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Gouverneur MorrisAn Independent Life$

William Howard Adams

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300099805

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300099805.001.0001

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Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

(p.41) Chapter 3 Things Fall Apart
Gouverneur Morris

William Howard Adams

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains how Morris, the cautious loyalist, emerged as an unflinching patriot in the republican cause. If there was a single emotion driving him and defining his transformation into a supporter of independence, it was his rising contempt for what he considered the tyranny of the British ministry and its representatives. While insisting it was not in open rebellion, in fact, the new congress Morris joined assumed the full governing power and authority of New York's old Provincial Assembly. All the former colonies except for Maryland and Pennsylvania were under the extralegal direction of the Continental Congress working through the independent provincial conventions and congresses. Morris's position in the New York Congress put him in regular contact with Hamilton who was coordinating the state's troops with Washington's Continental Army.

Keywords:   Morris, republican cause, British ministry, New York, Provinicial Assembly, Continental Congress, Continental Army

AFTER the final meeting of the Moot in early January 1775, events in New York moved inexorably to a climax. Only rhetoric and pious illusions now held the colonies and empire together. But given the peculiar mixture of New York politics, where the establishment had usually managed to accommodate the exuberance of the radicals—visionaries and troublemakers alike—Morris still could not believe that a complete break with Britain was inevitable. The dilemma he and his well-connected friends—“sensible and disinterested men”—wrestled with was how to remain a part of the empire on terms that would pacify Parliament yet not alienate those pushing “the extravagant notion of independence.” Throughout 1775, as he regularly repeated, his effort was an attempt to “seek for reunion with the parent state” while heading off militant confrontation. Armed resistance would prove fatal to both sides.1

No romantic dreamer and believing that “government should be founded on stationary not revolutionary principle,” Morris, the cautious loyalist, finally emerged as an unflinching patriot in the republican cause. If there was a single emotion driving him and defining his transformation into a supporter of independence, it was his rising contempt for what he considered the tyranny of the British ministry and its representatives. This feeling, shared by many New York patricians, had surfaced more than once in his family's restive history under the crown. As he wrote in his account of the origins of the war, a free people simply could not tolerate “arbitrary edicts of the prince.” Even more humiliating and intolerable was to “be bound by the more arbitrary edicts of our fellow subjects” living in Britain.2

(p.42) When, on April 23, 1775, the news reached New York that the king's troops had opened fire on the citizens of Lexington and Concord on April 19, “tales of all Kinds invented, believed, denied, discredited,” swept through a tense city. Six days later “the most active Citizens,” led by Isaac Sears and John Lamb, cleaned out the town's arsenal and took over the Custom House, leaving, in William Smith's words, “consternation in the faces of the Principal Inhabitants.”

Morris remained slightly to one side when a public rally of an estimated eight thousand authorized the city's Committee of Sixty to act “with full & unlimited Power to consult upon and determine &c direct the means” to protect the city and to enforce “whatever measures may be recommended by the Continental Association.” A revolutionary government of the city was suddenly created by acclamation. An oath of the Association of Defense was adopted to be sworn to by every citizen “that we will, in all things, follow the advice of our General Committee respecting the … preservation of peace and good order, and the safety of individuals and private property.” The militant tone of the oath, resolving “never to become slaves,” seemed to assure that there would be no compromise as some of the radical leadership had charged. Three days after the rally, the committee took another crucial step and called for the election of a provincial congress. The new congress would, in turn, elect delegates to Philadelphia to join representatives from the other colonies at the second Continental Congress.3

For several weeks following the news from Boston, Morris continued to monitor the growing signs of anarchy in the city, the self-appointed patriots roaming the town's streets looking for Tory victims. In the middle of this uproar, the Committee of Sixty, enlarged to a committee of one hundred, including men of “weight and consequence,” shrewdly strengthened its moderate position when it forced some suspected Tories to take an oath supporting the patriotic cause.

Both the president of King's College, Dr. Cooper, and the printer James Rivington, a Tory sympathizer, were appealing targets of the popular crowds in the streets and taverns. Not only was Rivington the publisher of a conservative newspaper, he was also in the pay of the government with an annual salary as king's printer. Cooper also received a ministerial honorarium for his loyal “merits and services” to the crown. With the help of a student, Cooper, the “obnoxious Tory,” managed to flee the mob. The student, a pale, thin sixteen-year-old Creole immigrant named Alexander Hamilton had arrived in New York from the West Indies the year before nearly penniless. Standing on the stoop of the college, he lectured the throng on “the disgrace it would bring on the cause of liberty,” buying just enough time for Cooper to escape. Morris had first heard of Hamilton in winter 1774–75 when he defended the work of the Continental Congress in an open letter called “A Full Vindication of the (p.43) Pleasures of Congress, &c.,” published in Rivington's Gazetteer. Buried in Hamilton's avalanche of words was the kernel of the imperial dispute. “It is this,” the new man in town declared, “whether we shall preserve that security to our lives, which the law of nature, the genius of the British constitution, and our charters afford us, or whether we shall resign them into the hands of the British House of Commons, which is no more privileged to dispose of them than the Grand Mogul?”4

After routing President Cooper, the mob then turned to Rivington who had notoriously carried on a press war with the Sons of Liberty in his paper. While claiming to keep a free and open press, as he had demonstrated by publishing Hamilton's reply to a Tory pamphlet, his often intemperate attacks on the “Modern Whigs”—supporters of “licentiousness, insurrection and rebellion,”—had grown throughout the agitated spring of 1775. Warming to his attack, Rivington declared the sacred Liberty Pole on the commons where the Sons of Liberty held their rallies to be the very emblem of immorality.5

Morris was no friend of Rivington, dismissing him as “indifferently wise,” but he was indignant on principle that he had been driven from his house and been threatened and intimidated when he tried to operate his press. Even though Rivington had signed an oath pledging his “sacred honor … in defense of the rights and liberties of America” and had published a broadside promising to avoid irritating the people of the city, to Morris the continuing attacks on the editor were public “madness” that posed a threat to the community and could trigger greater violence.

