Morris, Robert (1734-1806)
Robert Morris (1734-1806)
Merchant, financier, and statesman
Early Career. Robert Morris was born in Liverpool, England. His father, also called Robert, was engaged in exporting tobacco, and at the age of thirteen young Robert left England to join his father in Maryland. After a brief period in a Philadelphia school the boy started work for the Willings, a firm of substantial shipping merchants. At the age of fifteen Morris inherited a modest estate when his father was accidentally killed. Four years later the young man entered into partnership with his former employer’s son, Thomas. Morris kept an interest in the firm of Willing and Morris for thirty-nine years and was an active director for much of that time. In 1769 he married Mary White of Maryland, a sister of William White, who became bishop in the American Episcopal Church. They had five sons and two daughters.
Revolutionary Career. Robert Morris served the Revolution in many financial, administrative, and political capacities. After the Stamp Act of 1765 he participated in Philadelphia’s nonimportation agreement even though his firm did substantial business with British traders. He joined a committee of citizens that forced the city’s stamp tax collector to cease performing his duties. Morris was not fully committed to the patriot cause when the First Continental Congress met in 1774 but became fully so after the Battle of Lexington in April 1775. From 1775 to 1778 Morris was a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served on several important committees including the Committee of Secret Correspondence (later called the Foreign Affairs Committee and then the Committee of Commerce). He was also in charge of procuring munitions and frequently acted as a banker of Congress, both of which he accomplished to his advantage primarily through his firm, Willing and Morris. Although his mercantile activities were widely known, many members of Congress admired his financial and administrative abilities and overlooked the conflict of interest. “He has vast designs in the mercantile way,” John Adams wrote of him, “And no doubt pursues mercantile ends, which are always gain; but he is an excellent Member of our Body.” In 1776 Morris initially voted against the Declaration of Independence because he still hoped for a reconciliation with Great Britain, but he signed it a month later. When Congress fled Philadelphia for Baltimore in December of that year, Morris stayed behind to carry on his committee work. Despite grave difficulties, he managed to buy supplies for the army and sent funds borrowed in his own name to George Washington. Morris retired from Congress in 1778 but remained active in the Pennsylvania assembly. His frequent mixing of private gain and public duty angered some of his congressional colleagues and members of the public. In January 1779 Thomas Paine publicly criticized him, and later that year Henry Laurens, the former president of the Congress, charged Willing and Morris with conducting fraudulent transactions. A congressional committee investigated Morris and cleared him of all charges. In May 1779 a mass meeting in Philadelphia appointed a committee to investigate his conduct; again he was cleared of all charges. Although he lost some of his former popularity, Morris was reelected to the Pennsylvania assembly in November 1780 and served until June 1781.
Financier of Congress. With the collapse of the currency, military defeats in the South, and Congress’s inability to raise adequate supplies for the army, many delegates began to feel that the Articles of Confederation (adopted in 1777) were inadequate. Something had to be done to make Congress more effective. In September 1780 Alexander Hamilton suggested that all of the committees charged with handling the country’s finances be consolidated and that Morris be appointed the superintendent of finance. Congress reorganized its committees in early 1781 and appointed Morris to the new and uniquely powerful position. Before agreeing to fill the post, Morris stipulated that Congress recognize his right to continue operating as a private trader and to have primary control over his personnel. Congress hesitated but eventually approved Morris’s request. Once in office, Morris used his considerable commercial reputation to save that of the bankrupt Congress. In January 1782 he declared that his “personal Credit, which thank Heaven I have preserved throughout all the tempests of the War, has been substituted for that which the Country lost ... if I can regain for the United States the Confidence of Individuals so as that they will trust their property and exertions in the hands of Government, our Independence and Success are certain but without that Confidence we are nothing.”
