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Robert Morris

Robert Morris, who had charge of the financial affairs of the thirteen States during the Revolutionary War, and afterwards extended his business beyond that of any other person in the country, became bankrupt at last, spent four years of his old age in a debtor's prison, and owed his subsistence, during his last illness, to a small annuity rescued by his wife from the wreck of their fortunes.


Morris was English by birth, a native of Lancashire, where he lived until he was thirteen years of age. Emigrating to Philadelphia in 1747, he was placed in the counting-house of one of the leading merchants, with whose son he entered into partnership before he had completed his twenty-first year. This young firm, Willing, Morris & Co., embarked boldly and ably in commerce, until at the beginning of the Revolution it was the wealthiest commercial firm in the Colonies south of New England, and only surpassed in New England by two. When the contention arose between the Mother country and the colonies, his interest was to take the side of the Mother country. But he sided with the Colonies--to the great detriment of his private business. He served in Congress during nearly the whole of the War, and was almost constantly employed in a struggle with the financial difficulties of the situation.

I do not see how the revolution could have been maintained unless some such person could have been found to undertake the finances. When all other resources gave out he never refused to employ his private resources, as well as the immense, unquestioned credit of his firm, in aid of the cause. On several occasions he borrowed money for the use of the government, pledging all his estate for the repayment. In 1780, aided by the powerful pen of Thomas Paine, he established a bank through which three million rations were provided for the army. Fortunately, he was reputed to be much richer than he was, and thus he was several times enabled to furnish an amount of assistance far beyond the resources of any private individual then living in America.

His greatest achievement was in assisting General Washington in 1781 to transport his army to Virginia, and to maintain it there during the operations against Lord Cornwallis. In the spring of that year the revolution appeared to be all but exhausted. The treasury was not merely empty, but there was a floating debt upon it of two millions and a half, and the soldiers were clamorous for their pay. The Superintendent of Finance rose to the occasion. He issued his own notes to the amount of fourteen hundred thousand dollars by which the army was supplied with provisions and the campaign carried on to the middle of August.

Then General Washington, in confidence, revealed to Robert Morris his intention to transport his army to Virginia. To effect this operation the general required all the light vessels of the Delaware and Chesapeake, six hundred barrels of provisions for the march, a vast supply in Virginia, five hundred guineas in gold for secret service, and a month's pay in silver for the army. When this information reached the superintendent he was already at his wits' end, and really supposed that he had exhausted every resource.

"I am sorry to inform you," he wrote to the general, "that I find money matters in as bad a situation as possible."

And he mentions in his diary of the same date that, during a recent visit to camp, he had had with him one hundred and fifty guineas; but so many officers came to him with claims upon the government, that he thought it best to satisfy none, and brought the money home again. After unheard-of exertions, he contrived to get together provisions and vessels for the transportation. But to raise the hard money to comply with General Washington's urgent request for a month's pay for the troops, was beyond his power. At the last moment he laid the case before the French admiral, and borrowed for a few weeks from the fleet treasury twenty thousand silver dollars. Just in the nick of time, Colonel Laurens arrived from France with five hundred thousand dollars in cash, which enabled Morris to pay this debt, and to give General Washington far more efficient support than he had hoped.

To Robert Morris we owe one of the most pleasing accounts of the manner in which the surrender of Cornwallis was celebrated at Philadelphia. He records that on the third of November, 1781, on the invitation of the French Minister, he attended the Catholic Church, where _Te Deum_ was sung in acknowledgment of the victory. Soon after, all the flags captured from the enemy were brought to Philadelphia by two of General Washington's aids, the city troop of Light Horse going out to meet them several miles. The flags were twenty-four in number, and each of them was carried into the city by one of the light horsemen. Morris concludes his account of this great day with affecting simplicity:

"The American and French flags preceded the captured trophies, which were conducted to the State House, where they were presented to Congress, who were sitting; and many of the members tell me, that instead of viewing the transaction as a mere matter of joyful ceremony, which they expected to do, they instantly felt themselves impressed with ideas of the most solemn nature. It brought to their minds the distresses our country has been exposed to, the calamities we have repeatedly suffered, the perilous situations which our affairs have almost always been in; and they could not but recollect the threats of Lord North that he would bring America to his feet on unconditional terms of submission."

