Class Conflicts Among Americans in the Revolutionary Period: Gouverneur Morris' Letter to Thomas Penn, 1774.

Gouverneur Morris was the great-grandson of Robert Morris, who in the 1650s purchased a large land grant of over 3000 acres in what is now "Morrisania", in the Bronx. Since they were wealthy landowners both his son and grandson, both named Lewis, were members of the Council and of the Supreme Court of the colony of New Jersey. The older Lewis was Chief Justice of the colony of New York and later Governor of New Jersey, and the younger one, Chief Justice of New Jersey.

Gouverneur Morris' family, like the families of many of the wealthy gentry of the colonies, was of divided loyalties. Of Gouverneur's three brothers one, Lewis, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while another, Staats Long Morris, was an officer in the British army and member of the British Parliament who lived and died in England and married a duchess. Gouverneur Morris himself ultimately sided with the Revolution.

However, the letter reproduced below, and the text which precedes it, show how closely associated he and other wealthy men were with the "Tories," or supporters of the British. In this letter to his friend Thomas Penn, Morris describes a meeting organized by the Sons of Liberty in New York to contest the closing of Boston harbor by the British in retaliation for anti-British actions taken by patriots there. Morris, along with other wealthy men and Tories, tried to take control of the meeting. They felt certain that the tradesmen and working men would defer to the wealthy and educated, and had even decided in advance who they wanted to be on the committee. But they were outmaneuvered by the anti-British faction, much to their own consternation.

Morris refers to the popular democratic movement against the British as a "mobility," or "mob" for short, and likens the working people to "reptiles" who were slowly awakening and would soon "bite" -- that is, attack the rich, contest the rule of the wealthy (what Morris calls "Aristocracy", "aristocracy" meaning "rule of the best."). He concludes that the danger of "democracy" was so great that it would be best to settle the dispute with England and leave the British in control, and outlines the plan he and other wealthy men had worked out for doing so.

What follows are three quotations. The first is from the 1832 volume by Jared Sparks, giving his account of the events that led Morris to write the letter. The second consists of two short passages from a recent social history of the United States, Who Built America? The last is the complete text of the letter.

The circumstances leading up to the letter (Sparks, p. 22)

1. " When the news of the act of Parliament for shutting up the port of Boston reached new York from England, it created a strong sensation there, as it did throughout America, for although the bill was intended only to operate against the town of Boston, yet it was designed as a punishment to the inhabitants of that place, on account of the spirited resistance they had made to the oppressive acts of the British government, the principles of which were equally dangerous to the liberties of all the colonies. A letter was forthwith despatched by express to the Committee of Correspondence in Boston, assuring them of the general indignation against this measure, and that a public testimony of their sentiments, and of their determination to make common cause with the people of Boston. The meeting was summoned by a public notice, and a large concourse assembled. The tories, as the adherents of the Ministry were called, and the moderate men of wealth and character, came to the meeting with the view of counteracting the efforts of the warm partizans of opposition, and having previously concerted matters together, they expected to give a turn to the proceedings suited to their purpose. They had even gone so far as to make out the list of a committee who should be appointed to consider the affair of the Boston Port Bill, the immediate cause of this commotion. But this was discovered by Sears [Captain Sears, one of "the earliest and most zealous leaders in the ranks of the Sons of Liberty in New York," according to Sparks] in time to thwart their plans. He proposed that no lists should be presented, but that the committee should be appointed by nominations on the spot. This was carried, and the committee consisted of a nearly /23/ equal number of both parties, but with a preponderance on the liberal side."

[ Sparks goes on to note that it was at this meeting the suggestion was first made for a 'general Congress of delegates from all the colonies', and he notes that 'it is believed that this was the first occasion on which (this suggestion) was promulgated by any public assemblage"].

Comments on Morris' Letter

"Early in 1774 an astute young gentleman named Gouverneur Morris found himself standing on a balcony as a New York City meeting debated how to respond to the Intolerable Acts. On one side were the merchants and property-owners, men like Morris himself. On the other were 'all the tradesmen, etc., who thought it worthwhile to leave daily labor for the good of the country.' 'The mob begin to think and to reason,' he wrote. 'Poor reptiles,' he called them, but 'with fear and with trembling' he predicted that 'ere noon they will bite.' Morris was always a bit melodramatic, but he understood what he saw. Nine years of activity in the resistance movement had given these people a new political identity and a voice that would not be stilled."

