Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Robert Morris,
the Financier of the Revolution

War is to us a picture, a brilliant show of material splendor, a glorious display of daring deeds. We see the flash of weapons and the waving of banners. We hear the stirring sounds of music and the measured beat of marching feet. We read of valiant deeds on the fields of battle and of men giving their lives for their country's cause, and hearing and seeing all this we are too apt to forget what lies behind.

The bright picture of war has an opposite side, on which are painted the dark forms of misery and suffering and death in all its terrors. But aside from this there is something else that lies behind the show. War is costly. We are told that "money is the sinews of war." All the "show and circumstance of glorious war "has to be paid for, and the country in which we live might not have won its freedom had there not been a noble man ready to pay the cost, a man whose story every patriot should read. There were three men to whom American liberty was chiefly due: Washington, the general; Franklin, the statesman; and Morris, the financier, and without the work of the latter, freedom might not have been won.

Like many others who took part in the Revolution, Robert Morris came from England, his native place being the city of Liverpool, where he was born in 1734. But he was still a young boy when his father brought him across the sea, and he grew up to be as true-hearted a patriot as any son of the soil. No man did more than he to save the country from ruin and to aid the patriot soldiers on the field of battle.

The city of Philadelphia was his home, and there, as he grew up, he showed a marvellous talent for business. He began at the age of fifteen in the counting-house of a firm of Philadelphia merchants, and worked with such diligence and ability that at the age of twenty he was made a member of the firm. This was an excellent beginning for an ambitious boy, and we may be sure that he made the most of his opportunity. At any rate, the firm thrived after he became a member, and he soon began to grow rich.

Time went on, and troubles came to the country. War broke out with the French; then came the disputes with England, the stamp tax, the tea tariff, the insolent soldiers in Boston, the war spirit in the people. All this time Robert Morris was attending to his business with diligence and enterprise and making money fast, while everybody praised him as a man of integrity and uprightness. Willing & Morris was the name of the firm. No other firm in Philadelphia, then the largest city in the country, did a larger business, so that by the time the war with England began Morris was a very wealthy man. But it must be remembered that it did not take as much money to make wealth in those days as it does now. A million dollars counted for as much then as a hundred millions do now.

In the midst of his business Robert Morris never forgot the country that had given him a home. He was an earnest patriot through all the troubles of the time. His firm did a large business with England, buying there to sell in America, but in 1765, when the Stamp Act was passed, and the colonists vowed they would buy no article made in England, Morris supported them in this, though he knew it would be a great loss to him.

When the Revolution began he was looked upon as a stanch friend of the country. In 1775 he was elected a member of the Continental Congress, and in 1776 he was one of those bold patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence. In his own mind he felt that it was too soon for this, and that the members were too hasty and had better feel their way. But there it was, the work was done, and as a true American he put his name to it. In doing this he cut loose from all allegiance to England and threw in his lot with the land he had made his home.

Morris was one of the kind of men the young country sadly needed. He had great business ability and judgment, and as a member of the Committee of Ways and Means his knowledge of money matters and skill in affairs of finance made him of the greatest service to the cause of liberty.

But this was only through good advice and careful handling of the funds. The time came when more were wanted: The country was poor; Congress had no means of raising money; yet the soldiers in the field had to be fed and clothed, even if they were not paid; arms and ammunition had to be supplied, for they could not fight without them, and the Treasury at times was empty. Paper money was issued, printed promises to pay, but there got to be so much of this afloat that few were willing to take it. Its value in time went down almost to nothing.

It was then that Robert Morris showed the kind of patriot he was. He helped the Government with his own money. He borrowed large sums from his friends. When people of means were not willing to lend their money to Congress, Morris came to its support, and he used the credit of his firm to borrow for its needs. The word of Robert Morris was as good as gold, and people who would not trust Congress were ready to trust him.

