One evening at a party following a session of the Constitutional Convention, so the story goes, Alexander Hamilton dared fellow delegate Gouverneur Morris to approach the always-formal George Washington, who was 20 years older than either of them, and greet the Great One with a chummy slap on the back.

Morris did it. As the guests looked on in silence, Washington peeled Morris' hand off his shoulder, "stepped suddenly back and fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown." Morris then "retreated abashed and sought refuge in the crowd."

Of all the Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania was the most outrageous. If a dare was made, he would accept it. If something needed to be said, he would say it. And wherever men were wheeling and dealing in the 1780s, wherever a scheme was afoot, a political plot hatched, Morris could be found somewhere near the scene.

In 1783, for example, to impress the nation with its fiscal plight, Morris had helped stir up a near-mutiny of Army officers demanding the pay and pensions the country owed them. He made his point -- a valuable one -- but he also brought the country to the brink of a military coup, which was prevented only by the last-minute intervention of Gen. Washington.

Looking back on him, one can't help liking Morris in spite of his mischievous ways. Others declaimed stuffily against high living, Morris extolled it. Luxury, he observed, is "not so bad a thing as it is often supposed to be." The other delegates were mostly pious family men; Morris reveled in bachelorhood, and was legendary for his daily "oblations to Venus," as his good friend John Jay nicely expressed it.

Morris' reputation was such that when he lost a leg in a 1780 carriage accident, rumors circulated that he had actually suffered the injury leaping from a boudoir to escape someone's husband, who had returned home unexpectedly. Later, Jay said he was "almost tempted to wish" that Morris "had lost something else" in that accident.

Born on a Harlem River manor called Morrisania in what is now the Bronx, Morris derived his curious first name from his French Huguenot mother, the former Sarah Gouverneur. He had moved to Philadelphia to share in the birth and the wealth of American capitalism, and with his bold mind and unbridled ambition, he quickly became a force in the city's commercial establishment. Witty, roguish, blue-eyed and 6 feet tall, he also became one of the town's most dashing social lions, peg leg notwithstanding.

All in all, Morris had every reason to love life and the order of things as they were.

Therein lies the story of one of the most important decisions of the Constitutional Convention. Although Morris was a staunch proponent of a strong new national government for the United States, underneath the bravado he was frightened to death of the social and political changes the future would bring. Specifically, he was alarmed about the future power that would be wielded in America by the states formed west of the Appalachians.

In the seventh week of the convention, he and some other delegates from the North launched a drive to thwart those changes, a scheme to rig apportionment in the House so as to keep the original 13 states in perpetual control of the U.S. government, come what may.

Ignoble and shortsighted, their effort failed. But as was so often the case with Morris, out of the mischief came good, for his effort inspired a backlash in the convention and a clause in the Constitution designed to prevent such a monopoly of power from ever succeeding -- the constitutional requirement that Congress be reapportioned every 10 years, according to a national census.

The controversy also opened a new schism in the convention -- between the North and the South -- that would further complicate the summer of '87.

The imbroglio began just as the wounds of an earlier one were beginning to heal, as a special convention committee emerged from behind closed doors on July 5, 1787, to submit a proposal for a compromise between the small states and the large on representation in the new Congress. The arrangement the committee recommended is familiar. It gave the nation a Senate in which each state has an equal vote and a House based on proportional representation.

To make it more palatable, the committee had also thrown in a provision to assure the larger and richer states that they would not be taxed into oblivion by their poorer sisters in the union -- a clause giving the House of Representatives exclusive authority to originate bills raising revenue (now Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution.) The British Parliament and some of the states employed such a device, which appealed to republican purists because it centered the power of the purse in the house closer to the people.

The convention began considering each of the three parts of the compromise one by one, with the debate over representation in the House coming first. On its face, the concept of proportional representation was simple enough -- divide the states into districts of roughly equal population, and give to each one vote. Every district would be treated equally. The problem arose because some delegates, including Morris, believed that some districts should be more equal than others.

