Gouverneur Morris: Remembering a scandalous Founding Father

“We the people,” the opening words of the Preamble to our Constitution, comprise one of the most famous phrases in American history. We owe this phrase, just as we owe the whole of the Preamble and the whole of the final form of our Constitution, to one of the most brilliant, erratic and scandalous of our Founding Fathers.  His name was Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816).

Morris played an active role in the American Revolution, helping to finance and improve the Continental Army. He was a signer of the Articles of Confederation and had the distinction of speaking 173 times at the Constitutional Convention — more than any other member. He was also known as the “Penman of the Constitution.”  Tasked with polishing the Convention’s final draft, he compressed the original 23 articles into seven, making the document simpler, clearer, more compact and more  elegant — the Constitution as we know it today.

Morris’ subsequent career was equally notable. From 1792 to 1794 he served as America’s minister plenipotentiary to France. This period included the Reign of Terror, the most bloody and dangerous phase of the French Revolution. Morris was the only foreign diplomat to remain in the Paris at that time. Notwithstanding his diplomatic immunity, he sometimes found himself in real danger. Once, when an angry rabble attacked his coach, he was obliged to fend off his attackers with his wooden leg. Yet his narrow escape did not deter him from taking part in a quixotic effort to rescue the French royal family, or to help French aristocrats escape abroad. 

On his return to America, Morris represented New York in the Senate from 1800 to 1803, and chaired the Erie Canal Commission from 1810 to 1813. He was also an early and fiercely outspoken opponent of slavery.

In all, Morris lived a useful, distinguished and not a little adventurous life. He made important and enduring contributions to our republic. Yet why is it that Americans today know little more about him than his French first name, which was his mother’s surname?

The answer is that Morris is our rakish X-rated Founding Father.

To begin with, he was a notorious womanizer. His amatory escapades were not at all impeded when, at age 28, he lost a leg. He lost it in a carriage accident, but a rumor persisted for years that he had broken it while jumping out of window to escape the wrath of a jealous husband. When his friend John Jay heard of Morris’ misfortune, his only comment was that he wished Morris had lost “something else.”

Like more recent political rakes, Morris reveled in public sex, especially where there was a high risk of being caught. While in France, he had a three-year affair with the Comtesse Adele de Flahaut, whom he shared with the French diplomat Talleyrand. Since Adele also had a husband, her availability was somewhat limited.

The two lovers never managed to spend a whole night together, but they snatched what opportunities they could. They made love in his carriage and in her apartment at the Louvre — the doors open and guests expected. Once, they copulated in the visitors’ waiting room of a convent where Adele’s former governess was a nun.

Even Morris’ attempts at respectability were tinged with scandal. In 1809, after returning to America, he married. His bride, Anne Cary “Nancy” Randolph, was 22 years his junior. Nancy had been his housekeeper, and if the difference in their ages and social stations wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, she and her brother-in-law had previously been accused of murdering a baby alleged to have been their illegitimate offspring. 

They got off, but ugly gossip dogged Nancy for years afterwards. Morris married her nevertheless and fathered his only child by her — a healthy boy — when he was 61.

Throughout his life, it was the perennial complaint of Morris’ contemporaries that he was “fickle and inconstant.” That defect, along with his sexual shenanigans, is doubtless the reason why he does not occupy a more prominent place in the pantheon our nation’s Founders. Perhaps future president Teddy Roosevelt said it best in a biography he wrote of Morris in 1888: “There has never been an American statesman of keener intellect or more brilliant genius. Had he possessed but a little more steadiness and self-control he would have stood among the two or three very foremost.”

• Thomas C. Stewart is a retired New York investment banker and former Naval officer.

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