Reforms. Morris attempted both short-term fixes and longer-term reforms. He imposed thrift on the executive departments by abolishing the system of commissaries and buying supplies for the army himself. In order to keep the government running he issued $1.4 million of “Morris notes” backed by his own credit and borrowed substantial amounts from his business acquaintances. He took great financial risks in order to fund the Yorktown campaign that ended in Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s defeat. Just as important, Morris set about reorganizing the country’s finances by proposing a series of permanent reforms. He sought to fund the country’s outstanding debt by issuing bonds to investors. Morris proposed levying taxes on the states to be paid in specie that would in turn be used to pay interest on the debt. He also tried to have the articles amended so that the Confederation could levy a 5-percent duty on imports. Thanks to a loan from France, Morris was able to accomplish one of his goals, the formation of the Bank of North America, which began operations in January 1782. Morris reasoned that once Congress’s finances were on a secure footing, it would have less trouble borrowing money and would attract investors to its bonds. But except for the bank Morris’s ambitious program for strengthening the national government failed. Despite his efforts to convince them, the states did not contribute their share and would not agree to his funding plan for Congress. In 1783 Morris was still unable to pay off Congress’s debts. Discouraged, he offered his resignation, but Congress ordered it to be kept secret until January 1784. Although Morris assured the public that he would be personally responsible for all liabilities assumed during his administration, he was severely criticized in the press for resigning. Morris stayed on because no one else could fill his role. A loan from the Netherlands negotiated by Adams carried the government through until Morris finally left in November 1784.
Political Legacy. Morris had a talent for serving both his country and himself and was frequently criticized for mixing his public duties with private interests. Nevertheless Morris succeeded in leaving a distinctive mark on the American political system. He and Roger Sherman of Connecticut were the only men to sign all three revolutionary documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Along with the first two secretaries of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris helped to lay the financial and political foundations of the United States. Throughout his administration he tried to strengthen the powers of the national government and to tie the interests of business people more closely to it. Unlike men such as Thomas Jefferson, Morris did not subscribe to the prevailing republican belief that there was an inherent conflict between public and private interest and between business and government. Instead he sought to tie these interests together through deal making and by appealing to people’s monetary self-interest. Although Morris’s nationalizing program failed to accomplish the constitutional reform he wanted, his policies helped to galvanize a coalition of leaders who agreed with his political and commercial vision. In 1786 Morris was a delegate to the Annapolis convention that met to discuss interstate trade regulations. The following year he sat in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Morris was offered but declined the position of secretary of the treasury. Instead he recommended Alexander Hamilton, who shared and successfully implemented many of Morris’s political ideas. Morris was elected one of Pennsylvania’s first two senators, and he served in the new Congress from 1789 to 1795. During that time he supported most of Hamilton’s financial programs. In 1790 Morris helped to broker the political deal wherein Virginia voted for the federal resumption of state debts in exchange for locating the permanent national capital on the Potomac River, the site of present-day Washington, D.C.
Later Mercantile Career. On his retirement from the Continental Congress in 1784, Morris continued to take large business risks. He engaged in trade with the East Indies and China, sending the first American ship to the port of Canton. Morris also continued to expand the French and Dutch ties he had established during the war. In 1785 he negotiated a contract with the French Farmers-General that gave him the monopoly of the American tobacco trade with France. The move aroused considerable antagonism among Virginia tobacco traders, and Morris suffered large financial losses when the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson, the minister to France, intervened to nullify the contract. Morris also speculated on great tracts of land in western New York and elsewhere, including (with a partner) a large portion of present-day Washington, D.C. He was building a mansion designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of the new capital, when the market collapsed. Morris could not meet interest payments and taxes, and in February 1798 a small creditor had him arrested. He was incarcerated in Prune Street, Philadelphia’s debtors prison, for three-and-one-half years. In 1801 he was released following the passage of a federal bankruptcy law. For the remaining five years of his life he lived on a small pension that his cousin, Gouverneur Morris, had arranged for his wife, Mary. The financier of the Revolution ended his days in a small house in Philadelphia, where he died at age seventy-three.
E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961);
Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954).
