Gouverneur Morris in 1812

Northern secession was openly in the political brew again. Eleven (11) years before, Jefferson had cautioned New England’s desire to secede while accepting their sovereignty to choose as they wished. Since then extensive changes had come about. Jefferson was retired and Hamilton deceased. Our landmass more than doubled with the Louisiana territory. 2 more States, Ohio and Louisiana, were added to the Union and more than 2 million people. But the greatest difference was that in 1801 we were at peace. In June 1812 we went to war and in July invaded Canada. The country was in upheaval. In Baltimore near July’s end several Federalist editors, supporters of Morris’s party and opposed to the war, were taken into protective custody. A mob broke into the jail, took them away and beat them. One died of his wounds. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island refused the call for militia except to defend their own States. The fleets of New England and New York suffered great commercial losses. New York had become the preeminent commercial State in the Union. The war brought another showdown between the Hamiltonian (Federalist) and Jeffersonian (Democratic Republican) parties. Madison had hit a beehive and the bees were out to sting.


Gouverneur Morris was forthright, sturdy, even unflinching in his opinions, especially his “commitment to the sanctity of property as the basis of civilization.” Founding Fathers, 2d Ed. revised by M.E. Bradford, University Press of Kansas, 1984, p. 75. At once an honest and honorable man, he considered human nature near rancid. But he was eminently practical and compromise was not beneath him. He understood every particular interest in politics is a venture for governmental power. He was “devoted to the concept of liberty as achieved through law“, that is, only those concepts evolved and enunciated in the law. So far as the rights of humankind, he refused to accept natural rights. As he once said, “He who wishes to enjoy natural Rights must establish himself where natural Rights are admitted. He must live alone.” Ibid. 74 – 75 He was no Jeffersonian.

A formidable patriot of the 1776 American Secession from England, Morris came from an established, wealthy and aristocratic New York family. Both extremely outspoken and extremely literate, he advocated a strong central government, with life tenure for the president and the presidential appointment of senators. He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the New York militia. In 1775 – 77 he was in the New York Provincial Congress where he participated in the writing of the New York Constitution of 1777. He served in the Continental Congress 1778-79 and was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation. In 1780 he lost part of his left leg due to misadventure within an amorous adventure when the lady’s husband returned unannounced. Fleeing, he ran into a coach flying by. He was peg-legged the remainder of his life.

From 1781 – 1785 he was Assistant to the Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris (no relation), and with him first proposed a coinage system. In 1787, by happenstance a delegate from Pennsylvania rather than New York, he spoke more at the Convention than any other delegate and was the only one to threaten the smaller States with war if they did not agree to a new confederation.  He was the prime draftsman of the 1787 Constitution, including the Preamble with its deliberate obfuscation of its original meaning. He was “audacious enough” to write by sleight of pen other changes, not all of which he got away with. (See discussion of General Welfare wording in Novus Ordo Seclorum, The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, Forrest McDonald, University Press of Kansas, pp. 165 and 172-173. See also, “But Morris was admired more than he was trusted …”, in The Fathers of the Constitution, Max Farrand, Yale University Press, 1921, pp. 112-113, in private printing for The Library of American Freedoms, combining The Framing of the Constitution of the United States with The Fathers of the Constitution into one volume, pagination separate for each work. The Palladium Press, 2000, Birmingham)

From 1800 to 1803 he was a Senator from New York. Then he largely retired from public life. In 1810 he became Chair of the Erie Canal Commission, a position he held till 1815 before leaving this world in 1816.


In August 1812 his mind was focused on the continual and foreseeable depreciation of New York and New England’s commercial world due to the administrations of Jefferson and Madison culminating in war. He called into question the justness of the war.

