Lewis Morris: The Consent of the Governed

Those who saw him forever remembered the dignified portrait of the gentleman from New York.  His build was tall and lean, and his countenance was calm and collected as he rose to address the congress.  “The chair recognizes the Honorable Mr. Morris of the New York delegation” the chairman announced as the representative stood.

“Most esteemed colleagues, in short, our deliberation has gone on long enough.  We have not asked for war, but rather petitioned for peace.  We have listed formally our grievances to the King, and he has refused our every endeavor to preserve the harmony between the crown and its colonies.”  He surveyed the room, gauging the reactions of the assemblymen.  Most were like himself, in favor of independence, but some lacked the same zeal that filled Morris with passion for the cause.  In reality, Morris should have been the last man at the Second Continental Congress to be a proponent of independence.  As an affluent New Yorker, Lewis Morris had wealth and held prestige among the British dignitaries.  He had everything to lose if the fledgling confederation of colonies couldn’t stand.  His grand estate in upstate New York would undoubtedly be lost, and Morris executed for treason.  But Morris’ thirst for independence welled from a source deeper than his earthly ties.

In his youth, Morris’ father had overseen his early education, and had instructed him in business and industry.  He taught him how to keep books, bargain and negotiate, and how to trade.  Most importantly, he taught him the meaning of a contract.  “A contract is when two parties enter into a mutual commitment in order to maintain a status of life for an allotted time,” his father would tell him as they studied together.  “Societal contracts surround us every day, but the greatest contract in human history is the one that exists between men and their sovereign.” Young Morris didn’t understand.  “In this contract, the governor provides security for the rights of those he governs, while the governed give their allegiance to this ideal.  Therein lies the secret to a nation of happiness; when the governor upholds his end of the contract, and does not abuse the terms, while the people uphold their end of the contract and submit to the law.”  The solemnity of the boy’s face told Morris’ father that his son understood.

“You must always be vigilant, preserve your dedication to the contract, live as an honorable citizen, but when the governor dishonors the contract, do not stand for the tyranny, rise up and abolish the government that oppresses.”

When he turned 16, Morris’ father sent him to Yale University to complete his education.  After studying law, Morris became judge in a court of Maritime Law.  It was there that he not only witnessed the importance of the social contract between the governed and the governor, but also the commonality of it’s violation borne out in a world of naval apprenticeships, indentured servitude, and mutinies.  It was not uncommon for cases of Royal Navy pressings, the forced removal and enlistment of peacetime sailors into the King’s Navy, to come before him.  In most cases, the Navy would give no record of service or compensation to the pressed sailors.  The people were honoring their contract with the sovereign and remained loyal, but the King was not honoring their rights.  However, it was a time of war between the British and the French. As the two enemies waged war throughout their various colonies, it was imperative that England win, so of course some promises would have to wait, and the ‘draft’ must go on.  But when the wars ended, the King found himself with a national debt four times greater than before the wars began.  A tax was just the solution.  The Stamp Act of 1765 was an atrocity to many of the colonists who had already lost so much to a war, that was not theirs to fight, and now the King expected them to finance it.  Morris watched as the people bowed their heads and went on in servitude to a governor who was growing more and more oppressive.  Next came acts allowing for the quartering of soldiers in private residences without appeal.  Morris watched as the people bore this outrage with silence.  They had fought his war, and yet the King and Parliament refused to give the American Colonies the full rights of English citizenship.

Now it was 1775, and the colonies had risen from their knees and stood eye to eye with the King in unprecedented defiance.  Today, 60 men representing the Thirteen Colonies watched as Lewis Morris finished his address to the congress.  Morris remembered his father’s words. “How much longer will it take, how many more must lose their homes, finances, and dignity before this assembly declares to the King that we will no longer be a part of this unjust contract.”  He held up a copy of the resolution before them.

“To secure our rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

“Gentlemen.”  Lewis concluded.  “We are Englishmen, we have led peaceable lives of honor and dignity.  We have maintained the contract of the governed, only to receive ‘a long train of abuses  and usurpations’ from the governor.”  There were applause.  “I can no longer continue in a contract honored by only one party.  My vote is one for independence.”

In the summer of 1776, Lewis Morris dissolved the political bands which connected him to the King as he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence.

Sources + Bibliography:

– Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence: archives.gov

  • Congressional Report of the Western Indian Treaty, October 1775.
  • U.S. Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, Government Printing Office, 1904.
  • Boyer, Marilyn. For You They Signed: Marilyn Boyer, 2009.

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