Dennis C. Rasmussen, "The Constitution's Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America's Basic Charter" (UP of Kansas, 2023)


Dennis Rasmussen’s new bookThe Constitution's Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America's Basic Charter (UP of Kansas, 2023), is a propulsive analysis of one of the key members of the Founding generation, Gouverneur Morris of New York and Pennsylvania. Morris is quite a character—from his reputation as a lady’s man to his brilliant speeches at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Rasmussen has pulled together archival research on Morris along with historical and political context to understand the Constitution’s penman, since Morris was responsible for writing the draft of the document that would become the U.S. Constitution.

Gouverneur Morris was a fascinating fellow—and his exploits were well known among his peers and colleagues. Morris, who had been educated at King’s College (now Columbia), and had become a lawyer, made much of his fortune in land speculation. He was active during the Revolutionary War, especially in helping to manage payment and supplies to the troops fighting for the new country. Morris, like Jefferson and Adams, also represented the United States abroad, particularly in France during the revolutionary period there. His capacity to negotiate through the factions during the French Revolution was vital to the United States since he was able to protect both American citizens and U.S. interests in France. Morris’s diplomatic and political expertise was in sharp relief during this period in France. As a Federalist Morris also served in the U.S. Senate, elected in 1800 as the Jeffersonians were coming into office. He was at Alexander Hamilton’s deathbed with him after Hamilton’s duel with Burr. But the central action of The Constitution’s Penman is during the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Rasmussen lays out all of the ways that Morris had a hand in the creation of the American constitutional system, even though he was absent from the convention in the early going in June. The bulk of The Constitution’s Penman focuses on each section of the governing structure of the U.S. national system and draws out Morris’ role in shaping these parts of the American system. While some of Morris’ ideas were more extreme than others—including his thinking on the form that the U.S. Senate should take—his ideas and influence are clear throughout the document itself. Rasmussen digs into Morris’ speeches on the floor of the convention, his role in writing up the document—in which he pulled 23 articles into the seven articles that compose the United States Constitution—and his authorship of the Preamble itself. Rasmussen also focuses on Morris’ strident denunciation of slavery at the Convention and elsewhere, becoming, on some level, the Framers’ conscience on the issue of slavery.

Dennis Rasmussen has written a book where the story truly dances off the page—and while Gouverneur Morris himself provides much of the content because of his cosmopolitan approach to life, his sharp wit and intelligence, and his interesting lifestyle—this is quite a compelling read.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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