On May 14th, 1787, 225 years ago, 55 of America’s finest representatives assembled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to revamp their young country’s original binding document – the Articles of Confederation.  Months later, they left Philadelphia with an entirely different tract.  These 55 men were determined not to leave Philadelphia until they formed a “more perfect union” for the benefit of posterity – the Constitution of the United States of America.  It was a scene immortalized in Howard Chandler Christy’s oil canvas masterpiece, which, after all these years, hangs in the House of Representatives section of the Capitol.  It is poignant, detailing the immensity of the moment, the serenity of the scene – destiny was at hand.  And the painting is nonsense.  In fact, it is because of misconceptions like that painting, and many of the stories we learn of the Constitution and its signers, that so few Americans know much about their country’s founding document at all.  What people need is someone from that Convention who represents us a little more, someone who doesn’t seem like some mere relic of the past.

Let’s take a look at Christy’s painting (above).  The painting shows George Washington presiding over a captive audience, holding his hand out to a signer of the document as if he were saying, “We have fulfilled our destiny, my fellow men of means.”  Or maybe he was saying to the signer, “Are you going to hurry up?  We got 54 more to go, and you’re cutting into my booze time!”  Washington was truly at the Convention, and presided over it as its president.  He didn’t say much, though.  He didn’t have to – the man was a demigod at this point.  It was Washington who defeated the British, and he did it with very little help from the Continental Congress at the war’s outset.  Despite Washington’s fascinating character, he still seems made of wood – although his teeth weren’t, as myths suggest.  It’s hard for us to connect with George.  Maybe that says more about us than it does him.  But I’m with you; this is 2012.  We need something sexier.

You want sexy?  I’ll give you sexy.  Another man had a very big part in the American victory over the British.  We can see him front and center in the painting.  Ben Franklin used his celebrity status, a sex symbol in his day (no, really!) and diplomatic acumen to secure an alliance with France, finally giving Washington what the Continental Congress never gave him – hope for victory.  When you get into his personal life, Ben can be really interesting.  Imagine Bill Gates (rich philanthropist inventor), Mark Zuckerberg (media entrepreneur) and Charlie Sheen (sex-crazed partier) rolled into one – that’s Franklin.  He was sort of a Tony Stark without the Iron Man part.  But at this point, he might have been older than Philadelphia, itself.  He was hardly the American idol he once was.  After all, this is two hundred years before Viagra (OK: sorry!)…however, I’m sure he was working on it.  Like many Founding Fathers, Franklin has devolved into a much more boring character than the mad scientist playboy media magnate he was.  The aging sage Franklin, like Washington, didn’t say much at the Convention, either, except what he thought about the final product.  “I am not sure that it is not the best,” Franklin characteristically said.  Both he and Washington seemed to be passing the proverbial torch to the next generation by just consulting and offering their approval.  So, Franklin isn’t our guy to connect with.

Thomas Jefferson was the United States’ delegate in France, which is fine because the peculiar genius kind of creeps me out, anyway (see my other history articles).  John Adams was the minister to Great Britain, so he was busy being creeped out by the notoriously, and increasingly, insane King George III.  Sam Adams and John Hancock weren’t at the Convention.  The always entertainingly cranky Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) chose not to attend because he “smelled a rat.”  Although everyone can appreciate a good curmudgeon like Henry, he’s not the guy we want to necessarily relate to.  After all, in his younger years, Virginian aristocrats would invite him over to their dinner parties just to have him rant and argue as the evening’s entertainment.  However, I would love to see Patrick Henry in action with a Twitter account.

James Madison?  History is grateful for the diligent notes he took at the Convention, so that we can know how our country was founded – not just with the sword, but also with the pen.  But Madison was the classic ubergeek.  Although that character attribute made him a man for his time, he wasn’t a man for our time.  I know we’ve been guilt-tripped into rooting for nerds these days, but Madison was too antisocial for us.  Alexander Hamilton was the opposite – a bully, of sorts.  He and Madison might have been the smartest guys in the convention chambers, but only one – Hamilton –  was there to make sure everyone knew it.  Hamilton was arrogant and ambitious.  He was also brilliant.  In any sport, there’s always a guy on the opposing team who plays like a jerk all the time, making you love to hate him – with full knowledge that you’d love to have him on your team.  Hamilton was that guy.  But we can’t root for bullies.