On August 26, 1812 in the New-York Evening Post and August 29, 1812 in the New York Herald, Gouverneur Morris published “An Address to the People of the State of New York on the Present State of Affairs”. He signed it simply ‘An American‘, but the Evening Post declared, “ the reader will probably recognize the superior endowments of a writer who, some years since, more than once adorned our columns … Dull indeed must be the apprehension, and great the want of sagacity, of him who does not soon find that he is engaged with one of the master spirits of the nation.” In To Secure the Blessings of Liberty, Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris, edited by J. Jackson Barlow, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2012, pp.537-549

Gouverneur wrote to the heart of the matter: “… the general current of events, for some years past, drives us rapidly towards a condition in which no human power can prevent these States from separating into two, or more sections, independent of each other … there are diseases in the body politic which become mortal before they are evident to cursory observation … in a Republic, the people alone, can save themselves …” (p. 538)

“… I repeat, Fellow Citizens, the union is in danger. But let not that danger be encreased by senseless outcry against those who believe in the utility of a separation. Let us not inflame old factions under new names.”  (p. 539)


His article would not be a screed against the South. Morris wasn’t looking to inflame hearts and cause hatred among the States. He wrote in a forthright fashion presenting his case for secession as a healing balm for irreparable differences. His purpose was to rally New Yorkers to unite and take their freedoms in hand. He believed in government encased in liberty through law. In this regard, he was no different than Jefferson. Both believed in secession as a political consequence and event to enable peace and prosperity for every State.

Years before he had learned to accept the different economies and cultures distinguishing North and South.         On July 13, 1787 during the debate on taxation and representation, Madison rose to say he always “conceived the difference of interest in the United States lay not between the large and small (States), but the Northern and Southern States …”

Within moments Morris stood up, a bit aghast. “A distinction (he said) had been set up and urged, between the Northern and Southern States. He had hitherto considered this doctrine heretical. He still thought the distinction groundless.” But Morris went on that if the distinction were kept, “the Southern Gentlemen will not be satisfied unless they see the way open to their gaining a majority in the public Councils. The consequence of such a transfer of power from the maritime to the interior and landed interest (would be) an oppression of commerce … either this distinction is fictitious or real; if fictitious let it be dismissed and let us proceed with due confidence. If it be real, instead of attempting to blend incompatible things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other.” (emphasis added) Gouverneur did not want to accept a Northern vs Southern dilemma haunting the Convention. He would prefer to end the Convention without a new compact than continue and build a compact among incompatibles.


Unfortunately, in 1812 he began with the misstatement that the North was forced by the South into accepting the Three Fifths Clause in the Constitution giving the Slave States greater representation than Morris thought they deserved. He elides passed the failures of his own Federalist Party under Adams and the success of Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans in the elections since 1801 across the country. This “greater representation” was the result of country-wide elections and while the Three Fifths clause had impact, it was not determinant. In 1800 the nation had gone voting and turned the Congress over to the Jeffersonians swinging 22 congressional seats their way. The Federalists kept the Senate but only until 1804 when they lost 10 seats and the majority. From then on Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans held the majority in both the House and the Senate. It would hold those majorities into the 1820’s.

Besides, it was an odd contention. Odd because the history of the Clause is beyond argument. The original decision to adopt the Three Fifths rule was in 1783 after being thoroughly vetted in Congress. Compromise came from all sides. Then in 1787 it was Wilson of Pennsylvania who proposed it to the Convention: “On June 11, 1787 Wilson proposed in the Federal Convention that the three-fifths ratio be adopted as ‘being the rule in the act of Congress agreed to by eleven States for apportioning quotas of revenue on the States’.” Further, it was accepted by such as Rufus King who would later in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention say “It was adopted because it was the language of all America”. That is, the 3/5 ratio was the accepted understanding of people throughout the States that a slave did 3/5 the work of a free man.  It was not a number jacked from the air. It was the consensus of the country. Foundations of the Constitution, by David Hutchison, University Books, Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975 pp. 36 – 37.

Some believe the Great Compromise of the 1787 Constitution involved argument over the 3/5 rule. “In reality the three-fifths rule was a mere incident in that part of the great compromise which declared that ‘representation ought to be proportioned according to direct Taxation.'”  The Congress under the Articles of Confederation had settled everything on April 18, 1783. The Framing of the Constitution of the United States, op. cit. at pp. 107-108.

