The Case of the Dishonest Scrivener: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of the Federalist Constitution

Michigan Law Review, Vol. 120, Pp. 1-123, 2021.
(2019). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2163.
DOI No.: 10.36644/mlr.120.1.case

125 Pages Posted: 13 May 2019 Last revised: 16 Nov 2021

Date Written: February 5, 2019

Abstract

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates appointed the Committee of Style and Arrangement to bring together the textual provisions that the Convention had previously agreed to and to prepare a final constitution. Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris drafted the document for the Committee, and, with few revisions and little debate, the Convention adopted Morris’s draft. For more than two hundred years, questions have been raised as to whether Morris covertly altered the text in order to advance his constitutional vision, but modern legal scholars and historians studying the Convention have either ignored the issue or concluded that Morris was an honest scrivener. No prior article has systematically compared the Committee’s draft to the previously adopted resolutions or discussed the implications of those changes for constitutional law.

This Article undertakes that comparison. It shows that Morris made fifteen significant changes to the Constitution and that many of the Constitution’s central elements were wholly or in critical part Morris’s work. Morris’s changes strengthened the national executive and judiciary, provided the textual basis for judicial review, increased presidential accountability through an expansive conception of impeachment, protected private property, mandated that the census report reflect “actual enumeration,” removed the constitutional text suggesting that slavery was just, and fought slavery’s spread.

This Article also shows that Morris created the basis for the Federalist reading of the Constitution. Federalists—notably including fellow Committee member Alexander Hamilton—repeatedly drew on language crafted by Morris as they fought for their vision of the Constitution. Because the changes Morris made to the Convention’s agreed language were subtle, both Republicans and Federalists were able to appeal to text in the great constitutional battles of the early republic. Modern originalists claim that the Republican reading reflects the original understanding of the Constitution, but this Article argues that the largely dismissed Federalist reading explains words, phrases, and punctuation that the Republican reading ignores or renders unintelligible. By contrast, the Federalist reading of the Preamble (which they saw as a grant of substantive power), the Article I and Article II Vesting Clauses (which were contrasted to argue for expansive executive power), the Article III Vesting Clause (which they read to mandate the creation of lower federal courts), the Contracts Clause (which they read to cover public as well as private contracts), the Impeachment Clause (which they read to cover both nonofficial and official acts), and the “law of the land” provision (which they construed as a basis for judicial review) gives effect to Morris’s—and the Constitution’s—words.

Keywords: Gouverneur Morris, Committee of Style, legal history, constitution, constitutional law, originalism

Suggested Citation

Treanor, William Michael, The Case of the Dishonest Scrivener: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of the Federalist Constitution (February 5, 2019). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 120, Pp. 1-123, 2021.
(2019). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2163.
DOI No.: 10.36644/mlr.120.1.case, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3383183 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3383183

William Michael Treanor (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9030 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/treanor-william-m.cfm

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