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11/30/2012

Getting to Know Gouverneur Morris
Michael Ramsey

Melanie Randolph Miller: The Ingenious Gouverneur Morris (reviewing To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: The Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris (J. Jackson Barlow, ed., Liberty Fund Books 2012)).   From the review:

Morris has long been dismissed as a “lightweight” (the comment of a former editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson), a producer of “solipsisms”  (Jack Rakove) and “a flutterer upon the surface” (Richard Henry Lee, in 1780),  but anyone who takes the time to delve into this collection will soon realize the injustice of those  judgments.

And: 

Readers of the Federalist Papers could benefit from a side dose of the (often far more readable!) essays in this book, penned by the eminently realistic but also humane Morris.  While they read them, however, they might keep in mind a comment in a letter to Timothy Pickering in 1814:

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.

(Note: Also worth a look are Miller's own works An Incautious Man: The Life of Gouverneur Morris (2008) and Envoy to Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution (2005)).