Founding Fathers Friday: Lewis Morris

by Derrick G. Jeter

How ironic that one of the riches men in America at the country’s founding is buried in one of the poorest congressional districts in America today. But such was the fortune of Lewis Morris.
The son of a distinguished family—some would even say aristocratic—Morris’s genealogy included the royal governor of New Jersey (his grandfather), the chief justice of New York, and a lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. The family owned a small parcel of land, a mere few thousand acres, just north of New York City.
Educated at Yale, upon graduation Morris returned to the family estate and helped his father with family affairs. And if Morris didn’t have enough money already, he married into the wealthy Beekman family when he and Mary Beekman Walton wed. At thirty-two, Morris’s father passed away and, as the eldest, he inherited the estate—becoming the third lord of Morrisania Manor.
Handsome, rich, and connected . . . what would motivate such a man to become a rebel? What did he have to gain that he didn’t already have, especially when there was so much to lose?
The radicalization of Lewis Morris came when the King imposed a tax on the colony of New York to pay for troops stationed there to protect the Americans. The assembly concluded that the tax was unlawful and voted the measure down. But the royal governor requisitioned the money anyway. Morris would have none of it and he let everyone known . . . and loudly! So when a Continental Congress was called in 1774, Morris wasn’t sent. He had become a too vocal critic of the Crown in a colony that still wanted compromise. Lexington and Concord, in April 1775, changed all that.
Morris was sent to Philadelphia in 1775, and this time New York wasn’t as keen for compromise. He didn’t talk much in Congress, but he did work to procure munitions for the Washington’s troops. A year later, in June 1776, Morris took a sabbatical from Congress to command the New York militia in Westchester, New York. He was a brigadier general. At retirement, he reached the rank of major general.
Because of his combat duties, Morris missed the July 2 vote on Lee’s resolution. It didn’t matter anyway. Though the New York assembly was warming to the idea of independence, they hadn’t reached the boiling point just yet. The delegation abstained. A week later, on July 9 the assembly came around and approved the Declaration of Independence, making it unanimous. Morris signed the engrossed document in September.
What makes Morris and all the New York delegation extraordinary was they signed the Declaration with an armada anchored off Manhattan and Long Island. And though there’s little proof that the British targeted the property of the signers, Morris’s estate made a fine war objective when American troops retreated and the British came ashore. The house was virtually destroyed, trees cut down for firewood, and cattle slaughtered to feed British troops. Morris’s family and servants fled. And yet Morris never wavered in his commitment to total independence. Benjamin Rush said of Morris: he was “a cheerful, amiable man, suffering the loss of many thousand pounds by the depredations of the British army, upon his property near New York without repining. Every attachment of his heart yielded to his love of his country.”
After the war, Morris served as a judge and a state senator. He labored alongside Alexander Hamilton to persuade New York to ratify the Constitution. And though Morris and his famous one-legged brother with the unusual name, Gouverneur, bankrolled much of the war effort neither that nor the destruction of Morrisania bankrupted the Morris family. Lewis had the estate rebuilt and lived out his days there.
Today, Morrisania is no more. The family vault, where Morris is buried, now lies in the churchyard of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx. Amidst dilapidated public housing units, dirty streets, graffiti, gangs, and drug dealers sits a large green expanse—what remains of a once proud and luxurious estate . . . and the bones of a once great and patriotic American.