The Wild Life of Gouverneur Morris, the Most Mysterious Founding Father of Them All
You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know the words he added to the Constitution
“We the People of the United States” is perhaps the most famous phrase in the Constitution — and it was penned by one of the most mysterious Founding Fathers. Gouverneur Morris, who was born in the Bronx and spent many years in Europe, might not top the list of the best Founding Fathers, but he certainly was the wildest of the bunch. None of the Founding Fathers were saints — Benjamin Franklin had a house full of bones and George Washington bought teeth from his slaves — but Morris led the craziest life. From having public sex to losing a leg in an adultery-driven accident, Morris is nothing if not a fascinating character.
Morris Liked Having Sex In Public Places, Including The Louvre
Morris didn’t marry until he turned 57, and during his bachelor years, he had quite a few romantic escapades — one of which cost him a leg. In a different escapade while he was in France, Morris carried on an extended affair with a married woman who lived in the Louvre.
Before it became one of the most famous art museums in the world — home to the Mona Lisa — the Louvre was a palace for the French King. And Morris’s lady friend happened to live there. Morris recorded their love affair in his diary, using the word “celebrating” as code for sex. If the diaries are any indication, apparently the two liked to take risks. One of his diary entries talked about having sex in the hallway with the doors open.
Go to the Louvre… we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while [Mademoiselle] is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open.
He didn’t record whether they were caught.
Morris Attempted Surgery On His Penis With A Whalebone, And It Killed Him
Late in life, Morris experienced a blockage in his urethra, which gave him trouble urinating. Today, scholars believe he may have been suffering from prostate cancer. The crafty Founding Father, however, took a DIY approach to the problem; he attempted to treat the blockage by sticking a piece of whalebone up his urethra. In the process, he caused a great deal of damage and killed himself.
Days after he died, a Boston newspaper reported that Morris died from “a short but distressing illness.”
Morris Married A Housekeeper Accused Of Adultery And Murder
For years, Morris never settled down, preferring instead to spend his time romancing married women. But he shocked the world when he married his housekeeper at the age of 57 — and that was only the beginning.
At a Christmas party in 1809, Morris announced he had just married Anne Gary Randolph, who was 22 years younger than the Founding Father. Anne — known as Nancy — had a reputation dating back to 1792, when she was accused of adultery and murder. At the time, Nancy, who was just 17, reportedly slept with her brother-in-law. The illicit union produced a baby who died shortly after birth. Nancy was put on trial for murder, though she insisted the baby had been stillborn. She was eventually acquitted.
On the day he married Nancy, Morris wrote in his diary, “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.”
Morris Lost His Leg After Sleeping With A Married Woman
Morris lost his leg at age 32 after he was hit by a carriage. But what sounds like a simple accident goes much deeper. The incident happened in Philadelphia at the intersection of Logan’s Alley and Dock Street, according to historian Dave Kimball. Morris, who had a reputation as a lady’s man, found himself in hot water after a furious husband learned that the Founding Father was sleeping with his wife.
Morris was running from the scorned husband when a carriage ran over his leg, and it had to be amputated. After the accident, one of Morris’s friends optimistically hoped that the new peg leg might help Morris avoid the “the pleasures and dissipations of life, into which young men are too apt to be led.” In response, Morris quipped, “You argue the matter so handsomely, and point out so clearly the advantages of being without legs, that I am almost tempted to part with the other.”
Morris Bought Marie Antoinette’s Furniture And Shipped It To The Bronx
Morris had a career as a diplomat, which brought him some very strange objects. Between 1792 and 1794, Morris acted as the US minister to France during the most tumultuous period of the French Revolution. As an eye witness to the Reign of Terror, Morris strongly opposed the Revolution, ironically siding with the monarchy. He even attempted to rescue Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette from the revolutionaries who would later execute them.
Perhaps to remember his time in France, Morris bought Antoinette’s furniture. The elaborate set, which included an intricately decorated armchair, stayed in Antoinette’s Versailles palace. During the French Revolution, Morris bought the entire set and shipped it to the Bronx.
Morris Drove Off An Angry Mob With His Peg Leg
Having a peg leg didn’t slow Morris down. In fact, his friend and fellow Founding Father John Jay told Morris that he wished Morris “had lost something else.” For years, Morris kept seducing married women, even after it cost him a limb. And during his time in France, Morris used his wooden leg to chase off a mob of revolutionaries.
Morris’s years in France coincided with the bloodiest period of the French Revolution. According to historian Forrest McDonald, Morris was riding in an ornate carriage with a “lady friend” when a mob descended on them in anti-aristocratic fervor. Morris pulled off his leg and shoved it out the window, shouting “Vive la Révolution.” The sight distracted the revolutionaries long enough for Morris to speed off in his carriage.
Morris Came Up With “We The People Of The United States”
In 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia to write a new Constitution. Morris became one of the most important members of the Constitutional Convention, giving more speeches than any other delegate — 173, to be exact. Morris promoted a strong presidency with veto power as well as an elitist Senate. He also strongly opposed slavery.
Morris was responsible for polishing the final draft of the Constitution and in doing so created the document’s most important line. The original draft read, “We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.”
Morris changed it to the much more succinct, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Morris Hated Slavery, Unlike Many Other Founding Fathers
Many Founding Fathers were hypocrites when it came to slavery. The Declaration of Independence declared, “All men are created equal,” and yet George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned nearly 1,000 slaves just between the two of them. However, Morris strongly opposed slavery. During the Constitutional Convention, Morris called slavery a “nefarious institution,” adding, “Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.”
Morris Created Modern Manhattan
Morris grew up in the Bronx, which was rural farmland in his day. As an adult, he played a central role in shaping New York state by promoting the Erie Canal and New York City by reforming Manhattan’s city plan. In 1807, Morris was appointed to a commission of three men, charged with crafting a master plan for the growing city’s design.
In 1811, the commission produced a grid system for the city with 155 streets and 14 avenues, rejecting the circles and ovals that dominated European cities. Instead of plazas that created irregular building lots, Manhattan would be a city of “right-angled houses… cheap to build and… convenient to live in.” In order to create the massive change, the city had to tear down 39% of pre-grid buildings because they were in the middle of a new street.
It’s Hard To Keep All The Morrises Straight
Gouverneur Morris wasn’t the only Morris who witnessed the founding of the country. His half-brother Lewis Morris also signed the Declaration of Independence. His financier friend Robert Morris, who was not directly related to Gouverneur, also attended the signing.
After the war, Gouverneur and Robert collaborated to establish America’s financial security. Robert Morris acted as Superintendent of Finance during the Revolutionary War, almost single-handedly keeping the war effort afloat. But Robert faced a significant downfall of his own. While Gouverneur was serving in the US Senate, Robert lost much of his money speculating on land and died in near poverty.
As for Gouverneur’s unique first name, it was his mother’s maiden name. And yes, it means governor. Today, BabyNamesPedia reports, “Gouverneur is not popular as a baby name for boys.”
Regardless of whether or not his name lived on, Morris’s words — in the form of the Constitution — certainly has. Though the man behind the “We the People” remains less known than his Founding compatriots, his life may just take the Founding Father cake.