A Founder ready for prime time

Descendants of James Madison may be disappointed by this book, but Hollywood will love it.

Imagine: A bona fide Founder who was father to two national constitutions (U.S. and French) and perhaps as many illegitimate children; a man who witnessed the French Revolution while sharing a mistress with Talleyrand; a man so close to the powerful that he was chosen to provide the eulogies for both George Washington and Alex-ander Hamilton; and a man who, when he finally settled down at the ripe old age of age 58, married a woman with a shady past from Virginia’s most prominent family, the Randolphs. The tall, charming, witty, dreamy-eyed Gouverneur Morris was witness to the great events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and had a part in many of them.

Richard Brookhiser’s fascinating and entertaining book Gentleman Revolutionary places Morris rightfully at the center of major historical action. He seemed to know everyone and be everywhere: at Washington’s side in snowy Valley Forge, debating with the Founders in steamy Philadelphia, lounging with elegant and beautiful women of steamier Paris just as the French Revolution unfolded. He later served in the U.S. Senate, yet still managed to find time for ladies domestique and to scout sites for the Erie Canal.

Most people (such as the reviewer before reading this book) believe the much smaller and duller James Madison was the father of the Constitution. That possible misconception is explained by the fact that the best record of the Constitutional Convention comes from Madison’s detailed, personal notes.

Yet even Madison acknowledged Morris’ role: “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to [his] pen. … A better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved.”

Morris wrote the Constitution in four days after a committee that included Madison assigned it to him. He took a long, choppy draft and compressed it. For example, he reduced the draft’s 23 articles to a tightly worded — and far clearer — seven.

Morris’ greatest gift to the Constitution was probably the Preamble. He elevated the roll-call effect of the draft — “We the people of the states of New Hampshire,
Massachusetts,” etc. — into the simpler and more compelling: “We the People of the United States.” That the people should be emphasized as the source of power rather than the states is profound. Some critics, such as Patrick Henry, would point to those words as a reason to oppose the Constitution, but others would look to them as source of inspiration for union.

Brookhiser takes us on a far-ranging tour of a remarkable American life made more remarkable by the fact that Morris had a disfigured arm and only one leg. That didn’t seem to interfere with or impede his adventures in liberty and love.
History needs no dramatic punching-up to make a film or television series out of the life of Morris; it would be like blending “The Patriot” with “Tom Jones.” Imagine say, Sean Connery as the elder statesman with Leonardo DiCaprio as the younger, more glandular, version. Add Sharon Stone as the intriguing Nancy Randolph, a chorus of Bond girls in Marie Antoinette wigs and voila! Who needs a smelly flounder of a show like “K Street” when the table is set for real American political history on the half-shell with a little French champagne.

Alas, no film or series yet, but, as in most cases, the book is better anyway.