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Robert Morris

In office
March 4, 1789 – March 3, 1795
Preceded by None
Succeeded by William Bingham

In office
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by office abolished

Born January 20, 1734(1734-01-20)
Liverpool, England
Died May 9, 1806 (aged 72)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Political party Pro-Administration
Spouse(s) Mary White Morris
Religion Episcopalian

Robert Morris, Jr. (pronounced /ˈmɒrɨs/) (January 31, 1734– May 8, 1806) was an American merchant, and signer to the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, and a member of the Second Continental Congress where he served as the Chairman of the Secret Committee, and as a member of the Committee of Correspondence. Later Morris was known as the "Financier of the Revolution", because of his role in financing the American side in the Revolutionary War. From 1781 to 1784, he served as Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. 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 U.S. senators, serving from 1789 to 1795.


Early life

Morris was born to Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizebeth Murphet in Liverpool, England on January 20, 1734. At the age of 13 Morris moved to Oxford, Maryland, where he lived with his father, Robert Morris, a tobacco farmer. The younger Morris was provided a tutor, but he quickly learned everything that teacher had to impart. His father arranged for him to go to Philadelphia, where he stayed with Charles Greenway, a family friend, who arranged for young Robert to become an apprentice at the shipping and banking firm of Philadelphia merchant (later mayor) Charles Willing. A year later, Robert's father died as the result of being wounded by the wadding of a ship's gun that was fired in his honor.

After Willing's death in 1752, the 18-year-old Morris became the partner of Charles's son, Thomas Willing. They established the prominent shipping-banking firm of Willing & Morris on May 1, 1757. The partnership of Willing, Morris & Company lasted until 1779, and they often collaborated thereafter. Eventually they sent ships to India, China, and the Levant, and the firm's business of import, export and general agency made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania. As a result Morris became both wealthy and influential in Philadelphia. Even so, Morris's wealth was mostly in his stock in trade, and the value of his holdings was small when compared to the southern plantation holders who owned thousands of acres of land and controlled the lives of thousands of slaves, or even when compared to the average middle-class Englishman living in London.

Personal information

On March 2, 1769, at 35 years old, Morris married 20-year-old Mary White. White came from a prominent family in Maryland; her brother was the well-known Bishop William White. Together they had five sons and two daughters.

Morris worshiped in Philadelphia at St Peter's Church on Pine Street and Christ Church on 2nd Street, both of which were run by his brother-in-law, Rev. William White. Morris remained a constant worshiper at this Anglican Church for his entire life. Because of location and reputation of St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, it served as a place of worship for a number of the members of the Continental Congress, sometimes including George Washington.

Public career


Morris and slavery

Portrait of Robert Morris by Charles Willson Peale

Philadelphia was a backwater in the Slave Trade. In 1712, Pennsylvania imposed a high tariff on the importation of slaves into the state, which encouraged the use of white indentured servants, usually serving 3- to 5-year contracts. (About 20 slaves per year were imported into Philadelphia in the 1740s.)[1] During the Seven Years' War (1756–63), the usual supply of new indentured servants was not available because potential immigrants were conscripted to fight in Europe. The contracts for those already in America were expiring, and indentured servants could legally break their contracts to join the British forces against the French and their Indian allies. At the same time, the British Crown wanted to encourage the slave trade and enrich the King's friends. With the price of labor rising, Willing, Morris & Company expanded their importation of slaves from zero to ten,[2]. While Morris was a junior partner and Willing was pursuing a political career, the company Willing, Morris & Co. co-signed a petition calling for the repeal of Pennsylvania's tariff. (About 500 slaves were imported into Philadelphia in 1762, the height of the trade, most of whom were brought in by Rhode Islanders Messers D’Wolf, Aaron Lopez, and Jacob Rivera.)[3]

Willing, Morris & Co funded their own slave-trading voyage. They didn't carry enough to be profitable, and after a second trip, their ship was captured by French privateers. Later, they handled seven slave auctions for other importers, offering a total of twenty three slaves [4]. In one instance advertising free round-trip passage from Philadelphia to Wilmington, Delaware for those attending the sale.[5] In their last agency deal (out of a total of eight), they advertised seventy who were brought in from Africa on the ship Marquis de Granby [6], but records indicate that the slaves were not sold in Philadelphia, and instead the owner took the ship and all the slaves to Jamaica [7].

