A Great Statesman: Reclaiming Gouverneur Morris

AuthorMelanie Randolph Miller
PositionJ.D., Berkeley School of Law, 1979
A Great Statesman: Reclaiming Gouverneur Morris
The true Object of a great Statesman is to give to any particular Nation the
kind of Laws which is suitable to them and the best Constitution which they
are capable of.
Gouverneur Morris to William Carmichael, November 5, 1792
I have liv’d too long to regard men’s Expressions: so that all Sentences
rounded off by fair or foul Words, such as Liberty, Patriotism, Virtue, Treason
Aristocracy[,] Crime, are to me the Equivalent of blank Paper.
Gouverneur Morris to Madame de Lafayette, July 29, 1793
In these days of cynical disillusionment with many of our long-revered
Founders, Gouverneur Morris has perhaps found his moment. For the past 200
years, his virtual exclusion from the historical picture and the denigration with
which he continues to be characterized has flattened our perception of that period
of American history. It is very gratifying to think this may be ending. It should
end. Restoring Morris doesn’t just help complete the record, it enriches it in
many ways: by his speeches in the Convention and later in the Senate, his truly
extraordinary diary of the French Revolution, his letters, and the actual events of
his life. His acute observations were made in a modern voice, and his political
comments, whether humorous or agonized, were expressed with an eloquence
that resonates todaysometimes very painfully.
It seemed to me that the best use of this paper would be to offer a selection of
what I have found most enlightening, moving, or unexpected while studying
Morris’s time in France and his later diaries, hoping that it will help fan the new-
kindled interest reflected by this colloquium
by enhancing an appreciation of his
character and the sophistication of his views. Various eminent historians have for
too long dismissed Morris offhandedly as a lightweightand the political princi-
ples he expressed at the Convention as no more than lawyerly solipsism.
* J.D., Berkeley School of Law, 1979; PhD in American history, George Washington University,
2000; editor, Gouverneur Morris Papers project, which is in the process of publishing a modern
documentary edition of Morris’s papers. Transcriptions from Gouverneur Morris’s papers throughout
this article are, unless otherwise noted, mine, made during dissertation research or later work on the
Papers project. © 2023, Melanie Randolph Miller.
1. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, OFFICIAL LETTERBOOK AUG. 1792APR. 1793 (collection of the Library of
Congress) [hereinafter OFFICIAL LETTERBOOK I].
2. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, OFFICIAL LETTERBOOK, APR. 1793JAN. 1795 (collection of the Library of
Congress) [hereinafter OFFICIAL LETTERBOOK II].
3. And by an excellent upcoming book by Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Constitution’s Penman:
Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America’s Basic Charter, forthcoming in 2023.
4. Comment of John Catanzariti, an editor of the Jefferson papers, made to the author. See also JACK
(1996). In the last 20 years there have been a few excellent biographies of Morris that demonstrate the
fallaciousness of those assessments (e.g., by William Howard Adams and Richard Brookhiser); and an
Dr. Treanor’s article demonstrates why those superficial assessments are a disserv-
ice to Morris’s brilliance and his importance that summer in Philadelphia. But one
needs to go further: the years I have spent studying Morris have brought me to agree
with Madame de Damas, a Frenchwoman whom Morris sheltered during the Terror,
who left us a candid verbal portrait of him in which she said, Were I called upon to
distinguish him by a single trait, I should say, he is good.She saw the exercise of
this virtue in every action of Mr. Morris’s life.
I am convinced that it will take
knowing more about Morris himself and dispelling the falsehoods circulated about
him during his life and repeated today for people to begin to truly appreciate and
properly respect his contributions, as well as value and study his writings. This paper
is a chance to give some of the reasons why that is so.
As a preliminary matter, however, here is a brief discussion of the way in
which the field of documentary editing enables a more complete and accurate
view of Morris. Gouverneur Morris clearly enjoyed sex, and the most tantalizing
but possibly least significant element of his papers is the infamous inked-out text
in his Paris diaries. As anyone who has taken even a cursory look at books on
Morris knows, there are a number of places where words or passages, generally
relating to sex, were covered over with black ink, and in some cases pages were
even torn out. It could have been done by Morris himself in later, more circum-
spect, years or by his wife, who made a note in the diaries after he died that she
had read them before giving them to Jared Sparks. Sparks too felt free to write in
the diaries, but in pencil, so he seems less likely. Or it could have been Morris’s
Victorian-era descendant, Anne Carey Morris.
An example is a passage from the diary entry of June 5, 1789. Morris had
arrived in Paris in February, on what was supposed to be a relatively short business
trip, hoping to salvage financier and Founder Robert Morris’s tobacco contract
with the French Farmers General, sell land, and perhaps arrange a major purchase
of the American war debt to France. Morris had spent the morning at the studio of
Jean-Antoine Houdon posing for a statue of George Washington and agreed to
return on June 9 to have a life mask taken of his face. Although Morris told
Houdon he had no intention of buying a bust, Houdon did make a terracotta bust
from the mask, and it is thanks to him that we have an extraordinary living image
of Morris just as he was on that day over 230 years ago, seen in Illustration 1.
extremely useful compilation of Morris’s published speeches and essays by J. Jackson Barlow. If you
compare the few inches of Morris-related books on a university library shelf with the multiple shelves
sagging with volumes dedicated to the other Founders, however, it is obvious that the attention of
scholars and educators has long been fixed elsewhere.
5. Madame de Damas, Portrait de M. M*****, American Philosophical Society, Smith Family
Papers, 16591985 (early 1790s, date unknown), series 41.
1939) [hereinafter 1 PARIS DIARY]. See Lois Madison Reamy, In Search of Gouverneur Morris, 40
BRONX CNTY. HIST. SOCY J. 82 (Fall 2003). The bust’s vitality is a sharp contrast to the more familiar
paintings of a puffy-faced older gentleman, rendered by later artists. Illustration 1: Jean-Antoine
Houdon, Bust of Gouverneur Morris, unfired clay (1791). Private collection; photograph courtesy of
Daniel Katz Gallery, London.

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