Whatever the provocation for these reckless acts of “popular vengeance,” Morris held to his conviction that liberty could only be achieved through an established order of things. He believed that the efforts of the individual colonies must be united and that an “implicit obedience ought to be paid to every recommendation of the Continental Congress.” By tying independence to the balancing act of the Congress in Philadelphia, attempting to work out a compromise short of open war, the strategy could be undone by the impulsive crowds enforcing their own notions of law and justice. Besides, a free press—even a prejudiced one like Rivington's—as the price of liberty; the festering issue recalled Morris's grandfather's defense of the printer John Paul Zenger.6

Convinced that Rivington was “a sincere penitent,” Morris discreetly wrote General Charles Lee, a soldier of fortune now in Philadelphia and aligned with the revolutionary element, urging him to use his influence to head off any further retribution by the Continental Congress, which might be persuaded to pass “mischievous Resolutions against this unfortunate Printer.” New York City's request to the Continental Congress that it censure Rivington made Morris uncomfortable on another ground: allowing Congress to exercise judicial power along with its legislative authority would set a dangerous precedent. “It is the giving a new Power to the Congress our Association (p.44) hath given them the legislative,” he told Richard Henry Lee, the revolutionary Virginia delegate in the Congress, “and this now tenders them the judicial Supremacy” Rivington should be let off: “A mild and favorable Sentence will conciliate the Opinions of Mankind.”7

To Morris, it was not simply a constitutional ideal to be ignored in times of crisis but a dangerous precedent for later and more serious abuses. “The power of government, as of man,” he argued in defense of the printer, “is to be collected from small instances; great affairs are more the object of reflection and policy. Here both join.” This was the solid liberal Whig philosophy he had learned from William Smith. William Livingston had underlined it in the Independent Reflector, arguing that government must be “divided into separate Branches, for a check on each other…. Such is the restless and aspiring Nature of the human Mind, that a Man entrusted with Power, seldom contents himself with his due Proportion” and must be restrained.8

Morris's private efforts saved Rivington, and he was allowed “to return to his house and family” with the assurance (no doubt drafted by Morris) “not to molest him in his person or property.” When a New Haven mob later invaded New York, demolished Rivington's press, and carried off his type, the words of protest that the New York Congress fired off to the Connecticut governor has the unmistakable ring of Morris: “We are fully sensible of his [Rivington's] demerits; but we earnestly wish that the glory of the present contest for liberty may not be sullied by an attempt to restrain the Freedom of the Press.”9

So far, Morris believed that any sign of overt opposition might throw the city into the hands of firebrands calling for complete independence. There were also sinister pockets of Toryism capable of causing serious mischief. Robert Livingston confessed to John Jay that he dreaded “division among ourselves infinitely more than the power of Great Britain.” Faced with open rebellion, Morris shared with Livingston and Jay “the necessity of a serious regard to the affairs of our province.” He agreed with Jay's favorite maxim that in such a crisis, “those who own the country ought to govern it.” The crowd might “roar out” words like liberty, property, and religion, but the gentry “controlled the dictionary of the day, and like the mysteries of ancient mythology, it was not for profane eyes and ears.”10

On May 8, 1775, fifteen days after the city's arsenal had been raided, alarmed freeholders of Westchester met in White Plains to elect delegates to the proposed Provincial Congress. Morris's middle-aged half-brother Lewis pulled himself out of his congenial role of lord of the manor and assumed the leadership of the Westchester Patriots. Some thought he was finally roused from his prosaic, foreordained existence because he had not been properly rewarded with public office by the crown.

The county leaned to the loyalist side led by Isaac Wilkins, an obstinate Tory and brother-in-law of the Morrises. Denouncing the patriot leadership (p.45) as “void of common sense,” Wilkins loudly proclaimed his hostility to these “illegal and disorderly … Committees, Associations and Congresses” in which the Morris brothers were now conspicuous. When Wilkins was out maneuvered and routed, Gouverneur, Lewis, and their followers celebrated their victory as they pranced their horses around the village green. Gouverneur was elected a delegate to New York's first Provincial Congress, and Lewis, the last lord of the Manor of Morrisania, was elected a delegate to the crucial Second Continental Congress where he would sign the Declaration of Independence.

Whatever their motives leading to the political skirmish in White Plains, both Lewis and Gouverneur harbored a strong emotional scorn for any threat of autocratic despotism coming from the mob in the street or from a remote government in London. Like their contentious grandfather, they wanted to govern themselves with the help of those of their neighbors who agreed with them. In retrospect, their slow evolution into revolutionaries reveals few signs of any emotion susceptible of analysis and was well under way before the encounters at Concord and Lexington or the White Plains elections. There is no single pronouncement suggesting that in their pragmatic act they realized they had stepped over the line into possibly fatal armed resistance.11

While insisting it was not in open rebellion, in fact, the new congress Morris joined assumed the full governing power and authority of New York's old Provincial Assembly. From Morris's perspective and understanding, he and the delegates were not acting outside the law in defense of it; rather, they believed their actions to be their God-given rights as Englishmen. These rights were no different, as John Jay declared in the First Continental Congress, whether a subject “live three thousand miles from the royal palace” or three hundred. It was the king who was the outlaw and the outrageous policies of Parliament that abused the law and the constitution, not the colonists. A provision strongly supported by Morris placed the political destiny of the colony in the hands of the Congress in Philadelphia with a declaration of intent to take up arms “to adopt and endeavor to carry into execution whatever measures may be recommended by the Continental Congress, or resolved upon our Provincial Convention, opposing the execution of the several arbitrary and oppressive Acts.”12

