- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

GENTLEMAN REVOLUTIONARY: GOUVERNEUR MORRIS — THE RAKE WHO WROTE THE CONSTITUTION

By Richard Brookhiser

Free Press, $26, 251 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY LAUREN WEINER

Richard Brookhiser’s biographies of the Founders are not only lively, informative, and politically astute — they are pleasingly brief. “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris —The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution” adds a little known but consequential figure to the existing Brookhiserian gallery of Alexander Hamilton, the Adamses, and George Washington.

Gouverneur Morris was the kind of man one would call “dashing” except that he couldn’t dash — he’d lost a leg in a carriage accident at age 28. His height and physique were so imposing that even on his peg leg he made a good stand-in for George Washington. The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon chose him to be the body model for his statue of the great general, whom Mr. Brookhiser says is the only man Gouverneur Morris idolized.

A buoyant and high-hearted Morris seems to pop up everywhere in two revolutions, American and French: visiting Washington’s troops at Valley Forge and befriending there the 20-year-old Marquis de Lafayette; condensing the text of the U.S. Constitution into a shapely final form; telling Thomas Jefferson ribald stories that made the Virginian blush; using his head for figures to help Robert Morris solve the massive fiscal problem of the infant nation’s war debt.

He was also seen hobnobbing in France with Madame de Stael and Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand-Perigord (he stole Tallyrand’s mistress); bidding an anguished goodbye to the fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton at Hamilton’s deathbed; devising Manhattan’s street grid in 1811; lobbying for the building of the great canal that would extend from the Atlantic Ocean inland to Lake Erie and bring vast commercial growth to his state of New York, and the nation.

The descendant of governors and judges of the colony of New York, Morris was a member of the Continental Congress at age 26. He was talented enough to fill many roles in a government attempting to start itself up from scratch. He would toil away in a public post for a while and then take up a frenzied life of practicing law, speculating in land, and bedding other men’s wives. (Mr. Brookhiser suggests he did this to prove he was as much a man as any two-legger.) Then he would be asked back for more government duty.

The flaws of this nearly lifelong bachelor are not glossed over by the biographer. Morris did not have a tidy personal life, nor were all of his public acts the best. Frustrated by the weakness of the newly independent government under the Articles of Confederation (of which he had been a signer), he tried to force through his plan to establish the credit of the United States and pay the Continental army, by encouraging the unpaid troops to mutiny. Thus do we learn of Morris’s bit part in the famous 1783 episode that culminated in Gen. Washington diffusing a revolt of his men with his seemingly offhand remark about having grown old and blind in the service of his country.

Is this unsung Founder really the author of the U.S. Constitution, as the title suggests? This is playful hyperbole. The document, the product of many men and many compromises, was 23 verbose articles long; Morris had the legal acumen and writing touch to pare 23 down to seven. The Preamble he added was all his own. James Madison commented: “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris.”

The author of the phrase “We the People” was not a populist, the biographer points out. The original “we” referred to we of the various states, but Morris, a passionate nationalist, used those three simple words so the founding charter would express the unity of the nation.

He was outspoken at the Constitutional Convention against letting men without property vote. Mr. Brookhiser explains: “A broad franchise across the board” would actually “empower the rich, who would control poor or fickle voters.” Morris believed the non-privileged would be badly served if privileged men such as himself bought votes and rigged the results. In other words, the ex-colonists must build a representative democracy but not willy-nilly. Going at a prudent pace would allow the institutions of self-government to take root and to last.

Morris also vituperated at the Constitutional Convention against slavery. It was an achievement — not a “racist” act — for Morris and other northerners to get the southern states to accept the three-fifths compromise. Counting slaves equally with freemen “would boost the power of their masters, without conferring any benefit upon the slaves, since of course slaves could not vote,” writes Mr. Brookhiser.

Considering what Gouverneur Morris accomplished, the hyperbole of the title seems excusable. This Morris — often confused with Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution, to whom he was a close friend but no blood relation — deserves to be celebrated. Here’s hoping the filmmaker Whit Stillman, that bard of the East Coast haute bourgeoisie who reportedly wants to make a movie about the Founding, will grab Gouverneur. His life and times have the makings of a “Liaisons Dangereuses” for the Anglo Saxon set.

The raciest part, of course, would be when President Washington appoints Morris the first U.S. ambassador to France. He was of French ancestry but had never been to Europe before arriving in Paris in 1789. All hell was breaking loose, and he became a sort of Yankee Scarlet Pimpernel, harboring aristocrats on the lamb from the mob, protecting them from capture when armed revolutionaries repeatedly invaded and searched his home.

These charitable and brave deeds were politically provocative — back home, that is. Some Jeffersonians insinuated that Morris was, in James Monroe’s words, a “monarchy man,” which would have been a betrayal of the Spirit of ‘76, if true. Secretary of State Jefferson, Monroe, and the other anti-Federalists liked to tar their adversaries the Federalists, led by Vice President John Adams, as elitists, monarchists, and Tories.

Mr. Brookhiser nicely brings out how reactions in the United States to the French Revolution contributed to the hardening of two political tendencies that bear a family resemblance to the two major parties of today. Morris was, as usual, in the thick of the action. He is a good example of how easy it is to caricature the Federalists as elitists, to obscure the ways in which they do embody the revolutionary Spirit of ‘76.

Morris believed the degree of reform proper for France was to make the country a constitutional monarchy. He did not think Frenchmen sufficiently educated in the ways of liberty to handle it responsibly. So, disobeying President Washington’s instructions not to meddle in French affairs, Morris proceeded to write another constitution. The plan he offered King Louis XVI would have retained the French crown but curbed its arbitrary power. Constitutional monarchy would, the ambassador hoped, vindicate the rights of Frenchmen while avoiding mob rule and a gruesome blood bath.

It didn’t work. Witnessing the Reign of Terror reinforced Morris’ hatred of demagoguery. In 1804 in New York, political volatility, and his own eloquence, gave him the opportunity to stir a crowd to violence if he chose. Vice President Aaron Burr had killed Hamilton and Morris was asked to give the eulogy. Hamilton’s followers were ready to riot. Morris disliked having to deliver a tepid tribute that day but knew it was for the best. “How easy would it have been to make them, for a moment, absolutely mad!” he wrote in his diary. Thus did our most personally irresponsible Founder — Morris finally did get married at age 57 — believe in responsible behavior by statesmen.

If there is anything unsatisfactory here it is that Mr. Brookhiser stokes but never satisfies our curiosity about why Gouverneur Morris considered James Madison his enemy. All we really get is the gossip, repeated by Morris, that the man generally considered the “Father of the Constitution” was either an opium addict or a drunk. In fact the book’s overall treatment of Madison — who combined, in his theories of government, the best elements of both political tendencies mapped out by Mr. Brookhiser — is uncharacteristically flat.

To right the balance, all Mr. Brookhiser has to do is make little Jemmy Madison the subject of his next rich, readable, and insightful biography.

Lauren Weiner is editor for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)

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