Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Revolutionary Philadelphia's Patriots
All kinds of people were patriots in 1776, and many of them were all mixed up about what was going on and how they stood. Hotheads in the London Coffee House stirred up about an inoffensive Tea Act, Scotch-Irish come here to escape the British Crown, the local artisan class and the local smuggler class, unexpectedly prospering under non-importation, and the local gentry -- offended to be denied seats in Parliament like other Englishmen. Pennsylvania wavered until Ben Franklin stepped forward with a plan.

Revisionist Themes
In taking a comprehensive view of a city, an author sometimes makes observations which differ from the common view. Usually with special pride, sometimes a little sullen.

Pacifist Pennsylvania, Invaded Many Times
Pennsylvania was founded as a pacifist utopia, and currently regards itself as protected by vast oceans. But Pennsylvania has been seriously invaded at least six times.

Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.

...Authorship of the Constitution
There were seventy invited delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Fifty-five attended the sessions, and thirty-nine signed it. We believe the main contributions were made by seven or eight men. But you can never tell, for certain.

British Abandon Philadelphia, Morris Takes It Back
It was fear of the French Fleet that made the British abandon conquered Philadelphia. Robert Morris took over and restored the insurgent headquarters, a hundred miles from the Ocean.

Right Angle Club 2012
This ends the ninetieth year for the club operating under the name of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia. Before that, and for an unknown period, it was known as the Philadelphia Chapter of the Exchange Club.

..Tax and Fiscal Issues in the Constitution, Morris (1)
For some founding fathers, monetary issues were all that mattered.

.American and European Unions, Compared(2)
U.S.-EU Comparisons, cont.

Penman of the Constitution

{Gouverneur Morris}
Gouverneur Morris

THE Constitution is the product of many minds, its ideas have many sources. But final phrasing of the unified document can largely be traced to a lawyer, Gouverneur Morris. The Constitutional Convention would announce a topic, argue for days about different resolutions of it, and then vote on or amend a composite resolution ( unless the matter was deferred to another day of earnest wrangling.) After months of deliberation, that jumble of resolutions made quite a pile. The Convention then turned it all over to Gouverneur Morris for smooth editing and uniformity. Although Morris had arrived a month late for the Convention, he still had time to rise and speak his views more than any other delegate, 173 times. But comparatively few of his ideas identifiably survived the voting; by Convention's end the delegates were most likely listening for elegance and poise, increasingly expecting the final edit to be his. He finished the task in four days, and the full convention only changed a few words before accepting it. This assembly needed a lawyer who would sincerely follow the intent of his client, rather than yield to the slightest temptation to warp it with his own views. The convention had heard his opinion about almost everything, were thus alerted to uninvited slants. He gave them what they asked for, wording it for persuading the nation, as he himself had been persuaded by what the delegates wanted. The remarkable degree to which he had faithfully served his client's wishes, rather than his own, only emerged twenty years later. During the War of 1812, he disavowed the Constitution he had written.

{top quote}
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. {bottom quote}
Preamble to the Constitution

Morris mostly shortened what the delegates had said. A word here, a phrase there, sometimes whole sentences were removed. After that, rearrangement, and substitution of more precise verbs. This lion of the drawing room, this duelist of the salon, undoubtedly had an enjoyable time twitting his less accomplished clients with brisk capsules of what, of course, they had meant to say. To remember that he was outshining Benjamin Franklin and most of the other recognized wits of the continent, is to savor the fun of it all. Of all people in the Enlightenment, Franklin was certainly Gouverneur's equal in sparkling exchanges of debate. Here, he did not even try.

{John Peter Zenger}
John Peter Zenger

Where did this apparition come from? He was almost but not quite a lord of the manor, referring to his extensive riverfront estate in the Bronx called Morrisania, which dated back seven generations in America and ultimately belonged to him, but the title went to his half-brother. He was unquestionably a member of that small society which settled America before the English colonization. Even George Washington was only a fourth-generation American. The Morris side of the family had included two Royal Governors of New York, including the one who tried to imprison Peter Zenger for telling the truth. Gouverneur was his mother's family name, one of the Huguenots who settled New Rochelle in 1663. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that his mother was a loyalist, and his half-brother a lieutenant General in the British Army. Gouverneur Morris was a brilliant student of law, unusually tall and handsome for the era. He was as tall as George Washington, and Houdon used him as a body model for a statue of the General. Among the ladies, he created a sensation wherever he went. At an early age, however, he spilled a kettle of hot water on his right arm, which killed the nerve and mummified the flesh. The pain must have been severe, with not even an aspirin to help, and the physical deformity put an end to a big man's dreams of military valor. To a young mind, the physical deformity probably seemed more disfiguring than it needed to be, in addition to diminishing his own ideas of himself. He turned to the law, where he was probably a fiercer litigant than he needed to be. And more of a rebel.

