We all know that Thomas Jefferson gets credit for writing the Declaration Of Independence. As important as that historical document is however, it’s the Constitution that dictates how democracy works in the United States. But who was its author?
James Madison of Virginia has been called the “Father of the U.S. Constitution”. Some historians say no other delegate was better prepared for the Constitutional Convention, and no one contributed more to shaping the final document. It was Gouverneur Morris, the New York City native and Pennsylvania delegate (at 36, the youngest), who the Rutledge Committee asked to pull together the disparate ideas and thoughts of the convention and mold them into a single document. Morris immediately went to work – in four days he had a full draft ready.
He condensing 23 articles into seven, devoting one each to the Congress, the Executive and the Judiciary. Perhaps his most important contribution was the preamble. It had originally begun with “We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, etc.” Morris revised this to “We the people”, squarely acknowledging that this new government belonged to the people, and not the states. The U.S. Constitutions was finalized September 17, 1787, two hundred twenty-eight years ago this week, and finally ratified on June 21, 1788.
In the midst of this important constitutional convention Gouverneur Morris (Gouverneur was his mother’s maiden name) left town for three weeks. It appears that during this absence he bought a ten mile square tract of Adirondack land from Alexander Macomb; he named it “Cambria”. Later he purchased an equal-sized parcel adjoining his property, bring his total holdings to 128,000 acres stretching south from the St. Lawrence River.
Brilliant and out-spoken, Morris’ attention was drawn to his Adirondack investment. He hired agents to put in roads and clear land. Morris was particularly impressed with the potential of Natural Dam on the Oswegatchie River, about 2.5 miles west of what is now Gouverneur. There he had a sawmill and gristmill built, streets laid out, and a bridge constructed.
In 1808 Morris ordered that a mansion should be built for his personal use. The mansion, supported by two-foot thick stone walls and solid flooring, featured six rooms and a spacious hall. Although modest by today’s standards, it has stood the test of time and still stands. The surrounding lands were cleared, barns were built along with chicken coops, pig sties, large gardens and an orchard.
A visionary, as early as 1801 Morris advocated for a canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Ontario via Mohawk River and Wood Creek. Morris asserted it was up to New York State to fund such a venture so that “ships (could) sail from London through the Hudson River into Lake Erie. The Erie Canal, funded by New York State would finally be built in 1825, nine years after Morris died in 1816. As Morris predicted, it transformed the economy of the state.
Constantly bubbling with ideas, Morris suggested a unique approach to road signs in the country at a time when many new roads were being cut through unexplored wilderness. He decried how easy it was to get lost on these wilderness roads. Morris wrote to President Thomas Jefferson in 1791 suggesting that each road intersection be marked with longitude and latitude. “This will involve but little expense,” he wrote, “and when coupled with tolerable road maps, will fix with considerable precision both latitude and longitude of every part of the country. “ There is no record of what Jefferson thought of the idea, but it’s the way car gps systems navigate today.
Morris also advocated for fish and game laws, not because he was concerned about the wholesale killing of fish and deer, but rather he thought it could be detrimental to the American work ethic. “Vagabonds would have to work,” he wrote, “rather than amuse themselves with gun or fishing rod.” Clearly, Morris did not approve of idleness.
Well over six feet tall, trim, rich, and considered a superior mind, Morris was also a legendary womanizer. In 1780, while driving his phaeton (a kind of carriage) through the streets of Philadelphia, his horses took fright and flipped the rig. Morris’ left leg, caught between the spokes of the carriage, was crushed and had to be amputated. There were rumors that the carriage story was a cover. How he had really lost his leg, some wagged, was jumping from a second-story bedroom window to escape the unexpected arrival of his lover’s husband.
It is said though that the loss of his leg, and its replacement with a wooden leg, in no way reduced his appeal to women. The only time the wooden leg seemed to give him a problem was one cold and stormy day when he went camping with James LeRay at Gravelly Point (today’s Cape Vincent). The party was soaked and chilled and started a good fire to warm themselves. As the hours of the night passed the fire slowly cooled and Morris slept increasing closer to the fire to get warm. He woke during the night with a start to realize that his wooden leg had caught fire!
Illustrations, from above: Gouverneur Morris later in life; a 1796 map showing Macomb’s Purchase by W. Winterbotham; the Morris Mansion at Natural Dam in 2015 (by Glenn Pearsall); and Morris as a young man.