Richard Brookhiser has been writing for National Review since his teen years. Today he is an NR senior editor and acclaimed historian. His newest book is just being released: Gentleman Revolutionary : Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. He recently talked to NRO about his latest subject.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did you come to decide to write on Gouverneur Morris? Richard Brookhiser: He was a friend of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, so he popped up in my first two biographies, and I thought, what a guy!
Lopez: Why is Morris so forgotten by history?
Brookhiser: He has several strikes against him, beginning with his first name: How do you say it? (best guess: Gov-er-neer). Second, he was a New Yorker, and we don’t take care of our dead. Third, he was a Federalist, so he has no political heirs.
The main problem, though, is he does not fit our template for a Founder. They were serious; he is funny. They were public men; he also valued his private life.
Lopez: Morris seemed to be in and out of politics more than some of the other Founders. Did Morris dislike politics?
Brookhiser: He took politics for granted. He was a third-generation pol — his uncle and grandfather were colonial governors — and felt he could take it up whenever he liked.
Lopez: Among the opportunities he passed up was contributing to the Federalist Papers. Could he have added something Publius missed without him?
Brookhiser: Sparkle. Many of the Founders, including Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, are good writers. Only four — Franklin, Jefferson, Tom Paine, and Morris — are great ones.
Lopez: Could Morris have made himself unforgettable to history, or was he somehow destined to be overshadowed by other Founding giants?
Brookhiser: The lifelong rap against him, partly true, is that he was “fickle and inconstant” as a public man, so perhaps he was destined to be overshadowed. He admired Washington above all men, yet he cheered on the disgruntled officers before the Newburgh near-mutiny of 1783 — the opposite of Washington’s behavior. He wrote the Constitution in 1787, called for secession of the north in 1812, then urged the would-be secessionists in 1816 to forget their differences.
The silver lining is, that as a private man, he had golden virtues. If you were broke, or in jail, or had lost the dearest person in your life, and you needed money, help, or consolation, the first Founder you would call would be Morris. On the other hand, you would never introduce him to your sister (unless she was married to a dull brute).
Lopez: What did George Washington see in Morris?
Brookhiser: The two met in New York in 1776, then more extensively at Valley Forge. The army was suffering; Morris, then a congressman, wanted to help them. Washington was always looking for bright young men (Morris was 20 years younger). He also liked people who could make him laugh.
Lopez: Around the time of the War of 1812, the guy who wrote the first draft of the Constitution was ready to throw it overboard (though he came around later). Is that largely because he did not buy into a lot of what he wrote? Did he have a philosophy, ultimately, that was with him the majority of his adult life — including his later years?
Brookhiser: The War of 1812 has shrunk in our minds, but to Morris it seemed like a wicked conflict, waged by incompetents (Jefferson’s heirs) who had an electoral lock on national power. The war also preempted work on the pet project of his old age, the Erie Canal. Unlike the Confederates fifty years later, he indulged no sophistries about the constitutionality of secession. His attitude was, scrap everything and start again.
His philosophy was cheery stoicism. He had many opportunities to exercise it — a severely burned arm at age 14, a lost leg at 28, a family split by the American Revolution (his mother was a Tory), a front-row seat on the Reign of Terror.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite Morris story?
Brookhiser: I have two.
Morris finally got married at age 57 (to his housekeeper, though she was a Randolph from Virginia). Seven years later, during his final illness, he made a will, leaving his wife many good things, including an annuity of $2,600. If she married again, he added, the annuity should be increased to $3,200, since she would have more expenses.
Morris lived abroad, mostly in Paris, from 1789 to 1794, and saw that revolution close up. In 1792, during a particularly bad patch, the revolutionary fedayeen came to his door and demanded to search his house for weapons. He refused to let them in, told them he would make a complaint, and bluffed them off. He had no weapons, though he was hiding aristocrats. The rake was brave in a pinch.
Lopez: For all his gentlemanly ways, I couldn’t help but notice that one of his sexual exploits was in a CONVENT. Would you wager he’s alone among the Founders on that count?
Brookhiser: It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, though it wasn’t good. He and his lover, a French countess, were visiting her old guardian, who lived in a Paris convent. They were in the waiting room, presumably alone, and….Morris was always decorous in public. When, in Vienna, he noticed worshippers making assignations during a midnight mass, he was quite disapproving.
Lopez: What’s the enduring lesson we should take from Morris’s life?
Brookhiser: Here’s the lesson I took: “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.”
Lopez: Is there another Brookhiser Founder exploration in the works?
Brookhiser: I’m thinking.