Typical of many Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) was an extraordinary soul. In life, he was brilliant but often out of bounds, with reactionary political opinion and unfettered personal conduct; in legacy, he is often forgotten, having failed to achieve great things. Of all his accomplishments, Manhattan’s iconic street grid is perhaps his most lasting, yet his biographers often ignore it.
Morris was born (and died) at Morrisania, the 1,900-acre family estate along the Harlem River opposite upper Manhattan. He served in the Continental Congress, among numerous field and government positions during the Revolution, and was a leader of the Constitutional Convention; he penned the final draft of the Constitution and alone crafted its lyrical preamble. He served courageously as the American minister in Paris during the Terror, the only foreign minister who remained; he was later criticized for negotiating to save the king’s head.
Coming long after his national relevance had faded, Morris’s street commission service remains obscure. Many have credited Morris with running the street commission, but we have no evidence. He never detailed the commission’s work in either public or personal documents. The explanatory remarks released with the Commissioners’ Plan in 1811 are written with Morris’s elegance and clarity, but no individual authorship was claimed, and no early drafts have emerged that might reveal Morris’s specific contributions. GK