Without Robert Morris, the American Revolution may have been crushed under a mountain of debt and disarray. The self-made millionaire from Philadelphia never set out to be a politician, but was pressed into service by the Continental Congress when it needed a brash and savvy capitalist who could manage America’s chaotic finances during the war for independence.
Morris is one of only two Revolution-era delegates to have signed all three founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution—yet his name is seldom mentioned alongside Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton or his good friend George Washington.
That’s because Morris didn’t fit the high-minded mold of the Founding Fathers, explains Morris biographer Charles Rappleye. In a nation founded on Enlightenment ideals, Morris was a self-interested pragmatist and an unrepentant chaser of money. After the Revolution, Morris’s greed caught up to him and landed him in debtor’s prison.
“Like some of the other Founders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Morris had a rags-to-riches rise into the upper echelons of power, but unlike the others, he didn’t ride off into the sunset,” says Ryan Smith, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder. “Instead, he had this horrible crash that threatened to bring down his peers. For a variety of reasons, people wanted to forget Robert Morris and his role in the Revolution.”
More Than a Merchant
Morris was born in Liverpool, England in 1734 and as a young teenager followed his father, a successful tobacco merchant, to the New World. Orphaned at age 16—his father was killed in a freak accident involving a fly and a misfired cannon—Morris had only one year of formal education before he began apprenticing as a clerk in Philadelphia.
“From a young age, Morris had this innate ability to succeed as a merchant,” says Smith. “It was a notoriously difficult trade—the monetary system was messed up, your ships could be attacked by pirates, the market could collapse—but Morris had a good nose, and the firm of Willing Morris & Company became one the largest and richest in the colonies.”
Morris was a global capitalist before Adam Smith had even defined such a term. He became one of the first colonial insurers of cargo vessels and opened up China and the Mediterranean to American trade.
Along with other American merchants, Morris was infuriated by the Stamp Act of 1765. He led protests in Philadelphia, drove the British tax collector out of town, and later convinced a tea ship named Polly to turn around before docking at the Port of Philadelphia, avoiding the city’s own “tea party.”
A Reluctant Revolutionary
Morris was nominated as a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress, but even with his staunch opposition to the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts, Morris didn’t initially support independence from Britain. He favored continued negotiations with Parliament rather than starting a war with the world’s greatest military power.
When the Continental Congress put the issue to a vote, Morris knew he was fighting a losing battle, so he stayed home and let the other Pennsylvania delegates vote in favor of independence. Once the decision was made, Morris threw the full weight of his reputation and resources behind the war effort.
After signing the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, Morris said it was “the duty of every individual to act his part in whatever station his country may call him to in hours of difficulty, danger and distress.”
Morris Becomes a One-Man Treasury
The War for Independence was a financial as well as a military struggle. The 1777 Articles of Confederation, the country’s first constitution, allowed Congress to request funds from the states, but didn’t require the states to comply. Troops went for months without pay while Congress begged the states and European allies for loans.
On the brink of economic ruin, Congress appointed Morris as the Superintendent of Finance, the government’s very first executive office. (Washington offered Morris the position of Secretary of the Treasury before Alexander Hamilton, but he declined.)
Unlike the later Secretary of the Treasury, Morris was invested with nearly unchecked powers. He leveraged his business contacts in the shipping world and relationships with foreign investors to procure desperately-needed supplies and munitions, and to borrow millions of dollars backed by his own promissory notes. Morris also worked closely with revolutionary financier and Polish-born Jewish immigrant Haym Salomon to fund the Patriot cause for much of the war.
When Washington needed gunpowder, Morris smuggled it past British blockades. When the newly minted Continental Navy needed ships, Morris supplied three of his own. When all other American currencies collapsed, Congress paid troops and bought supplies using “Morris notes,” essentially IOUs guaranteed by Morris’s immense wealth.
“This is where Morris gets the legend of single-handedly financing the Revolution,” says Smith, who believes the claim may be overstated. “Certainly his credit and his name allowed Congress to cut checks and sustain the war effort in a way it would not have been able to do without Morris’s backing.”
Morris Becomes Subject of First Congressional Inquiry
While Morris put his own substantial fortune and resources on the line to supply food and weaponry for the war effort, he conducted much of the overseas trade through his own businesses, which earned handsome profits. But questions about that relationship lingered. After the Constitution was ratified and Morris was elected Senator from Pennsylvania, some of his fellow congressmen openly asked whether Morris had bankrolled the Revolution or whether the Revolution had bankrolled him.
In 1785, Congress had passed a resolution calling for an investigation into Morris’s financial dealings during the Revolution, but it was never initiated. When the matter was brought up again in 1790, Morris wrote a letter to Washington requesting that the investigation be carried out, if only to clear his name. In the end, Congress settled for a report of Morris’s business receipts from the period in question, which failed to prove his guilt.
Smith thinks Morris absolutely grew richer during his post as Superintendent of Finance. “His involvement benefited the war effort and his own finances,” says Smith.
From Real Estate Speculation to Debtor’s Prison
After the dust-up with Congress, Morris left political life and returned to his original passion, making money. He had tremendous faith in the new nation and its ability to make his family richer than he had ever imagined.
Morris got his hand in just about every industry and profit scheme. He built a factory town along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania (still called Morristown). He launched a silkworm operation. He invested in the maple sugar trade.
But Morris’s biggest gamble was in real estate. Morris predicted that there would be a wave of immigrants flooding the new nation, as well as Americans moving out to the frontier. So he soon accumulated 6 million acres of land with the expectation of flipping it all for a handsome profit. Confident in his plan, Morris began construction on a palatial mansion in Philadelphia designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the military engineer who laid out Washington, D.C.
But that wave of land-hungry immigrants didn’t materialize, in part, Smith says, because the French Revolution began a period of war that didn’t abate until the end of the War of 1812. Morris had taken out millions of dollars in loans from American and foreign creditors, which he used to cover the mortgage and tax payments on his land. When few buyers showed up, those creditors came calling.
Morris was on the hook for an estimated $3 million dollars, an inconceivable amount in the late 18th century. Since bankruptcy laws were only beginning to be adopted at the time, debtors were still rounded up and thrown into debtor’s prison. Morris tried to evade his arrest by hiding out in his country manor for months, but he eventually relented and served three years behind bars. Morris was released in part because his friends in Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, enabling him to liquidate assets, including his ostentatious Philadelphia mansion, which he never lived in.
Morris left prison a humbled man and lived his remaining five years quietly with his wife, supported by a meagre stipend. Philadelphians were so put off by Morris’s post-Revolution exploits that when he died on May 8, 1806, the local papers only printed a five-line obituary.
“No speeches, no great monuments raised,” says Smith. “People were ready to move on from Morris at that point.”
Which might explain how a Founding Father who played a critical role in America’s victory over the British, and who was one of the richest and most successful men of his time, is all but forgotten to history.