Dinner Topics for Wednesday
America’s Founding Fathers: Robert Morris (financier)
Let not that which I have appointed be polluted by mine enemies, by the consent of those who call themselves after my name. ~Doctrine and Covenants 101:97
This man, like the other Founding Fathers, sacrificed all to build this great nation. How can we even think of letting our beloved nation be destroyed by enemies of God and freedom? ~C.D
Robert Morris, Jr. (January 20, 1734 – May 8, 1806), a Founding Father of the United States, was a Liverpool-born American merchant who financed the American Revolution and signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, and was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he served as chairman of the “Secret Committee of Trade” and as a member of the Committee of Correspondence.
From 1781 to 1784, he served as the powerful Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. As the central civilian in the government, Morris was, next to General George Washington, “the most powerful man in America.” His successful administration led to the sobriquet, “Financier of the Revolution.” At the same time he was Agent of Marine, a position he took without pay, and from which he controlled the Continental Navy.
He was one of Pennsylvania’s original pair of US senators, serving from 1789 to 1795. He invested a considerable portion of his fortune in land shortly before the Panic of 1796–1797, which led to his bankruptcy in 1798, and he spent several years in debtors’ prison, until Congress passed a bankruptcy act to release him. After he left prison in 1801, he lived a quiet, private life in a modest home in Philadelphia until his death in 1806
Conflict with Britain
The Stamp Act of 1765–1766 was a tax on all legal documents. The merchants banded together to end what they saw as an unconstitutional tax. Morris began his public career in 1765 by serving on a local committee of merchants organized to protest the Stamp Act. He mediated between a mass meeting of protesters and the Stamp Tax collector, whose house they threatened to pull down “brick by brick” unless the collector did not carry out his job. Morris remained loyal to Britain, but he believed that the new laws constituted taxation without representation and violated the colonists’ rights as British citizens. In the end, Britain lifted the stamp tax.
After Britain passed the Tea Tax, the tea ship Polly reached the lower Delaware Bay. Philadelphia ordered the bay pilots not to bring it to port. Morris was a warden of the port at that time. Captain Ayers brought the Polly into port by following another ship up the bay which set off a protest. At least 20% of the population filled the street as Ayers was escorted to the State House. A meeting with Ayers and the port wardens, including Morris, was held. Ayers agreed to leave Philadelphia without delivering any taxed tea.
Financed the war
Morris personally paid £10,000 to pay the Continental troops under Washington. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battle of Princeton. He subsequently paid from his own funds the troops via “Morris notes” to continue Washington’s ability to wage war as the US currency had no value.
During the war, privateers seized the cargo of English ships. Morris owned an interest in many of the privateers and his firm helped sell the English spoils as they came into port. In addition to owning ships that carried cargo to Cuba, France, and Spain, he was engaged in profiteering. He wrote a friend that his firm had had over 250 ships during the war and so came out “about even.” He had lost one of the largest private navies in the world during the War, but he never asked for reimbursement from the new government. Morris also personally supplied the funding for eighty percent of all bullets fired during the war and almost seventy five percent of all other expenses for the fledgling government, though he also never asked to be reimbursed for these expenses. He used his remaining money to buy shares in a variety of ships that waged an economic war on Britain. During this period he acted as a commercial agent for John Holker, a French national who was one of many military contractors who dealt with the French and American forces.
During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for alleged war profiteering. In 1779, a congressional committee acquitted Morris and his firm on charges of engaging in improper financial transactions, but his reputation was damaged after this incident.
Immediately after serving in the Congress, Morris served two more terms in the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. While he was in the Pennsylvania Assembly, Morris worked on the constitution and legislation to restore checks and balances, and to overturn the religious test laws. These had excluded from voting 40% of the state’s citizens, including Quakers, Jews, and Mennonites.
On October 4, 1779, an angry mob, who supported the “Constitutionalist” faction in opposition to Morris and his allies, tried to chase James Wilson from his home in Philadelphia. The mob was in the process of aiming a cannon at Wilson’s home when the First City Troop came to his rescue. Five men were killed in the battle of “Fort Wilson.” Constitutionalists in Pennsylvania ran off their political opposites and confiscated their property. James Wilson went on to argue against slavery, defend Haym Solomon from fraud, sign the Constitution, and become a Supreme Court justice.
Morris and his allies supplied the majority of war materials to the troops when the state failed to act. Pennsylvania went bankrupt in 1780 due to Constitutionalist policies which mandated state-controlled markets and self-imposed embargoes. Ultimately the state called on Morris to restore the economy. He did so by opening the ports to trade, and allowing the market to set the value of goods and the currency.