Robert Morris (financier)
|United States Senator
March 4, 1789 – March 4, 1795
|Succeeded by||William Bingham|
|United States Superintendent of Finance|
|Preceded by||office established|
|Succeeded by||office abolished|
January 20, 1734|
Liverpool, Lancashire, England
|Died||May 9, 1806
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Mary White Morris|
Robert Morris, Sr. (// (January 20, 1734 – May 8, 1806) was a Liverpool-born American merchant who financed the American Revolution and was signatory to the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, and was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he served as chairman of the "Secret Committee of Trade" and as a member of the Committee of Correspondence.
From 1781 to 1784, he served as the powerful Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. As the central civilian in the government, Morris was, next to General George Washington, "the most powerful man in America." His successful administration led to the sobriquet, "Financier of the Revolution." At the same time he was Agent of Marine, a position he took without pay, and from which he controlled the Continental Navy.
He was one of Pennsylvania's original pair of US senators, serving from 1789 to 1795. He invested a considerable portion of his fortune in land shortly before the Panic of 1796–1797, which led to his bankruptcy in 1798, and he spent several months in debtors' prison, until Congress passed a bankruptcy act to release him. After he left prison in 1801 he lived a quiet, private life in a modest home in Philadelphia, until 1806 when he died.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Personal and family life
- 3 Continental Congress
- 4 Later life
- 5 Legacy
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Morris was born to Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizabeth Murphet in Liverpool, Lancashire, on January 20, 1734. At the age of 13, Morris emigrated to Oxford, Maryland, to live with his father, who was a tobacco factor. As a youth, Morris was provided a tutor and quickly learned everything his teacher taught him.
His father sent him to Philadelphia to study where he stayed with Charles Greenway, a family friend. Greenway arranged for young Robert to become an apprentice at the shipping and banking firm of the Philadelphia merchant (and then mayor) Charles Willing. A year later, Robert's father died after being wounded in an accident when hit by the wadding of a ship's gun that was fired in his honor.
When Charles Willing died in 1754, his son Thomas Willing made Morris his partner at the age 24. They established the prominent shipping-banking firm of Willing, Morris & Co. on May 1, 1757. The partnership lasted until about 1779.
Personal and family life
On March 2, 1769, at age 35, Morris married 20-year-old Mary White. Together they had five sons and two daughters. White came from a prominent family in Maryland; her brother was the well-known Anglican Bishop William White.
Morris worshiped in Philadelphia at St Peter's Church on Pine Street and Christ Church on 2nd Street, both of which were run by his brother-in-law, Bishop William White (Bishop of Pennsylvania). Morris remained a constant worshipper and supporter at this Anglican Church for his entire life. Both Morris and his brother-in-law William White are buried at Christ Church, Philadelphia in the churchyard located at Second and Market. Because of the locations and reputations of Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, they served as places of worship for a number of the notable members of the Continental Congress, sometimes including George Washington.
Shipping and slavery
In 1757 Morris became a business partner with Thomas Willing. Their partnership was a merchant firm with interests in shipping, real estate, and other lines of business. The partnership was forged just after the Seven Years' War began (1756–1763), which hindered attracting the usual supply of new indentured servants to the colony. Potential immigrants were conscripted in England to fight in Europe, and the contracts for those already in the colonies in America were expiring. Indentured servants could legally break their contracts to join the British forces to fight against the French and their Indian allies.
At the same time, the British Crown wanted to encourage the slave trade to enrich the King's friends. While Morris was a junior partner and Willing was pursuing a political career, the company Willing, Morris & Co. co-signed a petition calling for the repeal of Pennsylvania's tariff on imported slaves. (About 500 slaves were imported into Philadelphia in 1762, the height of the trade; most of whom were brought in by the Rhode Islanders D’Wolf, Aaron Lopez, and Jacob Rivera.)
Willing, Morris & Co funded its own slave-trading voyage. The ship did not carry enough to be profitable and, during a second trip, was captured by French privateers. The firm handled seven slave auctions for other importers, offering a total of 23 slaves. In 1762 the firm advertised an agency sale in Wilmington, Delaware for over 100 Gold Coast slaves. The ship had docked in Wilmington to avoid the tariff. In 1765 on their last reported agency deal (out of a total of eight), the firm advertised 70 slaves who were brought in from Africa on the ship Marquis de Granby. The slaves were not sold in Philadelphia, as the owner took the ship and all the slaves to Jamaica.
Both partners supported the non-importation agreements that marked the end of all trade with Britain, including the importation of slaves. They became advocates for free trade, which would end the kind of trade restrictions that gave rise to the business. As a government official, Morris tried to tax the domestic slave trade, and to lay a head tax on the slaves payable by the owner. His efforts were resisted by the Southerners who fought all his measures. Pennsylvania passed a law for gradual abolition of slavery in 1780. Philadelphia County has no slave registrations making it impossible to determine who in Philadelphia owned slaves in 1780.
