It’s 1780 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Gouverneur Morris is fleeing through the city streets. Running from the angry husband of one of his married lovers, he escapes straight into the path of an oncoming carriage – losing his leg as a result. And amazingly, this is just one of many incredible tales in the life of America’s weirdest Founding Father.
Morris was born on January 30, 1752, in Morrisania, a vast estate owned by his family in what is now New York City’s South Bronx. His father, Lewis, was a judge and his mother, Sarah, was descended from Huguenots. When he was just 12 years old, the young Morris began attending the prestigious King’s College, known as Columbia University today.
After graduating with a master’s degree, Morris pursued a career as a lawyer, passing the bar in 1775. That same year, he was chosen to attend the New York Provincial Congress as a representative of his household. However, his enthusiasm for American independence was not shared by all of his family.
Though Lewis, Morris’ half-brother, was on the same side, a number of other relatives were aligned to the Loyalist cause. In fact, Morris’ own mother handed over Morrisania for the British to use during their campaign – resulting in a rift that lasted for the duration of the American War of Independence.
In 1778 Morris became a member of the Continental Congress, tasked with assisting in military reform. That same year, he cast the deciding vote in support of George Washington continuing as Commander-in-Chief. However, he was not re-elected in 1779 – likely because his political views were at odds with those commonly held throughout New York at the time.
With his career in politics seemingly over, Morris relocated to Philadelphia, where he found employment as a lawyer. However, in 1787 he returned to the fold, representing Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, the four-month gathering that ultimately spawned the Constitution of the United States. Even though he was unable to attend the convention for a whole month, Morris nonetheless managed to deliver the most speeches out of any of the delegates present.
In fact, Morris spoke an incredible 173 times over the course of the convention. Impressively, he was one of only a few delegates to denounce the practice of slavery, and he also supported the right to freedom of religion. At the same time, however, he advocated the idea of a lifelong presidency, with senators appointed at the leader’s discretion.
At the convention, Morris was selected as one of five individuals responsible for fine-tuning the wording of the Constitution. He reportedly excelled in this role, with some giving him credit for the specific manner of the work. And, thanks to him, a clunky paragraph that once named all the individual states was reformed into the immortal, “We the People of the United States.”
On June 21, 1788, the Constitution was ratified, and Morris became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. However, that was by far the end of his fascinating career. In 1789, for example, he traveled to Paris, just as the French Revolution was beginning to take hold. In 1792 President Washington appointed him as a French ambassador, and he spent a total of five years in war-torn Paris. He was reportedly the only diplomat not to flee as the Reign of Terror wrought bloody havoc.
Later, Morris returned to America, where he served on the United States Senate until 1803. Four years later, he became one of three men assigned to the task of managing New York City’s exponential growth. Together, the commission designed the grid system which still dominates Manhattan today. Moreover, Morris also played an important role in getting the Erie Canal built – bringing a vital lift to the city’s economy along the way.
Impressive as they are, these achievements only scratch the surface of what made Morris one of America’s most memorable Founding Fathers. In fact, behind closed doors – and sometimes in front of them – the statesman indulged in some outlandish habits that make even today’s celebrities seem tame.
Apparently, Morris was quite the ladies’ man, with a particular taste for married women. And in 1780 he was embroiled in an illicit debacle, when a lover’s husband found out about his wife and Morris’ trysts. Enraged, he chased Morris through the streets of Philadelphia. Eventually, the hunt ended in disaster, after the guilty party was knocked down by a passing carriage.
Left severely injured, Morris ended up having his left leg amputated below the knee. And in a terrible twist, his usual doctor – who had been away at the time of the incident – later told him that the limb probably could have been spared. However, the loss did little to dampen Morris’ lust for life.
Equipped with a pegleg, Morris continued to enjoy all manner of pursuits – including romancing married women. In fact, one friend reportedly remarked that he should have “lost something else.” And though others had hoped that the injury might calm his appetites, he showed little sign of slowing down.
While in Paris, Morris fully embraced the notion of the ‘city of love.’ For three years, he maintained a sexual relationship with the married Comtesse Adélaïde de Flahaut, a French novelist. At the time, she was living in the palace that would later become the Louvre art gallery. And on one occasion, Morris wrote in his diary about a risky liaison conducted in front of open doors.
During his time in France, Morris remained sympathetic to Louis XVI and his consort Marie Antoinette. He even, at one point, attempted to smuggle them to safety as the revolution raged on. After both were executed, he purchased some of the queen’s furniture from the Palace of Versailles, eventually shipping the collection across the Atlantic to New York.
At a Christmas shindig in 1809, lifelong bachelor Morris shocked his guests when he announced that he had married his housekeeper. At 35 years of age, Anne Cary Randolph – known as Nancy – was 22 years younger than her new husband. Moreover, she came with a scandalous past of her own.
Back in 1792 Randolph had been accused of sleeping with her brother-in-law and colluding with him to murder their baby. However, she claimed that the child had not survived the birth. And although she was acquitted, the rumors drove her out of Virginia and eventually into Morris’ arms. In February 1813 the couple’s son, Gouverneur Morris Jr., was born.
Three years later, the elder Morris’ health was beginning to fail. And after suffering from a severe case of gout, he was further stricken by an obstruction in his urinary tract. Shockingly, he attempted to clear it himself, forging a makeshift catheter made of whale bone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the procedure led to internal injuries, and on November 6, 1816, the Founding Father passed away.
Today, Morris is perhaps best remembered in the words of his biographer, the future President Theodore Roosevelt. “There has never been an American statesman of keener intellect or more brilliant genius,” he wrote in 1888. “Had he possessed but a little more steadiness and self-control he would have stood among the two or three very foremost.”