Essay 49 – Guest Essayist: Tom Hand

Lewis Morris III was a wealthy man living a fairly quiet life when America’s quest for independence heated up in the 1770s. Morris, who was from an old, well-respected family in New York, risked family and fortune by joining the Patriotic cause, but he joined it, nonetheless.

Morris was born on April 8, 1726 at the family manor of Morrisania, a two-thousand-acre estate located in what is today the Bronx of New York City. He was the oldest son of Lewis Morris II and Katrintje (Catherine) Staats. Interestingly, his Dutch ancestry on his mother’s side, makes Lewis Morris III one of only two Dutch Americans to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In any event, Morris was educated largely by private tutors and was a good student. He entered Yale at the age of 16 and graduated four years later in 1746. He returned home and helped his father manage their properties. Three years later, on September 24, 1749, he married Mary Walton, the daughter of Jacob Walton, a wealthy merchant. Lewis and Mary had ten children together, and three of their sons served as officers in the American Revolution.

In 1762, his father died and Morris, as the oldest son, inherited the vast bulk of the family estate. (At that time, primogenitor law in which the eldest son inherits the entire estate of the father prevailed in English America.) He was only 36 years old and already one of the wealthiest men in the colony. However, his comfortable situation was soon to change as the 1760s brought increased tensions between England and her American colonies.

When the British passed the Stamp Act which taxed most printed materials, on March 22, 1765, relations between England and her colonies became strained. Although this legislation was rescinded about a year later, Parliament continued to assert they had the right to tax the colonies. Later in 1765, the Quartering Act which required the colonies to pay to house and feed the army Britain decided to station in North America was given Royal approval.

In 1767 and 1768, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, a series of laws which included new taxes to pay the salaries of colonial government officials as well as new restrictions and punitive regulations on the colonies.

The first of these laws was the New York Restraining Act of 1767 which threatened to punish the colony of New York unless they agreed to adhere to the Quartering Act. New York complied, but Lewis Morris began to sour on English rule and became an outspoken critic of it.

In 1774, colonial leaders organized the First Continental Congress to address the growing crisis. Because other leaders in New York considered Morris too outspoken, he was not chosen as a delegate to this conference.

Sentiments changed over the next year, especially after the conflict at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and the Second Continental Congress was convened. This time, New York selected Morris to represent their interests partly because of his enthusiasm for the patriotic cause. Morris served on several committees including one chaired by George Washington that was tasked with improving the supply system for the Continental Army.

When the fateful day came to affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence, Morris was warned by family members that doing so would result in the loss of his estate and fortune since British troops were stationed near his home. Morris famously replied, “Damn the consequences, give me the pen.”

As it turned out, his relations were correct. The British quickly devastated his 1,000-acre forest, confiscated all his livestock, and destroyed his beautiful home at Morrisania. Additionally, Morris and his family were forced to go into exile for the duration of the war.

Interestingly, New York, because of its large population of Loyalists (people loyal to England), was the last of the thirteen colonies to approve the Declaration of Independence. It did so on July 9, 1776 making the decision to separate from England unanimous.

Morris resigned from Congress in 1777 and returned to New York where he became a state Senator (he served from 1777-1781 and from 1784-1788) and a Major General in the militia. He was also a member of the first Board of Regents of the University of New York from 1784 until his death in 1798.

But Morris also spent a great deal of time in his final years restoring his beloved estate of Morrisania. He was there when he passed away on January 22, 1798 surrounded by children and grandchildren.

WHY IT MATTERS: So why should Lewis Morris and what he did for America matter to us today?

Lewis Morris was a wealthy man with much to lose by joining the American cause for independence. Moreover, by disposition, his preferred station in life was to quietly live out his life on his family estate of Morrisania.

However, when his country needed him, Lewis Morris was there to answer the call. By all accounts, he did so with no regrets. A man that unselfish and with that much regard for his country deserves to be remembered by us today.

SUGGESTED READING: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense written in 1776 is one of the most impactful books in American history. The importance of its message and the timing of its publication combined to convince a large portion of the American people that complete independence from England was the best course of action for the colonies. This is a must-read for all Americans.

PLACES TO VISIT: If you get the chance, you must visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia. This is where Lewis Morris and the other Signers crafted our Declaration of Independence. Entering the Hall where it all began in the summer of 1776, cannot fail to choke you up.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.



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