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A biographer can feel a moment's hesitation when it comes to introducing his subject, for every traditional means has its drawbacks. If the hero appears in medias res, in the midst of some great action, the reader may feel manipulated, even coerced: his attention is being claimed before it has been earned. If the story of a life begins where the life does, in a cradle, then the reader might experience a sense of delay: he wished to read about great men, not infants. For the biographer of Gouverneur Morris, it is perhaps best to let him be introduced by a woman.
In 1795, Harriet de Damas, a French countess, wrote a portrait of a tall, handsome American who had become a fixture of Parisian society.1 Gouverneur Morris had come to France in 1789, age thirty-seven, as a businessman; three years later, he was appointed the American minister to that country. Mr. Morris had a French first name (his mother's maiden name), which Americans insisted on pronouncing "Gov-er-neer"; he had learned French as a child, and wrote it well enough to produce papers on French politics, or little poems for his friends. Mme de Damas called his spoken French "always correct and vigorous," though other Frenchwomen teased him for his mistakes. Mr. Morris cut a figure for many reasons: his impressive bearing (the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon used him as a body double for a statue of George Washington); his wit; his severely elegant clothes and carriage, so different from French silks and colors; and what was severe in a different way, his wooden left leg. When he arrived at a party, the servants watched him; the guests watched him; he watched himself, mindful of the impression he made.
"Superficial observers," wrote Mme de Damas, "...might be acquainted with Mr. Morris for years, without discovering his most eminent qualities. Such observers must be told what to admire." The Frenchwoman confronts a difficulty with her portrait head-on: she had known Mr. Morris for only a small part of his life, since his first thirty-seven years had been spent in America. But she plunged ahead confidently.
The superficial observers of his early life "regard Mr. Morris as a profound politician," and indeed he had been involved in politics, often of the most eventful kind. When he was twenty-three years old the American Revolution began, and he watched it pull society and family asunder (one of his elder half brothers signed the Declaration of Independence; another half brother was a general in the British army). He left American towns a step ahead of marauding British armies, and when Morris visited his mother, who supported the crown throughout the war, he had to get passes from both sides to cross their lines. He eventually followed his patriot half brother into the Continental Congress, where he helped accomplish great things, but also engaged in endless petty wrangling. ("We had many scoundrels" in Congress, he would remember as an older man.)
When he was still a young one, age thirty-five, Mr. Morris drafted the Constitution of the United States. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret, to allow the delegates maximum freedom to speak their minds, so Mr. Morris's role on the Committee of Style was not generally known. But in later years he admitted to a correspondent that "that instrument was written by the fingers which write this letter." Years after Morris's death, an elderly James Madison told an inquiring historian that "the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris." James Madison, the careful and learned theorist, is commonly called the Father of the Constitution, because he kept the most complete set of notes of the debates, and made cogent arguments for ratification after the debates were done (he wrote one third of the Federalist Papers). But Gouverneur Morris, who put the document into its final form and who wrote the Preamble from scratch, also deserves a share of the paternity. The founders were voluminous writers, and much of their writing is very good, but few of them had the combination of lightness and force that generates a great style. Jefferson had it; Franklin had it; Thomas Paine, the passionate and ungainly English immigrant, had it. The only other one of their number who hit that note consistently was Morris. "A better choice" for a draftsman "could not have been made," Madison concluded.
Mme de Damas and her French friends certainly knew about Mr. Morris's political activity: it was one facet of his social cachet, a point of interest like his wardrobe and his leg. A more striking feature of their friend was his manner. Mme de Damas called him "the most amiable" of men. "His imagination inclines to pleasantry, and being abundantly gifted with what the English call humor, united to what the French name esprit, it is impossible not to be delighted...." Humor and esprit: Mr. Morris delighted in the incongruities and follies of life, including his own, and his comments quick, shapely, and bold communicated that delight to others. Women found him especially pleasing, perhaps because he took special pains to please them. "Govr Morris kept us in a continual smile," was how one young lady put it. His women friends did more than smile. At the cardtable of the sexes, his wit and looks always trumped his disability, and the one-legged American left a trail of lovers on two continents.
Mr. Morris's good company went beyond good times. When the French Revolution, more stressful than the American, began to suck his glittering friends into poverty, exile, and danger, he gave many of them refuge, and saved several of their lives. Mme de Damas was not one of his lovers, but he did save her life.