Here’s the trick: can you name anyone else at the Constitutional Convention?  Come on, this is the bible of your country – the document that all life in the United States is governed around.  We can all probably name the four men at the Convention mentioned above, but I bet you can name more than four contestants on “American Idol” from this season.  Certainly, you can name more characters from “Game of Thrones” than Convention delegates.  (Come to think of it, I think there are many more characters in “Thrones” than there were delegates…)  What’s the matter?  Are you not a Rufus King scholar?  Not privy to the lifestyles of Gunning Bedford, Jr., Oliver Ellsworth or Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer?  How about Elbrige Gerry, whose name “gerrymandering” derives from?  Try the robust Robert Morris on for size – he was perhaps the richest man in America, its most powerful citizen.  OK, I can hear you yawning (those cookies in your computer are pretty powerful these days).  I’ll get to the point.

I have the man you’re looking for – the man who we can relate to.  And you probably never heard of him.  Gouverneur Morris is our guy, a celebrity in his day.  He was rich, famous, headline-grabbing, and eccentric.  Having lost his leg in a reported chariot accident, this peg-legged man-about-town never slowed down.  Though he came from an aristocratic family in New York (Westchester County), he didn’t inherit much of the family’s fortune because he was the son of his father’s second marriage.  But Morris took his modest inheritance and turned it into a fortune.  Of course, his closest relation to modern times is that he had no problem spending the money he made.  If he was a modern man, he’d be a club-hopper, tearing up the New York and Philadelphia night-time hot spots.  Morris’s partying was well-documented, and he was even more nefarious as a playboy and philanderer, known for his romps with just about any woman with a pulse – single or not.  In fact, rumors abounded of his leg being lost not in a chariot accident as reported, but in an escape from a vengeful, cuckolded husband.  Morris would be a favorite target of TMZ if he lived today.

Morris’s naughty side didn’t keep him from hobnobbing with the elite.  An entrepreneur with noted success, Morris became the assistant to the leading financier of the American Revolution, Robert Morris, and together the two unrelated men with identical surnames later worked out the finances of the Constitutional Convention.  Between the Revolution and Convention, according to Francis W. Hirst’s Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson, both Robert and Gouverneur Morris suggested to Jefferson the utilization of an unprecedented decimal system and a new currency (we were still using English guineas, Spanish doubloons, French sous, etc.).  TJ liked the idea of the decimal system, but couldn’t go along with them completely.  TJ preferred the Spanish dollar and its smallest coin – the copper cent, which was equivalent to 1/100 dollar.  When it was finally approved, the monetary system we use today in the United States (with dollars and cents, rather than using fractions of foreign currencies that fluctuated in value depending on the state) was put into place.  Much to the chagrin of both Morrises, however, the credit went to Jefferson (we write with his preferred Spanish “$” and “¢”), who characteristically had no problem accepting the credit.  Robert Morris was a big name to cavort with, but you’ll better recognize his two other BFFs – George Washington and his sidekick, Alexander Hamilton.

If you’ve ever tried to read Washington’s diaries, you’d know they’re page after page of tedious recollections of what part of his farm he visited that day, or what kind of oats were growing that season.  Planting carrots seemed to enrapture Washington even more than my German-farmer grandfather, who used to tell me he could “hear the beans growing.”  However, Washington also wrote with his green thumb about his many visits with influential people.  During the Convention, Washington stayed with Robert Morris out of respect for him (or at least his money).  But he traveled with Gouverneur Morris, who was Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Revolutionary War.  Morris had originally signed up for a New York militia unit, despite a childhood arm injury that precluded him from being drafted.  Gouverneur endeared himself to his military mentor by helping him win the war – not on the battlefield, but in the Congressional chambers.

Morris was a different kind of war hero.  Not only did he turn against his mostly loyalist family (his half-brother was a British Army senior officer), but he was also the man who finally coaxed the Continental Congress to pass reforms in military finance, training, etc.  The reforms were necessary for Washington to change the tide of a – at the time – one-sided war in the British’s favor.  In the winter of 1777-78, amid the dark days of Valley Forge, the American “army” was starving, freezing, undertrained, unmotivated, and on the brink of desertion.  Morris was so appalled at the conditions that he signed up to serve as a delegate in the Continental Congress just to get Washington what he and his troops needed.  The changes he fought for at Washington’s behest led to a couple victories over the British.  The victories helped Ben Franklin form an alliance with France and their desperately needed navy, and the alliance led to more victories and the subsequent surrender of the British.  How’s that for a history of the War of American Independence in one paragraph.  Washington’s rolling over in his grave…

