Robert Morris is not a name known by many that do not study the subject of American History, but that does not mean he was not influential. Morris was not only one of the Declaration of Independence Signers, but he also penned his name on the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. He served as an elected official of the Pennsylvania Assembly, the Second Continental Congress and Superintendent of Finance. He would become one of the most powerful men in America and be elected as one of the first state senators from Pennsylvania. His rise would plummet when he would make some unwise investments and land himself into debtors prison. This is a quick bullet-point biography of Robert Morris.
Robert Morris was born in the bustling trade town of Liverpool, England on January 20, 1734. He was named after his father, Robert Morris Sr. His mother’s name was Elizabeth Murphet.
Morris arrived in America at the age of 13 where his father would have him tutored. Morris was a quick learner and picked up everything that the tutor was teaching so his father, wanting something more challenging for his son, sent him Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here he stayed with a family friend named, Charles Greenway and would serve as an apprentice to a shipping and banking firm.
In 1754, Robert Morris and Thomas Willing began a partership with the shipping and banking firm. Robert was now fatherless as was Willing which made the partnership form quickly. The partnership would last until 1776, 4 years after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. The two would become wealthy, especially Morris. Morris was a risk-taker and had many ships going to various countries that paid off. Later in his life, in 1784 he payed for the Empress to China. This was the first American contact with China and it departed on George Washington’s birthday. Morris and his partner did dabble in the Slave trade a bit, however Morris did not personally own any slaves.
Morris married Mary White on March 2, 1769. She was 15 years his junior. the two would go on to have 7 children together: 5 sons and 2 daughters.
The Stamp Act passed in 1765 which caused quite a stir in the American Colonies. At this point in Morris’ life he was a businessman and nothing more. His partner had pursued a career in politics, but Morris kept investing money into the shipping business which was profitable for him. The Stamp Act was the event that caused him to enter the public life. He viewed it as a violation of their Constitutional rights, but remained loyal to Britain.
American Revolutionary War
After the Stamp Act, Robert Morris became active in public life. Although he sided with the British during the Stamp Act, he was well-respected by many. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, the Committee of Correspondence, the Provincial Assembly, the Pennsylvania Legislature, the Second Continental Congress, Pennsylvania Senator and many others. Although it took him awhile to come into the realm of politics, when he did he served in many vocations.
Morris, along with John Dickinson, did not vote in favor of the colonies going to war with Britain. John Morton would cast the swing vote in favor of Independence and Morris and Dickinson agreed to abstain from voting. However, on August 2, 1776 he did sign 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.”
During the war Morris loaned 10,000 pounds to pay General Washington’s rag-tag army. These funds helped Washington keep the army together for the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. He payed this from his own personal wealth. Morris’ name is never mentioned alongside those battles but it should have been. He was responsible for one of the turning points of the American Revolutionary War.
Although his wealth appeared to increase during the war this was not so. Morris made quite a bit of money from privateers during this time who would seize English cargo as they came into port. Even though he made quite a bit of money from privateers he also lost about 150 ships during the war. This was the largest private navy that was lost throughout the war.
He was unanimously elected as the Superintendent of Finance of the United States in 1781. Many believed that Morris was becoming too powerful.
As superintendent Morris made several reforms. He reduced the civil list, he cut government spending by allowing private companies to bid on contracts, he demanded the Feds full share of support from the States and finally he tightened accounting problems. Each of these reforms were successful and allowed the Continental Army to continue.
Although Morris was a financier and not a soldier, he was highly influential. He supplied Nathanael Greene’s army which was devastated after the Battle of Camden. He also took an active role by influencing General Washington to move his army from New York to Yorktown. To do this he paid 1.4 millions dollars out of his own pocket.
He was so passionate for the American cause that he continually strained his own credit. Often Morris would out-give actual states.
Gouverneur Morris assisted him throughout the war. The two would create a plan called “On Public Credit.” This would become the basis of Alexander Hamilton’s economic plan.
in 1782 Morris put forward a plan to create a national mint and decimal coinage. This would not happen until 1792.
Morris was much like Benjamin Franklin when it came to business. He founded a steam engine company, had the first iron rolling mill in America, used an ice house that would later be the model Washington used at Mount Vernon, started the Horticultural Society, backed the Chestnut Theater and launched a hot air balloon from his garden. Morris was an innovator and always seemed to be ahead of his time when it came to business.
He did make one fatal mistake. He was heavily involved with land speculation and bought 6,000,000 acres of land. His plans would have worked and he would have made much money and been able to create wealth for many of his investors, but a loan never came from Holland when they declared war on France. Morris’ plans fell through and it left him unable to pay off his creditors. This resulted in him going to debtors prison. One of the most successful American patriots of his time was thrown into debtors prison.
He would be released in 1800 when the United States passed its first set of bankruptcy legislation. He would return to his home and his wife who never left his side. He would die on May 8, 1806 in Philadelphia. He was one of the greatest business minds America ever had and his money allowed the American Revolutionary War to continue.