Robert Morris - (1734 - 1806)

Robert Morris Biography

"Robert Morris (Pennsylvania) is a merchant of great eminence and wealth; an able Financier, and a worthy Patriot. He has an understanding equal to any public object, and possesses an energy of mind that few Men can boast of. Although he is not learned, yet he is as great as those who are. I am told that when he speaks in the Assembly of Pennsylvania, that he bears down all before him. What could have been his reason for not Speaking in the Convention I know not,--but he never once spoke on any point. This Gentleman is about 50 years old." -- Character Sketches of Delegates to the Federal Convention by William Pierce (1787)

Robert Morris was a native of Lancashire, England, where he was born January, 1733-4 (O.S.). His father was a Liverpool merchant, who had for some years been extensively concerned in the American trade. While he was yet a boy, his father removed to America; shortly after which, he sent to England for his son, who arrived in this country at the age of thirteen years.

Young Morris was placed at school in Philadelphia, but his progress in learning appears to have been small, probably from the incompetence of his teacher, as he declared to his father one day, on the latter expressing his dissatisfaction at the little progress he made, "Sir," said he, "I have learned all that he can teach me."

"During the time that young Morris was pursuing his education at Philadelphia, he unfortunately lost his father, in consequence of a wound received from the wad of a gun, which was discharged as a compliment, by the captain of a ship consigned to him, that had just arrived at Oxford, the place of his residence, on the eastern shores of the Chesapeake Bay, and was thus left an orphan, at the age of fifteen years. In conformity to the intentions of his parent, he was bred to commerce, and served a regular apprenticeship in the counting-house of the late Mr. Charles Willing, at that time one of the first merchants of Philadelphia. A year or two after the expiration of the term for which he had engaged himself, he entered into partnership with Mr. Thomas Willing. This connection, which was formed in 1754, continued for the long period of thirty-nine years, not having been dissolved until 1793. Previously to the commencement of the American war, it was, without doubt, more extensively engagedin commerce than any other house in Philadelphia.

"Of the events of his youth we know little. The fact just mentioned proves, that although early deprived of the benefit of parental counsel, he acted with fidelity, and gained the good will of a discerning master. The following anecdote will show his early activity in business, and anxiety to promote the interests of his friends. During the absence of Mr. Willing, at his country place, near Frankford, a vessel arrived at Philadelphia, either consigned to him, or that brought letters, giving intelligence of the sudden rise in the price of flour, at the port she left. Mr. Morris instantly engaged all that he could contract for, on account of Mr. Willing, who, on his return to the city next day, had to defend his young friend from the complaints of some merchants, that he had raised the price of flour. An appeal, however, from Mr. Willing, to their own probable line of conduct, in case of their having first received the news, silenced their complaints."

There were few men who viewed with greater indignation the encroachments of the British government upon the liberties of the people, or were more ready to resist them, than Mr. Morris. Nor did he hesitate to sacrifice his private interest for the public good, when occasion demanded it. This disposition was strikingly manifested in the year 1705, at which time he signed the non-importation agreement, entered into by the merchants of Philadelphia. The extensive mercantile concerns with England of the house of Mr. Morris, and the large importations of her manufactures and colonial produce by it, must have made this sacrifice considerable.

The massacre at Lexington, April, 1775, seems to have decided the mind of Mr. Morris, as to the unalterable course which he would adopt in respect to England. The news of this measure reached Philadelphia four days after its occurrence. Robert Morris, with a large company, were at this time engaged at the city tavern, in the celebration, on George's day, of their patron saint. The news was received by the company with the greatest surprise. The tables, at which they were dining, were immediately deserted. A few only of the members, among whom was Mr. Morris, remained. To these, indeed to all, who had been present, it was evident that the die was cast—that the Lexington measure was an event which must lead to a final separation from the British government. Such an opinion Mr. Morris, at this time, expressed; he was willing it should take place, and from this time cordially entered into all the measures which seemed the most likely to effect the object.

On the third of November, 1775, Mr. Morris was elected, by the legislature of Pennsylvania, a delegate to the second congress that met at Philadelphia. "A few weeks after he had taken his seat, he was added to the secret committee of that body, which had been formed by a resolve of the preceding congress, (1775,) and whose duty it was "to contract for the importation of arms, ammunition, sulphur, and saltpetre, and to export produce on the public account, to pay for the same." He was also appointed a member of the committee for fitting out a naval armament, and specially commissioned to negotiate bills of exchange for congress; to borrow money for thc marine committee, and to manage the fiscal concerns of congress on other occasions. Independently of his enthusiastic zeal in the cause of his country, his capacity for business, and knowledge of thc subjects committed to him, or his talents for managing pecuniary concerns, he was particularly fitted for such services; as the commercial credit he had established among his fellow-citizens probably stood higher than that of any other man in the community, and this he did not hesitate to avail himself of, whenever the public necessities required such an evidence of his patriotism.

