Robert Morris-Unique Revolutionary Hero1

Signing the Constitution
Signing the Constitution-Sam Houston State University

 

If you visit the Eastern Shore of Maryland, you should travel to the scenic village of Oxford.  Located on the Choptank River, it is one of the oldest towns in Maryland and was a major port during Colonial times.  In Oxford, you will discover the “Robert Morris Inn” which was built in 1710. Few people have heard of the hero Robert Morris, but Morris was unique being one of only six individuals who signed all our founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. 

Portrait of Robert Morris
Portrait of Robert Morris-NPR

Robert Morris was one of the greatest financial minds America ever produced and is known as the “Financier of the Revolution.”  Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, he is considered one of the founders of our financial system.  Although not a soldier, the Revolutionary War would not have been won, or would have dragged on for many more years, without him. Morris was a true American hero, and a great patriot who should receive more attention from historians. 

Robert Morris was born in Liverpool, England in 1734. When he was 13 years old, he migrated to Oxford, Maryland to join his father who was a successful American tobacco exporter. Later He was sent to Philadelphia for more schooling.  In 1754 he entered the business world and rapidly became very successful, amassing a fortune, mostly through the import-export business. 

Morris owned one of the largest fleets of merchant ships in the Colonies, at one time owning about 250 ships.  Morris was also active in politics serving in high office in colonial Pennsylvania.  In 1754, he was one who actively resisted the Stamp Act and other new taxes of King George III.  Revolution was smoldering under the surface, but Morris remained loyal to the Crown.  

Morris was not elected to the First Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia in 1774 to officially start the resistance against England.  However, he became friends with many of the delegates including George Washington and John Jay.  During that time, the government of colonial Pennsylvania established a committee charged with obtaining gunpowder and Morris was appointed to that committee. He rapidly organized a smuggling operation to circumvent British Law which was aimed at denying arms and ammunition to the colonies. (The British knew that unarmed subjects could be controlled easily.) The Morris operation became a well-oiled smuggling system, and he eventually became the chief supplier of gunpowder to the Continental Army.  

 In April 1775 open war broke out following the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Second Continental Congress was convened to consider the question of  American Independence. They met in the State House (later named Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.  Morris was elected to the Second Continental Congress where he became very active in financial affairs and the procurement of arms and ammunition. 

Robert Morris was the major congressional player in naval operations. The British had begun seizing and sinking American merchant ships, so congress and Morris turned to “privateering” to compensate. Morris personally underwrote privateering which became very successful in obtaining much needed supplies. 

On the political front, the Pennsylvania delegation, including Morris, opposed independence. Morris believed the colonies were not prepared for war with the British who could field the largest and best army in the world.  At that point, the sitting Pennsylvania delegation was replaced by pro-independence delegates; however, Morris was retained, which indicates how respected he was.  When the vote on independence came, he abstained, but he still signed the document. He explained with this statement: “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”  Can you imagine any present-day politician making such a statement??? 

Despite his initial opposition, Morris embraced revolution and Independence with a passion. He introduced many changes to the congress to improve the country’s finances and procurement procedures. He also made many fiscal suggestions that were eventually instituted when his friend Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury of the new American nation. 

In 1781 Morris authored a plan for a National Bank, which was adopted and eventually established the Bank of North America. He was immediately appointed Financial Agent (Secretary of Treasury) to direct the operation of the new bank. This bank helped stabilize the economy and was used to establish American credit internationally. 

Although some opposed the move, congress allowed Morris to handle his duties pretty much unrestrained since congress had wisely determined they were too bureaucratic to act efficiently.  Mainly, Morris worked very closely with General Washington to supply the army the best he could. Congress was very remiss in their duty to support the revolution by supplying the military forces in the field.  The army was usually not paid and suffered from a lack of food and other essentials, such as shoes. Morris negotiated loans but unsuccessfully pressured the colonies to adequately fund the army and the fledgling navy. At one point, he traveled with Washington’s army acting as quartermaster and financing the acquisition of supplies and ordnance with over $14,000,000 ($195,000,000 today) of his own money.  

Morris did all he could to obtain funding and streamlining the procurement process but received little help from congress or the colonies.  During the war, the 13 colonies contributed a total of only about $800,000 for the military, but Morris personally contributed almost $74,000,000 (about 1.03 billion today). He also lost about half his huge merchant fleet.  Robert Morris never tried to recover any of his money or property, and certainly the new American government made no offer to even partially compensate him. No wonder he is known as the “Financier of the Revolution”. 

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton-Time

After the war, Morris served in the Pennsylvania Legislature and was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He strongly supported the new Constitution, which officially took effect on 4 March 1789 when the first Congress convened.  After the Constitutional establishment of the United States of America, Morris served two terms as a Pennsylvania Senator. He was again very active in financial affairs. In 1789 President Washington appointed him Secretary of the Treasury, but he declined and suggested his friend Alexander Hamilton who accepted the job. 

                                                                                                    

After serving as a Senator, Robert Morris retired from public service.  Although he never recovered any of the personal resources he expended for the Revolution, he was still wealthy and began land speculation in western New York. Like many others Morris became financially over-extended during the “Panic of 1797”. In 1798, unable to pay his debts, and despite his service to the country, he was sent to Debtors Prison (yes, America initially retained this ignorant law).  He was finally released in 1801 after Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, which was enacted in part to get Morris out of prison. When released he was in poor health, and retired to his Philadelphia home. His wife cared for him until he died in relative poverty on 9 May 1806 in Philadelphia. 

Statue of Robert Morris by Bartlett-Independence Nat Park
Statue of Robert Morris by Paul Bartlett-Independence Nat Park

There were no public funeral ceremonies for Robert Morris. He was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church in Philadelphia. Morris has been honored in many ways: there is a statue of him on the grounds of Independence Hall National Park. Naval ships, towns, and schools have been named after him. Of course, the 1710 inn in Oxford is named after him, but he still is virtually unknown to most Americans.  This is very sad since he was essential to our revolution, to our Independence and to our Constitution.  Robert Morris  was a unique American hero and should be remembered right up there with Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others who were his friends and fellow revolutionaries. 

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