A review of Gentleman Revolutionary : Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, by Richard Brookhiser

Biographers of Founding Fathers face a problem in setting the right tone. On the one hand, what the founders achieved, against all odds, remains so important that we are tempted to approach them with awe and reverence. Yet in the constitutional republic they created, we must exercise our own critical judgment of their handiwork, accepting or revising as necessary; we are tempted to approach them as our equals and therefore to try to understand them as we understand ourselves. Some founders, by their character and achievements, lend themselves to the first approach—Washington and Madison, for example. Gouverneur Morris doesn't fall into this category. But does he—should he—fall into the second? 

This is the question of Richard Brookhiser's Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. And since the issue is implicitly posed in the second half of the title, we might as well get it out of the way. Morris was indeed something of a "rake," and behind that quaint 18th-century term is a 21st-century truth: Morris had love affairs with other men's wives. And from all the evidence, enjoyed it. His diary, especially from his years in France, is replete with (metaphorical) references to sex, and Brookhiser gives us a fairly complete accounting of them. Indeed, at times the book almost reads like an 18th-century Starr Report as Brookhiser helps us figure out how often Morris and his lover did "the needful" (answer: a lot). More interesting, and more revealing of Morris's character and politics, is that he maintained a good-humored and self-conscious (or is it morally obtuse?) awareness of the moral position he was in. A diary entry Brookhiser does not quote captures this well: "Monsieur [de Flahaut, his lover's husband] comes in from Versailles. I lend him my carriage to go to the King's Couché and then do all that is necessary to perpetuate his noble Family."

What does a biographer, especially if he is committed to a different sort of family values, do with a Founding Father who leaves a paper trail like that? Ignoring it is out of the question. In the post-Monica era, we cannot say merely that boys will be boys, or that behavior must be judged in the context of the moral climate of the time, or that private behavior is irrelevant to public service. Brookhiser makes a more interesting choice. He presents Morris as a man who was human and comfortable with it. Morris was not indifferent to morality, but he also did not expect to be perfectly virtuous. He cheerfully accepted his fellow humans, and himself, with all their faults. He never took himself too seriously, and was able to see all sides of a question. Proceeding with vigor to make a cuckold of Monsieur de Flahaut, one can almost hear Brookhiser's Morris say, with Huck Finn, "there ain't no telling but I might come to be a cuckold myself, yet, and then how would I like it?" We can guess that he would have enjoyed the irony. For Morris, it was all part of the game—a game played not for the highest score but for the sheer enjoyment. 

Above all, Morris was aware of his own limitations, and knew better than to take himself too seriously. Morris participated seriously and fully in the great events of his lifetime; yet unlike a Washington (whom he revered), Morris neither sought, nor was self-conscious about standing in, the world-historical spotlight. He answered his country's call, yet never defined himself as a public man. He balanced public and private as few others did; he suffered fools and wise men equally gladly, and wrote about them all with candor and dry wit. The strongest aspect of this biography is the way it brings out Morris's joie de vivre

He was a gentleman. In his case, that is a moral even more than a social term. Born to riches and power, he had also learned to live well. Nature gave him a buoyant and appreciative temperament, but he had fostered those qualities, despite severe trials. 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.

Because Morris himself was too much the gentleman to boast about his résumé, that task must fall to the biographer. There is a good bit to say here, and Brookhiser covers it well. Morris was born to a wealthy and well connected New York family, received a bachelor's and a master's degree from King's College, and joined the New York bar. He took an active role in drafting the first New York state constitution and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and as the deputy superintendent of finance (to Robert Morris, who was not related), where he was the first to propose a decimal system for U.S. currency. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he spoke more often than anyone else, put the document in its final form, and wrote the Preamble. He then went to France, at first on private business but in 1792 became U.S. Minister to France, which he remained (through the Terror) until 1794. On his return to the U.S., he served a brief term in the Senate, and after his retirement led the movement to dig the Erie Canal. His final political cause was to promote the movement that led to the Hartford Convention. Along the way, he laid out the New York City street grid, eulogized Alexander Hamilton, served as a body double for George Washington, burned most of the flesh from his right arm in one accident, and lost the lower part of his left leg in another. Did I mention he also had several love affairs? It was a crowded life. 

Whatever Morris's enjoyment of the pleasures of life, and however reluctant his forays into public office, he clearly worked very hard. As his great-granddaughter, the editor of his diaries, notes, "Morris's Paris calling list suggests a butterfly, but the diary's refrain 'This Morning write' is the real key to the man." Curiously, this key seems elusive in Brookhiser's account. The consistency of Morris's private life, and our ability to distill from it the principles of "courage, courtesy, and warmth," seems to be missing in the presentation of his public life. Brookhiser once or twice comes close, but ultimately never quite connects this personal side of Morris with the political; or shows—as he might—how Morris's lively and good-humored appreciation of human limitations grounded a lifelong commitment to political moderation and balance. But what did that commitment mean? What did he expect to bring about through his public service? It is not simply out of our own wish for founders to be Men of Principle that we seek Morris's. We really want to know: did he have principles? Or can a man who makes love to another's wife hold political convictions other than those of mere expediency? 