Willing, Morris & Co. ships traded with India, the Levant, the West Indies, Spanish Cuba, Spain, and Italy. The firm's business of import, export, and general agency made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania. In 1784 Morris, with other investors, underwrote the voyage of the ship, The Empress of China, the first American vessel to visit the Chinese mainland. Among the investors were Samuel Miles, who built a sugar refinery in Philadelphia; John Holker, French Agent; and Daniel Parker, merchant. The ship embarked from New York harbor for China on General Washington's birthday, February 22, 1784.
In 1786 Washington wrote to Morris discussing his hopes for the democratic process bringing an end to slavery. His reference to how escaped slaves made their way to the North is taken as the first reference to the Underground Railroad. The 1790 census is the first in Philadelphia County that lists slaveholders by name.
Conflict with Britain
The Stamp Act of 1765–1766 was a tax on all legal documents. 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 mediated between a mass meeting of protesters and the Stamp Tax collector, whose house they threatened to pull down "brick by brick" unless the collector did not carry out his job. Morris remained loyal to Britain, but he believed that the new laws constituted taxation without representation and violated the colonists' rights as British citizens. In the end, Britain lifted the stamp tax.
After Britain passed the Tea Tax, the tea ship Polly reached the lower Delaware Bay. Philadelphia ordered the bay pilots not to bring it to port. Morris was a warden of the port at that time. Captain Ayers brought the Polly into port by following another ship up the bay which set off a protest. At least 20% of the population filled the street as Ayers was escorted to the State House. A meeting with Ayers and the port wardens, including Morris, was held. Ayers agreed to leave Philadelphia without delivering any taxed tea. Bostonians handled the matter quite differently.
Morris was elected to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety (1775–1776), the Committee of Correspondence, the Provincial Assembly (1775–1776), and the Pennsylvania legislature (1776–1778). He was also elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778.
In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris' company to work with the Secret Committee of Trade after March 14, 1776. He devised a system to smuggle war supplies from France a year before independence was declared. He handled much of the financial transactions, contracting with merchants and business firms to obtain needed war material and purchasing commodities for export to pay for it.
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 1778 Treaty with France.
He served on the Marine and Maritime Committees and gave his best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress. It was renamed as the USS Alfred (1774), 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 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Congressional motion for independence. The Pennsylvania delegation, which was split 4-3, cast its vote in the negative. The following day, Morris and John Dickinson agreed to abstain, allowing the other Pennsylvania delegates to vote for independence. The final vote was 12 states in favor and no states opposed. (New York's delegates voted later.) 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."  Robert Morris' decision to abstain is considered the most pivotal vote of the congress.
Financed the war
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Morris personally paid £1,000,000 (about $114 million pounds today) to pay the Continental troops under Washington. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battle of Princeton. He subsequently paid from his own funds the troops via "Morris notes" to continue Washington's ability to wage war as the US currency had no value.
During the war, privateers seized the cargo of English ships. Morris owned an interest in many of the privateers and his firm helped sell the English spoils as they came into port. Although some thought he was engaged in profiteering, he sarcastically wrote a friend that his firm had lost over 1900 ships during the war and so came out "about even." He had lost one of the largest private navies in the world during the War, but he never asked for reimbursement from the new government. Morris also personally supplied the funding for eighty percent of all bullets fired during the war and almost seventy five percent of all other expenses for the fledgling government, though he also never asked to be reimbursed for these expenses. He used his remaining money to buy shares in a variety of ships that waged an economic war on Britain. During this period he acted as a commercial agent for John Holker, a French national who was one of many military contractors who dealt with the French and American forces.
During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for alleged war profiteering. In 1779, a congressional committee acquitted Morris and his firm on charges of engaging in improper financial transactions, but his reputation was damaged after this incident.
Immediately after serving in the Congress, Morris served two more terms in the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. While he was in the Pennsylvania Assembly, Morris worked on the constitution and legislation to restore checks and balances, and to overturn the religious test laws. These had excluded from voting 40% of the state's citizens, including Quakers, Jews, and Mennonites.
On October 4, 1779, an angry mob, who supported the "Constitutionalist" faction in opposition to Morris and his allies, tried to chase James Wilson from his home in Philadelphia. The mob was in the process of aiming a cannon at Wilson's home when the First City Troop came to his rescue. Five men were killed in the battle of "Fort Wilson." Constitutionalists in Pennsylvania ran off their political opposites and confiscated their property. James Wilson went on to argue against slavery, defend Haym Solomon from fraud, sign the Constitution, and become a Supreme Court justice.
Morris and his allies supplied the majority of war materials to the troops when the state failed to act. Pennsylvania went bankrupt in 1780 due to Constitutionalist policies which mandated 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.
