The Constitution’s Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America’s Basic Charter
Dennis C. Rasmussen
JMC fellow Dennis Rasmussen has recently published a book, The Constitution’s Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America’s Basic Charters:
Strikingly few Americans know who wrote the Constitution. Even fewer know that he was a peg-legged ladies’ man with a wicked sense of humor, a staunch opponent of slavery, and an unabashed elitist. Gouverneur Morris, who has been described as “the most colorful man in North America” at the time of the founding, was a dominant figure at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. In fact, he spoke more often, proposed more motions, and had more motions adopted than any other delegate. He also put the Constitution into its final form, choosing the arrangement and much of the wording of its provisions, not to mention composing the famous preamble (“We the People of the United States . . .”) nearly from scratch. The Constitution’s Penman is the first book to explore the constitutional vision of this fascinating, neglected, and influential American.
As Dennis Rasmussen deftly shows, some aspects of Morris’s political thought were intriguingly idiosyncratic, such as his argument that the Senate should be an aristocratic body whose members would serve life terms without pay. Other aspects of his vision for America’s constitutional order, however, were astoundingly prescient. Morris saw as clearly as any of the framers the need for a powerful executive with a popular mandate, the central role that parties would play in American politics, and the unfathomable evils that slavery would visit on American life. Rasmussen demonstrates that it is impossible to fully understand the Constitution without appreciating the central role that Morris played in shaping it.
Dennis C. Rasmussen is a Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. His research focuses on the Enlightenment, the American founding, and the virtues and shortcomings of liberal democracy and market capitalism. He is the author of four books, including The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and named a best book of the year by The Guardian, Bloomberg, Project Syndicate, Australian Book Review, and Five Books.
Professor Rasmussen is a JMC fellow.
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