Both partners supported the non-importation agreements that marked the end of all trade with Britain, including the British importation of slaves. They also became advocates for free trade which would end the kind of trade restrictions that gave rise to the business. As time went on, Morris tried to tax the domestic slave trade and to lay a head tax on the slaves payable by the owner. His efforts were not appreciated by the Southerners who then proceeded to fight all his measures. While most of Morris's fortune did not come from the slave trade or from slave labor, he did own one or two slaves who worked as household servants. He also invested in a plantation called "Orange Grove" along the Mississippi to be worked by 100 slaves. This passive investment was abandoned long before it was completed because the Spanish confiscated the property when they seized New Orleans during the Revolution, and all the investors suffered a loss. Pennsylvania began a gradual abolition of slavery in 1780. The 1790 Census lists 4 non-white free persons in his household, but no slaves.[8]

Conflict with Britain

The Stamp Act of 1765-1766 was a tax on all legal documents, yet the lawyers did not act to oppose it. However 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 promised not to execute 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, the stamp tax was lifted.

Morris was elected to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety (1775–1776), the Committee of Correspondence, the Provincial Assembly (1775–1776), and the Pennsylvania legislature (1776–1778).

Morris was also elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778.

In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris's company to import arms and ammunition.

Morris was Chairman of the Secret Committee where he devised a system to smuggle war supplies from France a year before Independence was declared.

He served with John Adams on the committee that wrote the Model Treaty. The Model Treaty incorporated his long held belief in Free Trade. It was an outgrowth of his trading system, and acted as the basis for the Treaty with France.

He served on the Marine and Maritime Committees and sold his best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress. It became USS Alfred (1774), the first ship in the Continental Navy. John Barry, a captain who sailed for his company, became the Captain of the Alfred.

Morris used his extensive international trading network as a spy network and gathered intelligence on British troop movements. One of his spies sent the information that allowed the Americans to defend Fort Moultrie near Charleston, South Carolina.

On July 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Congressional motion for independence, causing the Pennsylvania delegation, which was split 4-3, to cast its vote in the negative. The following day, Morris and John Dickinson agreed to abstain, allowing Pennsylvania to vote for independence. The final vote was therefore 12 states in favor and no states opposed. (New York's delegates were prohibited by their constituents to cast a vote). On August 2 Morris signed the Declaration of Independence saying "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."

During the War

A scene from The Apotheosis of Washington shows Morris receiving a bag of gold from Mercury, commemorating his financial services during the Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War, in December 1776, Morris stayed in Philadelphia when the rest of Congress left for Baltimore. He loaned $10,000 to pay Washington’s troops. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He subsequently paid from his own funds the troops via Morris notes to continue Washington's ability to wage war.

In March 1778 Mr. Morris was chosen to sign the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Pennsylvania.

Morris's wealth increased thanks to privateers that seized the cargo of English ships during the war. Morris owned an interest in many privateer ships, and also helped to sell off the English spoils as they came into port. While he was seen as profiting handsomely from this activity he wrote a friend that he lost over 150 ships during the war and so came out "about even." In fact he had lost one of the largest private navies in the world during the revolutionary war, but he never asked for reimbursement. It should be noted that Morris acquired this large private navy in the course of privateering prior to the war. He used money gained from that pursuit 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.

Immediately after serving in the Congress Morris served two more terms on the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. While he was in the Pennsylvania Assembly Morris worked to restore checks and balances to the state constitution, and to overturn the religious test laws, thus restoring voting rights to 40% of the citizens including Quakers, Jews and Mennonites. During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for alleged war profiteering. A congressional committee acquitted Morris and his firm on charges of engaging in improper financial transactions in 1779, but his reputation was damaged after this incident.

On October 4, 1779, an angry mob, who supported the "Constitutionalist" faction in opposition to Morris and his allies, attempted to chase James Wilson from his home in Philadelphia. According to some sources Morris was in Wilson's house at the time. 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." This event is often associated with complaints about Morris's supposed "war profiteering", but it was part of a long term policy of the Constitionalists in Pennsylvania to run their political opposites from the state, and take 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 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.

Superintendent of Finance of the United States

In 1781 the US was in a crisis. The British controlled the coast line from the sea, two major cities, and the western frontier. The treasury was in debt by $25 million and public credit had collapsed, he would make good on the US's debt from his own personal monies. With the failure of their own policies staring them in the face Congress changed from the committee systems they had used for years and created the first executive offices in American history. Morris held two of them, Finance and Marine. While his detractors worried he was gaining "dictatorial powers" he was granted what we would call today "executive authority". In a unanimous vote, Congress appointed Morris to be Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. To defend himself from the calumnies of his critics Mr. Morris insisted that Congress allow him to continue his profitable private endeavors while serving in a related public office. In practice he was not active in private business during his term and acted as a silent partner in various companies.

Three days after becoming Superintendent of Finance Morris proposed the establishment of a national bank. This led to the creation of the first financial institution chartered by the United States, the Bank of North America, in 1782. The bank was funded in part by a significant loan Morris had obtained from France in 1781. The initial role of the bank was to finance the war against Britain.