When they weren’t at the Constitutional Convention, Morris and Washington ventured out to fish and visit other well-to-dos.  Washington wrote in his diaries about riding in Morris’s phaeton (the ever-thrifty Washington was sure to point out that they used his horses) to visit a wealthy woman named Jane Moore.  While Morris went trout fishing, Washington waxed nostalgic at the old ruins of his Revolutionary encampments.  They embarked on another fishing trip, this time to Trenton in early August, taking advantage of a short recess taken at the Convention for the Committee of Detail to work out some particulars.   Washington complained sarcastically that his fishing was “not very successful”.  Later, Gouverneur Morris was a frequent visitor to Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon.  And when America’s new government was put in place, Washington thought so highly of Gouverneur that he sent Morris to Great Britain to “examine British intentions.”

Washington was hoping that Morris could reestablish good relations with their old mother country.  The implication of Britain allying with its former colonies could coerce Spain to concede some territory in the western frontier to keep up its relations with America, or so Washington hoped.  To send Morris on such an important mission exemplified Washington’s impression of him.  The two were very distant in characteristics – Morris was brilliant, albeit conceited, and garrulous, while Washington was reserved and conscious about his own vanity.  But the two opposites seemed to enjoy each other’s company.  Morris’s other intimate friend was Alexander Hamilton.  Proving how close the two were, Morris was the orator at Hamilton’s funeral.  Contrary to his opposites-attract friendship with Washington, his connection with Hamilton was more attributed to their common characteristics – both men were brilliant, and both men knew it.  And that friendship with the controversial Hamilton might have helped foster some dissenting opinions about Morris.

Morris was not loved by all.  The first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, wrote in his papers about Morris on October 16, 1793, “…his morals and manners are hateful, and his understanding and information is contemptible.”  Marshall contends that many thought of Morris as a “friend of monarchy”, which was a much worse insult in those days than saying one had “hateful manners”.  Marshall did equivocate, however, that since he had never met Morris he could not “admit or deny” the accusations against his character.  Unlike the stoic views posterity has taken of his counterparts at the Constitutional Convention, Morris appears to be the most human of the delegates.  Morris had a rare quality in politics – he never shied away from telling you what he really thought.  And his competitors took advantage, just as politicians do in modern times.  His honesty and noted sarcasm led to the loss of his political station in New York, and compelled him to relocate to Philadelphia.  It was Philadelphia, and not his native New York, that he represented at the Constitutional Convention.

Things didn’t work out that well for Morris while he was the Minister to Great Britain.  Even his intimate friend Hamilton would blame Morris for his ineffectiveness, saying that “his failure was largely the result of his…consorting with the French ambassador and…his communications with the Foreign Ministry.”  Similar tidings came when Morris was in France – he was known for consorting with the British Minister to France.  But not all of Morris’s actions warranted the rolling of eyes; some actions actually contradicted his reputation.  For instance, he tried to sneak Louis XVI out of newly republican France, and many pointed to his reputation as a monarchist.  But Morris also insisted that the U.S. debts to France be paid – no matter if it be to the crown or the republic.  That shows he wasn’t necessarily a monarchist, but rather someone who attempted to do what he thought was right at that particular time.  Morris’ character might be best summed up by author Lawrence Kaplan, who said that “Morris wrote cautiously but frequently behaved impulsively and occasionally with abandon.”  Maybe that’s why Washington wrote that he rode in Morris’s “phaeton” and not his “chariot” or “carriage” – in Greek mythology, Phaëton was the son of Helios, who was killed by Zeus for trying to drive his chariot across the sky.

For the first month, not much was accomplished at the Constitutional Convention.  For the convention to succeed there needed to be a voice of reason – someone who didn’t hold all their allegiances to the North or the South, a divide that had already begun to widen, or to big states or small, which was a point of contention even at the outset of independence.  And one of those voices turned out to be the wooden legged, love-affair ridden, ostentatious Gouverneur Morris.  Morris was quoted as saying that his intentions at the Convention were to speak as a kind of “representative of the whole human race.”  Immediately after returning to the Convention, he became its loudest voice.  In fact, he spoke 173 times at the Convention, more than anyone else despite arriving about a month late.  Better late than never, right?

