Saturday, May 18, 2013

Christianity and prudence in the political theory of Gouverneur Morris

The always-interesting Imaginative Conservative blog has posted a solid essay by one of the great modern historians of the Founding period, Forrest McDonald, exploring the political theory of one of the most important Founders who is usually overlooked today:  The Political Thought of Gouverneur Morris.  While Morris has been largely ignored when compared to other major Founders, his impact on the Constitution and on the political debates of his day were crucial.  As McDonald notes, at the core of Morris's political theory was his Christian faith, although like most of the Founders he was not sectarian in his approach to religion:
The most pervasive influence on Morris’s thinking was the Christian religion. That statement would have met with shocked disbelief among his many enemies, if for no other reason than that his womanizing was well known. John and Samuel Adams and other New England arch-republicans despised him, and the rigidly puritanical Roger Sherman went so far as to say that “with regard to moral character I consider him an irreligious and profane man.” But no irreligious and profane man could have written, as Morris did to his Loyalist mother from whom he was separated during the war, “Let me earnestly recommend to you so much of religion, as to bear inevitable evils with resignation.” As for himself, he told her, “I look forward serenely to the course of events, confident that the Fountain of supreme wisdom and virtue will provide for the happiness of his creatures.” 
In the same vein, he wrote to a woman whose daughter had died, “Religion offers higher and better Motives for Resignation to the Will of our Almighty Father. Infinite Wisdom can alone determine What is best to give What to leave and What to take away. . .. Grief . . . turns our Affections from the World to fix them more steadily and strongly on the proper Objects and bends our Will to the Will of God.” Elsewhere he made numerous specific references to Jesus Christ as “Our Saviour.” 
Morris cared little for rituals and forms of religion, however, and he was extremely tolerant. Early in his career, in the convention that drafted the New York Constitution of 1777, he frustrated John Jay’s attempt to exclude Roman Catholics from a religious freedom clause. From France he wrote to Robert Morris that “I like real Piety as much as I detest the Grimace of that which is false. I think I have more Religion than formerly since I have been in Paris: perhaps because the People here have or appear to have so little.” He added that he did not consider himself “of sufficient Consequence to share in the immediate Attention of divine Providence,” but was confident of his own “good Fortune,” which, he said, was “but another Name for the same Thing.” In conversation with a Frenchman who insisted that every country had an established religion. Morris assured him that it was not so in America, and went on to “tell him that God is sufficiently powerful to do his own Business without human Aid, and that Man should confine his Care to the Actions only of his fellow Creatures,” leaving it to God “to influence the Thoughts as he may think proper.” 
As McDonald details, Morris believed that religion played a vital role in stabilizing the political order by instilling values and virtues in the people, as well as necessitating education of the populace.  Critically, religion reinforces the principle that rights and duties -- the constituent components of human liberty -- come not from the State but from a source transcendent to it. Liberty is not a gift from the government but from the hand of God.  As McDonald explains, for Morris there was a clear distinction between political liberty and civil liberty, public public government and private concerns. The ties that held the two in balance rest, in Morris' view, on "Obedience to the moral Law," a moral law that was geared towards human flourishing:
Morris believed that God gives every man the right to liberty (hence his regarding slavery as an abomination), and he believed that legitimate government derives its authority from the consent of the governed; but to these largely Lockean notions he added some fine distinctions to minimize their threat to political stability. He conceived of liberty as being of two orders. One was political liberty, meaning participation by the people in the enactment of legislation and in holding government accountable. The other was civil liberty, the right of individuals to be left alone, and especially to do with their property what they choose without interference from government. He saw political liberty as being necessary for the protection of civil liberty, but also as posing a danger to it: “Political Liberty considered seperately from civil Liberty can have no other Effect than to gratify Pride”; ”Where political Liberty is in Excess Property must be insecure and where Property is not secure Society cannot advance”; and ”A Nation of Politicians, neglecting their own Business for that of the State, would be the most weak miserable and contemptible Nation on Earth.” The remedy was to limit political liberty by checking the power of the legislative through the establishment of independent executive and judicial branches. This sounds quite Montesquieuan until one recalls that Montesquieu thought that free commerce would totally undermine a republic, whereas Morris believed that commerce, as the most dynamic part of civil liberty, was an indispensable agent promoting the advancement of civilization. Commerce, he said, “requires not only the perfect Security of Property but perfect good Faith,” and thus its effects were “to encrease civil and to diminish political Liberty.- For those reasons, and because the standards of behavior in commercial transactions were so high when conducted honorably, commerce could make possible an increase in the general stock of virtue and “Obedience to the moral Law,” which were “the best Means of Promoting human Happiness.”
Because human beings and human societies are different, there can be no one universal type of government for Morris.  Diversity in organization and political forms are a hallmark of human life, and thus no one form of government can be prescribed to guarantee human flourishing. Thus, Morris did not display reflexive hostility to monarchy, although like most of the Founders he did display misgivings about democracy's tendency for the population to be bought off by the powers that be. The corruption of government power to loot and redistribute wealth, whether from the few to the many or from the many to the few drew Morris's disdain. Honorable government and honorable individuals, acting in accord with virtue, were as McDonald explains, a key concept of political practice for Morris, and this concept linked Morris's ideas with those of Federalist Founders like Washington and Hamilton:
Morris, like Washington, Hamilton, and many another High Federalist. had as a polestar a principle that has generally been given rather short shrift by historians, namely honor, in the sense in which Joseph Addison used the term in his popular play Cato. True honor, Addison explained, operates out of desire for “the esteem of wise and good men.” He elaborated, “Religion embraces virtue, as it is enjoined by the laws of God; honour, as it is graceful and ornamental to human nature.” As a religious man as well as a man of honor. Morris was impelled by both. Hence he could write, in a letter to Senator Oliver Ellsworth thanking him for supporting the appointment as minister to France. “the favorable Sentiment of virtuous and judicious Men has ever appeared to me (next to an approving Conscience) the highest earthly Reward for our Exertions.” He could refuse to join a speculative enterprise that was certain to be profitable because it was based on inside information, say to one who talked of legal obligation that ‘There is a moral Obligation anterior and paramount to Law,” and tell another who was torn between the dictates of duty and conscience that he knew of “no Duty but that which Conscience dictates.” The sanctity of contracts, of giving one’s word, was integral to the concept of honor; early on. Morris wrote that among the French “there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks. It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements.”
McDonald's essay serves as a delightful short introduction to the thought of this important and yet overlooked American Founder.  Read it all.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Gouverneur Morris was quite the bon vivant, and the depth of his religious faith was always a bit of a question.

