Founders and the Constitution
Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Gouverneur Morris. They will learn about Gouverneur Morris’s role in the Newburgh Conspiracy, his contributions and responsibilities at the Constitutional Convention, and his view on the purposes of government.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as man does his wife, for better, for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities. - Gouverneur Morris (1803)
Though James Madison has been given the title, “Father of the Constitution,” a case could be made that Gouverneur Morris was second in importance only to the Virginian in shaping the final version of the document. Morris spoke more often (173 times) than any other delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Though he was often on the losing side of issues and was not a political theorist on the level of Madison, Morris was a leader of the nationalist bloc at the Convention that ultimately carried the day. In addition, it was the native New Yorker who actually crafted much of the language of the United States Constitution.
Assigned to the Committee of Style as debate at the Philadelphia Convention drew to a close, Morris was given the task of wording the Constitution by the committee’s members. Through phraseology, Morris attempted to enhance the power of the federal government. Most significantly, Morris’s choice of the words, “We the people,” for the beginning of the famous Preamble helped to define the American nation as a single entity, created by the people, not the states. This argument would later be used by John Marshall and Abraham Lincoln to assert the supremacy of the federal government over the states.
Troubled by the War of 1812, sectional differences, and evidence of national weakness, Morris lent support in the last few years of his life to a movement to establish a separate confederacy encompassing New England and New York. It was perhaps an unexpected epilogue to the life of a man who had done so much to promote a strong Union twenty-five years earlier.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about Gouverneur Morris. They should first read as homework Handout A—Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout B—In His Own Words: Gouverneur Morris and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, in which Morris explains the purposes of the new U.S. government.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask students to find articles illustrating the U.S. government fulfilling the purposes explained in the Preamble, or to perform a close reading of the Preamble. Extensions asks students to compare Morris’s wording to other proposed versions of the Preamble.
- explain Gouverneur Morris’s role in the Newburgh Conspiracy.
- understand Morris’s contributions at the Constitutional Convention and his responsibilities in drafting the Constitution’s final wording.
- understand the way Morris’s strengths as well as shortcomings enabled him to contribute to his community and country.
- analyze the purposes of government set forth in the Preamble.
- evaluate the ways modern U.S. government fulfills those purposes of government.
- Handout A—Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816)
- Handout B—In His Own Words: Gouverneur Morris and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
Additional Teacher Resources
- Preamble Cards
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IA1, IA3, IIA1, IIA2, IIIB1
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Gouverneur Morris.
Gouverneur Morris was an early supporter of American independence and provided assistance to militiamen during some of the most difficult periods of the war. Appointed to the Committee of Style at the Constitutional Convention, Morris was responsible for the Constitution’s final wording. He twice served as our nation’s representative to France.
Context 5 min.
Explain to students that Gouverneur Morris was in charge of editing the language of the Constitution and putting the document into final form. One of the most significant tasks he faced was the opening of the Constitution, known as the Preamble. This section would set out the Constitution’s purpose and, therefore, the delegates’ understanding of the purpose of government.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Before class, create “Preamble stations” in the classroom with a Preamble poster, Preamble cards, and a box or basket.
- Create Preamble Posters by enlarging each of the “cards” from the Preamble to the United States Constitution and printing them on large paper. Arrange them in order around the classroom. Place a desk underneath each poster.
- Make copies of each Preamble card in actual size for half the number of students in the class.
- Below each Preamble Poster, place a stack of corresponding Preamble cards, along with a small basket or box.
- Have students pair up and walk around the room and visit each Preamble station in order.
- Ask each pair to rewrite the phrase that appears on the Preamble Poster on a Preamble card.
- For stations three through seven, have each pair brainstorm and write down on their card one or two examples of the U.S. government fulfilling that purpose. The pair should then put their card in the basket before moving on to the next station.
- Have students return to their seats once they have completed all the stations. Teacher should collect the baskets and put up an overhead of Handout B.
- Read aloud to the class the rewritten versions of the first clause, and ask students for reaction. Write an agreed upon version of the first clause on the board or overhead.
- Conduct a large group discussion about what government purposes are defined by clauses three through seven of the Preamble, and examples of how the U.S. government fills those purposes today. Use the examples students wrote at the Preamble stations to prompt discussion.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Explain to students that one of the most important adjustments Morris made to the Committee of Style’s version was changing “We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . .” and so on, to simply “We the people of the United States.” Why was that change significant?
The Preamble names “the people” as the source of authority and power. Instead of creating a government of all the states, as some preferred, the wording of the Preamble helped to create a stronger central government since sovereignty came from the people directly. This was arguably one of Morris’s nationalist goals. He defined all Americans as part of a unified group, rather than as residents of their individual states. (Tell students that Morris may also have been trying to gloss over the fact that some states may not have joined the union immediately, and that Rhode Island did not send any delegates to the Philadelphia convention.)
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Ask students to find newspaper or Internet articles that illustrate today’s government fulfilling the purposes of government set forth in the Preamble. Have them write a one-paragraph explanation for each article.
- Ask students to perform a close reading of the Preamble, and interpret it as if it were a poem or a piece of literature. What effect does Morris’s diction [key word choices such as “ordain” and “establish” and others] have on the way the Constitution will be perceived? Consider other literary devices like rhyme, repetition, and alliteration.
Have students contrast Morris’s wording of the Preamble with other proposed language. What concerns do the following suggestions reflect? How did Morris’s version differ from these suggestions?
- James Madison suggested The objects of Confederation [are] common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare.
- Charles Pinckney defined the purposes of government as the common benefit of the states, [and] their defense and security against all designs and leagues that may be injurious to their interests. . . .
- Robert Patterson offered: the preservation of the union.
Source: Brookhiser, Richard. Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
Adams, William Howard. Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Brookhiser, Richard. Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
Kline, Mary-Jo. Gouverneur Morris and The New Nation, 1775–1788. New York: Arno Press, 1978.
McDonald, Forrest. E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776–1790. Reprint. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979.
Mintz, Max M. Gouverneur Morris and the American Revolution. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
“The Constitutional Convention.” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/>.
“Gouverneur Morris, 1752–1816.”Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress. <http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=M000976>.
“Gouverneur Morris.” U.S. Army Center of Military History. <http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/RevWar/ss/morrisg.htm>.
By Gouverneur Morris
- Address to the People of the State of New York (1812)
- Handout A: Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816)
- Handout B: In His Own Words: Gouverneur Morris and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
- Handout C: Preamble Cards
- Thematic Essay