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  Robert Morris (1735–1806), by Charles Willson Peale, c.1782 Robert Morris (1735–1806), by Charles Willson Peale, c.1782
Morris, Robert (1735–1806), financier and revolutionary politician in America, was born on 20 January 1735 in Liverpool to Robert Morris (1711–1750) and Elizabeth Murphet. Nothing further is known of his mother, and Morris was probably raised by his grandmother. Before 1740 his father left nail-making in Liverpool to become agent for Liverpool tobacco merchants at Oxford, Maryland. Robert joined him there in 1748, and was soon sent to Philadelphia to be educated and apprenticed. Robert pleased his master, merchant Charles Willing, so well that he became a partner in 1754. In 1757 Morris together with Willing's son Thomas began a long and very successful mercantile partnership. Morris managed the business by the time of independence. He later claimed that he had owned more ships than any other American merchant. On 2 March 1769 he married Mary White (1749–1827), daughter of a wealthy Maryland landholder residing in Philadelphia. They had seven children.

Although English-born, Anglican, and having commercial ties to Britain, Morris was a fervent whig who differed little from the most extreme advocates of resistance to Britain. He began his political career in 1765, when he headed a committee of leading citizens to press Pennsylvania stamp distributor John Hughes to refuse that appointment. He served on Philadelphia's or Pennsylvania's committees of resistance during the 1760s and in 1774–6. In 1770, after the North ministry's partial repeal of the Townshend duties, Morris resigned from the Philadelphia non-importation committee, but he did not publicly oppose the boycott. After hostilities commenced at Lexington and Concord he pledged to support the rebel side. The Pennsylvania assembly elected him to the second continental congress in November 1775. He served on congress's major committees. He thought independence premature, and abstained from voting on the resolution on it on 2 July 1776. Yet he signed the Declaration of Independence in August 1776.

When congress retreated to Baltimore, Morris remained in charge in Philadelphia to save ships from capture, prepare defences, and forward supplies and money to George Washington. He raised $50,000 on his own credit to pay a promised bounty to Washington's troops. Morris's opponents in the Pennsylvania legislature, who favoured the radical state constitution, re-elected him to congress in February 1777, showing non-partisan appreciation for his important service. When John Hancock resigned the congress presidency in October 1777 the members asked Morris to replace him. He declined for business reasons, and in November asked the Pennsylvania council of safety for a leave of absence from congress to attend to his private affairs. The state legislature re-elected him to congress in December and granted his request. He returned to congress to sign the articles of confederation in July 1778, denoting Pennsylvania's ratification. At the end of his 1778 congress term he was ineligible for re-election. He returned to the Pennsylvania legislature for 1778–9 as a partisan opponent of the constitution, but did not succeed in getting it revoked.

Morris as manager of his mercantile firm continued public and private trading, and began privateering, while he was in congress. He became more active in expanding his trading relationships and more prosperous; by 1781 his peers ranked him as the leading merchant in the United States. Richard Henry Lee and some others in congress charged he had misappropriated public funds, designated for supplies, to his own use. He did mix public and private business in his accounting, and in his warehouse and ships. Through loose or inaccurate accounting he may have benefited personally. He also in 1779 incurred the wrath of Philadelphians who believed he sold dry goods above the set price and exported flour in time of great scarcity. Probably these accusations cost Morris his legislature seat and re-election to congress in 1779. Morris and other opponents of Pennsylvania's constitutionalist legal and monetary policies, which had created great controversy, regained their seats in the legislature in 1780 and brought more stability to Pennsylvania's chaotic monetary system. Morris thought this effort so crucial that he delayed taking up the post of superintendent of finance for congress until he completed his legislative agenda in July 1781.