Or is it odd? Morris was not writing a treatise on government. This was a political polemic. The Three-Fifths rule was a convenient contrivance. He needed somewhere to hang his hat so daily people would more easily comprehend him without inflaming Northern passions against the South. The Rule was a national understanding since the Articles of Confederation. Today it smacks of abolitionist miasma because Garrison made it so in the 1830’s. But that kind of hate was not for Morris. You cannot understand Gouverneur unless you accept he is not fostering war or asking for the annihilation of any part of the land. He wants a peaceful America. He just wants a different Union of the States or multiple Unions (Republics) of the States.

The question becomes what avenue did Morris support to resolve the cultural and economic conflicts America was enduring: an amendment limiting or enlarging powers in the Constitution? … the bloody froth of fratricidal war? … a deliberative path of secession? His answer was secession, a peaceful separation of the States – something New England leaders in particular wanted some 20 years before.


Morris attacks only the war’s ruination of northern commerce. He admits the decision to go to war against Britain this second time was a national one, as much a decision of the North as of the South. “… the national administration was supported in the course it has pursued, almost as much by representatives from the north as by those from the south. Candor, therefore, forbids the belief that a spirit hostile to this section of the union (the North) has dictated their measures.” (p. 541) He wants no war among the States.

He berates those advocates of war who claim “no good purpose can be answered by looking back to a course which, whatever it may have been, is now concluded. That whatever may have been the motives, and whatever may be the opinions about them, it is not the less certain that war exists, and existing must be prosecuted with spirit. This, they say, is required not only by the national compact, but by national honor; and he who will not cheerfully bear his part is no true citizen”. (p. 541, emphasis added)

There is the word ‘compact‘ by the penman of the Constitution, a prominent member of the New York Bar, directly assailing, negating, nullifying any idea that our Constitution is anything but a compact. Now any compact among States can only rest on State Sovereignty. No one can assail a State’s decision to enter or leave a compact. That decision can only come from the people of a State and their determination is inviolate. You need not read more to realize Morris believes secession is lawful when a State’s people vote themselves grievously harmed by the actions of the central government.

As to the present harm, Morris is adamant: “When criminal servants are called to account for wicked measures, it would be strange justification to say ‘You are too late. The business is done. You must not look back, but go forward and get through as well you can.’ That would be a strange justification to an offended people. And it seems equally strange that a declaration of war should be adduced as a sufficient reason for itself and for every step which led to it. War is one of the greatest national calamities, and not unfrequently terminates in destruction … neither can I admit that every man is bound to prosecute every war the rulers of his country may think proper to declare.” (p. 542, emphasis added)

Morris explicitly calls for resistance to the point of refusing to fight a war you believe is detrimental to your country. “All that can be saved of blood and treasure, in a contest big with ruin and void of hope, is a clear gain; and it must be an abuse of terms to call him a bad citizen (far less a traitor) who would prevent an useless effusion of blood and treasure of his country.” (p. 544) He is saying, we are not traitors to leave this national compact and save the lives and treasures we have created. This war is useless, ruinous and violates both our human dignity and stated purpose to create peace and wealth among us. Let’s gather ourselves and be about our commercial way of life.

What does he advocate first to remedy the harm? It’s August and he points to the coming Presidential election, October 30 – December 2. Be done with the Madison administration. “Remove the cause. Our differences have brought us to our present condition. Let us then unite. If we go on jangling …. it will afford no relief to reproach each other with having been the cause of our common misery. Let party-zealots begin at early morn and rail till late at night, they will be neither richer, freer, nor happier; they will acquire neither wisdom, virtue nor glory.” (p. 545) (emphasis in original) But can the country return to what it was before this war? If they return, what can they expect?

Morris says: “Permit me then to address each party in the same terms: ‘Gentlemen, I acknowledge you to be right. Being so in your own opinion you must be so in mine, because you have the perfect right to judge for yourselves. I acknowledge too that your adversaries are wrong: for that must be admitted, if you are right. But have, I pray, the charity to believe that although they judge ill, they mean well. Above all, consider that their strength is equal to yours, and that a state divided against itself cannot stand. Make then a virtue of necessity, if other virtue be wanting, and unite with them to save us all'” (p.545, emphasis added)

Morris is wondering aloud if humanity can ignore the divisive strains of political antagonisms based on culture and commercial enterprise? If the workings of a government inflicts severe harm on one section while emboldening another with greater wealth and strength, who can trust such a government?

