Part Two of Six
(for part one, click here)
The financier. Those two words explain the importance of Robert Morris, the Liverpool, England born Pennsylvanian transplant. As George Washington engineered the pivotal campaign that culminated in the actions at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776 and Princeton in early January, Robert Morris was the man who made it happen.
Born on January 20, 1734, Morris was a 13-year old lad when he sailed for the British North American colonies. He was headed to Oxford, Maryland where his father had emigrated prior to. While living on his father’s tobacco-growing plantation, Morris was afforded the opportunity to have a tutor and showed his mental prowess, advancing rapidly in his studies.
Outgrowing his tutor, Morris was sent to a family friend in Philadelphia where it was arranged the young man would become an apprentice in the shipping and banking of future Philadelphia mayor Charles Willing. When Willing died in 1754, Morris was made partner. He was only 24 years old at the time.
After the establishment of Willing, Morris, and Company on May 1, 1757, Morris was set about establishing himself firmly in the upper society of Philadelphia, the largest city in the 13 British colonies. Yet, it was not until he was 35 years old in 1759 when he wed Mary White, who hailed from a prominent Maryland family. In time, the family grew to include five sons and two daughters. That same year, Morris and his partner Thomas Willing organized the first non-importation agreement in which the slave trade was ended for good in the Philadelphia region.
Even before his marriage, Morris was active in politics. In 1765 he had served on a committee comprised of local merchants. Formed in protest to the Stamp Act, Morris was chosen to mediate a mass town meeting of protesters. Even though he personally felt the new acts were unconstitutional, Morris was remained steadfastly loyal to Great Britain.
Still hoping, like fellow Pennsylvania delegate George Clymer, that a dedicated stance of disagreement would force Great Britain to retract their latest passed acts, Morris joined Benjamin Franklin and others in the Committee of Safety, eventually rising to chair. He went from there to the Pennsylvania Assembly and then into the Second Continental Congress.
He entered Congress still opposed to a break with Great Britain with his reasoning being more a fear of anarchy stemming from self-rule by the Americans with no history of doing so. Morris also worried about the American colonists ability to wage an effective and successful war with Great Britain. Thus, he initially spoke out in favor of reconciliation in Congress assembled.
On June 7, 1776, Morris was appointed to the Model Treaty Committee, which ducked the question of political alliance but advocated free trade in international relations. The instructions stipulated by the committee was taken to Paris, France by Benjamin Franklin and played a major role in creating the groundwork for the future alliance with France.
Still serving in Congress and unsure about independence, Morris actually excused himself from the room when the vote was taken on July 2, 1776. His motive was to allow independence to pass without a dissenting vote being cast. A month later, a full-supporter that any measure, whether declaring independence or reconciliation, required unanimous support, Morris affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence.
Morris would serve admirably as a congressman, for three years, 1776 through 1778 and then in the Pennsylvania legislature from 1778 to 1781. He was the man behind the money when in came to the Trenton and Princeton Campaign, mentioned above, and also what would culminate in the 1781 Yorktown Campaign, when Morris was able to finalize a major loan from the French.
Another achievement of Morris’s was the creation of The Bank of North America, which was chartered in December 1781 which greatly aided the continuing issue of financing the American war effort.
Following the war, his private enterprises consumed the majority of his time but he was reelected to the Pennsylvania legislature and also attended the Annapolis Convention; a precursor and foundation for the Constitutional Convention the following year. He was a regular attendee of the Convention but rarely spoke and was not appointed to any committees during the months of deliberation. Records show he only spoke twice in the entire span.
When the Constitution came into being two years later, in 1789, Morris was offered the first Secretary of the Treasury position by President Washington. He declined and went into the U.S. Senate. He served one term of six years.
However, Morris’s last year saw a reversal of fortune. He fell into speculating and overtaxed his own credit in various schemes. On top of his failed investments Morris began construction of an impressive mansion in downtown Philadelphia. The house, which was designed by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant best known for laying out Washington D.C., would never be finished and would be known thereafter as “Morris’s Folly.”
Morris was residing in his summer estate, “The Hills” on the edge of Philadelphia when he was arrested for his debts and would be thrown in prison from 1798 to 1801. Released under a Federal bankruptcy law, his extensive property holdings and fortune had been lost. With a broken spirit and resulting bad health, his wife and him lived in a home his wife had gained through an annuity by Gouverneur Morris, no relation. Morris passed awy on May 8, 1806 and was buried at Chris Church. He was 73 years old.
One of the quotes attributed to Morris, comes from a letter to General Horatio Gates, and provides a great directive to follow. Although he absented himself on the day the vote was cast for the Declaration of Independence, he still signed the document in August, 1776. The reason;
“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.”