Morris has long been suspected of an antipathy toward democracy, and there is some truth to this, but it must be said that his antipathy was no greater than that of many others, including Adams and Hamilton. But his alleged suspicion of democracy is not easily characterized, and at times seems to disappear. Often his suspicions center instead on the rich, or the "aristocrats." In the Constitutional Convention he expressed the concern that the people were unable to defend themselves against "the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose—the Legislative body." To counter the danger of aristocracy, he proposed a strong and essentially tribunician executive, elected directly by the freeholders. He believed that in its absence the people would impose an aristocracy on themselves, and that it would be concentrated in the House of Representatives: "Give the votes to the people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them." As he said many years later: 

The people must feel before they can think. Expect heroism from a sheep, charity from a wolf, and music from a crow, and perhaps you may not be disappointed; but do not expect, or even hope for reason from the populace. Violence you may count on, and perhaps it will not be long before it is exercised. But they must have the spur of actual suffering. (To Benjamin Walker, December 28, 1814)

Morris's position is complex, because it seems he suspects everyone. The rich will try to buy or fool the irrational populace, who are only too willing to be bought. Brookhiser seems a bit uncertain how to deal with Morris's apparent lack of confidence in both the people and the wealthy, or how this combines with his emphasis on institutional checks and balances, his commitment to nationalism, and his inveterate hostility to slavery. If all of these positions stem from a common principled foundation, it does not emerge from this book.

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Yet we must concede that it may not be possible to reconcile all of Morris's self-contradictions, in which case Brookhiser is wise not to try. It would make our task much easier if Morris's papers were easily accessible—much of his writing is out of print and even more has never been published. But we may offer some provisional suggestions. Morris realized the danger of trying to reduce politics to a few simple propositions, and he saw in Paris the inhuman results of such an approach. He understood that human beings are frail, both intellectually and morally: their understandings are limited, and so is their ability to act upon their good intentions. They are consistently torn between doing the right thing and doing the expedient thing, and (like Morris himself) are capable of rationally, and cheerfully, redefining the one as the other. And no simple change of institutions will change human nature. Democracy is possible, and justified, because the people are capable of judging their own interests. Yet it is problematic because they lack the information, foresight, and unity to be good guardians.

The critical element in designing institutions was balance. When Madison said in Federalist 51 that the Constitution sets "ambition…to counteract ambition" he was expressing a principle that was central to Morris's conception of good government. But Morris would have emphasized a broader range of human motives: Good intentions must balance selfishness, information must balance ignorance, the rich must balance the poor, and so on. But he understood that the balance could only be preserved by what we would now call "transparency"—keeping policy making and its execution out in the open as much as possible. Open government was free government. Closed institutions—"cabals" that met behind closed doors—were for Morris the harbingers of tyranny. This was why he opposed letting Congress choose the President (he compared it to the election of the Pope); and years later it underlay his acceptance of the party system: "Let the chair of office be filled by whomsoever it may, opposition will act as an outward conscience, and prevent the abuse of power." As Brookhiser notes, in Morris's judgment this would lead to a "morality of partisanship," with the two parties "keeping each other honest." But here again, as in most other cases, Morris delivers a brilliant sentence or two and never elaborates the principle behind it. 

The problem with those who seek balance in politics is that they often appear either as trimmers (if we believe them sincere) or opportunists (if not). Morris was neither, but he did not usually bother to explain systematically how his actions accorded with his principles. In no case is this more annoying than in his embrace of (Northern) secession, late in his life, after a lifetime of unabashed nationalism. Brookhiser makes the best defense of it that he can—noting that Morris at least did not hide behind legal fictions to give secession a veneer of legality. Still, here as elsewhere, Morris did not bother to elaborate the theoretical premises behind his opinions, although he offered evidence. In this case, he thought, circumstances had changed; the Union was no longer serving the purposes he had so eloquently enumerated in the Constitution's preamble. Like his other commitments, Morris's commitment to the Union was subject to revision in the light of new evidence. His was what we should now call a very businesslike temperament: he made the best judgments he could, kept an open mind, revised his opinions over the course of time, expected that he would be right sometimes and wrong at others, and got on with the task at hand. 

In short, Brookhiser finds Morris immensely likable, and immensely readable, but at some level not quite the stuff of which founders are made: "If the founding of the state had rested on him, or men like him, it would not have happened." Still, Brookhiser continues, Morris did have some qualities we might wish to see in more politicians, for many "politicians are persistent troublemakers, especially if their pride is wedded to their ambition." Yet Brookhiser's very attempt to be fair conveys an uneasiness that is in turn transmitted to the reader. We sense that he is somehow pulling his punches, perhaps trying a bit too hard to like Morris, and is possibly even a bit uncomfortable in putting favorable spins on things. It is instructive to compare as a case in point Brookhiser's treatment of one episode—Morris's eulogy of Alexander Hamilton—in his biographies of the two men. In the Hamilton biography, Brookhiser describes the eulogy as "rhetorical and diffuse," and says that Morris "did not effectively complete the portrait" of Hamilton. Here, Brookhiser is gentler, concentrating on the reception of the speech and putting it into Morris's own words ("I find that what I have said does not answer the general expectation"). In the Hamilton biography, Brookhiser almost accused Morris of a hubristic appreciation of his own rhetorical skills—"Afterward, Morris imagined himself as Mark Anthony: 'How easy would it have been to make them, for a moment, absolutely mad'"—while here he concentrates on the situation: "Morris did not want to encourage the incensed mourners to riot." We are left wondering if Brookhiser is putting his thumb on the scale here. 

Still, on the whole, Brookhiser seems to find the right balance. He gives us a portrait of a man who is somewhat too ironic and too worldly to be approached as a hero, yet not so world-weary that we can be cynical. If he was not perfectly virtuous, at least he did not take refuge in hypocrisy. Morris did what he did without apology, and he said what he thought. Is this enough for a founder? We get the sense that Brookhiser finds Morris a bit disappointing as an American founder, even as he presents a persuasive case that our country might be well served if there were more like him today. Perhaps his example of a well-balanced life can teach us how to enjoy our own. After all, who among us would not like to be able to write, at age 64, that we have "still the gayety of inexperience and the frolic of youth"?