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.
Gorham, an eldest child, was born on 27 May 1738 at Charlestown, MA. His father was a sea Captain and he had a sister named Elizabeth. Gorham’s family was descended from one of the Pilgrims who had traveled to Massachusetts seeking religious freedom on The Mayflower. His ancestor was John Howland who helped to found Plymouth Colony. He received little formal education, but was apprenticed at age fifteen to Nathaniel Coffin, a merchant in New London, Connecticut. He quit in 1759, returned to his hometown and established a business which quickly succeeded. In 1763 Gorham married a widow named Rebecca Call who had nine children when she and Gorham married. She and Gorham had nine more after their marriage.
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 (of the Constitutional Convention). Despite his lack of formal legal training, the state also appointed him judge of Middlesex County’s court of common pleas (1785-96).
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.
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.
During the war, British troops had ravaged much of Gorham’s property, though by privateering and speculation he managed to recoup most of his fortune. Despite these pressing business concerns and his state political and judicial activities, he also served the nation. He was a member of the Continental Congress (1782-83 and 1785-87), and held the office of president from June 1786 until January 1787.
The next year, at age 49, Gorham attended the Constitutional Convention. A moderate nationalist, he attended all the sessions and played an influential role. He spoke often, acted as chairman of the Committee of the Whole, and sat on the Committee of Detail. As a delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, he stood behind the Constitution.
Some unhappy years followed. Gorham did not serve in the new government he had helped to create. In 1788 he and Oliver Phelps of Windsor, CT, and possibly others, contracted to purchase from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 6 million acres of unimproved land in western New York. The price was $1 million in devalued Massachusetts scrip. Gorham and Phelps quickly succeeded in clearing Indian title to 2,600,000 acres in the eastern section of the grant and sold much of it to settlers. Problems soon arose, however. Massachusetts scrip rose dramatically in value, enormously swelling the purchase price of the vast tract. By 1790 the two men were unable to meet their payments. The result was a financial crisis that led to Gorham’s insolvency–and a fall from the heights of Boston society and political esteem.
Gorham died on 11 June 1796 at the age of 58 and is buried at the Phipps Street Cemetery in Charlestown, MA.