No family expressed more painfully than the Morrises the bitter divisiveness of political warfare on the eve of the Revolution. By every outward sign of privilege, position, and family tradition, Morris's family appeared to represent the quintessential colonial clan of property with far more to lose than to gain by opposing the constituted authority of the crown. The awkward display of family tensions at the White Plains Court House election brought the feud to the surface when Wilkins tried to block Lewis Morris's selection as delegate to Philadelphia. Gouverneur's mother remained a disconsolate Tory, staying behind the British lines in occupied New York City. After Wilkins fled to (p.46) England, Sarah Morris rescued her daughter Isabella Wilkins and her children who had been driven from their home. Throughout the war, the loyalty of Gouverneur's mother to the crown was used by his political enemies to challenge his loyalty to the Revolution.

Five days after Morris joined, the upstart Provincial Congress of New York met on May 22 in the Royal Assembly's handsome chamber in city hall, with the British man-of-war Asia, bristling with sixty-four guns, anchored in the East River near Nutten (now Governor's) Island. The battleship was carrying orders to evacuate the Royal Irish regiment, the last contingent of troops stationed in Manhattan. More incendiary was the rumor that the token garrison numbering 107 soldiers would be shipped north to join General Thomas Gage's army at Boston, which was attempting to put down the insurrection in that city. This handful of troop kept to barrack for their own protection and was no threat to the colony, but it did pose a tempting excuse for troublemakers to provoke a confrontation.

Morris had an intuitive sense of the delicate strategy of the Continental Congress even if he might not have had all the details. Just as he had seen the dangers of mob action against loyalists, he immediately saw the threat of open clashes in the streets when the garrison was moved in rank to the waiting ship on June 6. If there was even a remote possibility that negotiations in the Continental Congress might prevent civil war, the Irish contingent must be gotten out of town without incident. At Morris's urging, the Provincial Congress took preemptive action to head off any street trouble, publishing orders that the people were “not to obstruct the embarkation of said troops, but permit them to depart this City peaceably.”

An impatient John Adams called the tense days of June “a strange Oscillation between love and hatred, between War and Peace.” Pushed by Philadelphia, New York was already taking steps to strengthen its defenses, removing the cannon and stores from the British forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga, which had fallen that spring to Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys. The newly assembled Second Continental Congress rushed more warnings to the city to step up defense preparations. Fortifications and gun batteries around the approaches to Manhattan Island were quickly put in place. Consistent with Morris's cautious stance, Jay warned that in removing “Military Stores” in these defensive preparations, care was to be taken not to touch crown property. He also ordered an inventory to be made of any captured armament so they could be “safely returned when the restoration of the former harmony between great Britain and these colonies so ardently wished for by the latter shall render it prudent and consistent with the overwhelming law of self preservation.”

On the same day that Morris and the New York Congress were warning citizens not to interfere with the departing British troops, the Continental (p.47) Congress reluctantly expressed its readiness to make one last attempt to negotiate with Parliament. While John Adams grumbled that such “Puerilities become not a great assembly like this the Representative of a great People,” John Jay was appointed to the committee he had promoted to draft a last-ditch plea to the king, mostly the work of John Dickinson. Later known as the Olive Branch Petition, it expressed the colonies' willingness to find a way to resolve the issues in dispute. Morris, like Jay, still believed that reconciliation was possible. To British eyes, however, the insurgent capture of Ticonderoga and the defensive activities in and around New York undercut any professions of peaceful reconciliation coming from Philadelphia.13

On the morning of June 6, Morris knew that the crowns troops, with their arms and equipment, were ready to leave their barrack and move to the man-of-war waiting in the harbor. He was at the corner of Broad Street and Beaver when Marinus Willett, a zealous partisan decided to challenge the crown's military authority single-handedly by grabbing the reins of the lead horse and bringing the train to an abrupt halt. In the confusion, a crowd gathered, forcing all the loaded carts out of the line. Just as Willett started to address the commanding officer, “Mr. Gouverneur Morris suddenly made his appearance,” interrupting Willett's patriotic harangue and insisting on the authority of the Provincial Congress, to allow the baggage carts to proceed. “To be opposed by Mr. Morris stagard me,” Willett recalled. A deferential man of the people and member of the Sons of Liberty, Willett was clearly intimidated by the imposing, fastidiously dressed young lawyer speaking with the authority of the Provincial Congress. “He was a Whig of very respectable Connections,” an awed Willett remembered, “and tho young of Brilliant talents…. I doubt whether all my Zeal and Enthusiasm would have supported me had it not been for the arrival at that Critical moment by John Morin Scott.”

Silenced by Morris's unexpected appearance, Willett was ready to cave in to the tall patrician when he heard Scott's loud voice in the crowd exclaim, “You are right Willett, the committee have not given them permission to carry off spare arms.” Speaking as a member of the committee, which had assumed the powers of government in the city, Scott had become a ready leader of the popular, antigovernment faction in the Provincial Congress. On Scott's cue, Willett suddenly turned the head of the lead horse out of the line, ordering the others to follow while the Irish recruits began to move toward the harbor where they “embarked under the Hiffes of the citizens.” Willett jumped on to one of the stalled carts and urged the bewildered soldiers to give up their “unnatural work of sheding the blood of their Countrymen.” A few defected, to the cheers of the crowd. Morris saw that it was hopeless to attempt to settle the matter by himself, but four days later after tensions cooled he lost no time in reversing the crowd's action by moving “that the Arms and military Accouterments taken from His Majesty's Troop on Tuesday last, be restored.” The (p.48) Provincial Congress upheld Morris's resolution and its own untested authority by a vote of nineteen to four.14

