With apologies to the Dos Equis pitchman, Gouverneur Morris may not have been the most interesting man in the world, but he was the most interesting Founding Father that you probably never have heard of. Unconventional right from his odd-sounding first name—which was his mother’s maiden name—Gouverneur was never a governor, but he served in the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention and U.S. Senate. Explore 10 surprising facts about the one-legged, womanizing Founding Father.
He died after a gruesome bit of self-surgery.
After suffering from crippling gout throughout the fall of 1816, the Founding Father’s pain grew even worse when he began to experience a urinary tract blockage. From the don’t-try-this-at-home department, Morris then attempted to clear the obstruction by using a piece of whale bone as a catheter. The unsuccessful procedure led to further internal injuries and infection. Morris passed away on November 6, 1816, in the same room in which he was born 64 years earlier on his family’s estate, Morrisania, in what today is the South Bronx.
Morris had a peg leg.
Pain was nothing new for Morris. As a 14-year-old, he accidentally dropped a kettle of boiling water that scalded his right arm and side and forced him to miss an entire year of classes at King’s College (present-day Columbia University). He avoided gangrene, which would have required amputation of the limb, but he wasn’t as fortunate in 1780 when reportedly a carriage accident left him with a mangled left ankle and several broken leg bones. With his regular doctor out of town, the attending physicians recommended amputation of the left leg below his knee. Morris consented. Showing a stunning lack of bedside manner, his regular doctor told Morris upon his return that the leg likely could have been saved. Rumors forever swirled that Morris, a known ladies’ man, had actually injured himself jumping from a paramour’s balcony to escape the wrath of an irate husband. The Founding Father didn’t let the loss of a limb slow him down. According to Richard Brookhiser, author of “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris—The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution,” he continued to ride horses, climb church steeples, shoot river rapids and shake his (wooden) leg dancing. Nor did it diminish his trysts with married women, so much so that friend John Jay wrote that he wished Morris “had lost something else.”
Morris carried on an affair in the Louvre.
Morris traveled to Paris on a business venture in 1789, and three years later President George Washington appointed him minister to France. Morris saw the worst violence of the French Revolution during his five years in Paris, but he was the only diplomat to remain in the city throughout the Reign of Terror. His French liaisons included a three-year love affair with the novelist Comtesse Adélaïde de Flahaut, who was married to a count 35 years her senior and lived in an apartment inside the Louvre before its conversion to an art museum. Morris shared his mistress with French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who would later sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States as Napoleon’s foreign minister.
The American Revolution split his family.
Although initially fearing “the domination of a riotous mob,” Morris backed the patriot cause after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. That aligned him with his half-brother Lewis Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence. However, it set him apart from another half-brother who served as a general in the British army, two of his sisters who married Loyalists and even his Loyalist mother, whom he would not see for the duration of the war. The decision also left him homeless as his mother allowed the British to camp at Morrisania.
Morris spoke more often than any Constitutional Convention delegate.
After living nearly a decade in Philadelphia, the New York native was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, although he wrote that he felt “in some degree as a representative of the whole human race.” In spite of missing an entire month of the proceedings, Morris proved the most loquacious of the delegates. According to Brookhiser, he delivered 173 speeches, topping the 168 by James Wilson and 161 by James Madison. Morris was among the few delegates who stood up and delivered passionate orations denouncing slavery.
He wrote perhaps the most famous seven words in American history.
As a member of the Constitutional Convention’s five-man Committee of Style, Morris polished the final draft of the U.S. Constitution. “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris,” reported Madison. A gifted writer called the “Penman of the Constitution,” Morris tightened the text and made it sing. Perhaps his biggest contribution was to change the document’s preamble from “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts…,” which continued with a litany of individual states listed from north to south, with simply “We the People of the United States.”
At age 57, the long-time bachelor married his housekeeper, who had been previously accused of killing her newborn child.
In 1809 the ladies’ man turned a Christmas party into a surprise party by making the shocking announcement that he had wed his new housekeeper, Anne Cary “Nancy” Randolph, who was 22 years his junior. The marriage was particularly scandalous because Nancy and her brother-in-law Richard Randolph had been accused in September 1792 of killing a newborn baby who was suspected of being their illegitimate child. Nancy forever insisted that the child had been stillborn. Morris became a father for the first time at age 61 when Nancy gave birth to a boy in 1813.
Morris advocated secession during the War of 1812.
A staunch Federalist, Morris opposed American participation in the War of 1812, believing it both unwinnable and disastrous for the economy of the Northeast. He saw the war as a plot among slaveholding states to conquer Canada. He believed the anti-war movement’s Hartford Convention too timid, and a quarter-century after playing a central role in uniting the states, Morris advocated the secession of New York and New England. “The man who wrote the Constitution judged it to be a failure and was willing to scrap it,” writes Brookhiser.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote a biography of Morris.
It should probably be no surprise that Roosevelt, another one of the most colorful figures in American history, had an affinity for the charismatic Founding Father. “There has never been an American statesman of keener intellect or more brilliant genius,” Roosevelt wrote of Morris in his 1888 biography. “Had he possessed but a little more steadiness and self-control he would have stood among the two or three very foremost.”
He shaped modern New York.
In 1807 Morris was appointed to a three-man commission tasked with planning for the growth of New York City, which was rapidly becoming the largest city in the United States. The commission devised Manhattan’s iconic street grid system with 12 parallel avenues intersected by 155 streets. “Straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in,” Morris wrote as the justification for the new plan. Morris was also instrumental in the construction of the Erie Canal, which would provide a huge economic boost to New York. He had envisioned a canal as early as the 1790s, and as chair of the seven-man Erie Canal Commission that plotted the waterway he pushed for a longer route connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, rather than Lake Ontario.