Robert Morris, Founding Father
The portly merchant sat with a rather large group of other merchants at the local tavern in Philadelphia. He was raising his mug full of Metheglin. (A mead made with spices and herbs) to St Georges whose day they were celebrating. The year was 1775 and Robert Morris had just received word of the Lexington Massacre. He was no fan of England and had protested the unfairness of the Stamp Act by signing a non-importation agreement in 1705. Mr. Morris however was still on the fence was still on the fence. The Shot Heard Around The World solidified his position as patriot. While many in the tavern dispersed, Morris, with a few others, stayed and discussed their future.
Robert Morris came to America at the age of 13. He was from Lancashire, England. His father was a Liverpool merchant, who had traded with the Americans for some time and moved to the colonies when Robert was just a lad. He was immediately paced in school but his did not do well. His teacher was most likely incompetent and he told his father “I have learned all that he can teach me.” It was during that time of his education, however slight that was, that he lost his father. A captain of one of the ships assigned to his father fired a gun in his honor. Unfortunately, the wad (compressed material used to hold the powder or shot, or both, in place in a gun or cartridge.) of that gun killed The Senior Morris.
Robert Morris, however, having been taught commerce all his life did well for himself. Being just fifteen he found himself an apprenticeship in the counting house of Mr. Charles Willing., one of the finest merchants in Philadelphia. As soon as his apprentice ship was over he went into partnership with the same. That partnership lasted until 1793 and before the American war was the most well-known business sin Philadelphia.
Let’s go back to the tavern. It was there, with what was left of his fellow merchants that Robert Morris, decided that the die was cast, the Lexington measure was the catalyst and must lead to the final separation from the British government. R. Morris expressed the opinion that it should and would take place. At that time he decided to do whatever he could to make sure America gained its independence from the crown. Let’s be clear, statements like that were considered treasonous by the British government and was punishable by death. To speak such was brave and Robert Morris was indeed a brave man.
November 3, 1776, he was elected a delegate to the second congress in Philadelphia. It was but a few weeks later that he was added to a secret committee that was formed during the first congress in order to contract for arms, ammunition, Sulphur and saltpeter. The last two was needed to manufacture gunpowder. They were to export produce in order to pay for the supplies. He was also appointed to negotiate bills of exchange for congress, to borrow money as needed for the marine committee and to manage the money for congress. In effect Morris became the first secretary of finance. (Note Alexander Hamilton is the actual father of the modern day secretary of the treasury, but Morris was very important to the finances during the revolutionary war.) Robert Morris was very well suited to the job. His line of credit was stellar and he was willing and able to use his personal finances and goodwill among merchants to help fund the war.
In December, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Morris along with two others was left in Philadelphia. The British had been coming towards the city and congress had retired. The three gentlemen left were to transact all necessary continental business. It was during this time that Robert Morris received a letter from General Washington. Washington was on the Delaware and informed Mr. Morris that his army was in a bad way. They needed money in order to pay off spies who could tell him the position of the enemy and their movements. The amount was 10,000 dollars. That was a lot of money. In today’s dollars we are talking about 3 million dollars.
So what did our patriot do? There were basically no citizens left in the city. He knew no one who had that kind of money and if they did would not be willing to give it up. He pondered the problem as he walked home that evening. He happened upon a friend of his. When asked how his day was, Mr. Morris told him of his quandary. Morris asked him if he could lend the money and told him that his note and his honor would be his only security. The friend, knowing of Robert’s honesty lent him the money. It was instantly sent to Washington where it was used to gain victory of the Hessians at Trenton it was that victory that renewed the hope in the hearts of patriots even caused consternation in the enemy.
During the years of 1779 and 1780, the army was so destitute they were melting down the weights of clocks and the water spout of houses to make bullets. They still were in dire need of ammunition, medical supplies and foodstuffs. It was becoming increasingly difficult for them to fight even a single battle. General Washington wrote to Judge Peters, who was the secretary to the board of war pleading for immediate supplies. It seemed rather impossible to send the requested supplies, but Mr. Peters showed the letter to Robert Morris. It just so happened that a privateer who was in the employ of another gentleman arrived carrying 90 tons of lead. Half of it was immediately given to Morris the other half was purchased by Mr. Peters. As the war progressed it become more and more difficult to supply the army. IT was so bad the Congress and the Commander in Chief were desperate and troops were deserting. Morris, using his own credit, was able to secure, four thousand barrels of flour. There were many times throughout the war that Morris used his personal credit and goodwill to procure supplies that would not have happened otherwise.
Robert Morris was also a bit of a spy. During the whole war he maintained private correspondence with gentlemen in England. It was this way he received important information. He shared this information with his fellow merchants who shared with the populace. It was this way he kept alive the patriotism, the hope and spirit of opposition among the people.
All his help and patriotism he was rewarded with an appointment by Congress. He was superintendent of finance. The year was 1781 and no man was more highly competent of the task of dispersing the public debts and expenditures. He was responsible for paying of the debt we owe to France, Holland, various private investors. The treasury was in arears two million plus dollars. Most of it had to be paid immediately. He contacted Benjamin Franklin, our minister in France, to bring back monies from Amsterdam in order to disperse the debt. It was through this action that he was able to maintain the credit of the American government in Europe. At home finances were a wreck. The British had hoped to overcome us by financial ruin. In fact it was quite dire. Many of the folks working for the government needed money in order to pay their debts or they would go to jail for such. The paper bills were so worthless it required an unimaginable amount in order to purchase clothing. Mr Morris, however, had established the Bank of America. It was that bank that secured all notes with gold or silver. It was also that bank that helped America get back on its feet financially. Hundreds availed themselves of the security of the bank, to deposit their cash, and the constant current of deposits in the course of trade of was instrumental in a speedy change in the financial straits, both public and private.
Robert Morris while a successful merchant was one to happily give away his fortune in order to secure a free America. He used his money, his good credit, his good name and times not only during the voluntary war but afterwards to clean up the financial mess the British left us with. There were 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. All gave something. Some fought, some like Robert Morris fought not with a gun, but with his knowledge of finances.
Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich