Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gouverneur Morris has some advice for modern Americans

Gouverneur Morris

Most Americans don't recognize the name, Gouverneur Morris. They should. Morris is often called the Penman of the Constitution. He took a jumbled mess from the Committee of Detail and crafted the eloquent Constitution we know today. As a preeminent Founder and Framer, he did more than wordsmith the Construction. Among other things, he spoke at the Constitutional Convention more than any other delegate (173 times).

He had a lot to say, and most of it remains relevant today.

Here is a snippet from James Madison’s convention notes dated Thursday, August 9, 1787:
Mr. GOVr. MORRIS. The lesson we are taught is that we should be governed as much by our reason, and as little by our feelings as possible. What is the language of Reason on this subject? That we should not be polite at the expence of prudence … as every Society from a great nation down to a club had the right of declaring the conditions on which new members should be admitted, there could be no room for complaint. As to those philosophical gentlemen, those Citizens of the World as they call themselves, He owned he did not wish to see any of them in our public Councils. He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own Country can never love any other. These attachments are the wholesome prejudices which uphold all Governments …”
In a few words, Morris cautioned against being governed by feelings, spoke against political correctness, agued that a nation had the right to determine who became citizens, and explained why he distrusted “Citizens of the World.”

The Constitution was the capstone of the Age of Reason. You might say we are now living in the Age of Feelings. No wonder today, many don’t believe the Framers have anything to teach us. We’re disconnected from our forefathers by more than time, we’re separated by philosophy.

Here are a few other Gouverneur Morris positions:
  • He was a strong proponent of separation of powers, with effective checks and balances. “[T]o minimize potential for corruption, power had to be divided between the president and the Senate. As the president was to nominate ... and as the Senate was to concur, there would be security.”
  • He was an ally of James Madison and fought against splintering the nation. Only Alexander Hamilton may have been a stronger nationalist.
  • He supported gun ownership. “Americans need never fear their government because of the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.”
  • He was an abolitionist, saying he would gladly pay taxes to free all Africans, and called slavery the “curse of heaven.”
  • Before the Bill of Rights, he fought for a Constitutional guarantee that anyone could practice their chosen religion without interference.

Interesting. Maybe the Framers do have a perspective on issues we consider modern. Many dismiss the Framers as old, dead, white, male slavers who possessed woefully outdated views. Morris was thirty-five years old at the convention, and an abolitionist his whole life. Maybe we should give him a listen.

Gouverneur Morris was a patriot, who contributed substance as well as style to our Constitution. Near death, he wrote, “You may, then, opening your mind’s eye, behold your friend as he descends, with tottering steps, the bottom of life’s hill … looking back, I can with some little self-complacency, reflect that I have not lived in vain.”

No, he did not. We should remember him every time we read, We the People …

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