To Morris, the protocol of friendly relations with both the civil and military agents of the English government had to be maintained at all cost, buying time while defensive plans were thrown together to “repel force with force,” if pushed to it. Confronting Willett and the crowd in the street, his hopes of reconciliation were seriously challenged. Looking back with hindsight four years later, Morris decided that his and the Congress's defensive posture had been wrong and more aggressive action should have been taken after the battle at Bunker Hill. “Congress,” he concluded in 1779, “at this time wore very much the appearance of pusillanimity.”15

Morris's careful style in summer 1775 reflected that of the majority of the members of the Provincial Congress, an unsure body of hastily chosen, nervous delegates. Although lawyers and city merchants, whose combative rhetoric with Parliament had shifted from trade reforms to political rights were conspicuous, for the most part it was a colorless lot with little experience in the rudiments of statecraft. Of the 119 members, 19 would later move over to the loyalist side. Yet within the first few days, this irregular body without legal authority and representing every factional shade had somehow managed to convince the crown's representative, Lieutenant Governor Colden, to warn London that “the legal authority of Government is now superseded in this Place.” Congress was “acting with all the confidence and authority of a legal government,” ready to defend itself. Colden understood the message sent by the Provincial Congress when it adopted the Continental Congress's Declaration of Association with Morris's strong support, binding those who signed it to the decisions made in Philadelphia. It also proclaimed that any armed loyalist would be held as “an enemy of the Country.” But to make sure that all bridges to conciliation were not burned—or was it just buying time to prepare for war?—a committee of the Provincial Congress was quickly named to draw up a plan for the Continental Congress to somehow close the breach with Parliament. Morris was made a member. Even before the Continental Congress had moved on the Olive Branch Petition, Morris had been working with his brother Lewis on a peace plan and as a diplomatic gesture had asked William Smith to send him his thoughts “on the Great Subject.”16

From the first day of the Provincial Congress, Morris had matter-of-factly joined in the perilous, even treasonable, act of replacing the royal authority with an unprecedented experiment in self-government. It would build on the practical experience of self-government that had grown steadily in the colony over the past two decades. Any claim to being representative did not bear close scrutiny, given the emotional, irregular selection of delegates in the badly divided colony. Yet to its members, the atmosphere in this admittedly illegal laboratory was familiar, self-reliant, and temperamentally republican. Although (p.49) much was confusing, unpredictable, and faintly bizarre at the time, it is clear that Morris, like many of his friends, was being subtly transformed from a British subject into a citizen of a new country that had not yet defined itself or the precise terms of its loyalty. In Morris's case, the lack of a single declaration or defining act makes it impossible to identify a moment of epiphany.

Unlike the introspective Peter Van Schaack, moaning that his mind was “distressed with the gloomy prospects” of his country, Morris's spirit seemed to soar when confronting the puzzling new obstacles. Personal reservations and family considerations were pushed into the background. For Morris, the prospects of revolutionary change offered an opportunity that was hard to resist by someone who thrived on the ingenious idealism of the inexperienced. At the time, John Jay grumbled that he had a “volatile” political streak in his character.

As the Provincial Congress struggled to build the machinery of government during its opening weeks, Morris's instinctive talent for public debate became evident: he spoke clearly and confidently on his feet. He had little competition from the other delegates who lacked his natural ability. “Gouv Morris cuts a figure … a very fine young fellow,” an impressed Richard Montgomery, a dashing, fearless delegate from Dutchess County reported. Morris's steady gaze was focused on the immediate problems facing the unprecedented venture. Without fully realizing it, he was moving toward a turning point in his life, toward the beckoning, audacious career of a committed revolutionary patriot with an unknown future. Although he carefully avoided any appearance of equivocation as his optimism for conciliation slowly faded, the abrupt, unexpected changes of course in the roiling current carried him deeper and deeper into the patriotic cause.

The need for funds to operate the government was the first serious order of business of the Provincial Congress. On May 26, Morris was named to the committee to determine whether or how the Continental Congress should issue paper currency. He already had a reputation for a grasp of arcane financial problems. While he was clerking in William Smith's office, his persuasive argument against the colony's proposed financing by issuing bills of credit to pay for the French and Indian War debt revealed a precocious understanding of the colony's economic state.

Morris's bravado performance in the finance committee was carried out with an impeccable sense of urgency and drama. Leaving the question of how to pay for defense and war up to the vagaries of each state assembly would lead to disaster. At the crux of Morris's argument was a visionary comprehension of the need for a unifying political authority prepared to finance the fledgling state governments in revolt. Morris painted a tempting picture of a money tree, which the Continental Congress would establish and the former colonies could pluck at will. He recommended that the Continental Congress simply issue the entire fund and then apportion its obligation among the former colonies. The (p.50) Congress would print paper money and each province would be accountable for its share. Congress would pay any defaulting debt. This would insure a wide credit and circulation of the currency by guaranteeing the redemption of the currency issued. It would also strengthen the bond between the twelve—Georgia had not yet made it thirteen—struggling provincial assemblies beyond the unpredictable patriotic fervor fueled by the prospects of war.

