To drive the streets of Manhattan is to realize that someone had a plan for this place. You might not be able to get there for the congestion, but you can figure out how to do it. Not like the rabbit warren that is her sister city of Boston, that all but unnavigable melange of neighborhoods, grown together as the city expanded into former marshlands and harbor.
In grade school, we all learned the preamble to the Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” It’s considerably snappier than the original version:
“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.”
That West 53rd leads to East 53rd and runs next to 54th may be attributed to a committee of three, who fought (and won) the battle against the wide circles and grand plazas, once envisioned for “The City”. That we may be spared that stultifying recitation of our founding document may be laid at the feet of one member of that committee.
Today, his life is all but lost to history, among the familiar constellation of founding fathers. If he’s remembered at all it’s for that funny name. Gouverneur Morris. And what a life it was.
Gouverneur Morris was born this day in 1752, the son of Lewis Morris, Jr. and his second wife Sarah (Gouverneur) Morris. Abigail Adams informs us the name was pronounced “Governeer”.
Born to a wealthy New York land owning family, Morris was destined to a place among the founders. His half-brother Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence. Nephew Lewis Richard served in the Vermont legislature and the US Congress.
As a member of the Continental Congress, Morris helped General George Washington secure funding, to keep the Continental Army in the field. A staunch ally of the Commander-in-Chief, Morris defended Washington against the “Conway Cabal“, the only serious effort to have the General unseated, as commander-in-chief.
A staunch opponent of slavery, Morris derided the “peculiar institution” as “the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” Morris mocked the “3/5ths compromise”, that cynical effort to increase congressional representation based on “property”, who had no right to vote.
“Upon what principle”, Morris asked, “is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”
And did I mention, Gouverneur Morris was a first-class Rake?
“Rake” is such a great word, short for “Rakehell” or Hellraiser’. It’s a shame it’s fallen out of usage. This isn’t the tool shed variety. An 18th century Rake is a man habituated to dissolute conduct, a chronic libertine devoted to wine, women and song. Emphasis on the Women and, no problem if they just happened to be married.
At a time when sexual attitudes were “buttoned up” to say the least, Gouverneur Morris was all but addicted to sex in public, given over to the excitement, of the risk at being caught.
As Minister Plenipotentiary to France in the wake of the American Revolution, Morris writes of one such dalliance in the hallway at the Louvre, then a Royal Residence.
“Go to the Louvre… we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while Mademoiselle (the woman’s daughter) is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open.”
“Celebrate” was Morris’ code word for…well…you know.
Not that he could’ve done anything about it, even if the husband did find out. Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.
That wooden leg actually helped him one time, as the French Revolution spiraled downward toward the homicidal madness known as the “Reign of Terror“. While riding in a carriage, a sign of the aristocracy, a horde of sans coulotte attempted to seize the vehicle. It may have cost Morris, his head. Gouverneur Morris leaned out the window and shook the leg at them, momentarily shocking the mob into stunned silence. Whether the mob thought him a war veteran or just plain crazy is unknown, but the driver had just enough time, to get away.
Morris tried to raise enough to bribe the guards, to release King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. When that didn’t work out he bought the Queen’s furniture, and brought it home as a keepsake.
Morris finally “settled down” at age 57, but even that was a scandal. That Anne Gary (“Nancy”) Randolph was twenty-two years younger than he was not so unusual, but marrying his housekeeper, was. Worse still, the blushing bride had become pregnant by her own brother-in-law at age seventeen, and was tried for killing the baby. On a plantation named “Bizarre’, no less.
Anne was acquitted of the charge of infanticide, but the scandal followed her, all her days. Morris announced his marriage to her at his Christmas party. In his diary, Gouverneur writes “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.”
Toward the end of his life, Gouverneur Morris experienced problems with his urinary tract, probably the result of prostate cancer. Believing there to be some blockage in his pipes, Morris tried the “Do-it-Yourself” approach to fixing the problem, with a piece of whalebone.
Unsurprisingly, the method caused himself considerable damage and massive infection. The man who brought the Erie Canal to upstate New York died on November 6, 1813. Six days later, the Columbian Centinal newspaper of Boston reported his death following “a short but distressing illness.”
I should say so.
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