The patriotic financier who financed the war of independence
Without Robert Morris, the American Revolution could have been crushed under a mountain of debt and disarray. The self-made Philadelphia millionaire never wanted to be a politician, but was pressed by the Continental Congress when it needed a brash and savvy capitalist who could handle America’s chaotic finances during the War of Independence .
Morris is one of only two Revolutionary-era delegates to sign the three founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution – but his name is rarely mentioned alongside Thomas Jefferson , Alexander Hamilton or his good friend George Washington.
That’s because Morris didn’t fit the noble mold of the Founding Fathers, says Morris biographer Charles Rappleye. In a nation founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment, Morris was a self-serving pragmatist and an unrepentant money hunter. After the Revolution, Morris’ greed caught up with him and landed him in debtor prison.
“Like some of the other founders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Morris had a meteoric rise to the upper echelons of power, but unlike the others, he did not run away into the sunset,” says Ryan Smith, a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The madness of Robert Morris: the architectural and financial failures of an American founder. “Instead, he had this horrible accident that threatened to bring down his peers. For various reasons, people wanted to forget about Robert Morris and his role in the Revolution.
More than a merchant
Morris was born in Liverpool, England in 1734 and as a teenager he followed his father, a successful tobacco merchant, to the New World. Orphaned at the age of 16 – his father was killed in a freak accident involving a fly and a failed cannon – Morris only had one year of formal education before beginning his apprenticeship as a clerk in Philadelphia.
“From a young age Morris had this innate ability to be successful as a trader,” says Smith. “It was a notoriously difficult trade – the monetary system was messed up, your ships could be attacked by pirates, the market could crash – but Morris had a good nose, and Willing Morris & Company became one. of the largest and the richest in the colonies.
Morris was a global capitalist even before Adam Smith defined such a term. He became one of the first colonial cargo insurers and opened China and the Mediterranean to American trade.
Along with other American merchants, Morris was furious at the Stamp Act of 1765. He led protests in Philadelphia, chased the British tax collector out of town, and later won over a tea ship named Polly turn around before docking at the port of Philadelphia, avoiding the city’s tea party.
A reluctant revolutionary
Morris was appointed Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Second Continental Congress, but even with his strong opposition to the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts, Morris did not initially support independence from Britain. He preferred to continue negotiations with Parliament rather than start a war with the greatest military power in the world.
When the Continental Congress put the question to a vote, Morris knew he was fighting a losing battle, so he stayed home and let the other Pennsylvania delegates vote for independence. Once the decision was made, Morris devoted the full weight of his reputation and resources to the war effort.
After signing the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, Morris declared that it was “the duty of every individual to perform his part at any station his country may call him in in times of difficulty, of danger and distress ”.
Morris becomes a one-man treasurer
The War of Independence was a financial and military struggle. The Articles of Confederation of 1777, the country’s first constitution, allowed Congress to request funds from states, but did not require states to comply. The troops went without pay for months as Congress pleaded with European states and allies for loans.
On the brink of economic ruin, Congress appointed Morris superintendent of finance, the government’s very first executive office. Unlike the last Secretary of the Treasury, Morris was vested with almost unchecked powers. He leveraged his business contacts in the shipping world and his relationships with foreign investors to procure desperately needed supplies and ammunition, and to borrow millions of dollars against his own promissory notes. .
When Washington needed gunpowder, Morris smuggled it past the British blockades. When the newly formed Continental Navy needed ships, Morris provided three of their own. When all other US currencies collapsed, Congress paid troops and bought supplies using “Morris Notes,” essentially IOUs secured by Morris’s immense wealth.
“This is where Morris got the legend of single-handedly funding the Revolution,” says Smith, who thinks the claim may be overestimated. “Certainly his credit and his name enabled Congress to cut checks and support the war effort in a way it could not have done without Morris’s support.”
Morris subject to first congressional investigation
While Morris put his own fortune and substantial resources on the line to provide food and weapons for the war effort, he conducted much of the overseas trade through his own businesses, which performed well. profits. But questions about this relationship persisted. After the Constitution was ratified and Morris was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate, some of his fellow congressmen openly questioned whether Morris had funded the Revolution or whether the Revolution had funded him.
In 1785, Congress passed a resolution calling for an investigation into Morris’s financial transactions during the Revolution, but it was never launched. When the issue arose again in 1790, Morris wrote a letter to Washington asking for the investigation to be carried out, if only to clear his name. In the end, Congress was satisfied with a report on Morris’s trading earnings for the period in question, which did not prove his guilt.
Smith believes Morris absolutely grew rich during his tenure as superintendent of finance. “His involvement benefited the war effort and his own finances,” Smith says.
From real estate speculation to debtor’s prison
After dusting off with Congress, Morris quit politics and returned to his original passion, making money. He had immense faith in the new nation and his ability to make his family richer than he had ever imagined.
Morris has taken over just about every industry and every profit program. He built an industrial town along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania (also called Morristown). He started a silkworm operation. He invests in the maple sugar trade.
But Morris’ biggest bet was in real estate. Morris predicted that there would be a wave of immigrants flooding the new nation, as well as Americans moving towards the border. So he quickly accumulated 6 million acres of land in the hope of turning it all over for a nice profit. Confident in his plan, Morris began construction of a lavish mansion in Philadelphia designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the military engineer who landscaped Washington, DC
But this wave of land-hungry immigrants did not materialize, in part, Smith says, because the French Revolution began a period of war that continued until the end of the War of 1812. Morris had withdrawn millions of dollars in loans from US and foreign creditors, which he used to cover mortgage and tax payments on his land. When few buyers showed up, these creditors came to call them.
Morris was on the hook for around $ 3 million, an amount inconceivable at the end of the 18th century. As bankruptcy laws were only just beginning to be passed at the time, debtors were still rounded up and thrown in debtor jail. Morris attempted to escape arrest by hiding in his country mansion for months, but eventually relented and spent three years behind bars. Morris was released in part because his friends in Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, allowing him to liquidate assets, including his ostentatious Philadelphia mansion, in which he never lived.
Morris left prison a humble man and lived his remaining five years quietly with his wife, supported by a meager allowance. Philadelphians were so put off by Morris’s post-revolutionary exploits that when he died on May 8, 1806, local newspapers printed only a five-line obituary.
“No speeches, no great monuments erected,” says Smith. “People were ready to leave Morris then. “
Which might explain how a founding father who played a pivotal role in America’s victory over the British, and who was one of the richest and most successful men of his time, is nearly forgotten by story.