Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 738

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 738

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This is the grave of Gouverneur Morris.

Born in 1752 on an estate in what is today The Bronx, Morris grew up as part of the late colonial elite. His father was a major landowner and a judge. He started at King’s College (now Columbia University) at age 12 and graduated in 1768. He then received his law degree in 1771 and passed the bar in 1775. Morris’ family was rich and like many Americans was deeply divided over the question of independence. His brother was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, his mother was a loyalist who actually gave the family estate to the British military to use during the occupation of New York.

Although still in his early 20s, Morris was named to the New York Provincial Congress and then the New York State Assembly after the Declaration of Independence. He then went to the Continental Congress in 1778. There, he became the prime advocate for Congress actually funding the Continental Army instead of letting the states flail away. He came to this position after visiting the disastrous encampment at Valley Forge, where he was horrified to see the deplorable conditions of soldiers. For this position, he lost his reelection bid. Don’t underestimate just how unprepared Americans were ideologically for independence. The fears of a centralized state were strong enough in New York that even advocating for a functional military in the middle of a revolution was enough to tank a promising political career.

In the aftermath of his loss, Morris left New York and went to Philadelphia to practice law. Soon after, he was in a carriage accident and had a leg amputated below the knee. But he was a skilled man. Recovering from the grievous injury, he became Robert Morris’ right-hand man in trying to run the pathetic finances of the government during the Revolution. In 1787, Morris was named as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he was close to George Washington and an advocate for a stronger central government. He was on the committee that drafted the document and personally played a major role in its language. He gave a whopping 173 speeches during the Convention, which was more than any one delegate.

Many anti-central government people thought of Morris as an aristocrat who wanted to recreate a British government in the U.S. I don’t think is accurate; he just wanted a functional government, though he certainly was no populist. He was opposed to allowing new states in the West be equal states to the previously established states on the principle that real enlightened leaders could not come from the backwoods. Morris also spoke strongly against slavery in the Constitutional Convention, one of the only delegates to come out against slavery publicly. James Madison, who was quite probably the most committed Founder to slavery, wrote with frustration in his diary that remains the major source of information about what happened daily during the Convention, about Morris’ intransigence on this issue.

In 1789, Morris left the U.S. to do business in France on some venture with his fellow Founder but not relation Robert Morris. In 1790, Washington sent him to London to try and work out some of the issues between the two nations, but Morris was a terrible diplomat and it was a total failure; John Jay would clean up the damage with the Jay Treaty. He was still there in 1792 when Washington named him minister plenipotentiary to the nation. He remained there during the height of the Jacobin Terror, commenting with much disdain on what he saw there in his diaries. Once, he claimed that he was surrounded by a mob who wanted to hang him, so he pulled off his wooden leg and claimed he lost it fighting for American liberty, which convinced the mob not to kill him. When Morris was pretty indifferent to the fate of Thomas Paine, imprisoned by the French, Washington replaced him in 1794 with James Monroe, who secured the writer’s release. But Morris stayed in Europe until 1798.

A strong Federalist, in 1800, Morris was named by New York to the Senate after James Watson resigned. He served the last three years of that term, but was defeated for reelection in 1802. In the aftermath, he was basically a senior rich man of the Early Republic, a member of the Society of the Cincinnati and chairman of the Erie Canal Commission from its founding in 1810 until 1813, planning how to make this happen. He was also one of the three person commission who laid out Manhattan’s street grid in 1811. As someone who has to drive around Boston and Providence, let me just thank him for this act. He was also a rich guy who owned a ton of land in upstate New York. He finally married late in life after many decades of womanizing, which he wrote about in depth in his diaries. He also strenuously opposed the War of 1812, like any good Federalist.

Now, we need to talk about how Morris died. In 1816, he was having urinary tract problems. It must have been pretty bad, because he shoved a piece of whalebone up his own penis in order to clear out whatever blockage he had. He managed to cause himself such internal injuries through this action that he died. This may in fact be the worst death I have ever chronicled in this series. He was 64 years old.

Gouverneur Morris is buried at St. Ann’s Church, Bronx, New York.

I do realize that this picture is especially bad, even by my already poor standards, but what you have to understand here is that a) it’s right behind that fence and there’s way to get between the fence and the grave and b) I was parked awfully near a fire hydrant on a Bronx street (you try to find a parking spot!) and I figured the chances the cops nailed me between the time I got to the church and back was at least 50% so I wasn’t taking any chances. Managed to end up on the right side of that 50% too.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Thanks! I know the whalebone story is worth the money for all of you! If you would like this series to visit other Founding Fathers (a detestable term that I just learned was coined by Warren Harding of all damn people at his Republican National Convention speech in 1916), you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Jay is in Rye, New York and Peyton Randolph is in Williamsburg, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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