Page images
PDF
EPUB

Morris. One of his ancestors is said to have been distinguished as a leader in Cromwell's army. Weary of military life, he embarked for the West Indies, and thence came to New York, where he purchased three thousand acres of land with manorial privileges in the vicinity of Haerlem, an estate still known as Morrissiana. The descendants of this colonist took an active part in public affairs. A vein of eccentricity, often the accompaniment of originality of mind and independence of spirit, seems to have always marked the family,

Governeur Morris was born on the paternal domain, January 31, 1752. His boyhood was devoted to rambling over his father's extensive farm, and he then indulged a taste for rural freedom and enjoyment, to which he returned in later years with undiminished zest and entire contentment. He was placed, when quite young, with a French teacher at New Rochelle, and thus acquired the facility in that language which proved so useful to him during his long residence in France. His college life was unusually brilliant, chiefly on account of the rhetorical ability to which it gave scope and impulse; and he was eminent for his attainments in Latin and mathematics. Graduating with honor at a very early age, he entered with zeal upon the study of law, and was just rising to professional distinction when the diffi ulties between Great Britain and her American colonies broke out. He was soon deeply involved in the responsible toils of the Revolution; subsequently removed to Philadelphia, and successfully practised at the bar; went abroad, and was appointed minister to France ; travelled extensively after being freed from official duties, and returned home to close his honorable and useful career in the home of his childhood. Such is an external outline of the life of Governeur Morris ; but the details abound with facts seldom equalled in interest and value, in the merely civic life of a republican. As a legislator, financier, political essayist, ambassador, orator, and private gentleman, Governeur Morris coöperated with the leading spirits of a revolutionary age rich in eminent characters ; greatly influenced the councils which ruled the destinies of an infant nation ; grappled, with bold intelligence, the chaotic but pregnant elements of society and government ; set a noble example of integrity and candor as an ally and a patriot;

and infused a philosophic spirit and an efficient wisdom into every interest and sphere with which he came in contact.

His life was a scene of versatile activity. He carried on his law practice, congressional duties, secret embassies, and extensive correspondence, with assiduity, during the whole American war; while abroad, he engaged in large mercantile speculations, prosecuted private claims, was an habitué of the best society, and faithfully discharged absorbing diplomatic obligations.

His diary in France, a collection of hasty data, evinces an uninterrupted and efficient activity, calling for the constant exercise of sagacity, wisdom, and reflection; while he used to declare that the multiplicity of his duties at home, during the seven years succeeding the Declaration of Independence, notwithstanding habits of method and application, prevented his keeping any notes of his own remarkable experience.

The American traveller in Europe is struck with the frequency of inscriptions, on public works, announcing the prince or pontiff to whose benevolent zeal any local improvement is attributable. To perpetuate, in every manner, the memory of national benefactors, is one of the conservative features of hereditary rule. With us it is quite otherwise. The process of national growth seems to go on, in republics, like the development of nature; a constant alternation of forces, each destined to be absorbed in the other; the deeds of one generation to fertilize the arena of the next; and the future to be so exclusively contemplated as to shut out of view the past. It is on this account that literature should attest departed worth, with authentic and careful emphasis. in a republic; and especially strive to do justice to those unpretending yet essential merits which result from character rather than genius, and, like the strains of great vocalists, leave no record but that which lingers in the souls they have warmed and exalted. A brief synopsis of the public life of Governeur Morris will give but an inadequate idea of its utility ; but it may serve to illustrate its scope and aim. At the age of eighteen he began to enlighten the minds of his countrymen on a subject of vital moment to their interests, but in regard to which their provincial experience had afforded them little insight. Political economy was then a science in embryo, and finance a branch very imperfectly understood ; questions relating to the principles of trade, debt and credit, exchange, and a circulating medium, were rife in the different states, when the adventurous stripling astonished his elders by the original views, the acute reasoning, and the thorough knowledge, with which he discussed them in the journals of the day. These, and subsequent financial essays, both instructed and influenced public sentiment, and prepared the way for whatever liberal and enlightened policy on this and kindred subjects was adopted.

The reputation of Governeur Morris, by these precocious writings, and several eloquent pleas to juries, was thus very early established in the colony. He was accordingly chosen a member of the first Provincial Congress; and regularly afterwards took his seat in the various assemblies there originated, under the names of Convention, Committee of Safety, and Congress, until he was duly elected to the Continental Congress. In these bodies his abilities were continually tasked, as a parliamentary orator, a private counsellor, and an efficient agent. He passed the hours between eleven and three in the House, despatched, at intervals, his professional affairs, and transacted the business of three committees of which he was chairman — those on the commissary, quarter. master's, and medical departments of the army, which was in a condition that rendered these duties of the most onerous description.