In 1787, the overwhelming majority of the population of the United States lived along the Atlantic coast and along the rivers and tributaries that led inland from the ocean. No one expected this situation to last long, however. Since the 1750s, Americans had understood that the population would move westward, across the Appalachians, where the Mississippi, not the Atlantic, would be the lifeline.

The delegates understood this better than most, for many of them, including Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, William Blount of North Carolina, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, James Wilson of Pennsylvania and George Mason of Virginia, were speculators in western land and stood to profit handsomely from the migration then under way. Even as the convention met in Philadelphia, the Confederation Congress was in New York debating legislation to carve out states west of the Appalachians.

The prospect of a westward shift in power threatened Morris and others from the maritime states, who were convinced that it would undermine the interests of the trading and shipping states along the Atlantic coast. They had nothing against the West per se; it was the type of people who were going there that upset them. As they saw it, they were the same sort of people stirring up trouble in western Massachusetts -- small farmers, agrarian troublemakers, The Mob.

They would be a lower breed, Morris told the convention. "They would not be able to furnish men equally enlightened to share in the administration of our common interests," he said. "The remote wilderness," he declared, is not "the proper school of political talents. If the western people get the power into their hands," Morris said, "they will ruin the Atlantic interests."

Morris now seized the opportunity to prevent such ruination, proposing to the convention the following scheme for the makeup of the House of Representatives:

Let seats in the first Congress be allocated proportionately with equally sized districts having one representative each. But thereafter, as population expanded and new states entered the union, let Congress dole out seats in the House as it pleased.

The scheme would lock in the balance of power as it existed in 1787, with the northern tier of the country in firm control. Morris, typically, made no bones about his motives. "In time," he said, "the western people {will} outnumber the Atlantic states." It is thus necessary "to put it in the power of the latter to keep a majority of votes in their own hands."

"There is a rage for emigration from the eastern states to the western country," agreed Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. He did not "wish those remaining behind to be at the mercy of the emigrants." Besides, he said, "foreigners are resorting to that country, and it is uncertain what turn things may take there."

Southern delegates had an entirely different view of the situation. For one thing, while the northeastern states were saturated with people, the South was still growing. If Morris' proposal passed, the South, as well as the West, would be cheated of representation in the government. Further, the southerners believed that the majority of those moving across the mountains were southerners, and that the future states would be their natural allies in the new Congress, particularly in the conflicts over commerce and slavery that everyone knew lay ahead.

Although Morris tried to portray his proposal as mutually beneficial to both the northern and southern states, the southerners were not fooled. His plan was all the more offensive because he was an abolitionist.

After hearing Morris' proposal, which found considerable support from the New Englanders, the South was indignant. "The gentleman," James Madison said, apparently determines "human character by the points of the compass. The truth {is} that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."

"From the nature of man," Mason declared, "we may be sure that those who have power in their hands will not give it up while they can retain it. On the contrary, we know they will always, when they can, rather increase it." The South may soon have more people, he said, yet the northern states would be able to "hold fast the majority of representatives . . . . The southern states will complain, but they may complain from generation to generation without redress."

Morris' plan, Pierce Butler of Georgia said, threatened the security of the South. What did he mean? "The security the southern states want," he said, "is that their Negroes may not be taken from them, which some gentlemen within or without doors have a very good mind to do."

The Morris proposal, Edmund Randolph of Virginia said, placed "power in the hands of that part of America which could not always be entitled to it . . . . This power would not be voluntarily renounced." It is "the duty of the convention to secure its renunciation when justice might so require . . . . "

Randolph and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina then came back with their counterproposal -- require Congress to reallocate seats in the House according to a regular census of the "free white inhabitants and 3/5 of those of other descriptions."

The convention approved the census and the reapportionment plan on July 11, leaving for another day, and another confrontation, the question of "those of other descriptions."

As the convention moved forward and approved the Great Compromise of 1787, Madison noted in his chronicle that a shift had taken place inside the room at the state house in the seventh week. "It seems now to be pretty well understood," he wrote, "that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination."

NEXT MONDAY: "Our Business Is Yet Unfinished"