Nathaniel Gorham

Nathaniel Gorham was a self-made businessman who contributed significantly to the success of the Revolution by assuming an important role as a civilian in the management of his state's military affairs. Gorham's practical experiences in commercial matters led him to realize that a strong central government would benefit the nation economically. Although representing one of the large states, he also argued that the new government should be granted powers sufficient to ensure that the states could not dominate it. At the same time, Gorham was a political realist who was willing to compromise on details to ensure acceptance of the new instrument of government.

CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Gorham was the son of a packet-boat operator and member of an Old Bay Colony family of modest means. He received little formal education, but was apprenticed at age fifteen to Nathaniel Coffin, a merchant in New London, Connecticut. Gorham succeeded in business because of personal ability rather than family prominence. Already well known in Charlestown by 1770, he began his public career as a notary, soon winning election to the colonial legislature (1771-75) where he emerged an ardent Patriot. During the Revolution his political star continued to rise when he displayed a special talent for administration that proved crucial to the wartime government of his state. In particular he served on the Board of War, which organized Massachusetts' military logistics and manpower (1778-81). When the Continental Army left Massachusetts for the campaign in New York, the Board of War not only provided for the coastal defenses of the region, but also supported the military effort in the northeastern section of the state, where American forces were engaged in several important expeditions against British bases in Nova Scotia. Gorham also was a delegate to Massachusetts' first constitutional convention (1779-80) and represented his community in the upper (1780) and lower (1781-87) houses of the new state legislature, serving several terms as speaker of the lower house.

In recognition of Gorham's work during the war, Massachusetts appointed him a delegate to the Continental Congress (1782-83 and 1785-87) where for a period he served as president. Despite his lack of formal legal training, the state also appointed him judge of Middlesex County's court of common pleas (1785-96).

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Gorham played an influential part in the Constitutional Convention, speaking frequently, sitting on the Committee of Detail, and serving as chairman of the Committee of the Whole. Representing the commercial-cosmopolitan interests in Massachusetts, he pushed for a central government strong enough to protect interstate commerce, promote international trade, and regulate the use of paper money. To free the new government from passing fads and prejudices, he favored long presidential and senatorial terms. He also wanted to give Congress broad powers, but he urged the appointment of federal judges by the executive. Finally, he wanted a consolidation of military authority through control of the militia by the central government. Ironically, in view of his support of the new republic, Gorham was pessimistic about the future of his state and country. He believed, in the aftermath of Shays' Rebellion, that Massachusetts would divide between east and west "on the question [of the Constitution] as it has on all questions for several years past;" and that the country, because of its great size, would divide into several independent nations within 150 years.

CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Gorham was a key participant in Massachusetts' struggle for ratification, won only when Gorham and other Federalists proposed possible amendments to the Constitution to attract the moderates who held the deciding votes. While retaining his seat on the court of common pleas, Gorham also served for a brief period (1788-89) on the Governor's Council, an advisory group to the state's chief executive. His later years were marked by a reverse in his personal fortunes. Along with a business associate, Oliver Phelps, he bought 2,600,000 acres in western New York, a transaction that ruined him financially when the value of paper money, and hence the real value of his debt, suddenly rose.

BIRTH: 27 May 1738, in Charlestown, Massachusetts
DEATH: 11 June 1796, at Charlestown, Massachusetts
INTERMENT: Phipps Street Cemetery, Charlestown, Massachusetts


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