The timing of circumstances drove him out of Morrisania, then out of Manhattan, as the invading British cleared the way for occupation of New York City. Then up the Hudson River to Kingston, and on to the scene of the Battle of Saratoga. He had been elected to the Continental Congress but stayed in the battlegrounds of New York during the early part of the Revolution, helping to run the rebel government there, and making acquaintance with George Washington, whom he soon began to worship as the ideal aristocrat in a war he could not actively join as a combatant himself. With Saratoga completely changing the military outlook for the rebellion, Morris was charged up, ready to assume his duties as a member of the Continental Congress. By that time, Congress had retreated to York, Pennsylvania, George Washington was in Valley Forge, and the hope was to regroup and drive the British from Philadelphia. For all intents and purposes Robert Morris the Philadelphia merchant, no relative of Gouverneur, was running the rebel government from his country home in Manheim, a suburb of Lancaster. After presenting himself to Robert, Gouverneur was given the assignment of visiting the camps at Valley Forge and reporting what to do about the deplorable condition of the Army and its encampment. By that time, both the British and the French had about decided that the war was going to be decided in Europe on European battlefields, so the armies and armadas in America were probably in the wrong place for decisive action. Lord North had reason to be disappointed in Burgoyne's performance at Saratoga, and Howe's abandonment of orders, even though by a close call he had captured the American Capital of Philadelphia. Consequently, Lord North added the appearance of still another defeat by withdrawing from Philadelphia, deciding in the process to dispatch the Earl of Carlisle to offer generous peace terms to the colonies. Carlisle showed up in Philadelphia and was more or less lost to sight among rich borderline loyalists of Society Hill like the Powels. His offer to allow the Americans to have their own parliament within a commonwealth nominally headed by the Monarch, went nowhere. The Colonist Revolutionaries were being offered what they had asked for, in the form of taxation with representation. To have it more or less snubbed by the colonists was certainly a public relations defeat to be added to losing Philadelphia and Saratoga. In this confused and misleading set of circumstances, Gouverneur sent several official rejections of the diplomatic overture, and wrote a series of contemptuous newspaper articles denouncing the idea. It seems inconceivable that Gouverneur would take this on without the approval of Washington, Robert Morris, or the Continental Congress, to all of whom he had ready access. But if anyone could do such a thing on his own responsibility, it was Morris. One hopes that future historians will apply serious effort to clarifying these otherwise unexplainable actions.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut

With of course the indispensable help of retrospect, some would say Gouverneur Morris had committed a massive blunder. The Revolutionary War went on for six more years, the Southern half of the colonies were devastated, and the post-war chaos came very near destroying the starving little rebellion. The alternative of accepting the peace offer might have allowed America and Canada to become the world powers they did become; but the French Revolution or at least the Napoleonic Wars might never have happened, the World Wars of the Twentieth century might have turned out entirely differently, and on and on. Historians consider hypothetical versions of history to be unseemly daydreams ("counterfactuals"), but it seems safe to suppose Gouverneur Morris changed history appreciably in 1778. Whether he did so as someone's agent, or on his own, possibly remains to be discovered in the trunks of letters of the time. Whether the deceptive atmosphere of impending Colonial victory was strong enough to justify such wrongheaded decisions, is the sort of thing which is forever debatable.

While most of the credit for the style of the Constitution must go to Gouverneur Morris, there is a record of a significant argument which Madison resisted and lost, about the document style. During the debates about the Bill of Rights, Roger Sherman of Connecticut rose to object to Madison's intention to revise the Constitution to reflect the sense of the amendments, deleting the language of the original, and inserting what purports to be the sense of the amended version. That is definitely the common practice today for organization by-laws and revisions of statutes; it is less certain whether it was common practice at the end of the 18th Century. In any event, Sherman was violently opposed to doing it that way with amendments to the Constitution. After putting up a fight, Madison eventually gave up the argument. So the 1789 document continues to exist in its original form, and the fineness of Morris' elegant language is permanently on display. It may even help the Supreme Court in its sometimes convoluted interpreting the original intent of the framers. In any event, we now substitute the unspoken process of amending the Constitution by Supreme Court decision, about a hundred times every year. By preserving the original language, the citizens have preserved their own ability to have an opinion about how it may have wandered.


Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution : Richard Brookhiser: ISBN-13: 978-0743256025 Amazon


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