The Early Life of Governeur Morris
Gouverneur Morris joined the world on March 28, 1790 as the fifth son of a prominent Boston merchant. His mother, Sarah Marie Morris, died but a few years later after the still-birth of her third daughter and ninth child. Some of Gouverneur Morris’s biographers attribute Sarah Marie’s death to heartbreak from her first unsuccessful carriage; others point to diseases she might have acquired from the dirty New England hospital in which she attempted to give birth. Regardless, Sarah Marie’s death when Gouverneur had reached the age of beginning cognizance – four years – may have affected her seventh child for years to come: Gouverneur never married, at one pointing writing to a friend that he feared “the inevitable loss and years of depression” that would follow his wife’s passing (apparently he never considered the possibility that a potential wife would outlive him).
Childhood did not treat Gouverneur Morris kindly. By the time he reached ten years of age, he had lost three more siblings. The eldest Morris child – John Winthrow Morris – had moved west, seeking to expand the frontier, but perished in a Native American raid. Gouverneur’s immediate elder, Jane Morris, died in a fire that engulfed the Morris’s house in 1798. According to Gouverneur’s later writings, he and Jane were particularly close, brought together by proximity in age and similar emotional responses to Sarah Marie’s death. Two years later, the youngest Morris (Robert F.) died at the hands of scarlet fever. This last death treated Gouverneur’s father poorly – the family’s patriarch fell into a deep stupor and turned to the bottle, quickly coming to terrorize the remaining children with his seething anger. The family soon fell into disarray and in 1805, Gouverneur wrote in his journal “I wish I could escape this wretched family and move west to the frontier or at least move somewhere without pain and shadow of death looming.”
Escape Gouverneur soon did. In 1807 he stole some of his father’s money and moved west to Ohio. But the allure of the frontier quickly wore off. Gouverneur worked at a sawmill near Cincinnati, the recently incorporated village. He tired of the drudgery and the hardships of the frontier. Indian raids were common occurrences; hunger even more so. The frontier failed to live up to expectations (or perhaps Gouverneur simply was not cut out for western life). At any rate, a “fortunate” letter soon reached him: One evening, late in 1810’s summer, Gouverneur’s father, drunk as usual, mis-stepped on his walk home and tumbled into the river, quickly drowning. With his father’s temperament consigned to another world, Gouverneur decided to return to Boston. He decided to pursue a different life course and enrolled at Harvard College in the fall of 1811.
At Harvard, Gouverneur seemed to find himself. He immersed himself in political studies and became an engaged member of the dying Federalist Party. Gouverneur’s writing indicated that, during this formative period, he discovered the wonders of the Constitution and the debates surrounding its writing. Little formal work remains from those years and his journal kept not ideas, but rather amazement and appreciation for the burgeoning republic’s Founding Fathers.
The War of 1812
After his first full year at Harvard, the War of 1812 broke out. Gouverneur did not at first join the militia – recalling his sawmill days, he opted instead for the classroom. But by 1813, Gouverneur felt growing anxiety about the country’s future and enlisted in the Navy where he fought under Oliver Hazard Perry. Little is known about his time in the Navy. Perry once mentioned Gouverneur in a formal report and did so with much enthusiasm. Gouverneur seemed to make a shining impression on his naval compatriots. Undoubtedly, his shining war moment occurred during the Battle of Lake Erie: He later wrote that “the thrill of flashing guns and the exploding shells could not match the excitement with which my heart beat for I knew that our actions on that day continued the principles of our Forefathers; it was for them we fought – for constitutional principle and for liberty. To the British we would not surrender. Each minute – each death I saw – motivated me further to ensure that America would not be collected by the dustbin of history.”
The war’s conclusion allowed Gouverneur to finish his studies at Harvard. He graduated in 1816 at 26 and immediately began a career in politics. His education, his last name, and his war heroics (at least what he claimed to be his war heroics) won him a seat in the Massachusetts state assembly. But there he felt little appreciated and accomplished little. Writing in his journal, he decried the “hostility with which the old guard treats me. They fought in the Revolution – I in the second – but my youth precluded them from seriously taking any ideas which I presented.” Disheartened, Gouverneur Morris forwent reelection after serving two terms and instead took to studying law. In 1826 he opened a private practice in the city of Boston but it was clear his heart was not in law – “instead of arguing the law in front of some magistrate, I want to set the law and appoint the magistrate. I want to create, not argue interpretation.” Politics again beckoned.