On that brilliant Christmas Day of 1777, when Washington turned the tide of the war by the splendid victory of his ragged Continentals at Trenton, the army chest was empty, there was not a penny to pay the troops. The victor could not follow up his success without some cash in hand, and he wrote a letter of earnest appeal to Robert Morris, who responded nobly. "Whatever I can do for the good of the service shall be done," he replied, and on New Year's morning he went from house to house among his friends in Philadelphia, raising people from their beds to borrow money for the troops in the field.

In this way $50,000 in hard money was obtained and sent to Washington. It saved the army from falling to pieces and was a wonderful aid to Washington in following up his victory. Morris had a warm admiration for the grand soldier whom he thus helped, and said of him, "He is the greatest man on earth."

A strong, large, fine-looking man was Robert Morris, active in business, but speculative in disposition. There are few anecdotes of his private life, but here is one. In his earlier business days he went put on several voyages as supercargo on ships of the firm, and once, during the war with France, the ship he was on was captured and he was taken prisoner. He had no money with which to pay ransom. But he knew how to do things and secured his release by repairing a watch of one of the French officers.

He was made a member of the Council of Safety in 1775, and during the Revolution did valuable service on various committees of Congress. In 1778, when Lord North offered terms of settlement with the colonies if they would yield to the king, he wrote these strong words: "No offer ought to have a hearing for one moment unless preceded by acknowledgment of our independence. We can never be a happy people under their domination."

During all this time he continued to supply the Government with money, either his own or that borrowed on his credit. When the paper money issued by Congress grew to be worth little more than rags, Morris kept things going by the hard cash of himself and his friends. He is said to have raised much more than one million dollars in all, with no assurance that he would ever get a penny of it back. But he was too sincere a patriot to let any such thought as this trouble him.

This was not all. He did his utmost to arrange some system under which the necessary funds might be raised and the nation gain credit instead of sinking into bankruptcy. He wanted a strong central government, with the right to collect the revenues, instead of leaving this right to the States, and he got the brilliant author Thomas Paine to write in support of this. He wished to establish a solid continental system of finance which would make Congress more than a mere figure-head to the thirteen independent States.

In 1781 Congress saw that the war could not go on unless some very able man should be put over the money matters of the country, and Robert Morris was the only man anybody thought of for this work, so he was appointed Superintendent of Finances. Congress could not have pleased the people better. Every body was satisfied with their choice. Many looked upon Morris as a sort of magician, who knew how to get something from nothing. As for him, he did not see his way clear to do anything of the kind, and the prospect ahead was not very pleasant.

It was his duty to look after the funds in the Treasury and to do his best to add to them. It was a hard task. There was very little to look after, and it was almost impossible to add anything to it. He appealed to the States for money, but grew sick of the delay in getting it. Cash came in pennies instead of dollars, and his demands and appeals were alike in vain.

One of the first things he did was to establish the Bank of North America, the first bank in the country. This was chartered by Congress on the last day of the year 1781. Morris lost no time in getting it under way, and spared no pains in inducing people of wealth to buy its stock and put gold and silver money into its vaults. Thomas Paine put $500 of his own money in it and used his brilliant pen and his persuasive powers to get others to do the same.

The credit of the bank was soon established, and before long Morris was able to help the suffering army. During the first six months of the bank's existence he loaned the Government $400,000 from it, and $80,000 more to the State of Pennsylvania. His brilliant plan had proved a complete success.

For three of the most trying years the country ever went through in money matters Morris was at the head of its finances, working like a giant to help it through. He had not only the needs of the army to look after, but those of the navy as well, for money was needed to fit out vessels and pay the sailors. Even after peace came his duties went on. The country was very poor. Congress had no power to collect money from the States or to lay taxes of any kind. He resigned at length in 1783, worn out with his work and disgusted with the doings of Congress and the States. He said: "To increase our debts while the prospect of paying them diminishes does not consist with my idea of integrity."