Here’s the short, short version of what he fought for at the Convention.  A wealthy man, Morris argued lengthily to prevent a national Congress ruled by the rich.  Contrary to his reputation as a champion of the aristocracy, Morris was looking out for the poor.  He figured that the rich would dominate a national Congress, and the only way to prevent an aristocracy-dominated legislature was to make two branches.  The common branch would check the other branch, protecting the common people.  Among his many speeches, Morris helped establish the objectives of the Senate, including its duty to monitor the first branch, “especially against abuses of personal liberty and threats to private property.”  Those protections would be included in the subsequent Bill of Rights.  In Madison’s notes from the Convention, he creates the persona of a man in Morris who would not stand for abuse of the common man by the state.

Morris also fought for people who weren’t always considered people by colonial Americans – slaves.  Perhaps he was just looking out for the North’s representation, but he “could never agree to give…encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing the [the South] representation for their Negroes.”  In a brilliant compromise, Morris proposed, “the more congressmen a state had, the more taxes it would pay.”  The South wanted three-fifths of their slaves to be counted as one person in the census (population would determine the amount of congressmen), so Morris’s proposal would make them, at least, pay for this representation of their slaves.  But his antislavery speech was, if nothing else, the most dramatic.  In it, he boldly said to his southern delegates about the slaves, “Are they men?  Then make them citizens and let them vote.”  Though abolitionist sentiment was present in Revolutionary times, these thoughts – especially voicing them publicly – were still revolutionary.

His forward thinking didn’t cease there.  Morris fought to prevent a proposed split among large and small states, saying that war would be inevitable.  Union between the states was the only answer.  He foresaw that if large and small states, and northern and southern states, didn’t share interests, bloodshed would be the inexorable solution to their quarrels.  He prophetically said the “stronger party will then make traitors of the weaker, and the gallows and halter will finish the work of the sword.”  If only Confederate President Jefferson Davis had read what Morris had said 75 years before the South seceded from the Union…

Fellow Convention delegate Roger Sherman said of Morris in 1790, “I consider him an irreligious and profane man…it is a bad example to promote such characters.”  But he also said that he hadn’t “heard that Morris has betrayed a trust, or that he lacks integrity.”  The men at the Constitutional Convention might have had the same, perhaps overly positive, attitude about the men who would become the Congress and Executive.  They thought that they could establish a quorum of wise men, a government of civic duty-minded gentlemen patriots – of philosopher kings.  Gouverneur Morris was certainly no philosopher king.  But he helped forge the document that has stood the test of time – our Constitution of the United States.  Morris put the finishing polish on the document Americans still govern their lives with today, giving it its graceful, erudite language, and even wrote its illustrious preamble.  It is because of the way he worded the Constitution that it is so revered around the globe, and that it has been mimicked so many times, as well.  These 55 delegates set out to form “a more perfect union”.  And we can’t get a more perfect example of how imperfect these men, the Founding Fathers, really were than Gouverneur Morris.  If there’s anything we can all relate to, it is imperfection.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to better ourselves and our country like these imperfect men did.

I hope learning about Gouverneur Morris shows you how interesting the Constitution can be when you look at the effort that went into its conception, and the diverse cast of characters that saw it through.  To see the kind of minds present at the Convention, and what their intents were, can possibly help us better understand the elegantly worded document.  They weren’t so different from us, after all.  They had their distractions, just like us, but they still took the time to make the world around them better.  And they had not just their own interests in mind, but generations to follow.

It’s an election year, which means we’re all going to endure a litany of nonsense about the Constitution.  In our modern age of politics – dominated by the 24 hour news cycle and the advent of Twitter and Facebook – maybe we just need to get back to the basics.  Despite the colloquial and snarky tone of this article, I want you to take one thing seriously – our Constitution.  Men like Morris did, and we shouldn’t take that for granted.

We don’t all need to be Constitutional scholars, but I do encourage us to at least take a look at our founding document and the subsequent Bill of Rights.  It is important to point out that the country that piece of paper officially created became such a great country that its citizens now don’t have to know much about the Constitution.  Though they sought order, I doubt these 55 delegates would prefer consumer drones over an educated voting populace.  True, the Constitution isn’t exactly like reading a Harry Potter novel, but it’s about seven hundred pages shorter.  Come on, give it a shot.  That way when you’re hearing a politician speak, you can hold your head up high, and say in a loud, steady voice, “Bull—t!”

Even if Morris and the other Constitutional Convention delegates don’t relate to you, then maybe their words will.  Remember, it is “We the People” who are supposed to form “a more perfect union”, not the piece of paper those words are on.  Educated voters are the only hope in preserving freedom; the country’s future rests in your hands.  The philosopher Socrates once said, “You should learn more about your world before you condemn it.”  Let’s learn a bit more about the Constitution before we condemn it as a mere relic of the past.