A highly interesting illustration of this last remark, is furnished in the conduct of Mr. Morris in the December following the Declaration of Independence. For some time previous, the British army had been directing its course towards Philadelphia, from which congress had retired, leaving a committee, consisting of Mr. Morris, Mr. Clymer, and Mr. Walton, to transact all necessary continental business.

While attending to the duties of their appointment, Mr. Morris received a letter from Gen. Washington, then with his army on the Delaware, opposite Trenton, in which letter he communicated to Mr. Morris his distressed state, in consequence of the want of money. The sum he needed was ten thousand dollars, which was essentially necessary to enable him to obtain such intelligence of the movement and position of the enemy, as would authorize him to act offensively. To Mr. Morris, Gen. Washington now looked, to assist him in raising the money.

This letter he read with attention, but what could he do? The citizens generally had left the city. He knew of no one, who possessed the required sum, or who would be willing to tend it. The evening approached, and he left his counting-room to return home. On the way, he accidentally overtook an honest Quaker, with whom he was acquainted. The Quaker inquired of him the news. Mr. Morris replied, that he had but little news of importance to communicate, but he had a subject which pressed with great weight upon his mind. He now informed the Quaker of the letter which he had received, the situation of General Washington and the immediate necessity of ten thousand dollars. "Sir," said Mr. Morris, "you must let me have it. My note and my honour will be your only security." The Quaker hesitated a moment, but at length replied, "Robert, thou shalt have it." The money was soon told, was transmitted to Washington, whom it enabled to accomplish his wishes, and to gain a signal victory over the Hessians at Trenton, thus animating the drooping spirits of patriotism, and checking in no small degree. the proud hopes and predictions of the enemy.

Another instance of patriotic liberality is recorded of Mr. Morris in 1779, or 1780. These were distressing years of the war. The army was alarmingly destitute of military stores, particularly of the essential article of lead. It was found necessary to melt down the weights of clocks and the spouts of houses; but, notwithstanding resort was had to every possible source, the army was often so destitute, that it could scarcely have fought a single battle.

In this alarming state of things, General Washington wrote to several gentlemen, and among the rest to Judge Peters, at that time secretary to the board of war, stating his necessities, and urging an immediate exertion to supply the deficiency.

This it seemed impossible to do. Mr. Peters, however, showed the letter of Washington to Mr. Morris. Fortunately, just at this juncture, a privateer belonging to the latter gentleman had arrived at the wharf, with ninety tons of lead. Half of this lead was immediately given by Mr. Morris, for the use of the army, and the other half was purchased by Mr. Peters of other gentlemen, who owned it, Mr. Morris becoming security for the payment of the debt. At a more advanced stage of the war, when pressing distress in the army had driven congress and the commander in chief almost to desperation, and a part of the troops to mutiny, he supplied the army with four or five thousand barrels of flour upon his own private credit; and on a promise to that effect, persuaded a member to withdraw an intended motion to sanction a procedure, which, although common in Europe, would have had a very injurious effect upon the cause of the country: this was no less than to authorize General Washington to seize all the provision that could be found, within a circle of twenty miles of his camp. While financier, his notes constituted, for large transactions, part of the circulating medium. Many other similar instances occurred of this patriotic interposition of his own personal responsibility for supplies which could not otherwise have been obtained.

Allusion has been made above to the gloomy posture of affairs, during tile year 1780; at this time the wants of the army, particularly of provisions, were so great, as to threaten its dissolution. This state of things, being communicated to Mr. Morris, he immediately proposed the establishment of a Bank, the principal object of which was, to supply the army with provisions. This plan becoming popular, ninety-six subscribers gave their bonds, on this occasion, by which they obliged themselves to pay, if it should become necessary, in gold and silver, the amounts annexed to their names, to fulfil the engagements of the Bank. By this means, the confidence of the public in the safety of the bank was confirmed.

