Robert Morris was the master financier of the Revolution and the early republic. A contemporary described him as "bold and enterprising of great mercantile knowledge, fertile in expedients and an able financier. Very popular in and out of the Congress . . . grown extremely rich." His firm profited handsomely from the sale of munitions to the Continental Army, but it did so fairly, and Morris acted within the ethical standards of the time. His labors and his willingness to secure loans with his own personal credit saved the Army and the government from bankruptcy on several occasions. Although never in uniform, he exhibited singular personal bravery when he stayed at his post in Philadelphia to continue his wartime duties after the British captured the city.
Based on his profound understanding of finances and public credit, he was a forceful proponent of a strong central government as the best course for a new nation blessed with great economic potential. Except for Roger Sherman, Morris was the only person to sign all three of the era's principal documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Morris was born near Liverpool, England, immigrating to Maryland in 1747 to join his father, who was engaged in the tobacco export business at Oxford. The family moved the next year to Philadelphia where Morris briefly attended local schools before entering business. At the age of twenty, he became a partner of Charles Willing. Their firm would become one of America's leading import-export houses. Morris began his public career in 1765 when he served on a local committee organized to protest the Stamp Act. Along with other businessmen, Morris considered taxes imposed by Parliament without the consent of the colonial legislatures a form of taxation without representation and an abuse of the colonists' rights as English citizens. The committee petitioned local tax collectors to ignore the new law.
When hostilities broke out in New England, Morris committed himself to the Revolutionary cause. He served in a number of political posts established in Pennsylvania to oversee the transition from colony to independent state. He was a member of Pennsylvania's Committee of Correspondence. He also sat on Pennsylvania's Council of Safety (1775-76), the body that organized the arming of the state, and he was warden of the port of Philadelphia (1776), charged with protecting that great seaport in the opening phase of the Revolution. He also began the first of several terms representing his neighbors in the state legislature (1775).
Morris represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress (1775-78) where he voted against independence when it was first discussed on 1 July 1776. Still hesitant the next day, he absented himself from deliberations on the subject in the Pennsylvania delegation, but by 4 July he had changed his mind and signed the Decla-ration when it was presented to the Congress for formal approval. In Congress he concentrated on financial affairs and military procurement, conducting much of Congress' banking and serving on its Secret Committee for the Procurement of Munitions. In August 1778 he became chairman of the Finance Committee (he also served on the Ways and Means Committee). He managed to borrow money in spite of military reverses and other political difficulties, procuring funds and supplies from often reluctant states and obtaining personal loans from wealthy businessmen. His role in obtaining provisions and supplies for the Continental Army was so important that historians have concluded that improvement in the Army's combat effectiveness was in good part due to his singular efforts.
An able and energetic delegate, he also served on a committee to consider fortification of seaports and on the Committee of Secret Correspondence which supervised negotiations leading to the alliance with France. Concerned not only with the immediate cause of independence but with the long-range stability of the country as well, he participated in the debates over the Articles of Confederation and signed them on behalf of Pennsylvania in March 1778. He was among the small group of delegates who, at considerable personal risk, remained in Philadelphia to continue committee work when Congress moved to Baltimore during the winter of 1776-77 to escape capture by the British. By 1778 his influence was so strong that Morris, along with Richard Henry Lee and the Adamses, could be said to have controlled Congress. Yet, at the height of his popularity, Morris came under attack from Thomas Paine and others who accused him of war profiteering. Although a congressional investigation exonerated him, concluding that "Robert Morris . . . has acted with fidelity and integrity and an honorable zeal for the happiness of his country;" his reputation was considerably damaged by the charges.
He continued to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature after leaving Congress, but returned to national service as the Superintendent of Finance (1781-84) when the Articles of Confederation went into force. In this position, Morris was responsible for saving the country from financial ruin during the last years of the Revolution. He understood the severity of the economic crisis: "The least breach of faith must ruin us forever;" he wrote, and "Congress will know that the public credit cannot be restored without method, economy, and punctual performance of contracts." He understood good faith in the dealings of a debtor, whether person or nation: "The United States may command everything I have, except my integrity [i.e., commercial credit], and the loss of that would effectually disable me from serving them more." He immediately set about restoring the nation's credit. Assisted by Gouverneur Morris, he worked with the states to levy taxes to be paid in specie, slashed military and government spending, and personally bought supplies for the Army and Navy. His crusade against waste brought about a dramatic improvement in accounting procedures and, more importantly, laid the logistical basis for the decisive Franco-American victory at Yorktown. As the war reached its final phase, he strained his personal credit by issuing notes for government expenses over his own signature. Funds he borrowed from France, along with some of his own money, became the capital of the Bank of North America, the first government-incorporated bank in the United States. "I am determined;" he wrote, "that the bank shall be well supported, until it can support itself and then it can support us."
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Although well known for his strong defense of the nationalist cause, Morris had little confidence in himself as a lawmaker despite the high regard in which he was held by his contemporaries. "The science of law is entirely out of my line;" he apologized. As a result, he spoke only once during the sessions at Philadelphia and did not participate in the Convention's committee work, preferring to express his views through private conversations with various delegates, including his powerful friends Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and George Washington. In Benjamin Franklin's absence, he enjoyed the privilege of nominating Washington as president of the Convention.
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. President Washington offered Morris the post of Secretary of Treasury in the new government, but he declined the honor, which went instead to Alexander Hamilton. He preferred to enter the Congress where, despite his reservations about his legislative abilities, he served as one of Pennsylvania's first senators (1789-95).
Toward the end of his career Morris speculated widely in land in the newly incorporated District of Columbia and in the west, a move that led to financial ruin. He was cast into debtor's prison (1798-1801), and the grandiose Philadelphia mansion designed for him by L'Enfant was left unfinished, to be dubbed thereafter "Morris' Folly."
BIRTH: 31 January 1734, near Liverpool, England
DEATH: 8 May 1806, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
INTERMENT: Graveyard of Christ Church, Philadelphia