J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Did Gouverneur Morris Slap Washington on the Shoulder?

A footnote in Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, written largely by George Washington Parke Custis and edited by Benson J. Lossing in 1861, passes on this story:
It is related of the Honorable Gouverneur Morris, who was remarkable for his freedom of deportment toward his friends, that on one occasion he offered a wager that he could treat General [George] Washington with the same familiarity as he did others. This challenge was accepted, and the performance tried. Mr. Morris slapped Washington familiarly on the shoulder, and said, “How are you, this morning, general?” Washington made no reply, but turned his eyes upon Mr. Morris with a glance that fairly withered him. He afterward acknowledged, that nothing could induce him to attempt the same thing again.
No source is stated, and both Custis and Lossing were “print the legend” guys, often unreliable on both details and broad strokes. However, in this case there seems to be a stronger basis for the tale.

In Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States, written by Martin Van Buren and published after his death by his sons in 1867, a letter dated 1857 passes on a story that Jacob Burnet (1770-1853) told in 1852:
He related an anecdote of Washington which he had from the lips of Alexander Hamilton.

When the Convention to form a Constitution was sitting in Philadelphia in 1787, of which General Washington was President, he had stated evenings to receive the calls of his friends. At an interview between Hamilton, the Morrises, and others, the former remarked that Washington was reserved and aristocratic even to his intimate friends, and allowed no one to be familiar with him. Gouverneur Morris said that was a mere fancy, and he could be as familiar with Washington as with any of his other friends. Hamilton replied, “If you will, at the next reception evening, gently slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!’ a supper and wine shall be provided for you and a dozen of your friends.”

The challenge was accepted. On the evening appointed a large number attended, and at an early hour Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said: “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!” Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence.

At the supper which was provided by Hamilton, Morris said: “I have won the bet but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”
That story went into James Parton’s Life of Thomas Jefferson (1874), and from there into Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (1911). That’s one of the most authoritative sources in American historiography, which might mean it deserves more scrutiny.

Farrand also noted another version of the same anecdote. In his Life and Correspondence of George Read (1870), William Thompson Read said he’d received the same story from “Mrs. Susan[ne] Eckard [1776-1861], of Philadelphia, daughter of Colonel James Read [1743-1822],” who administered the Continental Congress’s Marine department in the 1780s:
Gouverneur Morris, a very handsome, bold, and—I have heard the ladies say—very impudent man. His talents and services are part of American history. He wore a wooden leg. He was not related to the great financier, who was said to be a natural child. The office of Mr. [Robert] Morris was only divided from papa’s by a small entry, and was constantly visited by Mr. Gouverneur Morris, and papa’s also.

One day the latter entered, and papa was so struck by his crest-fallen appearance that he asked, “Are you not well?”

He replied, “I am not,—the devil got possession of me last night.”

“I have often cautioned you against him,” said papa, playfully, “but what has happened to disturb you?”

“I was at the President’s last night; several members of the Cabinet were there. The then absorbing question, (‘I forget,’ Mrs. E. writes, ‘what it was’) was brought up. The President was standing with his arms behind him,—his usual position,—his back to the fire, listening. Hamilton made a speech I did not like. I started up and spoke, stamping, as I walked up and down, with my wooden leg; and, as I was certain I had the best of the argument, as I finished I stalked up to the President, slapped him on the back, and said, ‘Ain’t I right, general?’ The President did not speak, but the majesty of the American people was before me. Oh, his look! How I wished the floor would open and I could descend to the cellar!

“You know me,” continued Mr. Morris, “and you know my eye would never quail before any other mortal.”
In fact, Gouverneur Morris wasn’t in the U.S. of A. during Washington’s terms as President, so that version of the story could not be true. But it’s quite plausible that Eckard misunderstood a reference to Washington as president of the Constitutional Convention, as in the Burnet version of the tale.

We thus have what appear to be three strands of an oral tradition, one put to paper in 1857, another printed in 1860, and a third, independent version written down before 1861. Each of the two letters describes a short chain of storytellers leading back to Hamilton and Morris. So even though this incident didn’t get set down in any form until seven decades after it supposedly happened, it looks credible.

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