I’ve mentioned before that Gouverneur Morris thought the US Congress, as formulated after the Connecticut Compromise, would be controlled by the “special interests”, especially the interests of the wealthy. This is one of the reasons Morris so forcefully (and successfully) argued for a strong, independent executive. But why did Morris think that the national legislature would be tyrannical without such a check?
Well first of all, Morris understood that although legislative authority looks more popular, it can still be tyrannical. Morris claimed that there were numerous examples of this in the states between 1776-1787. Even though the institutions of the young states looked radically democratic, Morris thought in reality the “democratic” legislatures were captured by a few powerful individuals acting against the general welfare. In other words, contrary to the common belief of the time, Morris argued that the states were oligarchic in the extreme.
But even more powerful than Morris’s general critiques of state constitutions was his understanding that real tyranny was found in the institution of slavery. Ironically, one of the principle apologists for slavery at the Convention, Charles Pinkney of South Carolina, was also one of the foremost critics of Morris’s vision of mixed government, saying it couldn’t work because there was no aristocracy in America.
Pinckney clearly missed Morris’s point that hereditary or titled nobility is not the only form of institutional tyranny: when accused of favoring aristocracy, Morris said “It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed.” There was no greater evidence of an oppressive upper class than the slave-owners that dominated the Southern states. It was not by accident that Morris critiqued oligarchy in those terms: “The rich will always attempt to establish dominion and enslave the rest.” While in most cases the rich “enslaved” the poor through political manipulation, cronyism, unjust wages, etc., real slavery – control over the life, liberty and property of another human being – was the very worst of “aristocracy”. No other oppression could be as harmful, or as complete. Though Morris thought some division between classes was inevitable, the institution of slavery needlessly and unjustly exaggerated that distinction.
Morris had always criticized the institution of slavery, going back to his days writing the constitution for New York in 1777, where he argued vehemently for the proposition “that every being who breathes the air of this State shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman”, and asked for a constitutional provision to abolish slavery. His principled opposition to slavery didn’t end, and Morris was the foremost critic of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. It’s worth quoting him at length:
“He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution–It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia., Maryland, and the other States having slaves. Travel thro’ the whole Continent and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the Eastern States and enter New York the effects of the institution become visible; passing thro’ the Jerseys and entering Pennsylvania every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed Southwardly and every step you take thro’ the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.”
Although it wasn’t strictly a North vs. South issue (notice above Morris singles out New York, which enslaved the most people of any Northern state), at the Convention just a few states, especially the Carolinas and Georgia, opposed a national trend towards abolition of slavery. At first Morris expressed his frustration with this situation, saying he was “compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States or to human nature, and he must therefore do it to the former.” If the new Constitution was to allow the slave trade, and thus do injustice to humanity, Morris wanted it to include a clause explicitly blaming the states that wanted it: “This he said would be most fair and would avoid the ambiguity…He wished it to be known also that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those States.”
Therefore not only was Morris opposed to slavery as the primary instance of actual oppression in the United States, but he also saw the institution as inherently tied to special interests in opposition to the national interest. It is no surprise therefore, that he connected state control of the national legislature with a tyrannical oligarchy in that body, and saw the need to balance it.
Note: Some quotations are edited for clarity, and are from the Records of the Convention.