MORRIS, ROBERT. (1734–1806). Merchant and congressman, called the "Financier of the Revolution." Pennsylvania. Robert Morris was born in Liverpool, England, on 20 January 1735. At the age of thirteen he came to America with his father and went to work in the Philadelphia mercantile house of Charles Willing. By 1754 he had become a partner. Three years later, with Charles's son Thomas, he formed Willing and Morris, a firm that with its successors held a leading position in American trade for the next thirty-nine years. His first public political act was to sign the nonimportation agreement of 1765; thereafter, he served on many committees formed to resist increased imperial control. After the shooting started in April 1775, Morris became a leading figure in the Patriot cause. On 30 June 1775 the assembly named him to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, where his commercial talents were immediately put to use; when Franklin was absent, Morris ran the council.
VITAL WORK IN CONGRESS
Elected to the Second Continental Congress in November 1775, he quickly became a member of several important congressional committees, including the Secret Committee of Trade, "Congress's war department," where he succeeded his partner, Willing. Among many other activities, he personally arranged for the procurement of vessels, munitions, and naval armament in November 1775 and drew up the instruction for Silas Deane in February 1776, all the while continuing to tend to the commercial affairs of Willing and Morris. In performing his valuable official services he remained a businessman, collecting his broker's commissions and overlooking no opportunity to make a profit. While he made great profits, largely because of his ability, he also took huge risks in accomplishing the financial missions assigned by Congress and the Pennsylvania authorities, a fact that was understood and accepted by his colleagues. According to John Adams, in a letter to Horatio Gates on 27 April 1776:
I think he has a masterly Understanding, an open Temper and an honest Heart: and if he does not always vote for What you and I should think proper, it is because he thinks that a large Body of People remains, who are not yet of his Mind. He has vast designs in the mercantile Way. And no doubt pursues mercantile Ends, which are always gain; but he is an excellent Member of our Body. (Taylor, Adams Papers, 4, p. 148)
Morris thought the movement toward independence in 1776 was premature. He abstained from voting on the Declaration of Independence in July, but when he saw it was the will of the majority, he signed the document in August 1776. When Congress fled to Baltimore in December 1776, Morris remained in Philadelphia to carry out the work of the Secret Committee and on 21 December was designated by Congress along with George Clymer and George Walton as its executive committee. As Washington prepared the desperate strategy that was to end with his brilliant riposte at Trenton and Princeton, it was Morris who furnished him the necessary backing of the civil authority of the country. Simultaneously looking after the commercial interests of his firm—which may have been an important reason why he did not flee to Baltimore—Morris bore a tremendous personal burden at this critical period of American history and carried it off without a stumble.
In March 1778 Morris signed the Articles of Confederation. From August to 1 November 1778, the expiration of his term, he was chairman of Congress's Committee on Finance. Ineligible for reelection under the terms of the new state constitution of Pennsylvania, Morris was immediately elected to the Pennsylvania assembly and took his seat on 6 November.
TAINTED BY SCANDAL
The burden of his dual public and private role had already begun to take its toll. During the winter of 1777–1778, the misconduct of Thomas Morris, a younger half-brother for whom Robert had secured appointment as commercial agent in France, precipitated a temporary misunderstanding between Morris and the American commissioners in Paris, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. The controversy that followed the recall of Deane involved Morris after January 1779, when Thomas Paine attacked Morris and Deane in the press and Henry Laurens, then president of Congress, charged Willing and Morris with fraud in the management of the covert operations of Hortalez et Cie that sent vital military supplies across the Atlantic. An investigation exonerated both Hortalez et Cie and Willing and Morris, but public opinion—led by opponents who resented his success—began to turn against Morris. He was denied reelection to Congress in November 1779, although a year later he regained his seat in the Pennsylvania assembly, where he served until June 1781. In these years, he was acknowledged as the leading merchant in America and probably its wealthiest citizen.
