Lewis Morris was born in April of 1726 at Morrisania, his family’s estate in what is now Bronx, New York. Lewis’s parents were Lewis Morris and Katrintje “Catherine” Staats, and he was their third child. Lewis’s mother passed away in 1731, and his father remarried to Sarah Gouverneur. Lewis’s father had seven children among his two wives, giving Lewis two full siblings and four half-siblings. He had a variety of relatives by both birth and by marriage who were involved in colonial politics, so it was natural that he later went into it himself, as he had a lot of personal connections in it to assist him in achieving high places.
Lewis attended Yale College, and graduated from there in 1746. After his father passed away in 1762, Lewis inherited most of his father’s estate.
Lewis had an interesting family history. His great-grandfather, Richard Morris, came to New York after living in Barbados for a while, and moved to Barbados from England, where he had been part of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan army in the English Civil War of 1648. This great-grandfather purchased the tract of land in the Bronx that would become the family estate of Morrisania. Sadly, Richard Morris and his young wife died when their son, Lewis’s grandfather, was only an infant. Richard’s brother, Colonel Lewis Morris, was living in Barbados at the time, and he and his wife, who did not have any children of their own, came to New York to help manage the estates left to their nephew Richard by his departed parents, and to raise Richard themselves.
Lewis was elected to the New York General Assembly after graduating from Yale, in 1769. When the American Revolution was becoming almost a certainty, Lewis resigned from the Admiralty Court, of which he was a member, because it was too closely connected to the crown. When the revolution began, Lewis was a member of the New York Provincial Congress, which was the revolutionary government of New York, from 1775 to 1777. It was that group that sent Lewis to the Continental Congress as a delegate from New York.
While a member of the Continental Congress, Lewis was a vocal supporter of independence. When the Declaration of Independence was approved and ready for signing, his brother Staats Morris, who was a General in the British army, warned Lewis of the consequences of signing that document should the British win the war, Lewis is reported to have said,
“Damn the consequences. Give me the pen.”
After the American Revolution was done, Lewis went back home to New York, where he became a county judge in Westchester County. Lewis was also appointed as a member of the New York State Senate as a representative from the southern district that consisted of Kings, New York, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. In addition, he served on the first New York State Legislature.
Lewis was involved in other political activities and offices after the Revolution. He was on the New York State Senate for a second time, this time serving from the Seventh Legislature to the end of the Thirteenth Legislature, which ended in the summer of 1790. In 1788, Lewis was part of the New York convention that met to ratify the US Constitution. In addition, he was also a presidential elector for the Federalist Party during the election of 1796, in which capacity he cast his votes for John Adams and Thomas Pinckney.
In 1784, Lewis was elected as an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati. That same year, he was also appointed to the first Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, and he served on this board until he passed away, at which time he was replaced in this position by Simeon De Witt.
Lewis married Mary Walton in 1749. Mary was a member of a prominent merchant family, being the daughter of Jacob Walton and Maria Beekman. Lewis and Mary were the parents of ten children, of whom nine lived past childhood.
The Lewis family estate was burned and looted by the British during the Revolution when they occupied New York. Lewis had to rebuild it after the Revolution was done. In 1790, he offered the land on which the estate stood, to be the site of the US capital, which was in New York, before moving to Washington, D.C.
Lewis passed away at the age of seventy-one in 1798 on the family estate of Morrisania, and was buried in the family vault under St. Ann’s Church in the Bronx.
Lewis is portrayed in popular culture in the Broadway musical 1776, as well as the 1972 movie based on that same play. In the play and the movie, Lewis is portrayed as the chairman of the delegation to the Continental Congress from New York. The play famously shows him as abstaining (“courteously,” he always says, with each abstention) on each vote the Congress takes. His reasoning for this is because the delegation which he leads was never given any instructions on how to vote on the issues before the Congress by the New York Provincial Congress, to who the delegation answered to. In fact, the New York Provincial Congress is said to never give the New York delegation explicit instructions on anything.
In the play, George Washington, who never appears on stage or on screen, announces in a dispatch to the Congress that Lewis’s estate has been destroyed by the British, which prompted his family to flee to safety in Connecticut. When that announcement is made in the open Congress, Lewis’s character finally takes a stand on something, and signs the Declaration of Independence, even without any instructions from New York. Lewis’s character in the play is one who is meek, but finally stands up for himself and his own beliefs when his property and family are threatened by the opposing forces in the war.