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Biographical Sketches

Nathaniel Gorham
Nathaniel Gorham

Despite his humble beginnings, this signer became President of the Continental Congress and one of the most successful businessmen and landowners in Massachusetts. At the Convention, he chaired the committee of the whole, served on the committee of detail, and made numerous other contributions. His fall was equally spectacular, and he died in bankruptcy.

Gorham, an eldest child, was born in 1738 at Charlestown, Mass., into an old Bay Colony family of modest means. His father operated a packet boat. The youth's education was minimal. When he was about 15 years of age, he was apprenticed to a New London, Conn., merchant. Quitting in 1759, he headed back to his hometown and established a business, which quickly succeeded. In 1763 he wed Rebecca Call, who was to bear nine children.

Gorham began his political career as a public notary, but soon won election to the colonial legislature (1771-75). During the Revolution, he unswervingly backed the Whigs. He was a delegate to the provincial congress (1774-75), member of the Commonwealth's Board of War (1778-81), delegate to the constitutional convention (1779-80), and representative in both the upper (1780) and lower (1781-87) houses of the legislature, including the speakership of the latter in 1781, 1782, and 1785. In the latter year, though he apparently lacked formal legal training, he began a judicial career as judge of the Middlesex County court of common pleas (1785-96). During this same period, in 1788-89 he sat on the Governor's Council.

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 managed to serve the Nation. He was a Member of the Continental Congress (1782-83 and 1785-87), from June 1786 until January 1787 holding the office of President.

The next year, at age 49, Gorham attended the Constitutional Convention. A moderate nationalist, he played an influential part in the sessions, all of which he attended. 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, Conn., 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 in 1796 at the age of 58 and is buried at the Phipps Street Cemetery in Charlestown, Mass.

Drawing: Oil (ca. 1793—94) by Charles Willson Peale. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004