"Prior to independence, the worst disunity and the greatest doubts about militancy came from New York and Pennsylvania, where the colonial elite split sharply. The political group that formed around New York City's DeLancey family chose loyalism early on. In Pennsylvania, Joseph Galloway, longtime political associate of Benjamin Franklin, led a sizable portion of the Philadelphia elite in the same direction. These men decided that the dangers posed by the gathering revolutionary movement were greater than those posed by the British themselves [Morris thought this in 1774; see the end of Morris' letter, below, and the commentary at the top of this page -- GF]. Many others, such as Pennsylvania's John Dickinson and most of the rest of new York's upper class, stood trembling at the brink long after Virginians like Washington and Jefferson and Massachusetts men like John Adams and John Hancock had made up their minds. Until 1776 most moderates did their best to stave off independence. Thereafter the did all they could to achieve a political order in which their own class would be safe and secure [emphasis added - GF].

They had good reason to worry about disorder, for the people of their provinces were not united behind them or anybody else. In New York and Pennsylvania, both intense radicalism and strongly felt popular loyalty to the king were developing. Philadelphia and New York City witnessed the emergence of a new popular political movement made up of mechanics and the old Sons of Liberty. As early as 1773 New York artisans were meeting in taverns in order 'to concert matters' and in 1774 they bought a building of their own and named it Liberty Hall. Mechanics organized new York's tea party in March 1774; they were the 'poor reptiles' described by Gouverneur Morris as he watched the city's first committee election."

-American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society. Volume One. New York: Pantheon, 1989, pp. 145 and 150.

Letter of Gouverneur Morris to Thomas Penn, May 20th, 1774.

NOTE: This letter contains many allusions to Roman history. Under both the Republic and the Empire, Rome was governed an aristocracy whose wealth was based upon land, like the wealth of the landed aristocracy of the Thirteen colonies, including Morris and his friends. The Roman aristocrats, called the "patricians", were able to build a great Empire by convincing the common people, the "plebeians," that building such an empire was in their interest. At the same time, the "patricians" (the word literally means "Fathers of the country") were able to politically defeat the many revolts of the plebeians against their rule through a combination of reform, force, and "divide-and-conquer" strategy.

This history was the basis of the education of all wealthy people in the 18th century. In essence, it was a kind of education in how to rule, as well as the study of how to build an empire, and the study of literature.

"Good style" in the 18th century was, to some extent, also modeled on Latin style. Long sentences and subordinate clauses, and many words derived from Latin, were the marks of educated written style. Morris' letter is written after this fashion.

Because the allusions to Roman history and the Latinate style make this letter somewhat difficult to understand in places, I have thought it useful to provide some footnotes to help the reader understand exactly what Morris was getting at. -- GF

New York, May 10th, 1774

Dear Sir,

You have heard, and you will hear, a great deal about politics, and in the heap of chaff may find some grains of good sense. Believe me, Sir, freedom and religion are only watch words. We have appointed a Committee, or rather we have nominated one. Let me give you the history of it. It is needless to premise, that the lower orders of mankind are more easily led by specious appearances, than those of a more exalted station. [1] This and many similar propositions you know better than your humble servant.

The troubles in America during Grenville's administration put our gentry upon this finesse. [2] They stimulated some daring coxcombs to rouse the mob into an attack upon the bounds of order and decency. These fellows became the Jack Cades [3] of the day, the leaders in all riots, the belwethers of the flock. The reason of the manoeuvre in those, who wished to keep fair with government, and at the same time to receive the incense of popular applause, you will readily perceive. [4] On the whole, the shepherds were not much to blame in a politic point of view. The belwethers jingled merrily, and roared out liberty, and property, and religion, and a multitude of cant terms, / 23 / which every one thought he understood, and was egregiously mistaken. For you must know the shepherds kept the dictionary of the day, and like the mysteries of the ancient mythology, it was not for profane eyes or ears. [5] This answered many purposes; the simple flock put themselves entirely under the protection of these most excellent shepherds.[6]

