An American merchant, financial expert, land speculator, and banker, Robert Morris (1734-1806) performed a valuable service for the new republic as superintendent of finance for the Continental Congress.
Robert Morris was born on Jan. 31, 1734, in Liverpool, England. At the age of 13 he was taken to America by his father, a tobacco agent who settled in Maryland. Several years later Morris was sent to Philadelphia as an apprentice to the merchant Charles Willing. Morris proved adept, and eventually he became a full partner in Willing and Morris, a firm with important connections abroad. With Thomas Willing, Morris invested in ships and land on a large scale and conducted far-flung operations that began to yield high profits. His magnificent Philadelphia town house was a social center run by his wife, Mary White, whom he had married in 1769.
Essentially a political conservative, Morris crept toward an open break with England while more headstrong Americans were running. On the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress, Morris opposed independence but later signed the Declaration of Independence. He served in Congress from 1775 to 1778 and sat intermittently in the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1775 to 1781. His capacity for work, attention to detail, and commitment to the American cause were impressive.
At the same time, Morris used his political power for personal gain. As chairman of the secret congressional Committee of Trade, he diverted large sums for his own firm's use, and at least $80,000 was never accounted for. His agents transported private cargoes in naval vessels and traded on their own account for profits while their zeal for public business often lagged.
Morris's attitude in these ventures was explained in a letter to one partner, Silas Deane: "I shall continue to discharge my duty faithfully to the Public and pursue my Private Fortune by all such honorable and fair means as the time will admit of." Public criticism of these activities led to a congressional investigation in 1779. Morris's integrity was upheld by the committee's report.
Morris therefore suffered little inconvenience from the war. His abilities so impressed other congressmen that in May 1781 they despairingly dumped the chaotic and penniless Treasury Office in Morris's lap. His firmness and bold measures as superintendent of finance restored confidence, and aided mainly by foreign loans and the American victory at Yorktown, Va., Morris was able to effect much-needed reforms in the tottering bureaucratic structure. His improved system encompassed naval supplies, public credit, military contracts, and army garrisons. Morris founded the Bank of North America, partly with public money, and issued bank notes to maintain cash payments on government business.
Unquestionably, Morris managed public finances superbly and under the most trying conditions. When he left office in 1784, the Treasury had $20,000. Morris was convinced that the new nation could survive only with a centralized financial system. He urged the sound-money faction to press for a Federal revenue program and a consolidated national debt that would undergird the total economy. Assumption of the wartime debt by the national government was a key part of his program.
Morris returned to the business world, signed a tobacco-supply contract with the French monopoly, ventured into the growing China trade, and began reckless purchases of land. He was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he apparently never entered the debates but probably spoke out in private sessions. He must have supported plans to build a strong navy and create a powerful central government. After ratification of the Constitution, Morris was elected a senator from Pennsylvania. He worked with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on details of the first revenue act and the bill for assumption of state debts.
Morris retired from the Senate in 1795, but his enemies sniped away at his failure to settle wartime accounts with the government. In 1796 Morris gave bonds for $93,312 to clear his ledger of these debts. At that time he was widely regarded as the richest American alive. Behind the facade of immense land holdings, however, there was a dwindling supply of cash.
Imprudently, Morris joined with James Greenleaf and John Nicholson in grandiose schemes for developing the newly designated capital at Washington, buying over 7,000 lots. They also acquired millions of acres beyond the Ohio River, in western New York, and in several southern states. With his partners, Morris combined all his holdings so that more than 6 million acres of land seemed sufficient collateral for all his ventures. But rumors of his impending ruin grew, and after a London bank failure Morris was drained of £124,000. He was never able to recover his financial equilibrium. A joint-stock company scheme failed; Morris was land-rich but headed for bankruptcy. Hounded by bill collectors and process servers, he retreated to a country home.
In February 1798 Morris was taken to a Philadelphia debtors' prison and jailed until a reform bankruptcy act permitted his release in August 1801. Court records showed that he owed $3 million. A thoroughly humbled man, Morris lived thereafter on the charity of friends and died on May 8, 1806.
A project to gather and publish Morris's papers is under way, guided by E. James Ferguson. The standard biographies are William Graham Sumner, The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution (1891), and Ellis P. Oberholtzer, Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier (1903). Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris (1954), and E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 (1961), are analytical works of unusual merit. The sketch of Morris in Howard Swiggett, The Forgotten Leaders of the Revolution (1955), challenges some past assumptions.
Chernow, Barbara Ann, Robert Morris, land speculator, 1790-1801, New York: Arno Press, 1978, 1974.
Wagner, Frederick, Robert Morris, audacious patriot, New York: Dodd, Mead, c 1976.