As Superintendent of Finance Morris instituted several reforms, including reducing the civil list, significantly cutting government spending by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightening accounting procedures, and demanding the federal government's full share of support (money and supplies) from the States.

Morris obtained supplies for the army of Nathanael Greene in 1779, and from 1781-1783.

He took an active role in getting Washington from New York State to Yorktown Virginia. He was in Washington's camp the day the action was initiated. He acted as quartermaster for the trip and supplied over $1,400,000 in his own credit to move the Army. He was also Agent of Marine and coordinated with the French Navy to get Washington's Army to the Battle of Yorktown (1781). After Yorktown Morris noted the war had changed from a war of bullets to a war of finances.

At times he took out loans from friends and risked his personal credit by issuing notes on his own signature to purchase items such as military supplies; for example, in 1783 Morris issued $14,900,000 in his own notes to pay the soldiers. He did this during the same year that New Hampshire contributed only $3000 worth of beef toward the war effort, and all the states combined contributed less than $800,000. This extensive use of his personal credit strained his own fortune. Morris later claimed that although he lost over 1500 ships during the war he came out of it "about even."

During his tenure as Superintendent, Morris was assisted by his friend and assistant Gouverneur Morris (no relation). He proposed a national economic system in a document called "On Public Credit". This acted as the basis for Hamilton's plan of the same name submitted much later. The Morris's also proposed to make the American currency a decimal currency, an idea that was unique at the time.

On January 15, 1782 Morris drafted a proposal that he later presented to the Continental Congress to recommend the establishment of a national mint and decimal coinage. However, the United States Mint was not established until 1792, after further proposals by Hamilton.

Later political career

President's House, Philadelphia. Morris's Philadelphia mansion served as the presidential mansion of George Washington and John Adams, 1790-1800. He sold it in 1795, using the proceeds to fund the L'Enfant mansion.

Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He managed to get Gouverneur Morris onto the Pennsylvania delegation. Although Robert Morris said little at the Convention, his former assistant, Gouverneur, and his lawyer, James Wilson, were two of the three most talkative men there. Both opposed slavery during the Convention. Gouverneur Morris actually wrote the polished draft of the Constitution. While it was widely known at the time that Morris was active behind the scenes, his only significant role of record during the Convention was to nominate his friend George Washington as its president.

Washington wanted to appoint Morris Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, but Morris declined (suggesting instead Alexander Hamilton who was a supporter of his policies). He served as a United States Senator from 1789 to 1795. Morris was on 41 Senatorial committees and reported for many of them. He focused on using his position in the Legislature to support the Federalist economic program, which included internal improvements like canals and lighthouses to aid commerce. As Senator he generally supported the Federalist party and backed Hamilton's economic proposals. Hamilton's proposals were, in actuality, a rework of Morris's report "On Public Credit", submitted some 10 years earlier.

As a Senator from Pennsylvania, Morris is credited with helping to bring the Federal Government to Philadelphia for 10 years as the Federal District was under construction. During this period he moved from his home, and allowed it to be used by Washington as his residence. Later that house was used by Adams while he was President.

Later life

Map of Phelps and Gorham Purchase 1802-1806
Map of showing Phelps & Gorham's Purchase, The Holland Purchase, and the Morris Reserve.

Morris founded several canal companies, a steam engine company, and launched a hot air balloon from his garden on Market Street. He had the first iron rolling mill in America. His ice house was the model for the one Washington put in at Mount Vernon. He backed the new Chestnut Street Theater, started the Horticultural Society and had a green house with lemon trees in it.

On March 12, 1791 he contracted with Massachusetts to purchase what is now essentially all of Western New York west (sic, east) of the Genesee River for $333,333.33[9]. The land, which had been a substantial portion of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, was conveyed to Morris in five deeds on May 11, 1791.

His son Thomas settled the peace with the Six Nations, who had sided with the British during the Revolution. Then Morris sold most of the vast tract to the Holland Land Company in 1792-1793.

Morris's folly on Walnut St. between 7th and 8th Sts

In 1794 he began construction of a mansion on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant. The unfinished mansion became known as "Morris's folly",[10] and the land eventually became Sansom Street. Marbles from this house were purchased by Latrobe and adorn buildings and monuments from Rhode Island to Charlestown, SC.

Morris was later heavily involved in unsuccessful land speculations, investing in the District of Columbia, and purchasing over 6,000,000 acres (24,000 km²) in the rural south. An expected loan from Holland never materialized because England and the Dutch declared war on Revolutionary France. The subsequent Napoleonic Wars ruined the market for American Lands and Morris's highly leveraged company collapsed. The financial markets of England, the United States, and the Caribbean were also suffering from the deflation associated with the Panic of 1797. Thus Morris was land-poor (he owned much land but didn't have enough hard money to pay off his creditors).