The idea of a North American union, however tentative, seemed to fascinate Morris from the beginning of his political life. When the question of continental-provincial (or federal and state) relations came up on the first day of the New York Congress, he quickly endorsed Isaac Low's motion: “Resolved, as the opinion of this Congress, that explicit obedience ought to be paid to every recommendation of the Continental Congress, for the general regulation of associated colonies; but that this Congress is competent to and ought freely to deliberate and determine on all matters relative to the internal policies of this colony.” The motion was defeated as both premature as well as an affront to state pride by conceding to the authority of the Continental Congress, but Morris continued to work for support of Philadelphia's paramount role in the escalating crisis. In his peace plan of accommodation, the provision for a permanent national assembly hinted at the direction of Morris's thinking. It would continue to grow in his imagination. The seed of his thinking may well have been in place as early as his graduation address at King's College when he declared that he was one of those “who can boast the glorious Title of free born American.”17

Morris asked to postpone the debate on his financial plan for three days in order to invite the leading merchants to attend his presentation. His closing speech resulted in a unanimous approval. The merchant Egret Benson later recalled the impression the young lawyer had made: “Mr. Morris appeared to have comprehended it [paper currency] throughout, and as it were by intuition. He advanced and maintained opinions new to all. There was none who did not ultimately perceive and acknowledge them to be just.”18

Morris's report was then sent to Philadelphia where it was adopted by an impressed Continental Congress. While Congress struggled with the mechanics of printing, numbering, and signing the new bills, the New York government lost no time in letting its delegates in Philadelphia know just how desperate things were getting. All the work on defenses was outrunning any means to pay for it. “For God's sake,” they demanded, “send us money, send us arms, send us ammunition.”

Membership on the committee drafting a “Plan of Accommodation” for consideration by the Continental Congress gave Morris his last opportunity to advance his hope for a solution short of war. To New York, it was also an important gesture calculated to hold the weak, divided coalition of the de facto provincial government together. By offering a plan for negotiations to (p.51) “prevent the horrors of civil war,” the Provincial Congress and its fractured members would not be seen as a rogue body in open rebellion. The range of conflicting opinions on such a delicate subject, however, made it far more difficult to draft a coherent report than it had been to set out a formula to fix financial problems, where Morris was the sole recognized expert.

Little more than three weeks after the committee went to work on its recommendations, Morris drafted a letter to the colony's delegates in Philadelphia for the signature of Peter Van Brugh Livingston, the president of the Provincial Congress. It opened with a polished statement of the volatile issues.

The Breach hath been widened since our first Dispute on the Subject of Taxation; and as this was the Source of all our Grievances, so we have the hope that the Temptation being taken away, our Civil and religious and political Rights, will be easily adjusted and confirmed…. We must now repeat to You, the common and just Observation that contests for Liberty, fostered in their Infancy by the virtuous and wise, become Sources of Power to wicked and designing Men. From whence it follows that such Controversies as we are now engaged in, frequently end in the Demolition of those Rights and Privileges, which they were instituted to defend. We pray you therefore to use every Effort for the compromising of this unnatural Quarrel between the Parent and Child.19

In Morris's judgment, the final recommendations from the New York Congress were badly flawed with irrelevant issues. He was impatient with the committee's slow progress, so he had prepared a long draft of a proposed report, “to which,” he rather arrogantly told John Jay, “the members could make no Objections excepting that none of them could understand it.” In a shorter version, he kept to what he believed to be the key issues: the colonial right to levy taxes and to conduct its internal affairs without interference. Morris conceded Parliament's imperial right to regulate trade and for colonial contributions to the defense of the empire. But that was not all. The New York plan called for “a Continental Congress deputed from the several Colonies, to meet with a President appointed by the Crown.” In other words, the tentative union of the colonies expressed by their Philadelphia Congress and Association would become, according to Morris's plan, a virtually autonomous institution of national government of the colonies within the framework of the empire.

The New York committee accepted Morris's abbreviated draft but insisted on two additional articles, which he thought were completely irrelevant. One article with a strong anti-Catholic bias of intolerance condemned “the indulgence and establishment of Popery all along the interior confines of the old Protestant colonies” from the old Quebec boundaries running to the Ohio River. The other article called for the repeal of all acts objected to in its initial association drawn up by the first Continental Congress.

Before the approved plan was forwarded to Philadelphia, Morris fired off (p.52) a private letter to his friend Jay: “The foolish Religious business. I opposed until I was weary.” It was “arrant Nonsense and would do as well in a high Dutch Bible as the Place it now stands in.” Although he voted against the final text, he managed to insert a warning “that neither the Parliament of Great Britain, or any other earthly legislature or tribunal, ought or can interfere or interpose in any wise howsoever, in the religious and ecclesiastical concerns of the Colonies.” At the last minute, Morris also shrewdly managed to add that no part of the report was binding on the New York delegates in the Continental Congress.20

When the New York plan reached Philadelphia, Jays committee took Morris's hint that it could ignore the recommendations “provided our essential Rights be secured on solid Foundations we may safely permit the British parliament to use big sounding Words.” Jay, the staunch Protestant, nevertheless agreed with his friend that it was no time to stir up religious rows, “disputes on ecclesiastical Points, which have for ages had no other Tendency than that of banishing Peace and Charity from the world.”21

By summer 1775, all the former colonies except for Maryland and Pennsylvania were now under the extralegal direction of the Continental Congress working through the independent provincial conventions and congresses. (Georgia signed up on July 6.) With money being printed and an army raised by its orders, Philadelphia had established, in spite of itself, the beginnings of a confederation. On June 21, a discouraged William Smith noted in his diary that the Congress had “appointed Genl Washington Generalisimo of the Boston army.” More accurately, Washington had been named “General and commander-in-chief of the United Colonies,” invested with “full power and authority … for the welfare of the service.”22

It was poor timing when on Sunday morning, June 25, the Juliana, carrying the royal governor of New York, William Tryon, arrived at Sandy Hook from England where he had been on leave for more than a year. Around noon the same day “the rebel Generals” Washington, Philip Schuyler, and Charles Lee with his pack of hounds, arrived from Philadelphia on the Jersey shore opposite the city. Washington and Lee were on their way to Boston. Schuyler, a frail but tough Albany squire, had been named to command the military expedition against Canada. There had been little warning of a likely collision between the crown's representative and Congress's military leader.