When the committees of correspondence were formed, he was appointed to Westchester county, and the gallant Montgomery to Dutchess. He devised a feasible and judicious plan to defray the expenses of the war, when the plan that he proposed for a reconcilia

, tion with England proved abortive. When the commander-in-chief approached, on his way to join the army at the north, Governeur Morris was one of those appointed to meet him at Newark, and there commenced the mutual esteem and entire confidence between them that never diminished. His speech in favor of independence, in the first Congress, was as remarkable for logical force as that of Patrick Henry for rhetorical fire. He was soon after sent on a mission to the Congress assembled at Philadelphia, appointed a commissioner to organize the new government, and sent to confer with General Schuyler, at Fort Edward, “on the means to be used by the state in aid of his plans of defence or resistance."

a

We next find him a delegate to Massachusetts in a convention to arrange

currency and prices; a mission which was precluded by a more peremptory call to Washington's head-quarters. He was one of the five delegates, elected on the dissolution of the New York convention that formed the constitution of the state, to represent her in the mean time. In that terrible crisis when the army was encamped at Valley Forge, and all was confusion, foreboding, and privation, Governeur Morris was chosen as the bearer of encouragement and counsel to the army, and proved a most judicious and acceptable coädjutor with his beloved chief, in reducing it to something like order and comfort. His pen was then employed to draw up instructions to General Gates, and an account of the existent state of public affairs for the use of Congress.

His views on the appointment of foreigners to military office, on providing for the army, and other exigencies of the times, are impressively unfolded in his correspondence with Washington. He drafted an able and timely address to the American people on the prosperous crisis attending the French alliance; and wrote, for Dr. Franklin to lay before the French ministry, "Observations on the Finances of America.” In February, 1779, we find him chairman of the committee " to consider the despatches from the American Commissioners abroad, and communications from the French minister in the United States" — "in its character and consequences,” it has been said, “ perhaps the most important during the war.” In 1780, during the great fiscal

' depression, he published, in a Philadelphia journal, a series of methodical, condensed, and intelligent papers on the subject of continental currency and finance, and was soon after appointed assistant-financier to Robert Morris. With General Knox, he was delegated by Washington to consult with the agents of Sir Henry Clinton on an exchange of prisoners. IIe corresponded with the French minister on the trade with the West Indies, and induced desirable modifications of our commercial treaties.

While residing at the French capital, and mingling with more curiosity than sympathy in its social circles, he was appointed by Washington a Commissioner to England. Although his ill-success in effecting any immediate arrangement of the pending difficul

[ocr errors]

ties has been ascribed to the abrupt manner which characterized his interviews with Pitt and the Duke of Leeds, and also to a breach of diplomatic courtesy, to which a high sense of honor impelled him, in communicating to the French minister, then resident in London, the terms of the proposed treaty; it seems, on the other hand, to be generally conceded that the policy of the English government, at this epoch, was delay, in order to await the issue of the continental troubles before making definite terms with the United States. On his return to Paris, Governeur Morris received intelligence of his appointment as minister to France. He held the office at a terrible political crisis, discharged its varied duties with eminent fidelity, and, although restrained, by the delicacy of his position, from taking an active part in the affairs of the kingdom, he exercised a brave humanity in sheltering refugees, preserving the funds of the royal family, and transmitting them to the exiles, using every available means to obtain the liberation of Lafayette, securing the lives and property of his own countrymen, and maintaining the dignity of the nation he represented.

The interval between his retirement from this office and his return home was passed in visiting Switzerland, Germany, and other parts of Europe. During this tour his observant mind was constantly engaged — not, however, upon the objects that usually attract cultivated travellers from America ; for art and antiquity his taste was not so evident as for those aspects and interests of national life which he esteemed of more practical importance. He collected information on political and commercial topics, and in regard to manufactures and agriculture. Society, however, was his chosen field, and conversation his favorite resource "the dumb circle round a card-table" being his aversion. In Vienna, Berlin, and other capitals, he seems to have been regarded from two entirely opposite points of view - the boldness and originality of his thoughts, and the manner of expressing them, giving offence to some, and delight to others. His return home, after a wearisome voyage, was cordially welcomed. He immediately rebuilt the old homestead, and adorned his ancestral domain ; was elected to Congress, where his speeches on the Louisiana question, and other topics of the day, several orations

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »