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 professor of political science, Syracuse University, and the author of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought.
"The Constitution’s Penman merits the careful attention of students of Gouverneur Morris, the Constitutional Convention, and American constitutionalism more generally. Readers will be reminded that now forgotten founders, too, made vital contributions to the nation’s founding. The book will prompt even seasoned scholars to rethink their understandings of the Philadelphia Convention and the American constitutional tradition."—Review of Politics
"Rasmussen has done all student of the founding and constitutional history a valuable service by laying out in detail Gouverneur Morris’s many efforts to help create a ‘more perfect union,’ as he put it, to replace the immature union under the Articles of Confederation."—American Political Thought
"A long-overdue study of Morris’s life and thought, drawing on the smattering of extant studies as well as a close reading of his major speeches and letters. Rasmussen shows how Morris shaped the Constitution with a combination of practical politics and a bold vision for the future we would do well to imitate today."—Claremont Review of Books
"Rasmussen has produced an instructive and timely work of scholarship. The Constitution’s Penman offers an edifying study of the American Founding and a revealing look at one of its most consequential and unjustly neglected participants."—Law & Liberty
“Of all the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris has the strongest claim to the title ‘Father of the Constitution,’ but, remarkably, his constitutional thought has been all but ignored. Dennis Rasmussen’s pathbreaking and superb study illuminates the full range of Morris’s thinking on subjects ranging from slavery to the electoral college to the judiciary. At a time when the Constitution’s original meaning is of profound importance for law and politics, The Constitution’s Penman is a must-read.”—William M. Treanor, dean and executive vice president, Georgetown University Law Center
“The first book-length venture on the subject, The Constitution’s Penman deftly demonstrates the constitutional vision of Gouverneur Morris, one of the half-dozen dominant delegates in the Constitutional Convention. Rasmussen focuses on Morris’s thoughts on the concept of federalism, the structure and powers of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the judiciary, as well as his abolitionist attitude toward slavery. Examining Morris’s arrangement of the final version of the Constitution and his authorship of the preamble, the book goes a long way in describing the founders’ motivation in drafting a new constitution for their struggling nation.”—John P. Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution
“Dennis Rasmussen’s The Constitution’s Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America’s Basic Charter is the first book-length study of Gouverneur Morris’s contributions to the framing of the Constitution. The book belongs to that genre of historical writing on the ‘forgotten founders,’ and its introduction is a lament that so consequential a figure as Morris has fallen into obscurity. Rasmussen means to right that wrong. Written in engaging prose, the book is brimming with insights and valuable background information.”—Patrick Coby, Esther Booth Wiley 1934 Professor Emeritus of Government at Smith College
Introduction: Forgotten Yet Unforgettable
1. The Penman’s Story: A Brief Biography
2. A Most Splendid Part: Morris at the Convention
3. A Representative of America: Federalism
4. Checking America’s Aristocracy: The Senate
5. Property and the People’s Branch: The House of Representatives
6. A Reluctant Architect of the Electoral College: Presidential Selection
7. An Office Fit for Washington: The Presidency
8. That Fortress of the Constitution: The Judiciary
9. The Curse of Heaven: Slavery
10. A Declaration of Motives: The Preamble
Epilogue: From Constitution-Maker to Aspiring Constitution-Breaker
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