Morris did not come out of the war a poor man. He was still wealthy, as wealth was regarded in those days. He lived in a handsome house, with doors and furniture of finely-wrought mahogany, but he was not the man to make a grand display. On the banks of the Schuylkill he built a pleasantly situated country residence which was not finished until after 1787. It stood upon the bluff above Fairmount, and was called by him "The Hills." It still stands and is now known as the Lemon Hill mansion. Here thousands collect in the summer season, for near by is a large music pavilion where bands play several times weekly.

Robert Morris did not give up his interest in the country in his later years. Twice he served as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, and he was one of those who helped to make the Constitution of the United States. When the new government was organized, with Washington for President, Morris was asked to take the responsible position of Secretary of the Treasury. He declined and named Alexander Hamilton for the difficult post, saying that he was a better man in finance than himself. He was elected, however, to the United States Senate and served one term in the first Senate of the country.

Morris had given much of his fortune to the country and had neglected his business to devote himself to poorly paid public duties. But his business capacity remained and after the war he went to work again, now engaging in the East India trade. In the year he resigned the office of financier he sent the "Empress of China "from New York to Canton, this being the first American vessel that ever entered that port. He marked out a route to China by which the dangerous winds that at certain seasons blow over the Pacific might be avoided, and to prove that he was right he sent a vessel over this route. The voyage proved successful and profitable.

We have said that Morris was speculative in disposition. He proved this after 1790 by going very largely into land speculations, buying a great deal of wild land in the western part of New York. He bought lands also in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, but his investments proved failures, his lands could not be sold, and the once wealthy merchant lost all his money and fell deeply into debt.

Before telling the story of his later life there is an interesting episode that must be narrated. In 1795 he bought the square of land in Philadelphia between Chestnut and Walnut and Seventh and Eighth Streets, paying for it $50,000. To-day it might take fifty millions to purchase it. Here he began to build a large house, on such a scale that it came to be known as "Morris's Folly." One envious man says of it: "A person is just now building at an enormous expense a palace in Philadelphia."

Was it a palace or a folly? It was probably neither. It was built of brick, with light stone trimmings to doors and windows, its depth being between 80 and 200 feet and its width between 40 and 60. According to Morris's account, the amount spent on it was only $16,370. Begun in 1795, work went on in a slow way until 1800, when it was abandoned unfinished, its doors and windows being boarded up. It was never finished, and in time was torn down to make way for other buildings.

The only folly in it was that Morris was hopelessly in debt when he began to build it. He held many square miles of wilderness, but could not pay his debts with this. In those days people could be imprisoned for debt, and this was poor Morris's fate. In 1798 he was put in prison and remained there for three years and a half. The debts proved against him are said to have amounted to $3,000,000. Great as they were and poor as was the country, it has ever since been looked upon as a shameful disgrace to the United States that its great benefactor should be allowed to suffer from poverty and imprisonment in his old age. It is one of the dark spots on our banner that can never be wiped off.

Debtors had to pay their own way in prison if their creditors did not, and Morris was destitute. He wrote at one time, "Starvation stares me in the face." Rooms in the prison were high in price, and he could not afford a room to himself. He could not even buy paper to write on and had to borrow it from his fellow prisoners. Washington visited him in prison during a visit to Philadelphia in 1798, but no one took any steps for his release. A pathetic story is told about his prison life. He was allowed to walk in the prison yard and walked around it fifty times a day. To count the number, he carried pebbles in his pocket and dropped one at each round. It seems, however, that the poor prisoner did not become careless and despairing, for one who visited him said that he was always neat and careful in dress. Morris was adjudged a bankrupt in 1801 and was released on August 26 of that year. He was now old and poor, his life approaching its end. He died in Philadelphia, May 8, 1806, a striking example of the ingratitude of nations. The country for which he had done so much suffered him to languish for years in a prison cell, and only one monument of his work remains, the Bank of North America, in its early days the salvation of the Government, to-day a flourishing banking institution of Philadelphia.