When the war was over, the finances of the country did not improve. In conjunction with General Washington and Robert R. Livingston, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he hit upon a plan to recall the State legislatures to a sense of their duty. He engaged Thomas Paine, at a salary of eight hundred dollars a year, to employ his pen in reconciling the people to the necessity of supporting the burden of taxation, in setting forth, in his eloquent manner, the bravery and good conduct of the soldiers whose pay was so terribly in arrears, and in convincing the people of the need of a stronger confederated government.

"It was also agreed," says Morris in his private diary, "that this allowance should not be known to any other persons except General Washington, Mr. Livingston, Gouverneur Morris, and myself, lest the publications might lose their force if it were known that the author is paid for them by government."

The expedient did not suffice. The States were backward in voting contributions, and, in 1784, Robert Morris resigned his office after discharging all his personal obligations incurred on account of the Government. He then resumed his private business. He was the first American citizen who ever sent to Canton an American vessel. This was in 1784, and he continued for many years to carry on an extensive commerce with India and China.

Unhappily, in his old age, for some cause or causes that have never been recorded, he lost his judgment as a business man. About 1791, he formed a land company, which bought from the Six Nations in the State of New York a tract of land equal in extent to several of the German Principalities of that time, and they owned some millions of acres in five other States. These lands, bought for a trifling sum, would have enriched every member of the company if they had not omitted from their calculations the important element of _time_. But a gentleman sixty years of age cannot wait twenty years for the development of a speculation. Confident in the soundness of his calculations and expecting to be speedily rich beyond the dreams of avarice, he erected in Philadelphia a palace for his own abode, of the most preposterous magnificence. The architect assured him that the building would cost sixty thousand dollars, but the mere cellars exhausted that sum. He imported from Europe the most costly furniture and fine statuary for this house.

But ardent speculators do not take into consideration the obvious and certain truth that no country enjoys a long period of buoyancy in money affairs. Hamilton's financial schemes led to such a sudden increase of values as to bring on a period of the wildest speculation; which was followed, as it always is, by reaction and collapse. Then came the threatened renewal of the war with Great Britain, followed by the long imbroglio with France, which put a stop to emigration for years. The Western lands did not sell. The bubble burst. Robert Morris was ruined. He was arrested in 1797 upon the suit of one Blair McClenachan, to whom he owed sixteen thousand dollars, and he was confined in the debtors' prison in Philadelphia, as before mentioned, for four years. Nor would he have ever been released but for the operation of a new bankrupt law. A paragraph from one of his letters, written when he had been in prison two weeks, few people can read without emotion. These are the words of a man who had been a capitalist and lived in luxury more than forty years:

"I have tried in vain," he wrote, "to get a room exclusively to myself, and hope to be able to do so in a few days, but at a high rent which I am unable to bear. Then I may set up a bed in it, and have a chair or two and a table, and so be made comfortable. Now I am very uncomfortable, for I have no particular place allotted me. I feel like an intruder everywhere; sleeping in other people's beds, and sitting in other people's rooms. I am writing on other people's paper with other people's ink. The pen is my own. That and the clothes I wear are all that I can claim as mine here."

Released in 1802, he lived with his wife in a small house on the outskirts of the city, where he died in 1806 aged seventy-two.

It was often proposed in Congress to appropriate some of the money belonging to the industrious and frugal people of the United States to pay the debts of this rash speculator; and many writers since have censured the government for not doing something for his relief. The simple and sufficient answer is, that Congress has no constitutional power to apply the people's money to any such purpose. The government holds the public treasure _in trust_. It is a trustee, not a proprietor. It can spend public money only for purposes which the constitution specifies; and, among these specified purposes, we do _not_ find the relief of land speculators who build gorgeous palaces on credit.