Founding Fathers - Robert Morris

Robert Morris

Born: January 20, 1734 (near Liverpool, England)

Died: May 8, 1806 (Forked River, New Jersey)

Many of the men who were involved in the formation of the United States were great thinkers, known for their ideas about the way individuals should act and be governed.  The focus of this week's study, however, did not necessarily fit that description and was instead a pragmatic man who believed in pursuing the path that promised opportunity and personal benefit.  Robert Morris was born near Liverpool, England, to an iron merchant of the same name and his wife, Elizabeth.  While the elder Robert traveled to the New World in 1738 shortly after the death of his wife, their son was raised by the late Elizabeth's mother for a number of years.  At the age of 14, however, young Robert traveled to Maryland to join his father, who had become quite successful as an agent for a tobacco company.  After just one year of schooling the boy was apprenticed as a clerk for a shipping company in Philadelphia.  In 1950, Robert became an orphan when a freak accident cost his father his life - after dining aboard a client's ship Morris was preparing to leave for shore while a cannon shot was prepared to salute his departure, but the boat's captain attempt to swat a fly was misinterpreted as a command to fire, and the tragic result was a large wound and fatal infection in the arm of the guest of honor.

Despite a sizeable inheritance from his father, Robert Morris was left without any nearby family at the age of 16 but continued to work hard under the guidance of his employer, Charles Willing, and a family friend named Robert Greenway.  Morris befriended Thomas Willing, Charles' son, and together they established a partnership that became Willing, Morris and Company.  Despite heavy competition in Philadelphia the firm became quite successful due to an international strategy that led to new business development not just with nations in the Caribbean and Europe, but to India, China, and the Middle East as well.  Morris became an exceptionally wealthy man before he was even 30 years old by importing goods from around the world.  The company attempted to become involved in the slave trade that was being encouraged by the British Crown at the time, but found it unprofitable and abandoned the effort.  Despite being born in England, Morris readily opposed laws that were unfavorable to the colonies and his business, the most notable of which was the Stamp Act of 1765.  In response to such taxes on imported goods, especially those carried aboard American ships like his, Morris organized protests and helped form non-importation agreements.  Once such pact, established in 1769, effectively ended the slave trade in Philadelphia forever.

That same year Robert Morris married 20-year-old Mary White, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, and the couple would eventually have seven children.  Morris built a second home for his growing family in the countryside outside Philadelphia but maintained his presence within the city.  As warden of the port in 1773 he helped avoid the sort of protest seen at the Boston Tea Party by convincing an English ship carrying tea to return home with its cargo still onboard.  Peace, however, was not as profitable as war and Morris was willing to become involved in efforts to smuggle gunpowder into Philadelphia when contracted to do so by the First Continental Congress.  He became increasingly involved in politics and was elected to the provincial assembly in 1775, followed by the state legislature in 1776.  As the Second Continental Congress assembled in his town shortly after the start of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, Morris was chosen to represent the people of Pennsylvania.  He did not believe victory was possible against the British, so when the vote came for independence he did not want to vote either for or against the motion.  Instead, Morris stepped outside the door to be officially absent, allowing the Pennsylvania vote to be unanimous, but chose to sign the Declaration based on his conviction that it was "the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead".

Any belief that Robert Morris was opposed to the principle of liberty was quickly laid aside, as he personally began to finance the war effort by obtaining food and supplies, paying soldiers, and issuing guarantee notes backed by his own immense fortune.  He was left in charge of Philadelphia for a period of time when Congress fled to Baltimore in the face of a British invasion, which boosted his popularity significantly.  His experience suited him to serve committee roles dealing with finance and shipping, and when the Articles of Confederation were approved (with his signature included) he was tasked with executive roles that are on par with positions that would later become Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of the Navy.  Despite his personal involvement in providing arms and ammunition for the Continental Army, which was led by his good friend George Washington, Morris became the target of accusations that he was profiting from the war.  This was likely very true, as he had used his own firm to conduct business on behalf of the new nation.  During a time when smuggling was done through a network of secret agents, it is unlikely supplies would have been available without his personal involvement.  Nevertheless, he was the subject of an official Congressional inquiry regarding the conflict of interest that may have eventually cleared him of wrongdoing, but did nothing to salvage the damage to his reputation.

Once the war was concluded, Robert Morris continued to serve his country while also searching for the next great financial opportunity.  He proposed and created the Bank of North America, the first national bank tasked with establishing credit and solving the economic crisis that had embroiled the country.  Morris believed a stronger government was required, as his recommendation for a national tariff had been blocked by Rhode Island as the single dissenting vote under the Articles of Confederation, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  He joined Roger Sherman as the only two men to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution.  Upon ratification of the Constitution, Morris turned down an appointment as Secretary of the Treasure (instead recommending Alexander Hamilton for the position) and was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate.  He also donated the use of one of his homes in Philadelphia to George Washington, which became known as the President's House until John Adams relocated to Washington D.C.'s White House in 1800.  At this time Morris began investing heavily in land, speculating that once America's finances were in order they would see a large migration from European nations.  His gamble did not pay off, and when the Panic of 1797 burst the real estate bubble he was unable to meet his financial obligations in spite of owning some 6 million acres of land.  Consequently he was arrested for non-payment of debts and forced to live in a debtor's prison for over three years until Congress passed a bankruptcy law largely designed to free him.  When Morris was released in 1801 he was responsible for nearly $3 million in debts which he was unable to pay.  The only inheritance he was able to secure for his family when he wrote his final will was a $1500 annual annuity for his wife (arranged by his agent during a liquidation of his assets so the Morris family would not be left without a home) and his father's gold watch for his son, Robert Jr.  Although he attempted other small business ventures, Morris was never able to climb out of the poor financial situation into which he had sunk and died nearly penniless shortly thereafter in 1806.  The "Financier of the American Revolution" was buried at the Christ Church burial ground without much acknowledgement and no public ceremony.

The signature of Robert Morris can be found as the first name in the fourth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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