Mr. Morris headed the list with a subscription of 10,000l.; others followed to the amount of 300,000l. The directors were authorized to borrow money on the credit of the bank, and to grant special notes, bearing interest at six per cent. The credit thus given to the bank effected the object intended, and the institution was continued until the bank of North America went into operation in the succeeding year. It was probably on this occasion, that he purchased the four or five thousand barrels of flour, above mentioned, on his own credit, for the army, before the funds could be collected to pay for it.

We have not yet spoken of the congressional career of Mr. Morris, nor is it necessary to delay the reader by a minute account of the services which he rendered the country, in the national assembly. In this capacity, no one exhibited a more untiring zeal, none more cheerfully sacrificed ease and comfort than he did. He accomplished much by his active exertions, and perhaps not less by the confidence which he uniformly manifested of ultimate success. The display of such confidence powerfully tended to rouse the desponding, to fix the wavering, and confirm the brave.

In another way, Mr. Morris contributed to advance the patriotic cause. During the whole war, he maintained an extensive private correspondence with gentlemen in England, by means of which he often received information of importance to this country. "These letters he read to a few select mercantile friends, who regularly met in the insurance room at the merchant's coffee house, and through them the intelligence they contained was diffused among the citizens, and thus kept alive the spirit of opposition, made them acquainted with the gradual progress of hostile movements, and convinced them how little was to be expected from the government in respect to the alleviation of the oppression and hardships against which the colonies had for a long time most humbly, earnestly, and eloquently remonstrated. This practice, which began previous to the suspension of the intercourse between the two countries, he continued during the war; and through the route of the continent, especially France and Holland, he received for a while the despatches, which had formerly come directly from England."

In the year 1781, Mr. Morris was appointed by congress, superintendent of finance, an office then for the first time established. This appointment was unanimous. Indeed it is highly probable that no other man in the country would have been competent to the task of managing such great concerns as it involved, or possessed, like himself, the happy expedient of raising supplies, or deservedly enjoyed more, if equal, public confidence among his fellow-citizens, for punctuality in the fulfillment of his engagements.

Some idea may be formed of them, when it is known that he was required to examine into the state of the public debts, expenditures, and revenue; to digest and report plans for improving and regulating the finances; and for establishing order and economy in the expenditure of public money. To hint was likewise committed the disposition, management, and disbursement of all the loans received from the government of France, and various private persons in that country and Holland; the sums of money received from the different States; and of the public funds for every possible source of expense for the support of government, civil, military, and naval; the procuring supplies of every description for the army and navy; the entire management and direction of the public ships of war; the payment of all foreign debts; and the correspondence of our ministers at European courts, on subjects of finance. In short, the whole burden of the money operations of government was laid upon him. No man ever had more numerous concerns committed to his charge, and few to greater amount; and never did any one more faithfully discharge the various complicated trusts with greater dispatch, economy, or credit, than the subject of this sketch."

Never was an appointment more judicious than the appointment of Mr. Morris as financier of this country. At this time the treasury was more than two millions and a half in arrears, and the greater part of the debt was of such a nature that the payment could not be avoided, or even delayed, and therefore, Dr. Franklin, then our minister in France, was under the necessity of ordering back from Amsterdam monies which had been sent thither for the purpose of being shipped to America. If he had not taken this step, the bills of exchange drawn by order of congress must have been protested, and a vital stab given to the credit of the government in Europe. At home, the greatest public as well as private distress existed; public credit had gone to wreck, and the enemy built their most sanguine hopes of overcoming us, upon this circumstance; and the treasury was so much in arrears to the servants in the public offices, that many of them could not, without payment, perform their duties, but must have gone to jail for debts they had contracted to enable them to live. To so low an ebb was the public treasury reduced, that some of the members of the board of war declared to Mr. Morris that they had not the means of sending an express to the army. The pressing distress for provision among the troops, has already been mentioned. The paper bills of credit were sunk so low in value, as to require a burdensome mass of them to pay for an article of clothing.

But the face of things soon began to change through the exertions of Mr. Morris. Without attempting to give the history of his wise and judicious management, it will be sufficient to say, in the language of an elegant historian of the American war, "certainly the Americans owed and still owe, as much acknowledgment to the financial operations of Robert Morris, as to the negotiations of Benjamin Franklin, or even the arms of George Washington."

