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Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)

30 min

Students will:

  • explain Gouverneur Morris’s role in the Newburgh Conspiracy.
  • understand Morris’s contributions at the Constitutional Convention and his responsibilities in drafting the Constitution’s final wording.
  • understand the way Morris’s strengths as well as shortcomings enabled him to contribute to his community and country.
  • analyze the purposes of government set forth in the Preamble.
  • evaluate the ways modern U.S. government fulfills those purposes of government.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Gouverneur Morris.

    Gouverneur Morris was an early supporter of American independence and provided assistance to militiamen during some of the most difficult periods of the war. Appointed to the Committee of Style at the Constitutional Convention, Morris was responsible for the Constitution’s final wording. He twice served as our nation’s representative to France.

Though James Madison has been given the title, “Father of the Constitution,” a case could be made that Gouverneur Morris was second in importance only to the Virginian in shaping the final version of the document. Morris spoke more often (173 times) than any other delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Though he was often on the losing side of issues and was not a political theorist on the level of Madison, Morris was a leader of the nationalist bloc at the Convention that ultimately carried the day. In addition, it was the native New Yorker who actually crafted much of the language of the United States Constitution.

Assigned to the Committee of Style as debate at the Philadelphia Convention drew to a close, Morris was given the task of wording the Constitution by the committee’s members. Through phraseology, Morris attempted to enhance the power of the federal government. Most significantly, Morris’s choice of the words, “We the people,” for the beginning of the famous Preamble helped to define the American nation as a single entity, created by the people, not the states. This argument would later be used by John Marshall and Abraham Lincoln to assert the supremacy of the federal government over the states.

Troubled by the War of 1812, sectional differences, and evidence of national weakness, Morris lent support in the last few years of his life to a movement to establish a separate confederacy encompassing New England and New York. It was perhaps an unexpected epilogue to the life of a man who had done so much to promote a strong Union twenty-five years earlier.

Explain to students that one of the most important adjustments Morris made to the Committee of Style’s version was changing “We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . .” and so on, to simply “We the people of the United States.” Why was that change significant?

The Preamble names “the people” as the source of authority and power. Instead of creating a government of all the states, as some preferred, the wording of the Preamble helped to create a stronger central government since sovereignty came from the people directly. This was arguably one of Morris’s nationalist goals. He defined all Americans as part of a unified group, rather than as residents of their individual states. (Tell students that Morris may also have been trying to gloss over the fact that some states may not have joined the union immediately, and that Rhode Island did not send any delegates to the Philadelphia convention.)

  1. Ask students to find newspaper or Internet articles that illustrate today’s government fulfilling the purposes of government set forth in the Preamble. Have them write a one-paragraph explanation for each article.
  2. Ask students to perform a close reading of the Preamble, and interpret it as if it were a poem or a piece of literature. What effect does Morris’s diction [key word choices such as “ordain” and “establish” and others] have on the way the Constitution will be perceived? Consider other literary devices like rhyme, repetition, and alliteration.

Have students contrast Morris’s wording of the Preamble with other proposed language. What concerns do the following suggestions reflect? How did Morris’s version differ from these suggestions?

  • James Madison suggested The objects of Confederation [are] common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare.
  • Charles Pinckney defined the purposes of government as the common benefit of the states, [and] their defense and security against all designs and leagues that may be injurious to their interests. . . .
  • Robert Patterson offered: the preservation of the union.

Source: Brookhiser, Richard. Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: The Free Press, 2003.

Student Handouts

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