The Salmon P. Chase Colloquium series has had two themes: One is great moments in constitutional law, and the other is people who have been forgotten but should not have been. This colloquium is primarily in the latter category—it is about a forgotten founder of the Constitution. But the Constitution has more than one forgotten founder. I did a Google search this afternoon for “Forgotten Founder” and there are a whole series of books on various people who are the Constitution’s Forgotten Founder. So the Chase Colloquium series has another decade of subjects: Luther Martin, George Mason, Charles Pinckney, Roger Sherman. There is a lot to work with.
Gouverneur Morris is the one “forgotten founder” who really shouldn’t be for-gotten. The classic picture of Gouverneur Morris is actually a joint picture painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1783. Gouverneur Morris is on the left, and Robert Morris is on the right. They weren’t relatives, despite the shared last name, but they were very close. Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris were business partners during the Revolutionary War. Robert Morris, who is kind of the Jeff Bezos of the 1780s, was as close as the United States had to a president during the Revolutionary War. He was the head of finance and Gouverneur Morris was his number two. I will be focusing today on Gouverneur Morris’s work on the Committee of Style at the end of the Federal Constitutional Convention.
As the Federal Constitutional Convention is drawing to close, it’s hot and everybody’s tired. It has been four weeks since they had a draft of the Constitution, which was composed by the Committee of Detail. There has been a month of debate and votes up, votes down. There’s no draft constitution, even though the Convention is near the end of its work. So, the delegates together form a committee—the Committee of Style and Arrangement—and over three days this committee drafts the Constitution with Morris as the lead drafter. And then, very hurriedly, the Convention reviews it, almost completely adopts it, and goes home. The work of the Committee is supposed to be polishing the Constitution—taking what’s already been agreed to and putting it in a final document.
But what I argue in a recently published article in the Michigan Law Review— the basis of this talk—is that, as the drafter on the Committee of Style, Morris made fifteen substantive changes. As you’ll see, most of them are very subtle, but they have incredible consequence: He carefully picked words to advance particular substantive ends. With the passage of time, we have lost the meaning of much of this text. But if we are going to read the Constitution clearly—and as it was ratified at the time—we must recover the meaning of the texts that, on fifteen occasions, he changed. This is particularly important at a time when four members of the Supreme Court are originalists and focus on the original meaning of these words.
One part of this talk is about the changes he made. There were a number of basic causes Gouverneur Morris tried to advance during the Constitutional Convention, and he lost a lot of those battles in the months before he became the Committee of Style’s drafter. He was a big government person. He was probably, with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton, the strongest nationalist at the Convention. He was a big protector of private property. He was a champion of the judiciary and judicial review, and he was unquestionably the fiercest opponent of slavery at the Convention. And he was, with James Wilson, the Convention’s leading champion of the Presidency. In each of those areas, on the Committee of Style, he made very subtle changes to advance his goals. If you read the text in accordance with the meaning of the words in 1787, you’ll see how it reflects his meanings, what he wanted to achieve.
Taken all together, with these changes, Morris created the Federalist Constitution. That will be the subject of the first part of this talk. But most originalists today read the Constitution very differently. They see the Constitution as a Jeffersonian Republican Constitution, not as a Federalist Constitution. And the reason why that occurred is the topic of the final part of this talk. I will discuss how the Constitution’s original meaning was lost.
My thesis here is a simple one, but an important one for constitutional law. At the Convention, the Federalists won the battle over the Constitution’s text. In the years that followed, however, they lost the battle over what that text means.
Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2023, 1-24.
Scholarly Commons Citation
Treanor, William M., "Gouverneur Morris and the Drafting of the Federalist Constitution" (2023). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2531.