SUPERINTENDENT OF FINANCE
Meanwhile, the financial underpinning of the Revolution had collapsed. On the nomination of Hamilton, Congress on 20 February 1781 named Morris superintendent of finance, a unique office established to salvage what appeared to be a near-total loss of confidence in the fiscal management of the Confederation government. Insisting first that Congress permit him to continue his personal business and that he be allowed to control the personnel of his department, Morris accepted the post on 14 May. He had always been opposed to the carefree and financially irresponsible procedures that had led to the collapse of the Continental currency, including the price controls and legal pressure designed to make people accept worthless paper money at par value. With the government nearly insolvent, Morris, according to the historian Clarence L. ver Steeg:
believed that the public credit of the Confederation could be revived only by utilizing private credit. He took steps to achieve two goals: in the short term to provide the military with supplies to win the war; and, more important, in the long term to introduce a comprehensive national financial program to strengthen the Confederation politically. (Ver Steeg, ANB)
He persuaded Congress to charter the Bank of North America (and used its bank notes to pay urgent expenses, especially pay and supplies for the Continental army), pledged his own personal credit to the government (and issued "Morris's notes" to supplement the public credit), and extolled the virtues of funding the public debt by means of a permanent national revenue. The message he sent to Congress about funding on 29 July 1782 has been called "the most important single American state paper on public credit written prior to 1790," but the scheme failed when Rhode Island and Virginia rejected the impost that would have provided the revenue stream.
Relying on various economies in purchasing and administration, his own Morris's notes, some financial sleight of hand, and the loan of two hundred thousand dollars in specie from France, he financed the Yorktown campaign, which so foreclosed British military options to regain her colonies that it broke Britain's will to continue the fight. Morris endured a torrent of criticism, especially because he contracted for the public as many debts during his two years in office as there had been before his advent. Since the states still refused to accept their obligations and furnish the revenue needed for a viable currency, Congress remained impotent. In despair and disgust, Morris submitted his resignation on 24 January 1783, part of a plan to shock the states into action that included foreknowledge of the effort undertaken by Gouverneur Morris (no relation) and Alexander Hamilton to foment unrest in the Continental army as a pressure tactic. Washington quashed this so-called Newburgh conspiracy in March. But since nobody stepped forth to take Morris's job, in May he was prevailed upon to retain his office and eventually found the funds—with the help of a Dutch loan secured by John Adams—to pay and demobilize the army by the end of the year. Morris finally resigned his office in September 1784.
Convinced of the need for a strong central government, he served in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and actively supported the Federalists thereafter. He declined Washington's offer to be the first secretary of the treasury (he recommended Hamilton instead) but served in the Senate from 1789 through 1795. His financial downfall came because he overextended himself in land speculation. In February 1798 he was hauled off for over three and a half years in debtors' prison. Released on 26 August 1801 under terms of the Federal Bankruptcy Act of 1800, he lived his last five years in a small house in Philadelphia, supported by the annuity Gouverneur Morris had secured for his wife. He died on 8 May 1806.
Ferguson, E. James. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Taylor, Robert J., et al., eds. Papers of John Adams. Vol. 4, February-August 1776. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Ver Steeg, Clarence L. Robert Morris: Revolutionary Financier, with an Analysis of His Earlier Career. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954.
(b. 9 February 1931 in Kansas City, Missouri), sculptor, artist, and writer whose sculptural works are more about the perception of an object, or the process involved in its making, than about the object itself.