But more important than Mr. Morris's career or his behavior was his nature. "Nothing really worthy of him," wrote Mme de Damas, "will be said by any one, who does not ascend to the source of all that is great and excellent in his character." That, she decided, was "a belief that God can will nothing but what is good." This gave him confidence, charity, and hope. "Ever at peace with himself...seldom ruffled in his temper, not suffering men or events to have a mastery over his spirit, he is habitually serene, alike ready to engage in the most abstruse inquiries, or to join in the trifles of social amusement." Gouverneur Morris took his life as it came. "He conceives it to be following the order of Providence to enjoy all its gifts. 'To enjoy is to obey.' And upon the same principle he submits, with a modest fortitude, and sincere resignation, to the ills inflicted by the same hand." Living among tottering thrones and shaky republics, Mr. Morris showed the gift of poise.
Gouverneur Morris belonged to that band of brothers that we now call the founding fathers. Some were his friends: he knew and worshipped George Washington for almost twenty years; he knew and squabbled with Paine for almost as long; he was at Alexander Hamilton's deathbed. Some of them were enemies: he thought James Madison was a fool and a drunkard. He knew them all, and was one of their number. The founding fathers-to-be were guided by the pursuit of greatness. They measured themselves by their service to the country they were making. Mr. Morris was moved by the same tidal pull of public good. "This is the seed time of glory," he wrote in one of his sweetest phrases. The second half of his life, after Mme de Damas finished her portrait, had two great public occasions in store for him. He was one of those New Yorkers who pushed early and hard for what became the Erie Canal, a project that made the paper structure of national union economically vital. At the same time, and paradoxically, he was one of those northerners who decided, during the War of 1812, that the nation should be broken up, and the Constitution scrapped. Other Americans would come to the same conclusion, from abolitionists calling the Constitution a deal with the devil to southerners arguing that it gave them a right to secede. But Morris's abandonment of the document he had written is more astonishing than later repudiations.
Yet Mr. Morris, alone among the founding fathers, thought that his private life was as important as his public life. Being a gentleman mattered as much to him as being a great man. When public life was not going well, he could go home not to bide his time before his next opportunity, or to enjoy the retirement on a pedestal of a Cincinnatus, but because he enjoyed farming, reading, eating, fishing, making money, and making love as much as founding a state. "A characteristic trait, which I must not forget," wrote Mme de Damas, "is his faculty and habit of applying his mind to a single object, of suddenly collecting the whole force of his attention upon one point." That point might be a stumbling economy, or an imperfect constitution; it might also be the parade of domestic life. "He is fond of his ease, does his best to procure it, and enjoys it as much as possible. He loves good cheer, good wine, good company." Mr. Morris's ability to switch from public to private life his inability ever to banish his private frame of reference, even in the midst of public business did limit his effectiveness as a public man. He lacked the persistence of the other founders. He could focus on one political idea, but soon he might be focusing on another. One delegate to the Constitutional Convention called him "fickle and inconstant," a charge that rang down the years. But this limitation brought benefits. In an era when American politics was as poisonous as it would ever be, he was remarkably free from rancor. Though a war would finally drive him to it, once the war ended, rancor receded. Even James Madison could not long disturb his peace of mind.
Mr. Morris had many reasons to be happy. He was born to privilege, he worked hard to make himself rich, and he was successful in politics, business, and love: after all his affairs, he married a devoted and intelligent woman (accused, it is true, of being a double murderess, though the accuser, her brother-in-law, was commonly supposed to be somewhat insane). But Mr. Morris also saw many things that could have made him gloomy, bitter, perplexed. He witnessed two revolutions, up close and on the ground, one more turbulent than we remember, the other as turbulent as any has ever been. He fled a town that was about to be burned to the ground, and he saw a corpse that had just been torn apart by a mob. His own body was not only missing a leg, but most of the flesh of one arm. Pessimists and misanthropes have been made of less.
In 1936, as Europe slid to war, William Butler Yeats wrote that there is a gaiety in art, even tragic art, that transfigures the dread of life. Gouverneur Morris was no artist, unless living is an art. He carried his gaiety within himself. It was, we might say, constitutional.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Brookhiser