Robert Morris, Jr. (January 20, 1734 – May 9, 1806) was an American merchant and a signer to the United States Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. Morris was known as the Financier of the Revolution, because of his role in personally financing the American side in the Revolutionary War from 1781 to 1784, and during his tenure as Superintendent of Finance his peers called him "The Financier".
At age 16 Morris was already apprenticed to the shipping and banking firm of Philadelphia merchant (later mayor) Charles Willing. After Willing's death four years later, the 20-year-old Morris became the partner of Charles's son, Thomas Willing. The partnership of Willing, Morris, and Company lasted until 1779, and they often collaborated thereafter. Eventually they sent ships to India, China, and the Levant. The firm's business of import, export and general agency made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania. As a result Morris became both wealthy and influential in Philadelphia. Even so, Morris's wealth was mostly in his stock in trade, and the value of his holdings was small when compared to the southern plantation holders who owned thousands of acres of land and controlled the lives of millions of slaves, or even the average middle class Englishman living in London.
The Stamp Act of 1765-1766 was a tax on all legal documents, yet the lawyers did not act to oppose it. However the merchants banded together to end what they saw as an unconstitutional tax. Morris began his public career in 1765 by serving on a local committee of merchants organized to protest the Stamp Act. He followed a street of protesters and convinced the tax collector that if the tax stamps were not sent back to England the collector's house would be pulled down "brick by brick". Morris remained loyal to Britain, but he believed that the new laws constituted taxation without representation and violated the colonists' rights as British citizens.
Before the Revolution, Britain controlled the port of Philadelphia. The British Crown wanted to encourage the slave trade and enrich the King's friends. At the same time, during the Seven Years' War, the usual supply of indentured servants was not available because those people were conscripted to fight in Europe. Morris was a junior partner in Willing, Morris & Co when they sent out one ship on a slave trading voyage. They didn't carry enough to be profitable, and after a second trip, their ship was captured by French privateers. Later they both supported the non-importation agreements that marked the end of the slave trade into Philadelphia. They also became advocates for free trade which would end the kind of trade restrictions that gave rise to the business. As time went on Morris tried to tax the slave trade and to lay a head tax on the slaves payable by the owner. His efforts were not appreciated by the Southerners who then proceeded to fight all his measures. While Morris's fortune did not come from the slave trade or from slave labor, he did own slaves who worked as household servants.
Morris was also elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778.
In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris's company to import arms and ammunition.
Morris was Chairman of the Secret Committee where he devised a system to smuggle war supplies from France a year before Independence was declared.
He served with John Adams on the committee that wrote the Model Treaty. The Model Treaty incorporated his long held belief in Free Trade. It was an outgrowth of his trading system, and acted as the basis for the Treaty with France.
He served on the Marine and Maritime Committees and sold his best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress. It became The Alfred, the first ship in the Continental Navy. John Barry, a captain who sailed for his company, became the Captain of the Alfred.
Morris used his extensive international trading network as a spy network and gathered intelligence on British troop movements. One of his spies sent the information that allowed the Americans to defend Fort Moultrie near Charleston, South Carolina.
On July 2, 1776, Morris voted against the Declaration of Independence, and he declined to vote when the final document was adopted on July 4, 1776. However, on August 2 Morris signed the Declaration 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."
During the Revolutionary War, in December 1776, Morris stayed in Philadelphia when the rest of Congress left for Baltimore. He paid $10,000 to pay Washington’s troops. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He subsequently paid from his own funds the troops via Morris notes to continue Washington's ability to wage war.
In March 1778 Mr. Morris was chosen to sign the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Pennsylvania.
Morris's wealth increased thanks to privateers that seized the cargo of English ships during the war. Morris owned an interest in many privateer ships, and also helped to sell off the English spoils as they came into port. While he was seen as profiting handsomely from this activity he wrote a friend that he lost about 1050 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, not he never asked for reimbursement.
Immediately after serving in the Congress Morris served two more terms on the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. While he was in the Pennsylvania Assembly Morris worked to restore checks and balances to the state constitution, and to overturn the religious test laws, thus restoring voting rights to 40% of the citizens including Quakers, Jews and Mennonites. During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for alleged war profiteering. A congressional committee acquitted Morris and his firm on charges of engaging in improper financial transactions in 1779, but his reputation was damaged after this incident.
Morris supplied the majority war materials to the troops when the state failed to act. Pennsylvania went bankrupt in 1780 due to the failure of state controlled markets and self-imposed embargoes. Ultimately the state called on Morris to restore the economy. He did so by opening the ports to trade, and allowing the market to set the value of goods and the currency.
In 1781 the US was in a crisis. The British controlled the coast line from the sea, two major cities, and the western frontier. The treasury was in debt by $25 million and public credit had collapsed. With the failure of their own policies staring them in the face Congress changed from the committee systems they had used for years and created the first executive offices in American history. Morris held two of them, Finance and Marine. While his detractors worried he was gaining "dictatorial powers" he was granted what we would call today "executive authority". In a unanimous vote, Congress appointed Morris to be Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. To defend himself from the calumnies of his critics Mr. Morris insisted that Congress allow him to continue his profitable private endeavors while serving in a related public office. In practice he was not active in private business during his term and acted as a silent partner in various companies.
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, in 1782. The bank was funded in part by a significant loan Morris had obtained from France in 1781. The initial role of the bank was to finance the war against Britain.
