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Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution by Richard Brookhiser

 

Rating: (Mildly Recommended)

 

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Cheerful

I had heard Morris’ name, but knew little else about this Founding Father until I read Richard Brookhiser’s new biography, Gentleman Revolutionary. This cheerful man had a huge impact on the founding of the United States, and thanks to Brookhiser’s book, more people can now learn plenty about Morris. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the book (pp. 214-5):

Good principles make a man admirable; a good style makes him arresting. Morris's sparkling prose still shines after two centuries. Reading it, we hear a voice—so vivid, We imagine the speaker has just left the room, and so delightful that we want him to come back. The moral source of his style is confidence: he knows who he is, and that he is right; he knows, from long experience, that he will please most of his auditors; and he does not care about those he does not please.

Morris performed two special services as a public man. As Jefferson immortalized the Continental Congress's view of first principles, so Morris had applied his finish to the Constitutional Conventions view of fundamental law. Morris did not leave his country on paper: he worked to plan a canal that should make it bloom. A handful of other men might have buffed the Constitution almost as smoothly, but he was the one who did it; a handful of New Yorkers pushed for the Erie Canal—he was one of the most eloquent and energetic. For the rest, he gave many hours of intelligent and industrious labor as a New Yorker, a financier, and a diplomat. This more than compensates for his bad ideas arid outrageous advice.

He performed one more service that became known only after his death. His diary bore witness to another Revolution and Founding that did not go so well. Many other writers have told Frances story, but his record—published in extracts in the nineteenth century, and fully only on the eve of World War II—is indelible.

Yet there is another sense in which he had not lived in vain. Morris was an important founding father, but he was something else, useful in a different way to his friends and acquaintances. He was a gentleman. In his case, that is a moral even more than a social term. Born to riches and power, he had also learned to live well. Nature gave him a buoyant and appreciative temperament, but he had fostered those qualities, despite severe trials. His conduct, from his teens on, is marked by courage, courtesy, and warmth—by affection for his friends, sympathy for the afflicted, and disdain for bullies. His example is still useful. The founding fathers can show us how to live as citizens. Morris can show us how to enjoy life's blessings and bear its hurts with humanity and good spirits. "At sixty-four," he concluded his letter, "there is little to desire and less to apprehend. Let me add that, however grave the form and substance of this letter, the lapse of so many years have not impaired the gayety of your friend. Could you gratify him with your company and conversation, you would find in him still the gayety of inexperience and the frolic of youth.""

His gout became crippling in the fall. His diary entries ceased early in October, with the first frost, and he made a new will at the end of the month. David Ogden and Martin Wilkins were not mentioned. Another nephew got a bequest, and yet another was told that if the principal heir, Gouverneur Morris II, should die young, he might inherit the estate, so long as he assumed the Morris name and arms. He gave his wife a life interest in his property, plus an annuity of $2,600 a year ($32,500 today). If she married again, her annuity would be increased to $3,200, "to defray the increased expenditure, which may attend that condition."

"Sixty-four years ago," he said as death approached, "it pleased the Almighty to call me into existence—here, on this spot, in this very room; and now shall I complain that he is pleased to call me hence?" The end was painful. He suffered a blockage of his urinary tract, and he tried to clear the obstruction with whalebone, no doubt from one of his wife's corsets. But he had known pain before. On his last day, November 6, he quoted poetry—not his own, but Grays Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

For who, to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,

This pleasing, anxious being e'er resigned,

Left the warm precincts of the cheer fill day,

Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?"

This short biography fills in a huge gap in knowledge about a remarkable character, and a fitting title for who he was, a Gentleman Revolutionary.

Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2004 issue of Executive Times

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