Gouvernor Morris and his Politics
Though originally a Federalist, the party had long died by the time Gouverneur once again forayed in the political scene. He understand the need for parties – unlike the Founders, he did not decry the “mischief of faction.” However, in 1830, he was left without a partisan home as the nation’s dominant party – the Democrats – appalled him. Gouverneur despised President Andrew Jackson and his “unthinking attempts to undermine the constitutional system which the Founders so wisely created. A strong president they desired not, but a strong Congress and national tribunal they craved. Jackson has inverted the constitutional structure and sets the country on a bad course.” That year he ran for Congress and won.
A minority faction in Congress, Gouverneur Morris had little hopes of accomplishing anything. Again, his inability to affect legislation saddened him and he turned his eyes elsewhere. He ran for governor of Massachusetts – perhaps in an attempt to fulfill his name’s destiny – in 1832 and won in a landslide victory. His support for the National Bank of the United States and ardent campaigning on behalf of Whig Henry Clay (Gouverneur joined the Whig party soon after its formation) earned him a national reputation as a rising Whig star and helped hand Massachusetts to Clay in his failed presidential bid.
Gouverneur served four successful years in the governor’s mansion. He implemented the Whig platform at the state level, doing all he could to promote industrial growth in Massachusetts and to support new, growing industries. A fervent embrace of the “American System” ensured that Massachusetts remained the seat of the Industrial Revolution while endearing Gouverneur to Whig elites. At Clay’s urgining, Gouverneur ran for the Senate in 1836 and won. In the Senate, Gouverneur fought Democratic President Martin Van Buren on a variety of economic issues. Gouverneur is best remembered for his many long-winded speeches on the Senate’s floor in which he decried presidential overreach, the subversion of constitutional structure, and the “perverted, ignorant” economic plans of the Democrats. He and Daniel Webster, his Senate partner from Massachusetts, often spent days giving join speeches and debating the Democratic opposition. Together, the two consisted of the Senate’s “engine,” according to the New York Times.
Gouverneur Morris — President
Morris’s appeal – he managed to charm even those he vehemently disagreed with his politics – and eloquent oration made him the natural Whig selection for the 1840 presidential election. With Clay as his running mate, Gouverneur successfully defeated incumbent Martin Van Buren and assumed the executive office, hoping to whittle away its power and instead return Congress to its rightful position as the center of governing legitimacy. He largely succeeded in this task. Though Gouverneur frequently corresponded with Whig leaders in Congress, he made no direct appeals to the tribunal and only vetoed legislation on constitutional grounds (even if he disagreed with a bill, he signed it into law). Since Whigs controlled both chambers during Morris’s tenure, his hands-off approach to legislative stewarding still resulted in his desired outcomes.
Unfortunately, Gouverneur fell seriously ill early in 1844 and, fearing for his life, did not accept the Whig nomination for president. Clay again headed the Whig ticket and again lost to the Democrats (who nominated James K. Polk). Though recovered by 1848, Gouverneur’s staunch opposition to slavery and his desire to see it eliminated across the United States precluded another nomination to the presidency. He instead returned to the Senate and spent the next 10 years there (until his death in 1858). Those years consisted of many more long-winded speeches, disappointment in the again-expanded presidency, and an out-spoken opposition to “peculiar institution” of slavery.
Gouverneur Morris is an oft-forgotten but important figure in presidential and political history. His disdain for expanded presidential powers and his ability to actually curtail the executive while in office represented the last administration to embrace original constitutional theory with regard to the separation of constitutional powers. Gouverneur’s many Senate speeches are staples today in American oration and his rhetorical might still inspires speech writers for politicians at all levels. We would do well to remember Gouverneur Morris and his political thoughts for it is they that best encapsulate our Founders’ governing intentions and which best represent our nation’s Constitution.