Atlantic History Gouverneur Morris
Émilie Mitran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0368


Remembered primarily as the author of the American Constitution’s preamble, Gouverneur Morris (b. 1752–d. 1816) was also the author of a few essays, a thousand-page long private diary, and many other documents on the state of politics in the United States and in France. Morris graduated from King’s College at the age of 19 and was, at 25, one of the most influential public figures of the state of New York. He was a member of the first, third, and fourth New York Provincial Congress and was then sent to the Continental Congress as the Revolution progressed. In 1787, Morris was greatly involved in the reformation of the Articles of Confederation: sent as one of the delegates for the state of Pennsylvania, Morris advocated a highly centralized government and was extremely vocal during the debates, arguing against slavery and proposing to elect the American president according to popular vote. Despite the compromises at the heart of the newly drafted Constitution, Morris proudly endorsed it and spread the American republican ethos across the Atlantic, in the wake of the revolutionary years that had transformed the American nation. In 1789, Morris left the United States and embarked upon a ten-year journey throughout Europe, residing mainly in Paris for the first five years. It was then that he started writing his compelling personal narrative of his Parisian life, living through the French Revolution’s daily developments and sudden upheavals. In France, not only did Morris write for himself, but he also became involved with Louis XVI’s ministers and ended up in 1791 drafting constitutions, speeches, and notes for the French king. While he had tried to help the progressive heralds of the republican doctrine in 1789, such as La Fayette who had returned from the American war of independence convinced that France needed to overhaul its monarchy, Morris eventually became an agent of the counterrevolution. Indeed, he truly believed that France was the most faithful ally of the United States, and thus it needed to remain a stable kingdom, under the authority of its king, before eventually slowly transitioning to a free, republicanized government. In spite of his rather low-profile career, compared to fellow founders and Federalist Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, Morris was an omnipresent commentator of American political and financial life. The works listed in this article aim at providing varied primary and secondary resources on the New Yorker’s career and life in order to highlight the diversity of his writings, regardless of the relatively scant attention his life and career have received since his death.

Anthologies and Selected Writings

Since Gouverneur Morris’s death in 1816, few editors have assembled a collected edition of his writings. The first to be published was Morris 1832, a collection edited by Jared Sparks with the help of Ann Cary Morris, the New Yorker’s widow who carefully read, selected, and even censored some of Morris’s writings before handing them to the editor. The historian organized the three volumes such that readers would follow Morris through his life and career, selecting bits of his correspondence and extracts from his diary and offering his comments on the New Yorker’s decision and remarks. This work allowed contemporaries to rediscover, years after his death, Morris’s career and some of his most important writings. In line with this first publication, Morris 1888 was edited by Morris’s granddaughter in the hope of bringing to light his ancestor’s important writings. Anne Cary Morris explicitly stated in her preface that, contrary to Sparks, she aimed at exhaustively presenting her grandfather’s writings, which she judged essential to publish to understand American history. In spite of what the editor declared, the most graphic descriptions present in Morris’s narrative are silenced, suppressed by Cary’s Victorian prudery. Her two volumes intended to embellish her grandfather’s reputation, suppressing Morris’s sexual life and some embarrassing trivial details as regards his digestive system. Anne Cary Morris wished to preserve a certain image of Morris by including only the most appropriate extracts from his diary to advance the figure of a respectable man whose polished legacy was meant to endure. As to the archival work, Gouverneur Morris’s papers are mostly found in the Manuscript divisions of the Library of Congress (Morris 1771–1834). His archives contain his diaries, letter books, and financial papers from 1771, as a young New Yorker not yet caught up in the spirit of protest that spread through New England, his work in New York for the development of the Erie Canal toward the end of his life, and his French experience as the agent of Robert Morris’s tobacco business in 1789 and as minister plenipotentiary appointed to France in 1792. Thanks to J. Jackson Barlow, many unpublished items from the Library of Congress but also from Morris’s archives at Columbia University were finally transcribed and published in an anthology of Morris’s writings (Morris 2012). Spanning from 1769 with one of Morris’s earliest works—a letter on the condition of New York’s finances—to an 1816 discourse at the New-York Historical Society at the end of his life, this volume offers a comprehensive collection of both private and published documents. Morris 2012 is an indispensable item for everyone who wishes to study Morris’s political thought and financial expertise in contributing to the construction and consolidation of the American republic.

  • Morris, Gouverneur. Gouverneur Morris Papers. Washington, DC: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1771–1834.

    The Library of Congress presents a wide range of papers in its collections. Nevertheless, the bulk of the source materials focuses on the period 1789–1816. Letters written to William Short, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or to French ministers and revolutionaries such as La Fayette are extremely useful and telling regarding Morris’s official diplomatic mission and his informal influence on the French ministers during the French Revolution. Most of Morris’s papers have been microfilmed and can be purchased from the Library of Congress.

  • Morris, Gouverneur. The Life of Gouverneur Morris with a Selection of His Correspondence. Edited by Jared Sparks. Boston: Gray & Bowen, 1832.

    Jared Sparks’s three volumes are dedicated to a biographical review of Morris’s political impact at the time of the American Revolution and French Revolution. The historian carefully selected Morris’s primary sources to create his own narrative of the New Yorker’s life. The collection does not include the entirety of his private diary, and the extracts were chosen by Sparks in collaboration with Morris’s widow, who had already greatly altered the papers she handed to her husband’s biographer.

  • Morris, Gouverneur. The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris. Edited by Anne Cary Morris. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888.

    Anne Cary Morris roughly apportioned five hundred pages (out of six hundred) to Morris’s stay in France, whereas Sparks (Morris 1832) simply allotted a hundred pages to this central experience. As she chose to shed light on her grandfather’s narrative of the French Revolution, her work is more concise regarding Morris’s childhood and later years. By focusing on his Parisian writings, Anne Cary Morris draws the reader’s attention to Gouverneur Morris’s personal perception of the French Revolution.

  • Morris, Gouverneur. To Secure the Blessings of Liberty. Edited by J. Jackson Barlow. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012.

    Barlow’s anthology is a must-have volume. This exhaustive collection includes a wide-ranging compilation of different writings, from throughout Morris’s life, arranged chronologically. Barlow compiled both published and unpublished speeches, letters, notes, and reports that allow readers to get a grasp of Morris’s political and economic thought as well as his rhetorical qualities. This six-hundred-plus-page volume is useful to those interested in early American, Atlantic, or French history.

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