Unlike Lincoln, Morris does not use the House Divided theme to single out and condemn one part of the country. His is a more rounded argument calling people to look sternly on their differences. He looks to what truly divides people: their societal norms, their culture, their way of creating wealth. Most important, their accepted uses of governmental power. For that is where the ultimate differences lie.


A central (general) government was still fairly new to Americans. There was no King nor trail of history over centuries to feed visions for the future. Gouverneur remembers when the American colonies stood up to the British government and became States. He acknowledges people say “all confidence should be reposed in the national government, because the whole community have but one interest, as respects foreign affairs”. But he argues, sensibly, that “there is no mistake more common than to decide on what men will do from what we suppose they ought to do, or what we believe them called on to do by their own interest.” (p. 547)

For government “is raised on three distinct propositions, not one of which can be relied on.” (emphasis added) One, that we know what is in the interest of the men in the government to do. Two, that we can presume they know what is in their interest to do. Three, that men who “know the interest of their community … will steadily and faithfully pursue it”. Ibid. Combined, these understandings are a catechism of human nature voters should carry in their pocket wherever they go.

Then Morris states the obvious: “Many are they who have made themselves rich and great by reducing their country to misery and ruin. If men were always virtuous and wise, politics would cease to be an intricate science. But history is much less the splendid picture of wisdom and virtue than the faithful record of folly and vice.” Ibid. That lesson Americans and all free peoples at one time or another forget or refuse to face. It is a hard lesson to learn. And worse to re-learn.


Nearly 30 years of union under a central government of their own making, the question became: can the States understand and trust eachother to go on together? Morris didn’t think so. Speaking of the Jeffersonians and their followers, “Not only the general mass, whose ignorance and presumption … lead to false notions of their own power and importance, but men of superior mind, men of considerable information …. maintain the same doctrine with the multitude. Hence it is evident that either they or we must be mistaken on what so materially concerns them.” (p. 547) He should have added ‘and us’.

He points to the country’s need for internal improvements to connect the nearby and faraway locations of the growing population. He looks for the financial institutions to be cultivated, the communities to be built. But these all have an essential requirement, “… the necessity of Peace …” (p.548) For now he worries the outbreak of further riots as in Baltimore, a possible alliance with France bringing foreign soldiers to our shores. There is no easy way to stop this conflagration. “… the same motives, be they what they may, which induced them (the Jeffersonians) to declare the war will induce them to persist in it now that it is declared. The less that precipitate measure can be reconciled to the principles of prudence, the greater cause we have to fear that it is the result of principles not under the control of political wisdom. We cannot from the nature of the case, know those principles; and from our ignorance arises our apprehension.” (Ibid.)

He ends with a subtle but clear call for secession, for New Yorkers to unite because “it is impossible to repose confidence in such a government. Confide then, fellow citizens, in yourselves! Unite! unite! and save yourselves.” (p.549) Despite his exclamation marks, it is not a strident call. He has berated no one with a demeaning morality. He placed responsibility for the war on the entire country, then argued the entire country must face those strains of societal differences making Northern and Southern interests so very, very different. They are not enemies. Neither is morally superior. But face to face … naturally estranged.

Some Complementary Reading:

1.        Documents relating to New-England Federalism, 1800 -1815, edited by Henry Adams, Little Brown and Company, 1877.  Nabu Public Domain Reprints, Breinigsville, PA, 2010

2.        To Secure the Blessings of Liberty, Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris, edited by J. Jackson Barlow, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2012

3.        The Framing of the Constitution of the United States and The Fathers of the Constitution, Max Farrand, The Library of American Freedoms, Palladium Press, Birmingham, Alabama, 2000

4.        Foundations of the Constitution, by David Hutchison, University Books, Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975

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