By and bye behold a great metamorphosis, without the help of Ovid or his divinities, but entirely effectuated by two modern genii, the god of ambition and the goddess of faction. The first of these prompted the shepherds to shear some of their flock, and then, in conjunction with the other, converted the belwethers into shepherds. That we have been in hot water with the British Parliament ever since, every body knows. Consequently these new shepherds had their hands full of employment. The old ones kept themselves least in sight, and a want of confidence in each other was not the least evil which followed.[7] The port of Boston has been shut up. These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them; and now, to leave the metaphor, the heads of the mobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question. While they correspond with the other colonies, call and dismiss popular assemblies, make resolves to bind the consciences of the rest of mankind, bully poor printers, and exert with full force all their other tribunitial powers, it is impossible to curb them. [8]

But art sometimes goes farther than force, and therefore to trick them handsomely a committee of patricians was to be nominated, and into their hands was to be committed the majesty of the people, and the highest trust was to be reposed in them by a mandate, that they should take care, quod respublica non capiat injuriam. The tribunes, through want of a good legerdemain in the senatorial order, perceived the finesse, [9] and yesterday I was present at a grand division of the city, and there I beheld my fellow citizens very accurately counting all their chickens, not only before any of them were hatched, but before above one half of the eggs were laid. In short, they fairly contended about the future forms of our government, whether it should be founded upon Aristocratic or Democratic principles. [10]

I stood in the balcony, and on my right hand were ranged all the people of property, with some few poor dependants, and on the other all the tradesmen, &c., who thought it worth their while to leave daily labor for the good of the country. The spirit of the English Constitution has yet a little influence left, and but a little. The remains of it, however, will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it, they must banish all schoolmasters, and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be. The mob begin to think and to reason. [11] Poor reptiles! it is with them a vernal morning, they are struggling to cast off their winter's slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this. [12] Their committee will be appointed, they will deceive the people, and again forfeit a share of their confidence. And if these instances of what with one side is policy, with the other perfidy, shall continue to increase, and become more frequent, farewell aristocracy. [13] I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions. We shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.

It is the interest of all men, therefore, to seek for reunion with the parent state. [14] A safe compact seems in my poor opinion to be now tendered. Internal taxation to be left with ourselves. The right of regulating trade to be vested in Britain, where alone is found the power of protecting it. I trust you will agree with me, that this is the only possible mode of union. Men by nature are free as the air. When they enter into society, there is, there must be, an implied compact, for there never yet was an express one, that a part of this freedom shall be given up for the security of the remainder. But what part? The answer is plain. The least part, considering the circumstances of the society, which constitute what may /26/ be called its political necessity. And what does this political necessity require in the present instance? Not that Britain should lay imposts upon us for the support of government, nor for its defence. Not that she should regulate our internal police. These things affect us only. She can have no right to interfere. To these things we ourselves are competent. But can it be said, that we are competent to the regulating of trade? The position is absurd, for this affects every part of the British Empire, every part of the habitable earth. If Great Britain, if Ireland, if America, if all of them, are to make laws of trade, there must be a collision of these different authorities, and then who is to decide the vis major? To recur to this, if possible to be avoided is the greatest of all great absurdities.

Political necessity therefore requires that this power should be placed in the hands of one part of the empire. Is it a question which part? Let me answer by asking another. Pray which part of the empire protects trade? Which part of the empire receives almost immense sums to guard the rest? And what danger is in the trust? Some men object, that England will draw all the profits of our trade into her coffers. All that she can, undoubtedly. But unless a reasonable compensation for his trouble be left to the merchant here, she destroys the trade, and then she will receive no profit from it.

If I remember, in one of those kind letters with which you have honored me, you desire my thoughts on matters as they rise. How much pleasure I take in complying with your requests let my present letter convince you. If I am faulty in telling things, which you know better than I do, you must excuse this fault, and a thousand others for which I can make no apology. I am, Sir, &c.

Gouverneur Morris

[Emphasis added - GF].

Reproduced from Jared Sparks, The Life of Gouverneur Morris, with Selections from his Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers... In Three Volumes, Vol. I (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832), pp. 22-25.