Morris studied engineering at the University of Kansas City while taking art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1948 to 1950. In 1951 he went on to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. After serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Arizona and Korea from 1951 to 1952, Morris continued his art studies at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, between 1953 and 1955. He then returned to San Francisco, where he spent his time painting and then sculpting in the abstract expressionist style. He also became involved in theater improvisation, and he and his wife, the dancer and choreographer Simone Forti, started a workshop "exploring the relations of the body's movement to sound, text, props, rules and tasks." Morris's interest in all forms of art increased during this era, and he explored film, theater, and multimedia. In 1961 he and his wife moved to New York City, where, for two years, he took art history courses at Hunter College in New York City, writing his master's thesis on the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
In New York, Morris's eclectic, diverse, and influential career in art began to blossom and grow. He continued his interest in dance and theater. He and Forti participated in a loose-knit confederation of dancers called the Judson Dance Theater, for which Morris choreographed numerous works, including Arizona (1963), 21.3 (1963), Site (1963), and Waterman Switch (1965). During the 1960s Morris played a central role in defining three principal artistic movements of the period: minimalism (which stresses the idea of reducing a work of art to the minimum number of colors, values, shapes, lines and textures), conceptual art (in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any), and process art (which emphasizes the "process" of making art rather than any predetermined composition or plan, and the concepts of change and transience). One of Morris's earliest minimalist works, The Column (1961), was used in a performance of the Judson Dance Theater. Another object made for one of the performances was converted into a sculpture—Box for Standing (1961). Morris had solo exhibits in New York City at the Green Gallery in 1964 and 1965 that displayed this influential work.
One of Morris's first and best-known works is his innovative Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), in which he displayed a wooden box that emits the tape-recorded sounds of its construction, a process that took three and a half hours. Morris was also a respected art critic and scholar, writing several influential critical essays. Four of these essays show a chronology of some of his most important work: task-oriented dance in Some Notes on Dance (1965); minimalist sculpture in Notes on Sculpture (1968); process art in Anti Form (1968); and earthworks in Aligned with Nazca (1975).
Much of Morris's work in the 1960s has been classified as neo-dada. The unifying element of neo-dada art is its reinvestigation of dada's irony and its use of found objects or banal activities (or both) as instruments of society. Dada was an early-twentieth-century art movement that ridiculed contemporary culture and traditional art forms. Such dadaist artists as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst produced works that were antitraditional or reflected a cynical attitude toward social values. At the same time, dadaism was irrational and often cryptic. Dadaists typically produced art objects in unconventional forms made with unconventional methods.
As an art form, neo-dada attacked the lofty aspirations of high art and was very much a part of the art culture of the 1960s. Morris extended and distorted modernism's tendency toward the concept that art should represent the structure or terms of its own medium. He introduced the use of found objects, industrial materials, and mixtures of text and image that infused his works with a "skeptical irreverence and sociopolitical significance." The elements of his compositions interact, either through the process of their making or in the viewer's interaction with them. As the 1960s progressed, he explored more elaborate industrial processes in his sculpture, using materials such as aluminum and steel mesh.
In the late 1960s and 1970s Morris moved from the rigid plywood and steel of his minimalist works to the soft materials of his experiments with process art. Felt became his primary material. He designed a series of works that were piled, stacked, and hung from the wall, to explore the effects of gravity and stress on ordinary materials. The Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City exhibited a variety of these felt works in 1968. Morris continued to experiment with other unorthodox materials in his inside exhibits. He used such materials as dirt and threadwaste (recycled fibers from textile manufacturers), which resist deliberate shaping into predetermined forms. He promoted breaking down traditional ideas that link the work of an artist with a studio, advancing instead the idea of letting the materials take their own position. His work in the early 1970s in the earthworks art form was also a major contribution. Morris further challenged the "myth of artistic self-expression." The pieces that show this form include ironic "self-portraits" consisting of sculpted brains and electroencephalogram readouts, as well as other works that were considered "investigations of perception and measurement." Since the 1970s Morris has explored such varied mediums as blindfolded drawings, mirror installations, encaustic paintings (using a paint made of wax), and hydrocal (a brand of gypsum cement) and fiberglass castings. His themes range from nuclear holocaust to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (the work of a postmodern philosopher).
During his career, Morris has had more than seventy-five solo exhibitions and ten group exhibitions. His solo exhibits include those at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1986, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1990. In 1994 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, organized a major retrospective of his work. This exhibit traveled to the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany, and the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.
