More on The Gouv.

February 06, 2004

I finished Gentleman Revolutionary, Richard Brookhiser's book on Gouverneur Morris, and I must say that I liked it.

There is a knack to writing popular history: your prose has to be sprightly, your narrative has to move along, and you have to be both reliable and interesting as you do so. I am not a Morris scholar so I can not speculate on how original this work is, but judging from the footnotes he has combined quotes and insights from the many earlier biographies into a coherent tale. Unlike David McCullogh, in other words, Brookhiser is generous in indicating that other people have written about his subject in the past (McCullogh is notorious for only citing primary sources.) But, this is popular history - he tells the tale of the man and his times rather than engaging in debates with other people about the man, his times, and how best to make sense of them.

The charm of the book is the charm of the man. The Gouv. (Joanne Freeman's nickname for him) was always charming and a brilliant writer; much of Brookhiser's work is simply providing a setting for Morris' wit and panache. That charm shows up in his formal prose - the preamble to the U.S. Constitution - and in even his didactic statements like these brilliantly balanced rules for living.

To try to do good, to avoid evil, a little severity for one's self, a little indulgence for others -- this is the means to obtain some good result out of our poor existence. To love one's friends, to be beloved by them -- this is the means to brighten it.
All of Morris' letters sparkle with this sort of prose. He really is the most fun of the founders - even before you consider the incongruity of a man with a fleshless right arm after a burn with boiling water as a teenager, a stump of a left leg after a carriage accident, and an incredible fondness for dancing, travelling, and seducing the wives of other men (perhaps in compensation for his own physical injuries.) Maimed in body, light in spirit, and every inch a gentleman -- you gotta love the Gouv.

Posted by Red Ted at February 6, 2004 01:44 AM | TrackBack