Letter to James Madison

Jared Sparks

New York

March 30, 1831

Having recently engaged to write a life of Gouvernieur Morris, which is to be published with a selection from his writings, I take the liberty to apply to you for a few hints respecting the part he acted in the convention of 1787. From several quarters I have understood, that he was an active member, and had a good deal of weight and influence, but the published account of that convention is so meagre, such a very skeleton of dry bones with hardly a sinew, muscle, or ligature, to tell that it was a living thing, that it is impossible to ascertain from it the relative standing or prevailing views of any member.

Was Morris with Hamilton on the prominent doctrines of the constitution, or did he incline to the more democratic side? Was he a frequent speaker, and an efficient member? Was he the author of any of the important features of the constitution? Did he set forth any particular views, which he labored to enforce & establish?

I have been told by several persons, who professed to know the fact, that the constitution in its present form and language is from his pen; that is, after all debates were finished, and each particular had been adopted in substance, the instrument was then put into his hands to be wrought into proper phraseology & style. His friends here are in the habit of thinking, that much is due to him for the clear, simple, & expressive language in which the constitution is clothed.

The following anecdote is also current among those, who suppose themselves well informed on the point. During the sitting of the convention G. Morris was absent several days to attend the funeral of his mother. On his return he called at the house of Robert Morris, where he found Washington, who, with R. Morris, was much dejected at what they deemed the deplorable state of things in the convention. Debates had run high, conflicting opinions were obstinately adhered to, animosities were kindling, some of the members were threatening to go home, and at this alarming crisis a dissolution of the convention was hourly to be apprehended. Instructed in these particulars, G. Morris went into the convention on the day following, and spoke with such eloquence and power on the necessity of union, of partial sacrifices, & temperate discussion, that he effected a change in the feelings of the members, which was the means of restoring harmony, and ultimately of effecting the objects of the convention. It is added, that, as his absence had prevented his partaking of the warmth, which had grown out of the previous discussions, his counsel & apparent disinterestedness had the greater effect. Do you recollect any incident of this sort?

You will doubtless excuse me for troubling you with the above questions, since there is no other source, written or unwritten, to which I can apply for information, and since the world is become so curious to know all that pertains to the origin & history of the Constitution. Whatever you may think proper to communicate on this subject, I trust will be used with discretion. In touching on that part of Mr Morris’s life, I shall take an opportunity to speak of the convention according to such light as I shall possess.

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