A warm Sunday afternoon had filled the tree-lined streets with people, disguising the divided, tense city. Morris was named to the greeting committee to work out the delicate choreography designed to avoid any embarrassing confrontations. After the committee settled the timing and staging and notified the Washington party of the risky contingencies, Morris along with Richard Montgomery crossed the Hudson and briefed the Philadelphia visitors waiting on the Jersey side, alerting them to an official reception around 4 P.M., when they (p.53) stepped ashore in Manhattan. To avoid a diplomatic collision of comic proportions, Governor Tryon remained fuming on the Juliana until later in the evening.

Judge Jones's Tory bias placed the stirring Washington tableau “amidst the repeated shouts and huzzas of the seditious and rebellious multitude.” With eight militia companies lined up in rank on the city's commons, the enthusiastic crowd appeared to give the lie to the rumors that New York was lukewarm to the American cause. Wearing an impressive new purple sash over his blue uniform and with a waving plume in his hat, the general stood as tall as young Morris in the greeting party. It was the largest ceremonial welcome the Virginian had ever faced.

Earlier that morning, the Provincial Congress had stopped an express rider headed for Philadelphia carrying a sealed letter from the Massachusetts Congress addressed to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The letter confirmed that there had been a bloody battle in Boston. Charlestown Neck was lost along with Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill, but the British had paid a high price. The Massachusetts authorities warned Philadelphia that they were running out of gunpowder. Holding up the official parade to the commons, Washington wrote Hancock, to apologize for opening his mail and assure him he would do whatever he could about the gunpowder crisis although New York was also in bad shape, having shipped every pound it could spare to Boston three days earlier.

At eight o'clock on the evening of Washington's arrival, a hastily orchestrated body of his Majesty's Council, the judges of the Supreme Court, and the governors of King's College along with Morris and the committee of the Provincial Congress repeated their greetings to the tired, sullen royal governor. “What a farce!” Jones raged later in his History. “What cursed! A scheme was at this very time laid by these people to subvert the British Government in the Colonies, in Church and State, and to erect one of their own upon its ruins.” William Smith managed to whisper in the ear of the irritated governor “that there was a great & strange Reverse since he left us in the State of our Public Affairs.” The governor could only answer with a “distracted sigh.”23

The next morning Morris was up early and in the assembly when Washington met with the delegates, described by Billy Smith as being in “pompous attendance.” Their diplomatic address ended with prudent advice to the general “that whenever this important contest will be decided, by the fondest wish of each American soul, an accommodation with our Mother Country, you will cheerfully resign the important deposit committed into your hands and reassume the character of our worthiest citizen.” At that moment, New York's patriots were not quite ready to give up all hope of an accommodation. The ceremonies of tribute by the Provincial Congress managed to delay the party's departure until late afternoon. Before the Congress reluctantly brought the eulogies to a conclusion, its members managed to include all shades of opinion (p.54) in their address, steering a masterful middle course: while deploring the “calamities of this divided Empire,” they went on to “rejoice in the appointment of a gentleman from whose abilities we are taught to expect both security and peace.”24

Throughout June and July, Morris attended the meetings of the Provincial Congress almost every day at city hall, rushing through business, often putting in sixteen hour days, and working late into the evening to execute the legislative decisions. Without precedent and with only the vaguest notion of what was expected of him, he and the members had to test their authority and strategies at every step. They had no way to gauge the extent of their public support beyond their private measure of the town's erratic temperature in the streets and alehouses. On July 8, Morris was appointed to the first Committee of Safety, a device allowing it to act on behalf of the Congress for two weeks in July when no quorum could be assembled, cleverly hiding this dispiriting fact from the enemy. By August, with Congress back in session, Morris was anxious to return to his neglected law practice while carefully watching developments as the climate changed.

On the night of August 23, a shattering boom from the Asia, anchored off the Battery, woke the sleeping city. It was a signal of an abrupt rise of temperature and tension that could lead to a disastrous showdown. One of the warship's sloops, carrying a load of armed sailors, had been spotted by the town's guards with muskets loaded, primed, and cocked. When one of the sailors in the sloop fired his musket, the Americans were ready and opened fire. Panic spread in the dark streets when the city's residents first heard the exchange, followed by the Asia's thirty-two-gun broadside, blasting away with an unmistakable warning.

The trouble had been precipitated by the provocateur Isaac Sears, who had maneuvered the Congress into agreeing to secure canon and military stores to defend the Highlands, a narrow stretch of the Hudson between Peekskill and West Point. What he did not reveal until it was too late was his plan to appropriate the British canon on the Battery below Fort George and haul them up to the Highland forts. To cover the men removing the guns during the night of the twenty-third, a company of enthusiastic ringleaders and soldiers formed a semicircle of musketmen facing the harbor. The British sloop coming close to the shore to see what the Americans were up to triggered the exchange.

Governor Tryon was also surprised and shaken and quickly called a conference the next morning with members of the Provincial Congress and town leaders in the council room at city hall. Outmanned and outgunned, Morris realized the serious implications of the unexpected ruckus the night before. An atmosphere of conciliation swept through the room of the “peace talks” as both sides scrambled to calm the dangerous situation. Papering over the embarrassing events after a family quarrel, everyone reached for accommodating gestures (p.55) but left a field of confusion and nervous guesses of what might follow. In the next few days, a flurry of advertisements for houses to rent on Long Island and New Jersey appeared in the newspapers. In increasing numbers, those who could afford it, fled to the country as the town took on an abandoned, disconsolate look. Morris's moderate policy of accommodation had failed while the militants had exposed the limits to which the British could be pushed. But it did not take long for the town's shock to turn into apathy.