Well-respected museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim (all in New York City); the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Tate Gallery, London, and many more, have his works in their permanent collections. He has received numerous awards, among them, First Prize, International Institute, Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires (1967); Guggenheim International Award (1967); Guggenheim Fellowship (1969); Sculpture Award, Society Four Arts (1975); and the Skowhegan Medal for Progress and Environment, Maine (1978). At the opening of the twenty-first century, Morris lived in New York City and Gardiner, New York, and continued to develop as an artist.
Morris is difficult to assess on the basis of any individual piece he has produced. His contribution to contemporary art must be based upon his entire body of work—past, present, and future. His work and influence challenge the historical concept of a single artistic masterpiece and put the emphasis on a "connected and evolving artistic discourse." As Morris himself has indicated, his is "a continuous project altered daily." Implicit in his work is the idea that art can be made of anything and should be "experienced."
Morris has taken his ideas of minimalism, conceptualism and process art and made it part of the American art world. His entire body of work allows new and experienced artists to become part of their own work and be as individualistic as they wish to be. He believes all artists should be part of the "art" that they do, no matter what the medium, style, or thought.
There is no full-length biography of Morris. His own books and articles give insights into his thoughts, but contain little autobiographical information. Morris also is known as a scholar and an excellent art critic; his works appear in numerous art journals and other publications including Artforum, Art magazine, and Art-week. A good basic book is Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (1993). Most material written about Morris is in exhibit catalogues or books on a specific type of art, including Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (1968); E. C. Goosen, The Art of the Real: USA, 1948–1968 (1969); Marti Mayo, Robert Morris: Selected Works 1970–1980 (1982); Pepe Karmel and Maurice Berger, Robert Morris: The Felt Works (1989); and Rosalind Krauss, Maurice Berger, David Anin, et al., Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem (1994) .
Robert Morris (1734–1806), possibly America's wealthiest man in the earliest years of the Republic, died penniless and in disgrace. Known as the "financier of the American Revolution," Morris played a role in the highest circles of the new American government, but he spent three years near the end of his life in debtor's prison.
Born in Liverpool, England, on January 31, 1734, Morris emigrated to the American colonies at age twelve. His father, a British tobacco merchant and a part-time resident of Maryland, died from a cannon misfire in a shipboard accident, leaving his son, a teenager, with a small estate.
Morris came under the care of a Philadelphia merchant, Charles Willing. When he also died, Morris and Willing's son, Thomas, formed Willing, Morris and Company, a trading company with three ships and contacts in Spain, Portugal and the West Indies. In the years immediately preceding the American Revolution (1775–1783), the firm traded wheat, flour, tobacco, and other products in a triangular route between Europe, the West Indies, and America.
Through Willing, Morris, and Company, Morris became one of the wealthiest men—if not the wealthiest man—in the American colonies. He did not immediately support the revolutionary cause against the British, though he had opposed Britain's levying of additional taxes under the Stamp Act of 1765 and had signed the Non-Importation Agreement opposing it. In June 1774 he became a member of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he was named a member of the Select Committee on Trade. Hoping that a way would be found to avoid war with Britain, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence immediately but waited until several weeks after the historic document had been adopted.
In his capacity as chairman or member of several trade-related congressional committees, Morris was in charge of provisioning the Revolutionary Army. He blatantly used the office to his own advantage, selling to the new government material from companies he formed himself. Morris stayed on in Philadelphia when the war forced the Congress to vacate the city in December of 1776 and, during that time, acted with some courage in his role as the army's provisioner. He became banker for the Committee of Commerce in 1777, signed the Articles of Confederation as a Pennsylvania delegate the next year, and became chairman of the Congressional Committee on Finance. Morris left the Continental Congress in November of 1778 to attend to his private business affairs but remained in the Pennsylvania Assembly.