Superintendent of Finance of the United States
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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 (about $347 million today) and public credit had collapsed, of which he again paid this debt from his personal funds. 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. Morris held the offices of Finance and Marine. His detractors worried he was gaining "dictatorial powers." In a unanimous vote, Congress appointed Morris to be Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. In defending himself from would-be critics, Morris insisted Congress allow him to continue his private endeavors while serving in a related public office. He was not active in private business during this term but remained a silent partner in various companies.,
Three days after becoming Superintendent of Finance, Morris proposed to establish a national bank, as urged by Alexander Hamilton. The first financial institution chartered by the United States, the Bank of North America, was founded 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. During the war the contributions of all 13 colonies and their citizens was roughly $800,000 dollars (about $111 million in today's dollars) and Robert Morris personally contributed almost $74 million (about $1.03 billion today) during the war and immediately thereafter.
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 helping move Washington and his army from New York State to Yorktown, Virginia. He was in Washington's camp the day the move was initiated. He acted as quartermaster for the trip and supplied over $14 million (about $195 million today) in his own credit to supply 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.
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 was the basis for Hamilton's plan of the same name submitted much later to Congress. The Morrises proposed to make the American currency a decimal currency, a progressive idea at the time.
In 1783, Morris was believed to be one of the main conspirators in the Newburgh Conspiracy . Morris's lifelong enemy Arthur Lee, spread rumors about his participation. The author of the Newburgh letter was Major Armstrong, a partisan for the faction that opposed Morris's policies in the Pennsylvania state house. Its members were often allied with Lee.
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 and Jefferson.
In 1781 Robert Morris purchased a home at 190 High Street in Philadelphia from John Holker. He rebuilt it and lived while he was Superintendent of Finance, and Agent of Marine. When the Federal Government moved from New York, he offered his home to his friend George Washington. Washington was familiar with the place, since he had stayed there with Morris during the Constitutional Convention. John Adams occupied it in turn. Morris initially offered his city home to Washington for free, but to avoid the appearance of improper influence, he rented the house for $1 a year to the city of Philadelphia to be used as the presidential residence. Philadelphia was the temporary US capital from 1790–1800 during the construction of Washington, D.C.. Morris moved next door, into another house he owned on the corner of 6th and High (Market) St.
The last remaining wall of President's House was taken down for redevelopment when Independence Mall was created. In the late twentieth century, the foundations of the President's House were rediscovered during archeological work related to construction of the Liberty Center. The site, a few steps away from the Liberty Bell, has been designated a national memorial. It is commemorated with an outline of the house indicated above ground and exhibits about the early federal period. Its interpretation focuses on the first two Presidents, their families, and the nine enslaved Africans who worked in Washington's presidential household.
Later political career
In 1787 Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention. He arranged to have Gouverneur Morris appointed to the Pennsylvania delegation. Although Robert Morris said little at the Convention, Gouverneur and his lawyer, James Wilson, were two of the three most talkative men there. Both opposed slavery during the Convention. Gouverneur Morris wrote the polished draft of the Constitution. 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 wanted to appoint Morris Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, but Morris declined. (He suggested Alexander Hamilton, who supported his policies). Morris was elected by the Pennsylvania legislature to serve as a United States Senator from 1789 to 1795. Morris was on 41 Senatorial committees and reported for many of them. He supported the Federalist economic program, which included internal improvements such as canals and lighthouses to aid commerce. As senator he generally supported the Federalist party and backed Hamilton's economic proposals. Hamilton used principles similar to those in Morris's report "On Public Credit", submitted some 10 years earlier.
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 icehouse was the model for one Washington installed at Mount Vernon. He backed the new Chestnut Street Theater, started the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and had a green house where his staff cultivated lemon trees.
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.
His son Thomas settled the peace with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, four of whom had sided with the British during the Revolution. Then Morris sold most of the vast tract of property to the Holland Land Company in 1792–1793 for redevelopment in parcels.
In 1794 he began construction of a mansion on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant. The unfinished mansion became known as "Morris's folly", and the land eventually became Sansom Street. Marble from this house was purchased by Latrobe; he used it to adorn buildings and monuments from Rhode Island to Charlestown, SC.
Land speculation and bankruptcy
Morris was later deeply 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 suffered from the deflation associated with the Panic of 1797. Thus Morris was "land rich and cash poor" (he owned more land than any other American at the time, but didn't have enough hard money to pay his creditors).
Although he attempted to avoid creditors by staying outside the city at his country estate "The Hills", located on the Schuylkill River, his creditors literally pursued him to his gate. After he was sued by a former partner, who had been imprisoned for fraud and was serving time in debtor's prison, Morris was arrested. He was imprisoned for debt in Prune Street prison in Philadelphia from February 1798 to August 1801.
