Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Gouverneur Morris to General Washington, and also to Timothy Pickering


Philadelphia, October 30, 1787.

Dear Sir: The states eastward of New York appear to be almost unanimous in favor of the new Constitution, (for I make no account of the dissension in Rhode Island.) Their preachers are advocates for the adoption; and this circumstance, coinciding with the steady support of the property, and other abilities of the country, makes the current set strongly, and I trust irresistibly, that way.

Jersey is so near unanimity in her favorable opinion, that we may count with certainty on something more than votes, should the state of affairs hereafter require the application of pointed arguments. New York, hemmed in between the warm friends of the Constitution, will not easily, unless supported by powerful states, make any important struggle, even though her citizens were unanimous, which is by no means the case. Parties there are nearly balanced. If the assent, or dissent, of the New York legislature were to decide on the fate of America, there would still be a chance, though I believe the force of government would preponderate, and effect a rejection. But the legislature cannot assign to the people any good reason for not trusting them with a decision on their own affairs, and must therefore agree to a convention. In the choice of convention, it is not improbable that the federal party will prove strongest; for persons of very distinct and opposite interests have joined on this subject.

With respect to this state, I am far from being decided in my opinion that they will consent. True it is, that the city and its neighborhood are enthusiastic in the cause; but I dread the cold and sour temper of the back counties, and still more the wicked industry of those who have long habituated themselves to live on the public, and cannot bear the idea of being removed from the power and profit of state government, which has been, and still is, the means of supporting themselves, their families, and dependants, and (which is perhaps equally grateful) of depressing and humbling their political adversaries. What opinions prevail more southward, I cannot guess. You are in a better condition than any other person to judge of a great and important part of that country.

I have observed that your name to the new Constitution has been of infinite service. Indeed, I am convinced that, if you had not attended that Convention, and the same paper had been handed out to the world, it would have met with a colder reception, with fewer and weaker advocates, and with more, and more strenuous, opponents. As it is, should the idea prevail that you will not accept the Presidency, it would prove fatal in many parts. The truth is, that your great and decided superiority leads men willingly to put you in a place which will not add to your personal dignity, nor raise you higher than you already stand. But they would not readily put any other person in the same situation, because they feel the elevation of others as operating, by comparison, the degradation of themselves; and, however absurd this idea may be, yet you will agree with me, that men must be treated as men, and not as machines, much less as philosophers, and least of all things as reasonable creatures, seeing that, in effect, they reason not to direct, but to excuse their conduct. Thus much for the public opinion on these subjects, which is not to be neglected in a country where opinion is every thing.

I am, &c.,



Dated, Morrisania, December 22, 1814.

My Dear Sir: What can a history of the Constitution avail towards interpreting its provisions? This must be done by comparing the plain import of the words with the general tenor and object of the instrument. That instrument was written by the fingers which write this letter. Having rejected redundant and equivocal terms, I believed it to be as clear as our language would permit; excepting, nevertheless, a part of what relates to the judiciary. ‘On that subject, conflicting opinions had been maintained with so much professional astuteness, that it became necessary to select phrases which, expressing my own notions, would not alarm others, nor shock their self-love; and to the best of my recollection, this was the only part which passed without cavil.

But, after all, what does it signify that men should have a written constitution, containing unequivocal provisions and limitations? The legislative lion will not be entangled in the meshes of a logical net. The legislature will always make the power which it wishes to exercise, unless it be so organized as to contain within itself the sufficient check. Attempts to restrain it from outrage, by other means, will only render it more outrageous. The idea of binding legislators by oaths is puerile. Having sworn to exercise the powers granted, according to their true intent and meaning, they will, when they feel a desire to go farther, avoid the shame, if not the guilt, of perjury, by swearing the true intent and meaning to be, according to their comprehension, that which suits their purpose.


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