The Confessions of Gouverneur Morris

An interview with Melanie Randolph Miller

HUMANITIES, Spring 2019, Volume 40, Number 2

You know Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison, but what about Gouverneur Morris? A lawyer from a landowning New York family, Morris (1752–1816) embraced the cause of independence and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. As U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792 to 1794, he witnessed some of the bloodiest episodes of the French Revolution. Lucky for us, Morris kept a diary—sometimes terse, sometimes deliciously gossipy, but always opinionated. The Diaries of Gouverneur Morris, published as two volumes covering the years 1794 to 1798 and 1799 to 1815, chronicle the last two decades of his life, which included a four-year tour through war-torn Europe, battles with the Democratic-Republicans, and work as chair of the Erie Canal Commission. Meredith Hindley of HUMANITIES talks with historian Melanie Randolph Miller, who served as editor for both volumes, about Morris and editing his diaries for publication. Miller is also the author of Envoy to the Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution and An Incautious Man: The Life of Gouverneur Morris.

MEREDITH HINDLEY: How would you describe Morris?

MELANIE RANDOLPH MILLER: As a national treasure. Morris wrote the entire Preamble to the Constitution—including the celebrated phrase “We the People of the United States”—and drafted the final version of the Constitution, using the powerful and succinct prose that was one of his great gifts. He was an extraordinary orator, and his speeches at the Convention and in the Senate are well worth reading. He had a strong sense of civic duty, reflected in the work he did in the Continental Congress and for the war effort, his contributions to the Constitution, his time as minister to France during the Terror, and his service in the Senate. He chaired the commission that designed the Manhattan street grid and headed the Erie Canal Commission (Morris was the true “father” of the canal, contrary to the view of many historians). There is a lot to like about Morris: He was humane, he was a soft touch, he was fair, and, particularly appealing, he could be very funny and could ridicule himself.

HINDLEY: How would Morris describe himself?

MILLER: “I am not a cautious man,” Morris once wrote. He knew he spoke too freely, particularly on political matters, because “Zeal always gets the better of Prudence.” He had strong convictions and knew his talents, but noted that “Every Day of my Life gives me Reason to question my own Infallibility.” He was an aesthete who loved to socialize and believed in enjoying life—“To enjoy is to obey [God].” He viewed people differently than Jefferson did—“I think he does not form very just Estimates of Character but rather assigns too many to the humble Rank of Fools, whereas in Life the Gradations are infinite and each Individual has his peculiarities of Fort and Feeble.” He rejected the label of “aristocrat,” an aspersion directed at him during the Constitutional Convention when he argued that the only way to prevent the wealthy from forming an oligarchy was to put them in the Senate, balanced against the House. Morris did not want to serve in Congress after he returned from Europe in 1799, agreeing only when Hamilton pressured him, for he had decided long before that he would “never seek elected office and would accept of none but with a view to the public service.”

HINDLEY: Morris is one of the Founding Fathers who doesn’t get much attention. Why is that?

MILLER: His exuberance and outspokenness were always offensive to some. His excoriation of slavery was one of the most eloquent speeches at the Constitutional Convention and made him no friends in the South. His dire (and accurate) predictions about the course of the French Revolution were not popular in France or in America. During his time in France, Morris was the object of clandestine attacks by people like Thomas Paine and Jefferson’s secretary William Short (who dearly wanted the position of minister himself), and others who saw him as an obstacle to profiteering from the American Revolution. Even Hamilton denigrated him—falsely—to Washington, in a sorry episode, when Morris’s reports about Britain’s intentions conflicted with Hamilton’s foreign policy goals. All of these attacks were circulated and prejudiced many against him, and some are still repeated by historians.

There are significant exceptions: Washington always liked and respected him, and Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote a biography of Morris, said he represented “better than any other man the clear-headed, practical statesman, who is genuinely devoted to the cause of constitutional freedom.”

In addition, Morris was a Federalist and thus in the dwindling minority after Jefferson’s election. He bitterly opposed the War of 1812, which he considered the height of idiocy, and that, too, did not make him popular then or now.

Etching of Gouverneur Morris showing his peg leg
Photo caption

Morris was twenty-eight when his left leg was amputated below the knee after his ankle was crushed under the wheels of a phaeton.


HINDLEY: Morris was an avid diary keeper. How did he use his diary? What kind of information can historians glean from it?

MILLER: Morris began keeping a diary soon after arriving in Paris in 1789, perhaps because he was lonely. He did not intend the diaries to be seen by anyone else, and he wrote without pretense. Diplomatic historians and French Revolution scholars can mine his detailed entries about the people he met, many of them principal actors in the revolution, their conversations, and his own views on the drama unfolding in France. After he left France, he described his time in European courts and his efforts to obtain the release of Lafayette, who was in an Austrian prison. Finally, his diaries from 1799 to 1816, written back in the U.S., have entries concerning his time in Washington during the disputed election of 1800, the Louisiana Purchase, the development and settlement of New York State, the War of 1812, and many other important events and issues.

HINDLEY: One of the most poignant entries is Morris describing sitting with Alexander Hamilton as he died from the wound he received in the duel with Aaron Burr. What was their relationship?