Morris's economic failure reduced the fortunes of many other prominent Federalists who had invested in his ventures (e.g., Henry Lee). 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 picked the Pennsylvania members of the electoral college for the election of 1800, which contributed to votes for Thomas Jefferson as president.
After his release, Morris was suffering from poor health and 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 after committing suicide. He is buried in the family vault of Bishop William White, his brother-in-law, at Christ Church. A plaque installed later reads: "ROBERT MORRIS signer of the Constitution of the United States of America. Deputy from Pennsylvania to Federal Constitutional Convention May 25, 1787- September 17, 1787 Erected by the Pennsylvania Constitution Commemorative Committee"
- Morris's work, "On Public Credit" submitted during the Revolution, to the Continental Congress in 1781, supplied the basis for Hamilton's economic plan submitted in 1790 under the title First Report on the Public Credit. Morris laid out a national funding plan but its reliance on direct taxation, including a head tax on slaves, prevented his gaining support for it. Hamilton added to the plan as Secretary of Treasury. Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in the United States.
- Morris' portrait appeared on US $1000 notes from 1862 to 1863 and on the $10 Silver Certificates from 1878 to 1880.
- Morris and Roger Sherman were the only two people to sign all three significant founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.
- Morris is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, or the Articles of Confederation (and he signed all three) whose house is the site of a national memorial in a National Park, but whose life and work are not interpreted at the location.
- The dollar sign ("$") was in common use among private merchants during the middle of the 18th century. It referred to the two columns draped with scrolls on the Spanish milled dollar, which predated the US Dollar. Morris was the first to use that symbol in official documents and in official communications with Oliver Pollock. The US dollar was based on the Spanish milled dollar when, in the Coinage Act of 1792, the first Mint Act, its value was "fixed" (per the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, clause 1 power of the United States Congress "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures") as being "of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver."
Institutions named in honor of Morris include:
- Robert Morris University, Pennsylvania
- Robert Morris University (Illinois)
- Robert Morris Elementary School, Batavia, New York.
- Robert Morris Elementary School #27, Scranton, Pennsylvania
- Robert Morris Elementary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Robert Morris School South Bound Brook, New Jersey
- Mount Morris, New York, location of a large flood control dam on the Genesee River, was named in his honor.
- A number of ships in the United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard have been named USS Morris or USRC Morris for him.
- A small town, Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was named in his honor. A statue of him is in the town square.
- Rappleye, Charles. Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution (2010) ISBN 978-1-4165-7091-2
- Rappleye, p. 252
- The Graves. Christ Church, Philadelphia
- Raymond A. Mohl (1997), The Making of Urban America,
- David Waldstreicher (2005), Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution,
- Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, African Americans in Pennsylvania, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), p. 47
- Pennsylvania Gazette items # 25284, 26076, 26206, 26565, 28558, 28712, 36325, in 1765
- Pennsylvania Gazette, May 6, 1762. Note: This arrangement made it easy for Pennsylvania slave-buyers to avoid paying the tariff.
- Pennsylvania Gazette, July 25, 1765
- The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade CD-ROM, published by the Oxford University Press
- Part 2: Africans in America, PBS, accessed 15August 2012
- Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Congress and the Munitions Merchants (1985)
- Robert Morris to Horatio Gates, Philadelphia, 27th October 1776, cited in "The Founders on the Founders" ed. by John P. Kaminski, U. VA. Press 2008.
- "Robert Morris". Signers of the Declaration Biographically Sketches. National Park Services. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
- Boyer, Paul S. The Enduring Vision, 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
- Joseph Jackson (1918). Market Street Philadelphia. p. 106.
- Beers, Frederick W. (1890). Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County, N.Y., 1788–1890. Syracuse, N.Y.: Comp. and pub. by J.W. Vose & Co.
- National Park Service – Signers of the Declaration (Robert Morris)
- Barbara Ann Chernow, Robert Morris, Land Speculator, 1790–1801 (1978)
- Axelrod, Alan. The Real History of the American Revolution, 2007, p. 349, sidebar
- Thomas L. Purvis (1997). A Dictionary of American History. Wiley. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-57718-099-9.
- Ver Steeg, Clarence L. Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier, p. 175
- Ferguson, E. James. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790 (1961)
- Rappleye, Charles. Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-7091-2.
- Ver Steeg, Clarence L. Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954 (ISBN 0-374-98078-0).
- Ver Steeg, Clarence L. "Morris, Robert" in American National Biography Online 2000.
- Ferguson, James (editor): The Papers of Robert Morris 1781–1784 (9 volumes): University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978; (1995 reprint: ISBN 0-8229-3886-3).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Morris.|
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Robert Morris.|
- Biography by Charles Rappleye, 2010
- Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856
- Robert Morris (financier) at Find a Grave
- The President's House
|Superintendent of Finance
|United States Senate|
|U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Pennsylvania
Served alongside: William Maclay, Albert Gallatin, James Ross