In the Books section today Melanie Randolph Miller reviews Liberty Fund’s latest book, To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris. Asked by Miller in “The Ingenious Gouverneur Morris”:
Yet what sort of man was this revolutionary nay-sayer who had been, on the other side of the Atlantic, a significant actor in the American Revolutionary War effort and had played a vital role in the design of the American Constitution? . . . .
Morris has long been dismissed as a “lightweight” (the comment of a former editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson), a producer of “solipsisms” (Jack Rakove) and “a flutterer upon the surface” (Richard Henry Lee, in 1780), but anyone who takes the time to delve into this collection will soon realize the injustice of those judgments. To give a bit of background for those unfamiliar with him: Morris (1752-1816) was born a member of the New York elite and trained as a lawyer. When the Revolutionary War came, Morris put his considerable financial and verbal talents at the service of the New York revolutionary government and later the Continental Congress, where he served on a multitude of committees and, by his own observation, did the vast majority of their work. In that capacity, he met George Washington and became one of his many devoted young protégés, along with Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton. Washington respected Morris, and would remain his loyal friend. Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance during the war, also admired Gouverneur, hiring him as his assistant and, after the war, going into partnership with him.
Morris was no fool and was not blind to ideology’s capacity of turning minds into pieces of meat. On this point Miller observes that Morris who was an American Minister to France during the French Revolution quickly turned against the revolutionaries: Morris was introduced into the inner circle of revolutionary aristocrats, who were intrigued by the humorous one-legged American (he had lost a leg in a carriage accident in 1780). However, Morris’s consistently disapproving advice and bleak (and remarkably accurate) predictions about the likely course of the French Revolution led to an estrangement from many, including Lafayette and Jefferson.
On the prospect of the New York state legislature issuing paper currency, Morris was again no fool:
The various opinions entertained, propagated and supported relative to your Paper Currency, differ so widely that they cannot all be right. Perhaps not one of them is strictly or entirely so. Unfortunately it happens on such occasions, and indeed on too many others, that mankind reason from their prejudices, their circumstances, and their interests. Thus in the most important affairs, like grown persons at the dancing school, we have much to unlearn, as well as to learn, before we can think and move with ease and grace. We must cast off our prejudices, rise above our circumstances, and divest ourselves of a pitiful regard to our interest whether pecuniary or political. Hard task, indeed!
Similarly, on the structure of power and rights in the French Constitution of 1791, Morris pronounced that it was “ridiculous.” Miller observes that he rejected “as unworkable the concept of “natural rights” so dear to many political philosophers, he turned instead to what he considered the meaningful rights: “political liberty” (the right to have a part in government) and “civil liberty” (the right to be left alone, including security in property). Civil liberty, in Morris’s view, was the most important because without it political liberty would not survive; and obtaining a workable balance was the principal goal of government design.”