Gouverneur Morris: Founding Father, disabled American

Best known for writing the ‘We the People’ preamble to the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris also lived with painful disabilities. History doctoral candidate Jennifer Reiss looks at him through this underexplored lens.

Oil painting depicts two men in 18th century dress and powdered wigs at a desk, one sitting down, the other standing.
This 1783 oil painting by Charles Willson Peale depicts Gouverneur Morris (left) and fellow Founding Father Robert Morris. (Image: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Bequest of Richard Ashhurst.)

Gouverneur Morris was a Founder of the United States, best known for writing the “We the People” preamble to the Constitution. He railed against slavery at the Philadelphia convention in 1787. Later working as an envoy in Paris during the French Revolution, he documented his active romantic life there in his diaries.

He also was disabled. When history doctoral student Jennifer Reiss, who has a form of cerebral palsy, learned this detail a few years ago she was intrigued.

“I was amazed that there is this Founding Father with multiple disabilities, and I had never heard about it, considering I’m disabled myself and am a complete American history nerd,” she says. At the time, she was working as a securities lawyer in London and sitting in on American history lectures at the University of Cambridge for fun. “I filed this away as an idea I’d love to write about some day: Morris and his psychology as a disabled person in early America.”

It wasn’t a secret to historians that a 20-something Morris had injured his left leg in a carriage accident in Philadelphia while serving in the Second Continental Congress. The severe fracture resulted in an amputation just below the knee and his lifelong use of a wooden prosthetic leg. 

18th century wooden leg prosthesis
Gouverneur Morris used this wooden prosthesis after a carriage accident led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. (Image: Collection of the New-York Historical Society.)

Less commonly known was an accident Morris had when he was about 14, Reiss says. He was attending King’s College, now Columbia University, and had returned home to his family’s estate at Morrisania (in what is now the Bronx in New York City), when a large kettle of boiling water fell on his right side. It caused severe burns on the right side of his body and his right arm was deformed for the rest of his life, says Reiss.

“One of the few comments on his arm, in the papers of the Constitutional Convention, described it as having ‘all the flesh taken off.’ But you never see this in any of the contemporary paintings of him, where he’s often seen sitting behind a desk and angled in a way that you can’t see his right arm or legs,” Reiss says.

After stepping away from her law career, Reiss returned to Penn where she had earned her undergraduate degree in order to pursue a Ph.D. in history. She turned her focus to Morris for her first-year research paper.

Morris started keeping diaries when he first went to France in 1789, and continued journaling until his rather unusual manner of death in 1816 when he tried to remedy a blocked urethra using a piece of whalebone, leading to a deadly infection. Reiss discovered that the final two volumes of his diaries had recently been published for the first time and the entire set of diaries made available online, making them accessible and searchable from home, which was particularly helpful during the coronavirus shutdown at the end of the spring semester. 

“I was so eager to read the diaries because I don’t think you can have limited movement on your right side and limited movement of your left leg and not be affected by it,” she says. 

Reiss has a type of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia, which affects the movement of her lower limbs.

“I’m ambulatory, but I use a cane at times, and I have a lot of musculoskeletal pain of one sort or another, and it totally impacts me. I just couldn’t believe that this man, particularly in the 18th century without pain relievers and modern medicine, would not be affected by it,” she says.

A first read of the diaries didn’t yield much overt information about his disability, how it affected him day to day or even what he was feeling, Reiss says. “He mentions it occasionally, but doesn’t dwell on it as one might expect in a private diary,” she says. But then taking a closer look at the text, Reiss found many references to gout, a form of arthritis, which in the 18th century was often associated with wealthy, white men.

“He talks about his gout much more than his arm or stump. But he repeatedly talks about gout in ways that don’t accord with even 18th century views of the condition, talking about gout in the hands, stomach, or legs,” she says. “In many cases, his descriptions of gout pain actually match up with the musculoskeletal pain I know he would have experienced as an amputee. As a disabled person, I hope I’ve been able to bring a fresh perspective to reading these diaries.”

Her first-year research paper, “‘Pity That So Fine a Man Has Lost His Leg:’ Gouverneur Morris and the Nuances of Physical Disability in Early America,” has been accepted at a disability history conference at the Dublin Seminar in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Due to the pandemic, the conference has been rescheduled from this summer, which also marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, to next year. 

Reiss’s advisor, Kathleen Brown, says she’s struck by how Reiss has only just finished her first year of graduate study but is already doing interesting and original work.

“Jenny has done some amazing research on an aspect of Gouverneur Morris’s life and identity—his painful injury leading to disability—that have been underexplored,” Brown says. “She has brought an alert sensitivity to his writing about his physical experience that previous historians have glossed over. She has also unpacked his complex mental and emotional efforts to integrate his own view of disability as a misfortune with his understanding of his own identity as a privileged and fully self-sufficient gentleman.”

Headshot of person inside an old church smiles at the camera.
Jennifer W. Reiss, seen here inside the chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. (Image: Jennifer W. Reiss)

Reiss credits her cerebral palsy as the reason she became a self-proclaimed American history nerd.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to gym class, and I couldn’t participate in recess. So, I would sit in my classroom and read books, and I started reading all these historical novels,” she says, which sparked what she calls an obsession with colonial American history.

“After that, my parents never took me to Disneyland or Disney World. We went to places like Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation instead. My Halloween costumes were always colonial American women,” she says. “I had a birthday party where I forced all my friends to go to a Revolutionary War battlefield, and then we came back to my house and tried to make walnut ink on the stove.”

She says that as a child she viewed history as a way to escape and also a way to process her disability. She reflects on the fact that due to complications surrounding her birth and the resulting disability it is unlikely that she’d have survived in an earlier era.

Something else that struck her as she wrote her paper on Morris is that the modern definition of disability didn’t exist back then, Reiss says.

“The 18th century is this transition point where you have the beginnings of modern science and the end of magical explanations for phenomena, which meant views of physical difference were changing,” she says. “The fact that lots of people had acquired disabilities because of premodern working conditions, and the importance of labor to conceptualizing full personhood also contributed to an environment where there was no one view of disability. You could not have a leg, but if you could work, you weren’t necessarily viewed as disabled.”

That was a fascinating revelation to her, she says.

“It’s changed my way of thinking. Maybe I could have lived in the past, maybe I could have lived in this period and even with my disability I wouldn’t have been different, which is sort of eye-opening,” Reiss says.

As she’s read the diaries, she has found that Morris wasn’t defined by his disabilities but rather used them to help define himself and the way he wanted to be seen, Reiss says.

“It’s that sort of flexibility that is the moral of the story,” she says. “We’re so used to categorizing people, particularly historical figures, as only this or only that. It’s hard sometimes to step back and say, ‘Well, he was an elite man, and he also had to negotiate profound physical disabilities. He was many things at once.’ And grasping that complexity is important to understanding his performance of his class and gender roles, be that his opposition to the Three-Fifths Clause, his defense of French aristocrats, or his remarkably egalitarian views towards women. Sometimes that meant vocally identifying as impaired; other times it meant rejecting that idea entirely. Morris shows that there isn’t one definition of any one of these identities.”