To Mr. Morris, also, the country was indebted for the establishment of the bank of North America, and for all the public benefits which resulted from that institution. By means of this, public credit was greatly revived; internal improvements were promoted, and a general spring was given to trade. "The circulating medium was greatly increased by the circulation of its notes, which being convertible at will into gold or silver, were universally received equal thereto, and commanded the most unbounded confidence. Hundreds availed themselves of the security afforded by the vaults of the bank, to deposit their cash, which, from the impossibility of investing it, had long been hid from the light; and the constant current of deposits in the course of trade, authorized the directors to increase their business and the amount of their issues, to a most unprecedented extent. The consequence of this was, a speedy and most perceptible change in the state of affairs, both public and private."

We now come to an event, on account of the interest in which the name of Robert Morris should be remembered with gratitude by the American people, while republican America shall last. The campaign of 1781, respected the reduction of New York; this was agreed upon by Washington and the French general, Count Rochambeau, and it was expected that tile French fleets, under De Barras and De Grasse, would co-operate. Judge the surprise when, on the arrival of the French fleet, it was announced to Washington, that the French admiral would not enter the bay of New York, as was anticipated, but would enter and remain for a few weeks in the Chesapeake.

This necessarily altered all the arrangements respecting the campaign. It was now obvious to Washington, that the reduction of New-York would be impracticable. In this state of things, it is hinted by Dr. Mease, in his biographical sketch of Mr. Morris, in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, to which article we are greatly indebted, that Mr. Morris suggested to Washington the attack on Cornwallis, which put a finishing stroke to the war. Whether this be so or not, certain it is, that until the news was communicated to Washington, that the French fleet would not come into New-York bay, the project of a southern campaign had not been determined upon by the commander in chief. But when, at length, it was determined upon, whether at the suggestion of Robert Morris or not, we are unable to say, it is certain that he provided the funds which enabled General Washington to move his army towards the south, and which led to the decisive battle which terminated the war.

The length to which this article is already extended, forbids any further account of the services of this distinguished patriot.

"It adds not a little, however," says Dr. Mease, "to the merit of Mr. Morris, to be able to say, that notwithstanding his numerous engagements as a public or private character, their magnitude, and often perplexing nature, he was enabled to fulfil all the private duties which his high standing in society necessarily imposed upon him. His house was the seat of elegant, but unostentatious hospitality, and he regulated his domestic affairs with the same admirable order which had so long proverbially distinguished his counting-house, and the offices of the secret committee of congress, and that of finance. The happy manner in which he conducted his official and domestic concerns, was owing, in the first ease, to his own superior talents for dispatch and method in business, and, in the last, to the qualifications of his excellent partner, the sister of the esteemed bishop of Pennsylvania, Dr. White. An introduction to Mr. Morris was a matter of course, with all the strangers in good society, who, for half a century, visited Philadelphia, either on commercial, public, or private business; and it is not saying too much to assert, that during a certain period, it greatly depended upon him to do the honors of the city; and certainly no one was more qualified, or more willing to support them. Although active in the acquisition of wealth as a merchant, no one more freely parted with his gains, for public or private purposes of a meritorious nature, whether these were to support the credit of the government, to promote the objects of humanity, local improvement, the welfare of meritorious individuals in society, or a faithful commercial servant. The instances in which he shone on all these occasions were numerous. Some in reference to the three former particulars, have been mentioned, and more of his disinterested generosity in respect to the last could be given, were the present intended to be any thing more than a hasty sketch. The prime of his life was engaged in discharging the most important civil trusts to his country that could possibly fall to the lot of any man; and millions passed through his hands as a public officer, without the smallest breath of insinuation against his correctness, or of negligence amidst "the defaulters of unaccounted thousands," or the losses sustained by the reprehensible carelessness of national agents.

From the foregoing short statement, we may have some idea of the nature and magnitude of the services rendered by Mr. Morris to the United States. It may be truly said, that few men acted a more conspicuous or useful part; and when we recollect, that it was by his exertions and talents, that the United States were so often relieved from their difficulties, at times of great depression and pecuniary distress, an estimate may be formed of the weight of obligations due to him from the people of the present day. The length to which this article is already extended, forbids any further particulars respecting this distinguished man. It may be proper to add, however, that the latter part of his life was rendered unhappy, by an unfortunate scheme of land speculation, in which he engaged, and by which his pecuniary affairs became exceedingly embarrassed; yet amidst his severest trials, he maintained a firmness and an independence of character, which in similar circumstances belong to but few.

At length, through public labor, and private misfortune, his constitution was literally worn out, and like a shock of corn fully ripe, he came to his end on the 8th of May, 1806, in the seventy-third year of his age.

SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich