by Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug
That there are “forgotten Founders” is a truth universally acknowledged among students of the American Founding. Some of the men who sat for weeks in Independence Hall, laboring over the document that would become the Constitution, are generally unknown among everyday Americans. It does seem strange, however, that among the forgotten is the tallest Founder and the most frequent speaker at the Constitutional Convention (173 speeches), a man with a peg leg that he would sometimes remove and wave about to emphasize his points and whose death would later prompt articles in The Journal of Urology—a man with the fantastic name Gouverneur Morris. This is to say nothing of the fact that he wrote the most memorable section of the Constitution and was also the engineer of Article II, which established the U.S. presidency.
Gouverneur Morris was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Pennsylvania, at the time of the Convention, had a powerful unicameral legislature and a weak executive council, both popularly elected. The nearly unchallenged power of the legislature and the tumultuousness created by frequent popular elections made Pennsylvania into a pressure cooker, boiling with a volatility most noticeable in chaotic transitions of power. Throughout the Constitutional Convention, Morris would draw on his experience with the Pennsylvania state government, which, for him, revealed the necessity of a balanced government, especially between democratic and non-democratic apparatuses.
Morris also had a keen sense that increased national unity would be essential in this new iteration of American governance. The Articles of Confederation had failed in part, he believed, because they had prioritized state loyalties as opposed to fostering a sense of American identity. Because of this, Morris maintained that the new Constitution should assert such an identity from its very first lines.
We the People of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union. These words sprang from Morris’s pen; he was the author of the Preamble. The Preamble is, in many ways, the thesis of the entire Constitution. Its wording is careful, specific in some ways, and vague in others. Even while other parts of the document have been amended and criticized over time, few people take umbrage with the idea that the Constitution should “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and establish the blessing of liberty.” Morris’s words set the tone for the Constitution, and he also served on the Convention’s Committee of Style, which determined the precise wording and structure of the document. While Madison is often considered the father of the Constitution, his words and ideas (just as everyone else’s) usually pass through the medium of Morris’s voice.
Though Morris would contribute in some way to nearly every part of the Constitution, his greatest influence was in the creation of Article II. Given his experiences in Pennsylvania, Morris advocated for a strong, pseudo-democratic executive to balance the tumultuousness of the democratically elected legislature. Instead of a direct popular presidential election, Morris suggested a system in which popularly elected electors would select the president. The much-maligned Electoral College was Morris’s brainchild. It might behoove those who today deride the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College to understand that this was its original intention. Popular sovereignty can be unstable—pseudo-democratic elements in government can balance this tendency.
Morris was also a champion for presidential re-election, even as many in the delegation favored only a single term for the president. The possibility of re-election, in Morris’s view, made the president more responsible to the people and more apt to respond to their desires. Morris also foresaw re-election as providing stability and continuity built into the executive and a way of avoiding constant executive transition. At the same time, Morris was also an advocate for presidential impeachment for treachery and bribery.
After committee deliberation, Morris presented the finalized proposal for Article II to the Convention at large. The final compromise suggested four-year terms for the president, with opportunity for re-election. The president would be chosen by an electoral college, and each state would have as many electors as they had combined senators and representatives in Congress. Presidential powers, as established in the proposal, would include the ability to establish treaties with a two-thirds approval vote needed from the Senate, as well as nominate and appoint ambassadors and Supreme Court justices. Morris was instrumental in creating an executive office that would remain would balance the popularly elected Congress, and thus insulate the United States from democratic instability. The presidency remains so today.
If, as Lincoln said, the Constitution is the “silver frame” that supports the “golden apple” of the promises made in the Declaration of Independence, Morris was one of its chief smiths. In it, Morris was essential in honing a national identity for the new United States, as well as crafting its leadership structure. Leaving to the side his larger-than-life personality, surely these are reasons enough to resurrect his memory in our history.
Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug is a graduate student in political science at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- Does the fact that Ford wasn’t elected to either the Presidency or Vice-Presidency give more credence to Morris’s ideas about presidential selection?
- Does democracy need an “aristocratic” element, and how do you keep that element in check?
- Has our “aristocratic” element turned against the people, as Morris feared? What would be the proper corrective to that?