No bridges necessary. We're prohibited by law.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-02 04:26:29 / 2024-01-02 04:32:14 / 6

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