January 30, 1752 Founding Philanderer

Not that he could’ve have 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.

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Midtown Street Grid

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.”

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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.

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Gouverneur Morris

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.

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Gouverneur Morris 1789

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.

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Gouverneur Morris’ wooden leg

“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.

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18th century painting “A Rake’s Progress”, by English artist William Hogarth

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.”

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Whalebone

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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July 2, 1776 Independence Day

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

The first Virginia Convention organized in 1774, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the colony’s House of Burgesses. The colonial governing body had called for a day of prayer, a show of solidarity with her sister colony in Boston, after the British government closed the harbor in retaliation for the “Boston Tea Party“.

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Three additional such meetings would take place in the following year-and-one-half, to discuss increasingly fractious relations with the British Empire. No expression emerged from these conventions, in favor of independence.

That would change on May 15, 1776, when the fifth Virginia Convention declared that the colonial government as “formerly exercised” by King George III in Parliament, was “totally dissolved”. Three resolutions emerged from this body:  one calling for a declaration of rights in Virginia, another calling for the establishment of a republican constitution, and a third instructing its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to declare independence from Great Britain.

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Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention. As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

At the time, several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence.

Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to the Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates expressing favor for Lee’s resolution.

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The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having as yet received no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams believed that July 2 would go down as Independence Day, for the young nation.

Declaration of Independence

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

That line was drawn in the sand, two hundred and forty two years ago, today.  As Caesar had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ nearly two thousand years earlier, a decision had been taken from which there would be no turning back.  Fifty-six men affixed their signatures to that document, affirming that to this “… we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

These were no empty words.  One of those signers, Benjamin Franklin, stated in all candor, that now “We must all hang together or, assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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On this day in 1984, exactly 208 years after a young nation declared its independence, a memorial was dedicated in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The monument consists of fifty-six stone blocks, each bearing the inscribed likeness of the actual signature, of every man who so pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.

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Today, this day is mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

Happy Independence Day.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.