As a member of the Continental Congress, Morris became even wealthier. He used inside information and his network of international connections to profit himself. As a key part of his income, he maintained a very lucrative privateering operation: a state-sanctioned commercial venture wherein pirates seized the ships of enemies. Between 1775 and 1777, the Secret Committees on Trade and Commerce, headed by Morris, spent $3.3 million. Of this amount Morris and his associates pocketed $846,000.
Yet, historians differ about whether Morris was a scoundrel or a hero. In 1781 George Washington (1732–1799) urged Morris to reenter the national government as superintendent of finance. The war was still underway and the new nation's money was virtually worthless, but Morris had the nation operating on a hard-money basis before the end of the war, a formidable accomplishment. Funds that Morris was able to borrow from France, supplemented with money from his own pocket, made it possible for Washington to move his armies from New York to Yorktown, where the British general, Cornwallis, surrendered.
Morris resigned his position as superintendent of finance when the states refused to agree to his taxation policy and blocked the national financial system he advocated. He turned his attention to land speculation and such ventures as turnpikes, iron works, and trade with China. Acting on credit, he bought huge sections of western New York and Virginia. He spent $1 million on the first stage of building an ostentatious mansion in Philadelphia. Suddenly, the bottom fell out of the land speculation business. Many individual investors and land companies failed. Morris, whose fortune was vastly overextended, was never able to recover. He was confined in debtors prison for three years until his release in 1801 and died, five years later, still destitute.
Ingham, John. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders H-M. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983, s.v. "Morris, Robert."
Van Steeg, Clarence Lester. Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier. New York: Octagon, 1972.
Wagner, Frederick. Robert Morris, Audacious Patriot. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976.
Willoughby, Jack. "What Your Country Can Do for You." Forbes, October 23, 1989.
known as the "financier of the american revolution," morris played a role in the highest circles of the new american government, but he spent three years near the end of his life in debtor's prison.
An American merchant, financial expert, land speculator, and banker, Robert Morris (1734-1806) performed a valuable service for the new republic as superintendent of finance for the Continental Congress.
Robert Morris was born on Jan. 31, 1734, in Liverpool, England. At the age of 13 he was taken to America by his father, a tobacco agent who settled in Maryland. Several years later Morris was sent to Philadelphia as an apprentice to the merchant Charles Willing. Morris proved adept, and eventually he became a full partner in Willing and Morris, a firm with important connections abroad. With Thomas Willing, Morris invested in ships and land on a large scale and conducted far-flung operations that began to yield high profits. His magnificent Philadelphia town house was a social center run by his wife, Mary White, whom he had married in 1769.
Entry into Politics
Essentially a political conservative, Morris crept toward an open break with England while more headstrong Americans were running. On the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress, Morris opposed independence but later signed the Declaration of Independence. He served in Congress from 1775 to 1778 and sat intermittently in the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1775 to 1781. His capacity for work, attention to detail, and commitment to the American cause were impressive.
At the same time, Morris used his political power for personal gain. As chairman of the secret congressional Committee of Trade, he diverted large sums for his own firm's use, and at least $80,000 was never accounted for. His agents transported private cargoes in naval vessels and traded on their own account for profits while their zeal for public business often lagged.
Morris's attitude in these ventures was explained in a letter to one partner, Silas Deane: "I shall continue to discharge my duty faithfully to the Public and pursue my Private Fortune by all such honorable and fair means as the time will admit of." Public criticism of these activities led to a congressional investigation in 1779. Morris's integrity was upheld by the committee's report.
Morris therefore suffered little inconvenience from the war. His abilities so impressed other congressmen that in May 1781 they despairingly dumped the chaotic and penniless Treasury Office in Morris's lap. His firmness and bold measures as superintendent of finance restored confidence, and aided mainly by foreign loans and the American victory at Yorktown, Va., Morris was able to effect much-needed reforms in the tottering bureaucratic structure. His improved system encompassed naval supplies, public credit, military contracts, and army garrisons. Morris founded the Bank of North America, partly with public money, and issued bank notes to maintain cash payments on government business.