As Superintendent of Finance Morris instituted several reforms, including reducing the civil list, significantly cutting government spending by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightening accounting procedures, and demanding the federal government's full share of support (money and supplies) from the States.
Morris obtained supplies for the army of Nathanael Greene in 1779, and from 1781-1783.
He took an active role in getting Washington from New York State to Yorktown Virginia. He was in Washington's camp the day the action was initiated. He acted as quartermaster for the trip and supplied over $1,400,000 in his own credit to move the Army. He was also Agent of Marine and coordinated with the French Navy to get Washington's Army to the Battle of Yorktown (1781). After Yorktown Morris noted the war had changed from a war of bullets to a war of finances.
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 $800,000 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. This extensive use of his personal credit strained his own fortune. Morris later claimed that although he lost over 1050 ships during the war he came out of it "about even."
During his tenure as Superintendent, Morris was assisted by his friend and assistant Gouverneur Morris (no relation). He proposed a national economic system in a document called "On Public Credit". This acted as the basis for Hamilton's plan of the same name submitted much later.
On January 15, 1782 Morris drafted a proposal that he later presented to the Continental Congress to recommend the establishment of a national mint and decimal coinage. However, the United States Mint was not established until 1792, after further proposals by Hamilton.
While it was widely known at the time that Morris was active behind the scenes, his only significant role of record during the Convention was to nominate his friend George Washington as its president.
Washington appointed Morris Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, but Morris declined (suggesting instead Alexander Hamilton). He served as a United States Senator from 1789 to 1795. Morris was on 41 Senatorial committees and reported for many of them. He focused on using his position in the Legislature to support the Federalist economic program, which included internal improvements like canals and lighthouses to aid commerce. As Senator he generally supported the Federalist party and backed Hamilton's economic proposals. Hamilton's proposals were, in actuality, a rework of Morris's report "On Public Credit", submitted some 10 years earlier.
As a Senator from Pennsylvania, Morris is credited with helping to bring the Federal Government to Philadelphia for 10 years as the Federal District was under construction. During this period he moved from his home, and allowed it to be used by Washington as his residence. Later that house was used by Adams while he was President.
Morris founded several canal companies, a steam engine company, and launched a hot air balloon from his garden on Market Street. He had the first iron rolling mill in America. His ice house was the model for the one Washington put in at Mount Vernon. He backed the new Chestnut Street Theater, started the Horticultural Society and had a green house with lemon trees in it.
On March 12, 1791 he contracted with Massachusetts to purchase what is now essentially all of Western New York west of the Genesee River for $333,333.33. The land, which had been a substantial portion of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, was conveyed to Morris in five deeds on May 11, 1791.
In 1794 he began construction of a mansion on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
Morris was later heavily involved in unsuccessful land speculations, investing in the District of Columbia, and purchasing over 6,000,000 acres (24,000 km²) in the rural south. An expected loan from Holland never materialized because England and the Dutch declared war on Revolutionary France. The subsequent Napoleonic Wars ruined the market for American Lands and Morris's highly leveraged company collapsed. The financial markets of England, the United States, and the Caribbean were also suffering from the deflation associated with the Panic of 1797. Thus Morris was land-poor (he owned much land but didn't have enough money to pay off his creditors).
Although he attempted to avoid his creditors by remaining at "The Hills", his country estate on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. After he was sued by a former partner, who was a fraud and at that time serving time in debtor's prison himself, he was arrested and imprisoned for debt in Prune Street prison in Philadelphia from February 1798 to August 1801. His unfinished mansion became known as "Morris's folly", and the land eventually became Sansom Street. Marbles from this house were purchased by Latrobe and adorn buildings and monuments from Rhode Island to Charlestown, SC.
Morris's economic failure reduced the fortunes of many other prominent Federalists who had invested in his ventures (e.g., Henry Lee). Demagogues among Morris's political adversaries used his bankruptcy to gain political power in Pennsylvania. Governor Thomas McKean was elected and refined the art of political patronage in America. McKean’s party then picked the Pennsylvania members of the electoral college for the election of 1800, and this helped Thomas Jefferson become president.
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. 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.
Morris's portrait appeared on US $1000 notes from 1862 to 1863 and on the $10 silver certificates from 1878 to 1880. Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in the United States. Morris and Roger Sherman were the only two people to sign the three significant founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.
The Dollar Sign ("$") was in common use among private merchants during the middle of the 18 century. It referred to the Spanish Milled Dollar, which predated the U.S. Dollar. Morris was the first to use that symbol in official documents and in official communications with Oliver Pollock. Much later it was used as the symbol for the U.S. Dollar, even though that currency was only loosely based on the Spanish coin.
Institutions named in honor of Morris include:
A small town, Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was named in honor of Robert Morris. A statue of him resides in the town square.
The Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, Maryland was also named after him.
Robert Morris's home in Philadelphia, where he lived during much of his career as Superintendent, where he lived while he (as Agent of Marine) ran the Continental Navy (1781-1784), and where he lived while he served a member of the Constitutional Convention (1789), was subsequently used by Presidents Washington and John Adams, while Philadelphia was the temporary U.S. capital during the construction of Washington, D.C. The building no longer exists, but the site is in the process of becoming a memorial to Washington's slaves, who lived in what was known as the President's House This makes Morris's legacy unique among the signers of the Declaration or the U.S. Constitution, in that the National Park Service has determined that neither his life nor his career will be themes for interpretation at the site of his own house.
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