Founding Fathers Friday: Robert Morris

by Derrick G. Jeter

When it came to the American Revolution three men were indispensable—two are obvious, the third is not: George Washington the general, Benjamin Franklin the diplomat, and Robert Morris the financier. Without Morris, Washington’s army would have had to fight with sticks and rocks, which would have made Franklin’s wooing of the French court near impossible. And yet, in a twist of historic irony the man who, in many ways, single-handedly funded the American Revolution died in poverty and obscurity, after having spent his fortune in the cause of liberty and serving three-and-a-half-years in debtors’ prison.
Morris came to America at the age of thirteen. He received little education once in America, and poor at that, so his father arranged for him to enter into the employ of Charles Willing, one of the leading merchants in Philadelphia. Under Mr. Willing’s careful guidance, and possessed with a natural knack for business, Morris became very successful in the mercantile trade. In 1754, Morris went into business for himself and established what would become the most successful importing-house in Philadelphia. Ten years later, when the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, and then later the Tea Act, Morris put his large sum of money where his mouth was by refusing to import British good in solidarity with others resisting British taxation. Morris, as did many merchants, lost a great deal of money supporting this principle, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make.
Morris was a businessman, not a politician and he wanted it to stay that way. But the Battle of Lexington, in 1775, changed all that. It is said that he and others were attending a ball for the St. George’s Society when news of Lexington reach them. Indignant, Morris determined then and there to give his all for the revolutionary cause. That same year, he was elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he immediately began to put his financial brilliance to use. As a member of the secret committee of commerce, Morris secured much needed military goods from foreign countries, paid for by in-king shipments of American goods.
However, when it came time to vote for independence Morris faltered. He wasn’t opposed to the idea of independence, only it’s timing. On July 1, 1776, Congress held a preliminary, unofficial vote—among the Pennsylvania delegates, Morris voted against the resolution, along with John Dickinson. That evening, under the arm twisting of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Morris found a tidy excuse to be absent the following day when the official vote was taken. Though the vote didn’t go his way—in regard to the timing of independence—Morris didn’t leave Congress. Later he explained: “I think that an individual who declines the service of his country because its councils are not comfortable to his ideals, makes but a bad subject; a good one will follow if he cannot lead.” And so, follow he did . . . right through August 2 and the signing of the document he didn’t vote for. (As an interesting side note, Morris was one of only two men to sign their names to the three most important documents in the founding of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States of America. Robert Sherman of Connecticut was the other.)
Once his name was on the Declaration, Morris exerted every effort to insure that America would indeed be free in fact and not in name only. Congress’s credit was shot, but Morris’s personal credit was sound. So whether through his own vast sum of money or through wrangling money from others, Morris became the primary money-man for the American Revolution. During the winter of 1776–77, when Washington’s army squatted on the frozen banks of the Delaware, after their disastrous defeat in New York and retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, American independence looked like a forlorn hope—a fool’s hope. Until Robert Morris and his checkbook came to the rescue. Washington’s arm was in desperate need of materials—shoes, clothing, munitions, food. As one old biography records it, after receiving a letter from General Washington, Morris “left his counting-room for his lodgings in utter despondency. On his way he met a wealthy Quaker, and made known his wants. ‘What security can’st thou give?’ asked he. ‘My note and my honor,’ promptly replied Mr. Morris. The Quaker replied: ‘Robert, thou shalt have it.’—It was sent to Washington, the Delaware was crossed, and victory won!”
At war’s end, Continental money was virtually worthless. Morris, in partnership with others, organized the Pennsylvania Bank, which issued paper money that won the confidence of the public. Monies from the the bank, and monies from his own pocket—upwards to $1 million—funded the Yorktown campaign which brought ultimate victory for the American cause—independence indeed!
Morris served two terms in the Pennsylvania legislature after the war. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and was elected Senator after ratification. And when newly elected President George Washington was forming his cabinet, he ask Morris to serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Morris declined and suggested to Washington that he ask Alexander Hamilton. Having served his six year term in the United States Senate, Morris retired from public life and began speculating in land.
But the cost of American freedom, which drained his fortune to near dryness, eventually led Morris to prison. Believing he’d make a tidy sum selling off parcels of land to new immigrants in the newly independent America, Morris invested in large tracts of land in upstate New York. Unfortunately, the Napoleonic Wars dried up immigration, causing the value of land to drop precipitously. Morris suddenly found himself “under water” financially—he owed more than the land was worth. To pay off his debts, Morris sold everything he had—his houses, his land holdings, and his personal property. But not even the wholesale dispossession of all his goods was sufficient to cover his debts. Sent to Prune Street debtor’s prison in Philadelphia, Morris left his family destitute, with a half-built mansion on Chestnut Street designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who would lay out the federal city of Washington, D.C. The unfinished house became known as Morris’s Folly.
No federal bailout existed for the financier of the American Revolution. But Morris wasn’t forgotten, even in prison. George Washington remained a loyal friend and dined with him in prison. After his release, Morris moved into a modest home with his wife, living out his days in obscurity.
The indispensable man of the American Revolution died from asthmatic complications on May 8, 1806. He was seventy-three years old—poor in the pocket but rich in the memory of his countrymen. It would be a shame if our generation was so poor as to forget this great man—this indispensable man who financed a revolution so we might live free.