Unquestionably, Morris managed public finances superbly and under the most trying conditions. When he left office in 1784, the Treasury had $20,000. Morris was convinced that the new nation could survive only with a centralized financial system. He urged the sound-money faction to press for a Federal revenue program and a consolidated national debt that would undergird the total economy. Assumption of the wartime debt by the national government was a key part of his program.
Return to Business
Morris returned to the business world, signed a tobacco-supply contract with the French monopoly, ventured into the growing China trade, and began reckless purchases of land. He was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he apparently never entered the debates but probably spoke out in private sessions. He must have supported plans to build a strong navy and create a powerful central government. After ratification of the Constitution, Morris was elected a senator from Pennsylvania. He worked with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on details of the first revenue act and the bill for assumption of state debts.
Morris retired from the Senate in 1795, but his enemies sniped away at his failure to settle wartime accounts with the government. In 1796 Morris gave bonds for $93,312 to clear his ledger of these debts. At that time he was widely regarded as the richest American alive. Behind the facade of immense land holdings, however, there was a dwindling supply of cash.
Imprudently, Morris joined with James Greenleaf and John Nicholson in grandiose schemes for developing the newly designated capital at Washington, buying over 7,000 lots. They also acquired millions of acres beyond the Ohio River, in western New York, and in several southern states. With his partners, Morris combined all his holdings so that more than 6 million acres of land seemed sufficient collateral for all his ventures. But rumors of his impending ruin grew, and after a London bank failure Morris was drained of £124,000. He was never able to recover his financial equilibrium. A joint-stock company scheme failed; Morris was land-rich but headed for bankruptcy. Hounded by bill collectors and process servers, he retreated to a country home.
In February 1798 Morris was taken to a Philadelphia debtors' prison and jailed until a reform bankruptcy act permitted his release in August 1801. Court records showed that he owed $3 million. A thoroughly humbled man, Morris lived thereafter on the charity of friends and died on May 8, 1806.
A project to gather and publish Morris's papers is under way, guided by E. James Ferguson. The standard biographies are William Graham Sumner, The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution (1891), and Ellis P. Oberholtzer, Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier (1903). Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris (1954), and E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 (1961), are analytical works of unusual merit. The sketch of Morris in Howard Swiggett, The Forgotten Leaders of the Revolution (1955), challenges some past assumptions.
Chernow, Barbara Ann, Robert Morris, land speculator, 1790-1801, New York: Arno Press, 1978, 1974.
Wagner, Frederick, Robert Morris, audacious patriot, New York: Dodd, Mead, c 1976. □
A shrewd entrepreneur and energetic administrator, Morris became vice president of Pennsylvania's revolutionary governing body, the Council of Safety, in 1775, and organized the state's defenses. After election to the Second Continental Congress in November 1775, he became chairman of the Secret Committee of Trade and managed international procurement and naval affairs. He also participated in supply contracts and often disguised public ventures as private ones to facilitate secrecy and economy. The potential conflict of interest produced much controversy.
Morris retired from Congress in 1778, becoming an agent for supplying French forces in the United States and greatly augmenting his wealth and credit. When Congress was faced with financial and military collapse in 1781, it turned to Morris, by now the most prominent merchant in America, for help. As superintendent of finance, from February 1781 to November 1784, he raised money and supplies for the Yorktown campaign, then struggled to reestablish public credit by measures that included controlling the budget, founding the nation's first bank, settling the public debt, advocating a funding plan and mint, administering foreign loans, and replacing staff departments with military contracts. His administrative and financial skills are considered to have been indispensable to military success in the Revolutionary War.
[See also Revolutionary War: Domestic Course.]
E. Harris (1990);
E. Kaufmann (1955);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Summerson (ed.) (1993)
MORRIS, ROBERT. (1745–1815). Jurist. Natural son of Robert Hunter Morris and grandson of the first lord of the manor of Morrisania.
SEE ALSO Morris, Robert Hunter.
revised by Michael Bellesiles