But per your other post about Alexander hamilton getting more religious at the end of his life, Morris sounds positively evangelical in this late-in-life speech [1816*]:

“The reflection and experience of many years have led me to consider the holy writings not only as the most authentic and instructive in themselves, but as the clue to all other history. They tell us what man is, and they alone tell us why he is what he is.”

*"An Inaugural Discourse Delivered Before the New York Historical Society"

Bill Fortenberry said...

Gouverneur Morris was responsible for a full third of the 21 references to Scripture that Madison recorded in his notes on the Constitutional Convention.

Mark D. said...

Morris is an interesting character. I've been meaning to get around to reading Brookhiser's biography of him. Tom, I think that you are right that as many of the Founders got older, they got more conventionally religious. I think that the ones who were more active in abolition also demonstrated this evolution -- when they got down to the actual work of fighting the great evil of their day, they found their faith deepening. That happened, I think, to Franklin.

Thanks for the link to the speech by Morris as well. I will give that a look.

Wsforten, that's an interesting fact. I was unaware of that, although I was aware that Morris was one of the more active participants in the Constitutional Convention.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've been meaning to dig up Morris and Hamilton's thought on visiting revolutionary France and being like totally appalled at the godlessness. Anybody got that stuff handy or want to post it?

Nothing like a return to Lord of the Flies paganistic anarchy to make a fellow return to tradition and religion.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I've got several documented and linked quotes from Morris on the French Revolution. You can find them on the Gouverneur Mooris page at

Bill Fortenberry said...

Sorry about the misspelling.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ace, Mr. Forten. Bookmarked. Next time we start discussing the difference between the American and French revolutions, we could start there.

“Since I have been in this country, I have seen the worship of many idols, and but little of the true God; I have seen many of those idols broken, and some of them beaten to dust. I have seen the late Constitution, in one short year, admired as a stupendous monument of human wisdom and ridiculed as an egregious production of folly and vice."

“Unquestionably there has been more of crime acted within the last ten years on the French theatre than is usually to be found in the records of history; and as unquestionably the systems reared on such abominable foundations must soon crumble into ruin. Such is the unalterable law of God, attested by the undeviating experience of past ages.”

“I must mention that Thomas Paine is in prison, where he amuses himself with publishing a pamphlet against Jesus Christ. I do not recollect whether I mentioned to you, that he would have been executed along with the rest of the Brissotines, if the adverse party had not viewed him with contempt. I incline to think that, if he is quiet in prison, he may have the good luck to be forgotten."

Mark D. said...


Thanks for the link! Great stuff for us to ponder.

Mark D. said...


Your observation about the Lord of the Flies is apt!

JMS said...

I’ll gladly dissent from what has been said so far. We are all indebted to G. Morris his draftsmanship on the Constitution. I don’t want to bash you or him, but how is Christian faith lived, and is it reflected in G. Morris’s life, “prudence,” “thinking” or political theory?

1) enough of the French bashing – by you, McDonald and Morris

2) Morris and McDonald are aristocratic class-bound “high” Federalists who wanted to create an oligarchy. What, nobody else – especially Jefferson, Madison or Monroe – is capable of Federalist-only virtue or honor?

3) Morris’s putting personal animosity above official duty in his callous disregard for Paine was a disgrace, and hardly “Christian.”
Monroe exercised true virtue and honor by aiding Paine. The Federalists already rejected Paine for his Rights of Man. Indulging in outrage at the Age of Reason is to succumb to Federalist propaganda, as propagated by McDonald.

Tom Van Dyke said...

1) Not nearly enough French bashing. Not 100 person in 100 knows of the 100s of 1000s of brutal burders of the French Revolution beyong the guillotine, such as

2) And the New England Federalists would have outlawed slavery, while your Virginians perpetuated slavery and indeed owned slaves themselves. Forget the moral card here--the Jeffersonians lose.

3) There was no duty to Paine due to his questionable American citizenship. He went to France to join and help lead their revolution, so put the blame where it belongs--on him and on the French.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There are a lot of people these days whose ideological sympathies are with the French Revolution, which is why we hear so little of its crimes. Scholarly malpractice, but more by omission.

Joe Winpisinger said...

The French through out the baby with the bathwater. Marxist thought has its roots in the French Revolution. The American Revolution was based on Lockean thought.

Which this post on Morris does a good job at fleshing out. The inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. No property rights then no order in society. One thing that I think all founders agreed on.

Rub was Southern insistence that slaves were their property.