Founding Father Robert Morris, Jr. – Financier of the American Revolution - History
Born in England in 1734, young Robert emigrated with his family to the Maryland colony at age 13. The young master Morris was tutored for a short time at home and then apprenticed to the shipping and banking firm of Philadelphia merchant (later mayor) Charles Willing.
When Robert Morris was 18, Charles Welling died and his son Thomas took Robert into partnership. They later established the prominent shipping and banking firm of Welling, Morris and Company, and developed trade with Eastern Mediterranean ports, India, and China. The firm's business of import, export, and general agency made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania. Morris’s influence and wealth grew in Philadelphia, though most of his wealth was as stock in trade.
Morris began his public career in 1765 by serving on a local committee of merchants organized to protest the Stamp Act, though he remained loyal to Britten. Robert Morris then embarked on a career that combine his mercantile and business skills with his loyalty to a cause not yet crystallized.
In 1774 his company sold its best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress to become the first ship in the Continental Navy, renamed the USS Alfred. As Chairman of the Secret Committee, he devised a system to smuggle war supplies from France a year before Independence was declared and the Continental Congress contracted with his company to import arms and ammunition.
Morris in 1775 was elected to the; Pennsylvania Council of Safety, The Committee of Correspondence, the Provincial Assembly, and the Second Continental Congress. In 1776 he was also elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Morris also used his extensive international trading network as a spy network and gathered intelligence on British troop movements.
However, on July 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Congressional motion for independence, causing the Pennsylvania delegation, which was split 4-3, to cast its vote in the negative. The following day, Morris and John Dickinson agreed to abstain, allowing Pennsylvania to vote for independence.
Regardless of his personal misgivings on August 2 Morris signed the Declaration of Independence, saying "I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead."
In December of that year with the British and Hessian forces chasing Washington and his men across the Jerseys to the edge of the Delaware River. It looked likely that the British would soon occupy Philadelphia, so the Continental Congress retreated to Baltimore. To their own peril, three members stayed to continue the business of government. Robert Morris, George Clymer, and George Walton. It was at this time that Morris procured from a Quaker the $10,000 that General George Washington used to offer men whose enlistments ended to “stay just two more weeks.” This allowed Washington to fight the two battles, the Second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton, rekindling a failing Revolutionary War and driving the British out of most of New Jersey.
In March 1778 Mr. Morris was chosen to sign the Articles of Confederation, a document that attempted to unify the Colony-States, before the US Constitution was written and adopted nearly a decade later.
Morris owned an interest in many privateer ships, and helped sell off the English spoils as they came into port. While many, including Thomas Paine, attacked him for profiting from this activity, he wrote a friend that he lost about 150 ships during the war and so came out "about even." In fact, he had lost one of the largest private navies in the world during the revolutionary war, though he never asked for reimbursement. Morris and his allies supplied the majority of war materials to the troops when the states failed to act.
In 1781 the US was in a crisis. The British controlled the coastline from the sea, two major cities, and the western frontier. The treasury was in debt by $25 million and public credit had collapsed. Faced with the failure of their own policies Congress changed from the committee systems they had used for years and created the first executive offices in American history. Congress appointed Robert Morris to two of them, Marine, and Superintendent of Finance of the United States.
Three days after becoming Superintendent of Finance Morris proposed the establishment of a national bank. This led to the creation of the first financial institution chartered by the United States, the Bank of North America. The initial role of the bank was to finance the war against Britain. Morris also instituted sweeping reforms in the finance of government. In 1782 Morris had drafted a proposal that recommend the establishment of a national mint and decimal coinage. At times he took out loans from friends and risked his personal credit by issuing notes on his own signature to purchase items such as military supplies; for example, in 1783 Morris issued $1,400,000 in his own notes to pay the soldiers. He did this during the same year that New Hampshire contributed only $3000 worth of beef toward the war effort, and all the states combined contributed less than $800,000.
In 1787 Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention where he signed the U. S. Constitution and nominated George Washington as President. He then served in the U.S. Senate where he served on 41 committees and focused on domestic internal improvements like canals and lighthouses to aid commerce. While Philadelphia served as the Federal City, Morris moved from his home to allow Washington and Adams to use it as their residence while they served as President.
Morris founded several canal companies, a steam engine company, and had the first iron rolling mill in America. He also backed the new Chestnut Street Theater and started the Horticultural Society.
Morris began to invest in land speculation around the District of Columbia and purchased 6,000,000 acres in the south. However the Panic of 1797 and wars in Europe diminished the demand for land and the expected supporting loans. In 1798 he sold Summerseat to George Clymer. That same year he was arrested and placed in debtors’, prison where he stayed until the summer of 1801. Congress passed the Bankruptcy Laws, in part, to get Morris out of prison.
After his release, and suffering from poor health, Morris spent the rest of his life in retirement. He was assisted by his wife, who had supported him throughout his misfortune. Robert Morris died on May 9, 1806, in Philadelphia, and is buried in the family vault of Bishop William White, his brother-in-law, at Christ Church.
There are many individuals who by their absence could have made the deference between the founding or foundering of the fledgling nation and Robert Morris can be counted prominent among them.