Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Robert Morris (merchant)
Robert Morris, Jr. (January 31, 1734 – May 8, 1806) was an American merchant and a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. Morris was known as the Financier of the Revolution, because of his role in securing financial assistance for the American Colonial side in the Revolutionary War.
Born on January 31, 1734 near Liverpool, England, Morris moved to live with his father, tobacco exporter Robert Morris, Sr., in Oxford, Maryland at the age of 13. The younger Morris enrolled in school in Philadelphia, but apparently learned little. In 1750, when he was 15, his father passed away, ironically as a result of being wounded by the wadding of a ship's gun that was fired in his honor.
At age 16 Morris was apprenticed to the shipping and banking firm of the wealthy Philadelphia merchant Charles Willing. After Willing's death four years later, 20-year-old Morris became the partner of Charles's son, Thomas Willing. The partnership of Willing, Morris, and Company (later known by various other names) lasted until 1793. The firm's business of importation, exportation, and general banking made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania, and as a result Morris became both wealthy and influential in Philadelphia.
Before the Revolutionary War
The Stamp Act of 1765-1766 affected Morris's business due to its dependence on imports. In 1775, Morris began his public career by serving on a local committee organized to protest the Stamp Act. Although he remained loyal to England, he believed that the new laws constituted taxation without representation and violated the colonists' rights as English citizens.
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. On July 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Declaration of Independence, and he declined to vote when the document was adopted on July 4, 1776. On August 2 of the same year however, Morris signed the Declaration.
Immediately after serving in the Congress Morris served two more terms on the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for allegedly profiteering in the sale of arms and munitions to the government. 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.
In March 1778 Morris signed the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Pennsylvania.
During the War
During the Revolutionary War, Morris remained in Philadelphia and gave crucial financial support to the Continental government. In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris's company to import arms and ammunition.
Morris's great wealth increased thanks to privateers that seized the cargo of English ships during the war. Morris owned many of the privateer ships, and also helped to sell off the English spoils as they came into port.
In a unanimous vote, Congress appointed Morris to be Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. When Morris began this post near the end of the war the US was in a financial crisis. The treasury was in debt by $2.5 million and public credit had collapsed. Congress resultingly gave Mr. Morris great power and allowed him to continue his profitable private endeavors while serving in a related public office.
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 England.
As Superintendent of Finance Morris instituted several reforms, including significantly cutting government spending, tightening accounting procedures, and demanding the federal government's full share of support (money and supplies) from the States. At times he even took out loans from friends and risked his personal credit by issuing notes on his own signature to purchase items such as military supplies. Although Morris's use of his personal credit strained his own fortune, it was to his great profit in the end.
During his tenure as Superintendent, Morris was assisted by his friend and assistant Gouverneur Morris (no relation).
On January 15, 1782 Morris went before the United States Congress to recommend the establishment of a national mint and decimal coinage. However, the US Mint was not established until 1792, due to further proposals by Hamilton.
Later political career
Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His only significant role in that body was to nominate his friend George Washington as its president.
Washington appointed Morris Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, but Morris declined (suggesting instead Alexander Hamilton). He served as a United States Senator from 1789 to 1795. As Senator he generally supported the Federalist party and backed Hamilton's economic proposals.
On March 2, 1769, at 35 years old, Morris married 20-year-old Mary White. Together they had five sons and two daughters.
Morris was an Episcopalian.
Morris was later heavily involved in unsuccessful land speculations, investing in District of Columbia and purchasing essentially all of Western New York. In 1794 he began construction of a mansion on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant. Although he attempted to flee from creditors by hiding at The Hills, his country estate on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, he was arrested and imprisoned for debt in Prunestreet prison in Philadelphia from February 1798 to August 1801. His unfinished mansion became known as "Morris's folly".
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 8, 1806, in Philadelphia, and is buried in the family vault of William White at Christ Church.
Morris's portrait appeared on US $1000 notes from 1862 to 1863 and on the $10 silver certificates from 1878 to 1880. Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in the United States. Morris and Roger Sherman were the only two people to sign the three significant founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.
Along with Oliver Pollock , Morris may have also played a role in the creation of the dollar sign ("$"); see Dollar.
Institutions named in honor of Morris include:
- Ver Steeg, Clarence L. Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954.
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