MILLER: I am always surprised at the short shrift that biographers of Hamilton give to Morris. They had known each other since the American Revolution, as their work for Washington brought them together. They corresponded regularly and visited each other in New York.

As Hamilton lay dying, his wife called Morris into her room and, weeping, “told him he was the best friend her husband had, begged him to join her in prayers for her own death, & then to be a father for her children.” Morris was devastated by Hamilton’s death and broke down while delivering the eulogy a few days later. However, he was clear-eyed about Hamilton’s foibles, and there are some wonderful passages in the diaries describing how he agonized over what to say at the funeral (e.g.: “He was on Principle opposed to republican and attached to monarchical Government”; “He was in Principle opposed to Duelling, but he has fallen in a Duel”).

Morris refused to use the podium to whip up popular fury against Burr because he abhorred mob violence and he knew Hamilton shared responsibility for the tragedy. He organized a fund to support Hamilton’s family and pay his debts, and undertook the difficult and depressing task of reviewing and organizing all of Hamilton’s papers.

HINDLEY: Like Hamilton, Morris also had a reputation as a ladies’ man. What made him so appealing?

MILLER: Morris was always well known for enjoying female society. What is unusual is the respect he expressed for them, particularly for many of the women he met in Europe. He had serious conversations with them, and in his diary he gave them full credit as wits and political thinkers. It did not hurt that Morris was handsome and had an imposing figure (“few men ever equaled his commanding bearing,” said a friend). The loss of his left leg at the age of twenty-eight did not detract from his charm.

HINDLEY: The second volume that you edited, which covers his diaries from 1799 to 1816, finds him meeting his wife, Ann Cary Randolph, in 1809, and getting married. Who was she?

MILLER: Ann was a member of the Randolph clan of Virginia. Her life had been blighted when she was eighteen by a scandal arising from an alleged pregnancy by her brother-in-law and a subsequent infanticide, and she was afterwards largely cast out of Virginia society. She was about thirty-five and nearly penniless when she met Morris, and her plight clearly moved him. He hired her as a housekeeper, then married her.

Unfortunately—tragically—she had long before made an enemy of her cousin, the gifted but unstable John Randolph of Roanoke. In 1814, Randolph circulated allegations in New York that Ann had poisoned visitors to Morrisania (Morris’s home in the Bronx), that her son with Morris was by someone else, and more. Our research for this volume gave new insight into this infamous episode. We realized, for example, that the passionate rebuttal to Randolph’s allegations, signed by Ann and reprinted in books about her, was undoubtedly almost entirely drafted by Morris. We also saw evidence of the pain inflicted by Randolph’s vicious attack—most of Morris’s relatives and many of his friends ostracized them. Morrisania, formerly a place of lively society, which Morris loved, was shunned.

HINDLEY: What is involved with editing a diary like Morris’s for publication?

MILLER: First, of course, was getting a grant! Next, we obtained images of the diaries. Many editorial decisions were necessary: Morris capitalized nouns, for example, so we reproduced this, though some editors prefer to modernize text. Transcribing and proofreading followed, and then annotation. The result is far more accurate and complete than earlier editions of his papers, which contain significant errors and omissions. Publication can be print and/or digital—documentary editing these days increasingly utilizes the vast new possibilities of digital publication, which facilitates research, with links to cross-references, thorough searches of texts, data correlation, etc.

HINDLEY: Every historian’s nightmare is bad handwriting that can’t be deciphered. How legible is Morris’s handwriting?

MILLER: Morris’s handwriting was generally excellent. However, this brings up an interesting issue, namely, the blotted-out lines that appear in the Paris diaries, nearly always in the context of sex (we do not know if Morris or Ann was responsible for the redactions). The Library of Congress tried to recover the hidden text using hyperspectral imaging, with only limited success, but it did help us get the gist of some of the obliterated passages.

HINDLEY: The volumes you edited come with extensive footnotes to help the reader. How do you decide what to include?

MILLER: The extent of annotation in a documentary edition depends on the philosophy of the editors in charge. While some believe in virtually none, I disagree. I began studying Morris by reading The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, which are superbly annotated, and learned a great deal about the period, the issues, and the people, so that I could understand the significance of each document. We have done our best to emulate this, to make the diaries useful to researchers and meaningful to the general reader, particularly when, as was often the case in the 1799–1816 diary years, the entries were brief. The introduction to each volume provides an overview to further assist in under-standing Morris’s life in the years covered.

HINDLEY: What kinds of sources were valuable for deciphering who and what he was writing about?

MILLER: An extremely wide range, including state archives, biographical dictionaries, the Annals of Congress, the papers of the other Founding Fathers, and nineteenth-century local histories of New York towns and counties. Websites like’s Find a Grave site were also useful.

HINDLEY: What do you wish Morris would have commented on? What are you still dying to know?

MILLER: There is so much we would dearly love to know more about, including Morris’s role in schemes to help the French royal family escape prison in 1792 and 1793. We’d also like to uncover all the blotted text and to recover a few pages that were torn from the diaries. Perhaps what I regret the most is that Morris rarely confided in the 1799–1816 diaries as he had in Europe. His return to America began another remarkable chapter in his extraordinary life; if only we could eavesdrop on the conversations he had with himself in those final 16 years.