As the fall wore on, the policy of nonimportation enforced by the Provincial Congress took a serious toll on the city's faltering economy. Armed neutrality had its price. Without English imports, business came to a standstill. The hope of reconciliation grew dimmer by the day. In October, Washington warned Congress he saw no hope for conciliation and that the British were preparing to vigorously prosecute the war. When Governor Tryon received word that there were patriotic plans afoot to make him prisoner, he took refuge on HMS Duchess of Gordon parked in the harbor. To give his retreat a respectable spin, a wily William Smith advised the governor to say that it would enable him to “Check upon the Ships of War who might insult the Town.” All official business was then conducted on the secure decks of the British man-of-war.

By November, so many representatives were absent that the first Provincial Congress was forced to close down without formal adjournment and new elections were announced. Friends of Morris like Philip Livingston and James Duane, both delegates in Philadelphia, had moved their families out of the city to safety in the countryside. The derelict streets and empty shuttered houses gave the town an ominous look of a collapsing society.

The election for a new congress was set for November 7, and it would turn out that the Second Provincial Congress was just as timid as the first. When, with difficulty, a bare quorum of twenty-three members out of the seventy-four that were chosen finally met on December 1, Morris was not among the elected. The hopeless irresolution of the Second Congress during its brief life of six weeks was a failure hiding the hardening opposition of public opinion well beyond Morris's immediate circle. In the last issues of the patriotic journal The Monitor, published just before the year was out, the vacillating politicians of the Congress were pilloried: “nothing wise, provident, manly or decisive is to be expected; a scandalous remissness, imbecility and inaction, characterize the general current of affairs.”25

On January 10, 1776, a pamphlet entitled Common Sense was published in Philadelphia and, in William Smith's words, was “industriously distributed by the emissaries of Congress throughout the continent.” One hundred thousand copies in twenty-seven editions would quickly flood the colonies. Shortly after it appeared on the streets of New York, Hugh Hughes wrote Samuel Adams: “The people are determined to read and think as they please. It is (p.56) Certain … that there never was any thing published here within these thirty years, or so since I have been in this place, that has been more universally approved and admired.” When New York loyalists published a sharp rebuttal to Tom Paine's explosive tract, a body of “warm, inveterate republicans” led by Isaac Sears, after first preparing itself in Drakes Tavern, broke into the printer's house in the middle of the night, “pulled him out of bed, and forcibly seized upon and destroyed the whole impression with the original manuscript.” The next morning, every printer in town received a warning from “the committee of tarring and feathering” that “destruction, ruin and perdition” would be their fate if they printed “anything against the rights and liberties of America.” These were the same people, Judge Jones wrote in disgust, who were themselves “contending for liberty,”26

To Morris as well as to his friends Robert Livingston, John Jay, and other members of his elite coterie, it was apparent that if the empire was abandoned, some kind of “good and well ordered” constitutional government led by “free born Americans” was the only alternative to “that Anarchy which already too much prevails.” Wavering loyalty to a remote monarch three thousand miles away was no longer a solution. Livingston told Duane that “another year of war and devastation” would turn him into a republican.

Early in January, the king's October speech to Parliament reached New York papers. In it he declared his intention to end the rebellion “by the most decisive terms,” offering no compromise to “the authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy.” In a quick response to the king's message, General Charles Lee prepared to bring his troops into the city on the orders of Congress to fortify it against an expected British attack. New York was reduced to a ghost town, a Connecticut patriot recorded; “you would scarce see any person or but few in the street, carts and wagons all employed in carrying out goods and furniture, the men-o-war lying broadside against the town and near the wharfs sails bent and prepared at a moments warning. Their present consternation in New York arises from the near approach of Gen'l Lee.”27

On January 6, 1776, William Smith glumly conceded that the news “greatly inflamed the multitude upon the certain prospect of a new [military] Campaign … The Clouds are indeed Dark, from the Obstinacy and Pride of both Countries.” General Lee, wiry, weak-chinned, and as offhand in his dress as Washington was punctilious, lost no time in taking charge when he arrived from Cambridge. The brilliant, eccentric, British-trained soldier of fortune who had fought for the king of Poland knew what he was doing as he proceeded to prepare the town for battle, giving no quarter to the conflicted and weak-kneed.28

Sometime in that dark January as the city was turned into a battlefield, it appeared to Morris's realistic mind that further “appeals to reason” were useless. The king's angry words calling leaders like the Morrises “dangerous and (p.57) ill-designing Men” made any more “Olive Branch” gestures useless. To Morris, the fundamental principles of government by consent and no taxation without representation, very old, very simple, and very important arguments, were reason and doctrine enough. His formal commonplace words written two years later to Peter Van Schaack, that when the appeal was to the sword, he felt it his duty “to join in the great cause,” gives no hint of any inner reservations. For Morris, there was no looking back or agonizing over his decision once the line was crossed. Here he was totally unlike his friend who, rightly and nostalgically, feared that the colony and its way of life would never return “to the old channels and that affection which is the bond of our common union with the mother country.”29

On February 27, 1776, New Yorkers finally learned that two months earlier, in December, Parliament had placed the thirteen colonies beyond the pale of British law by interdicting all trade with them. Any American who did not immediately make unconditional submission to the crown's authority was declared a rebel. Delivered in slow motion underlining the psychological as well as the physical distance that separated the parties, the Prohibitory Bill put an official end to Morris's failed hope for a negotiated peace. As Morris told Charles Lee, the slightest sign of wavering to join the patriots was “branded with Infamy.” Any wobblings now were out of the question. He admitted that he and everyone else suddenly went out of their way to express “the excess of his Zeal by the Madness of his Actions.”30

Somehow, “old channels” and the provincial sentiments of a “bond” with the empire no longer held any appeal to Morris. He had moved well beyond the so-called turning point in the country's history. Three generations of American Morrises, beginning with his orphaned, independent, successful grandfather, had established for Morris a far greater sense of being an unfettered American rather than a second-class, bullied subject living on the edge of the imperial system in which he had little political or social stake.