Although he attempted to avoid his creditors by remaining at "The Hills", his country estate on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, his creditors literally pursued him to his gate. After he was sued by a former partner, a fraud who at that time was serving time in debtor's prison himself, he was arrested and imprisoned for debt in Prune Street prison in Philadelphia from February 1798 to August 1801. Morris's economic failure reduced the fortunes of many other prominent Federalists who had invested in his ventures (e.g., Henry Lee). Morris's political adversaries used his bankruptcy to gain political power in Pennsylvania. Governor Thomas McKean was elected and refined the art of political patronage in America. McKean’s party then picked the Pennsylvania members of the electoral college for the election of 1800, and this helped Thomas Jefferson become president.

Congress passed the Bankruptcy Laws, in part, to get Morris out of prison.[citation needed]

After his release, and suffering from poor health, Morris spent the rest of his life in retirement. He was assisted by his wife, who had supported him throughout his misfortune. Morris died on May 9, 1806, in Philadelphia, and is buried in the family vault of Bishop William White, his brother-in-law, at Christ Church.[11]


Morris' portrait appeared on US $1000 notes from 1862 to 1863 and on the $10 silver certificates from 1878 to 1880. Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in the United States. Morris and Roger Sherman were the only two people to sign the three significant founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.

The Dollar Sign ("$") was in common use among private merchants during the middle of the 18th century. It referred to the two columns draped with scrolls on the Spanish Milled Dollar, which predated the U.S. Dollar. Morris was the first to use that symbol in official documents and in official communications with Oliver Pollock. The U.S. Dollar was directly based on the Spanish Milled Dollar when, in the Coinage Act of 1792, the first Mint Act, its value was "fixed" (per the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, clause 1 power of the United States Congress "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures") as being "of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver."

Institutions named in honor of Morris include:

Mount Morris, New York, location of a large flood control dam on the Genesee River, was named in honor of Robert Morris.

A number of ships in the United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard have been named USS Morris or USRC Morris for him.

A small town, Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was named in honor of Robert Morris. A statue of him is in the town square.

The Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, Maryland was also named after him.

Robert Morris's home in Philadelphia, where he lived during much of his career as Superintendent, where he lived while he (as Agent of Marine) ran the Continental Navy (1781–1784), and where he lived while he served a member of the Constitutional Convention (1789), was subsequently used as the Executive Mansion by Presidents George Washington and John Adams. Morris rented the house to the city of Philadelphia to be used as the presidential home, while Philadelphia was the temporary U.S. capital 1790-1800 during the construction of Washington, D.C. The President's House no longer exists, but the site is in the process of becoming a memorial to the first two Presidents, their families, and the nine enslaved Africans who worked in Washington's presidential household. This makes Robert Morris unique, in that he is the only person who signed the Declaration of Independence, or the Articles of Confederation, or the U.S. Constitution (and he signed all three), whose house is in a National Park, and the National Park Service has chosen not to interpret his life or career at the site of his own house.


  1. ^ Darold D. Wax, "Negro Imports into Pennsylvania, 1720-1766," Pennsylvania History, vol. 32 (1965), p. 256.
  2. ^ "[September 3, 1756] -- A Parcell of healthy Boys about 10-12 years old will undoubtedly sell to good advantage", Willing & Morris Letter Book, p. 221, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, quoted in Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, African Americans in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), p. 70.
  3. ^ ibid., p. 47.
  4. ^ Pennsylvania Gazette items # 25284, 26076, 26206, 26565, 28558, 28712, 36325, in 1765
  5. ^ Pennsylvania Gazette, May 6, 1762[1] This arrangement made it easy for Pennsylvania slave-buyers to avoid paying the tariff.
  6. ^ Pennsylvania Gazette, July 25, 1765
  7. ^ The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade CD-ROM, published by the Oxford University Press
  8. ^ First Census of the United States 1790: Pennsylvania (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, reprinted 1908), p. 227.
  9. ^ Beers, Frederick W. (1890). Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County, N.Y., 1788-1890. Syracuse, N.Y.: Comp. and pub. by J.W. Vose & Co.. 
  10. ^ National Park Service - Signers of the Declaration (Robert Morris)
  11. ^

External links

Further reading

  • Ferguson, James (editor): The Papers of Robert Morris 1781-1784 (9 volumes): University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978; (1995 reprint: ISBN 0-8229-3886-3).
  • Ver Steeg, Clarence L.: Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954 (ISBN 0-374-98078-0).
Political offices
Preceded by
Superintendent of Finance
Succeeded by
United States Senate
Preceded by
United States Senator (Class 3) from Pennsylvania
Served alongside: William Maclay, Albert Gallatin, James Ross
Succeeded by
William Bingham


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