As superintendent, Morris initiated and planned important innovations that were designed to improve the financial and monetary circumstances of the impoverished, powerless confederation government. In September 1781 he got congress to charter the Bank of North America, which would make loans to congress and issue notes. In 1782–3 he also emitted ‘Morris's notes’, backed by the public credit and his own. The 1783 issue was to pay the army when it was furloughed. Morris's notes were not as well accepted as banknotes, and passed at a discount in markets distant from Philadelphia, but they were an important medium of exchange. Morris signed notes on his credit totalling over $1 million, which he redeemed with timely loans from France and the Netherlands. In July 1782 Morris announced a comprehensive plan for setting the finances of the confederation aright. He advocated domestic and foreign borrowing that would be supported by federal land, poll, and excise taxes both to pay the interest on the debt and to maintain a sinking fund. The plan, Morris noted, would benefit particularly the mercantile community, but also commercial farmers. Morris did not advocate reducing state power generally or increasing upper-class influence in government, only compelling the states to pay their apportionments. Others saw a threat to states' rights. His plan foundered when the impost proposal of 1781 was rejected by Rhode Island and Virginia, and when congress would attempt only another impost that Morris thought inadequate.

In January 1783 Morris suddenly announced his resignation as superintendent, believing that only such a dramatic gesture would get congress and the states to take meaningful action. He also apparently acquiesced in a drastic measure known as the Newburgh conspiracy. He knew that Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton hoped to use the army as a pressure group to get the state legislatures to grant permanent funding to congress. Robert Morris and his friends ignored the fundamental republican principle of keeping the army out of politics; Washington's address to his officers upheld it.

Morris continued his political activity in the Pennsylvania assembly in 1785–6, arguing against annulling the charter of the Bank of North America and vigorously defending the sanctity of charters once issued. He represented Pennsylvania at the Annapolis convention in 1786 and at the Philadelphia convention in 1787. Uncharacteristically, he did not enter into debate about the particular terms of the proposed constitution. Morris claimed that he refrained because he was no lawyer; he also likely thought that proposals for extending federal power might be better received coming from others. He was undoubtedly satisfied that the new government had the power to tax, to incur debt, and perhaps to charter corporations, and that state paper-money and state abrogation of contracts were prohibited.

Washington invited Morris to be secretary of the treasury, but he declined and recommended Alexander Hamilton. Already in September 1788 the Pennsylvania legislature had elected him senator, and he previously had more success in making policy as a legislator than he had as superintendent of finance. The senate relied on him for advice on commerce, borrowing, raising revenue, and settling accounts. In 1794 he refused re-election because his business interests, particularly land speculation, demanded his time. In these he overextended himself and was sent to debtors' prison in 1798. The Federal Bankruptcy Act of 1800, perhaps passed with Morris's plight in mind, effected his release in 1801. His wife's annuity supported both of them until his death in Philadelphia on 8 May 1806. He was buried at Christ Church, Philadelphia.

Benjamin H. Newcomb

Sources  

C. L. Ver Steeg, ‘Morris, Robert’, ANB · E. P. Oberholtzer, Robert Morris: patriot and financier (1903) · C. L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris: revolutionary financier; with an analysis of his earlier career (1954) · The papers of Robert Morris, 1781–1784, ed. E. J. Ferguson and others, 9 vols. (1973–99) · E. J. Ferguson, The power of the purse: a history of American public finance, 1776–90 (1961) · J. N. Rakove, The beginnings of national politics: an interpretive history of the continental congress (1979) · R. L. Brunhouse, The counter-revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776–1790 (1942) · R. A. Ryerson, The revolution is now begun: the radical committees of Philadelphia (1978) · G. D. Rappaport, Stability and change in revolutionary Pennsylvania: banking, politics, and social structure (1996) · B. A. Chernow, Robert Morris: land speculator, 1790–1801 (1978)

Archives  

Hist. Soc. Penn. · Hunt. L. · L. Cong. · National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC · NYPL · Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg


Likenesses  

C. W. Peale, oils, c.1782, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia · C. W. Peale, oils, c.1782, New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

bankrupt: Ver Steeg, ‘Morris, Robert’, ANB