When Morris learned that a battalion in defense of New York was being organized, he decided to apply for a commission on little more than the class conceit that it was his duty and privilege. Like many of his friends, he suffered from the assumption that the Revolution ought to be a gentleman's war, at least in its direction, and the rank and file ought to be grateful. In making this enthusiastic, patriotic, even arrogant gesture, he never stopped to consider the fact that he had not had a single day of military experience in his life. When the gentry insisted on appointing their own officers, the Provincial Congress rejected their plan, proposing as colonel John Lasher, a cobbler by trade but a man who had solid militia experience. Morris's nomination as lieutenant colonel would have made him subordinate to a shoemaker. He hotly complained to his brother that he was very sorry to find that “a herd of Mechanics are preferred before the best Families in the Colony.” Later when the Continental (p.58) Congress, asserting its control over military affairs, rejected all New York nominations, including Morris's, he wrote his brother that he had offered his services “merely for the Benefit of the general Cause,” adding with a remarkable insight that his abilities “were more adapted to the deliberations of the Cabinet than the glorious Labours of the Field.”31

In the military mobilization of the people, Morris first confronted, head on, the politics of the rising new democracy as a force to be reckoned with, deciding that he was not yet prepared to fully accommodate this social and political alteration. The new political climate was changing the rules, cutting across the established social lines that defined a vanishing world. No one was less equipped to lead independent farmers and mechanics into battle. To the troops, his very name would have been suspect. He was shocked, he wrote Robert Livingston in late fall 1775, that the new military organizations were “officered by the vulgar” drawn from the ranks of ordinary people.32

After he was elected to the Third Provincial Congress of New York in spring 1776, Morris returned to the “the deliberations of the Cabinet,” his natural habitat. His new acquaintance, the precocious Alexander Hamilton, consumed with dreams of military glory, was appointed captain in command of a provincial company of artillery. Morris's position in the New York Congress put him in regular contact with Hamilton who was coordinating the state's troops with Washington's Continental Army.

The decisive battle between the old order and the new, threatened for most of Morris's twenty-four years, was about to be joined. Only a few like Peter Van Schaack, and not without great personal cost, held to their tormented, riven consciences and attempted to avoid taking sides. Morris now took his place in the forefront of the Patriotic cause.


(1.) American Archives, 4th ser., 1:506–8.

(2.) Gouverneur Morris, Observations on the American Revolution, 3. Historians have struggled to pinpoint some profound inner explanation why men like Morris, John Jay, and Robert Livingston became patriots given their roots of privilege and position. I believe that Morris's pragmatic character shaped by the commercial, trading world that he grew up in determined his evolution.

(3.) Schlesinger, 541–42; Mason, 70; American Archives, 4th ser., 2:345–471; Historical Memoirs … of William Smith, 1:222; “Colonel Marinus Willett's Narrative,” in Dawson, 53–65.

(4.) Hamilton's role in Cooper's escape is recalled by contemporaries Robert Troup and Hercules Mulligan in Schachner, 211–12. Thomas Jones approved of Cooper's priorities when his abandoned library was later sold at auction for 5 pounds while his wine cellar brought a handsome 150 pounds. Syrett, 1:48.

(5.) Rivington's New York Newspaper, 13–14.

(6.) At the opening of the First Provincial Congress, Morris seconded the resolution of Isaac Low calling for “implicit obedience … to every recommendation of the Continental Congress,” Mason, 206.

(7.) GM to Charles Lee, [May] 1775, NYHS.

(8.) GM to Richard Henry Lee, Force, American Archives, 4th ser., 1:726; William Livingston, 147–48.

(9.) Rivington's New York Newspaper, 16 ; American Archives, 4th ser., 2:402 .

(10.) Dangerfield, 60; Sparks, 1:24.

(11.) Launitz-Schiirer, 135.

(12.) Address to the People of Great Britain, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1781) (hereafter JCC), 1:83 . The full text of the association is in American Archives, 4th ser., 2:471 .

(13.) John Jay: Unpublished Papers (hereafter JJ:UP), 1:148–49.

(14.) “Willett's Narrative,” in Dawson, 59.

(15.) Gouverneur Morris, Observations on the American Revolution, 26 .

(16.) Becker, 213; Historical Memoirs … of William Smith, 1:228.

(17.) Mason, 206.

(18.) Sparks, 1:39n-40n.

(19.) Morris Collection, Columbia University.

(20.) JJ.UP, 1:156–57.

(21.) Monaghan, 72.

(22.) Becker, 221.

(23.) Jones, 1:56–57; Historical Memoirs … of William Smith, 1:228.

(24.) Freeman, 3:469.

(25.) Mason, 136.

(26.) Ibid., 113; Jones, 1:64. Jones asserts that John Morin Scott, Livingston, and both brothers of William Smith Jr. were in the raiding party.

(27.) Ibid., 106.

(28.) Ibid., 132; Historical Memoirs … of William Smith, 1:256.

(29.) Van Schaack, 50; Wedgewood, 113.

(30.) GM to Charles Lee, n.d. [1775–76?], Morris Miscellaneous Manuscripts, NYHS.

(31.) GM to Lewis Morris, February 25, 1775, Emmet Collection, New York Public Library (hereafter NYPL).

(32.) Kline, 46; GM to RRL, February 26, and n.d. [November?], 1775, Livingston Papers, NYHS.