Founding Principal

This basic tension–rights versus unity; individualism against nationalism–has been manifest through many periods of American history, but it suffused the politics of the founding generation. In Gentleman Revolutionary, Richard Brookhiser, who has written the biographies of several other founding fathers, has produced a life of Gouverneur Morris, a little-regarded founder of whom most Americans have probably never heard, yet who, in a sense, personified both strains of thought.

Morris believed in the cause of country. He supported the Revolution and helped author the Constitution, served as minister to France and championed the Erie Canal. Yet he was also a fierce individualist who retreated to private life whenever possible, and it is this person on whom Brookhiser focuses. Born into wealth in New York, Morris enjoyed a most advantaged upbringing. His grandfather had served as governor of New Jersey, his father was a prominent jurist and New York assemblyman, and Morris quickly became a leading lawyer and socialite.

But profound suffering also marked Morris’s life. At age 14, he spilled boiling water on his right arm, and it was mangled forever. When he turned 29, he was run over by a carriage; his left leg had to be amputated. Morris took it all in stride. He spent time working on Morrisania, his New York estate. He struck up friendships. Ultimately, he took a wife and fathered a son. In spite of hardships, Morris lived life to the fullest. He earned money, traveled the globe, took lovers on two continents, drank the best wines, and ate the finest foods–and Brookhiser isn’t shy about voicing his approval. Morris “was no artist,” he writes, “unless living is an art.”

But Brookhiser also makes it clear that Morris impacted the life of the country. During the Revolution, he represented New York in the Continental Congress, becoming friends with George Washington and many more of the new nation’s leaders. He secured payment for Army officers, proposed political and economic reforms, and told his friend Robert Livingston, “This is the seed time for glory.” (He also complained of his colleagues: “Stuffed in a corner of America and brooding over their situation, they have become utter disagreeables.”) But Morris’s greatest contribution was his authorship of the U.S. Constitution. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and when it came time to put pen to paper, it was Morris to whom the other founders turned. He wrote the Preamble from scratch, including the archetypal phrase, “We the People,” and significantly strengthened the document’s prose.

Some years later, Morris moved to Paris. He ensconced himself in the rarefied world of fin-de-siecle Parisian society, and then watched up close and in horror as his aristocratic friends fled the guillotine. As the Revolution progressed, Washington appointed Morris minister to France. He spent two years in the post, toiling to save Louis XVI, sheltering aristocrats from the Paris mob, and working hard to protect American merchant vessels against French privateers.

In the pantheon of the founders, Morris is no match for the likes of a Jefferson, Madison, or Hamilton. He spent too much time away from the fray to put upon his country such a lasting imprint. Still, he, too, left his mark on America, and one wishes that Brookhiser had spent less time in this book praising Morris the man and more time delving into the life and times of Morris the founder. During the Constitutional Convention, Morris thundered against the evils of slavery, an unusual stance for the time–yet Brookhiser never explains how Morris arrived at it.

Likewise, while there is much to admire in Morris’s private life, Brookhiser spends too much time describing Morris’s stoicism and verve, and not enough examining the crucial debates surrounding the nation’s birth. Morris, concludes Brookhiser, can teach 21st-century citizens how to live a full life:

“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.”

Perhaps. But in the end, the more interesting and pertinent question is not what Morris the man can teach today’s citizens, but rather what Morris the founder reveals about the life of the nation at the start of its history. Had Brookhiser trained more of his attention to addressing that question, this would have been a more important book.

Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard Gephardt, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.

Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard Gephardt, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.

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