[1] "Watch Words" are slogans. "Freedom " and "religion" are "watch words" because the wealthy are using them to fool the common people into thinking they want the same things. "Specious appearances" are things which seem to be one thing but are really something else. Morris means the wealthy, or "gentry" -- "those of a more exalted station" -- feel they will have little trouble fooling the common people, or "the lower orders." BACK

[2] "This finesse" means "the following trick to fool the masses." Morris explains that, up to this point, the "gentry" have been able to stir up the masses against the British while still controlling the mass leaders. In the following story, the "shepherds" are the gentry; the "daring coxcombs" and "belwethers" are popular leaders ("coxcomb" means "fool"; a "belwether" is a sheep used by a shepherd to lead the rest of the flock where the shepherds want them to go). BACK

[3] Jack Cade led a revolt of peasants and lower-class townspeople against the British aristocracy in 1450. The rebels captured London for a time before being put down. BACK

[4] "Those" are the gentry, or aristocrats, who wish to build a popular following while still remaining on good terms with the British government. They can do this by remaining in the background as "shepherds" while the popular radical leaders, or "belwethers," whip the masses up against the British. BACK

[5] Morris says once again that the slogans of "liberty", "property" and "religion" were used to mislead the common people. The gentry, or "shepherds," meant one thing by these terms -- liberty and property for the wealthy -- while the common people were led to think that the struggle against England would bring "liberty" and "property" for them. BACK

[6] Morris says that by means of this political double-dealing the common people were under the control of the wealthy at all times. BACK

[7] Morris says that, as a result of the sharpening situation between the colonies and the British government, the popular leaders were now the actual leaders of the masses, no longer under control of the "old" shepherds, or gentry, and some hostility had built up between the gentry and these popular leaders. BACK

[8] Morris drops his metaphor of "shepherds/belwethers/sheep" to speak plainly about a dangerous situation -- dangerous to men like himself and his friends, the "gentry" or wealthy. He complains that, since Parliament has passed the Intolerable Acts, including the closing of the port of Boston as punishment against anti-British activities, the common people ("sheep") can no longer be controlled by the gentry. The popular leaders ("the heads of the mobility" -- "mobility" is the word for which "mob" is the contraction) are "dangerous to the gentry" and can no longer be controlled. "Tribunitial powers" are those of the "tribunes of the plebeians." During the class struggles of the Roman Republic, the aristocracy, or "patricians", were forced to give some reforms to the common people, or "plebeians," by giving them two officials called the "tribunes of the plebeians," who had a lot of power. In effect, the job of the tribunes was to represent the interests of the common people to the government run by the Senate, or "old men" of the patricians. BACK

[9] "Art" here means "artifice", or trickery. The gentry, including Morris, had agreed among themselves to nominate a committee to lead the protest against the closing of the port of Boston, the committee to be made up entirely of "patricians" or wealthy citizens. The Latin slogan means "that the state not be harmed." "Finesse" means "tricky maneuver". Morris says that the popular leaders ("tribunes") learned of this plan ("finesse") of the "patricians" (the wealthy gentry) because the latter were careless (lacked "good legerdemain" means, literally, were not "quick enough with their hands, because a "finesse" is usually a card trick). BACK

[10] Morris was alarmed that the popular leaders were urging real democracy, rather than continued rule by the wealthy. BACK

[11] Morris is afraid that "the mob" -- the masses -- are becoming too intelligent to be fooled by "the wealthy people" any more, and that this will mean an end to the rule of the wealthy. BACK

[12] Morris recognizes that if the common people, the "reptiles", become politically active in their own interests ("wake up"), they will "bite" the gentry. His imagery shows how much he fears this outcome. BACK

[13] On this occasion the committee formed was made up about 50% of representatives of the wealthy. But Morris realizes that, so constituted, the committee will have to deceive and disappoint the common people, and so will increase the distrust between them and the wealthy, because what is "policy" for the common people is "perfidy" for the wealthy -- the wealthy will inevitably betray the democratic aspirations of the common people. If this continues, he feas, "farewell aristocracy." BACK

[14] Morris concludes that the only solution for the wealthy, the only way to avoid rule by the common people "(the worse of all possible dominions.. the domination of a riotous mob"), is to resolve the disagreements with England. British rule will keep the wealthy in power and keep the common people and "democracy" at bay. BACK

Morris does not want a break with England. But it is interesting that even he, who believes remaining within the British Empire to be the only way of retaining the power of the wealthy in society and avoiding democracy, believes this can only be done if England grants powers of internal taxation to the colonies.

England was never prepared to do this. Therefore many wealthy people like Gouverneur Morris eventually joined the Revolution, and strove during and afterwards to keep power in the hands of the wealthy. They were basically successful in doing this. | | last modified 03 Feb 98