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Robert Morris, Jr USA Founding Father

Robert Morris portrait by Charles Wilson Peale

Robert Morris, Jr. (January 20, 1734 – May 8, 1806) was an English-born merchant and a Founding Father of the United States. He served as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate, and he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. From 1781 to 1784, he served as the Superintendent of Finance of the United States, becoming known as the "Financier of the Revolution." Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, he is widely regarded as one of the founders of the financial system of the United States.

Chorley Court where Blackburn Assurance Buildings now stands

Robert Morris, Jr. was born in 1734 in Chorley Court where Blackburn Assurance Buildings now stands, the son of Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizabeth Murphet Morris. Robert’s mother died when he was two and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother.

The plaque commemorating Robert Morris  in the lobby of
the LCVS building in Dale Street, Liverpool, the site where he was born

His father, Robert Morris, Sr., was born at Liverpool in 1700 and was an ironworker. He emigrated to America and began building a successful career in Oxford, Maryland. He came to Maryland about 1738 as agent for Foster, Cunliffe and Sons of Liverpool, for whom he purchased and shipped baled leaf tobacco to England.

When he reached 13 years of age Robert Morris emigrated from Liverpool to Maryland to join his father Robert was tutored by the Reverend William Gordon but completed only one year of formal education.

Mary Morris, Robert Morris's wife
portrait by Charles Wilson Peale
After brief schooling at Philadelphia, Robert Morris Jr, obtained employment with Thomas and Charles Willing's well-known shipping-banking firm. In 1754 he became a partner and for almost four decades was one of the company's directors as well as an influential Philadelphia citizen. Wedding Mary White at the age of 35, a year later, in 1770, he bought an eighty acre farm on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River where he built a home he named “The Hills” in an area that is now Fairmount Park. This beautiful estate had a greenhouse where he grew oranges and pineapples, two farmhouses, barns, and various other buildings. He went on to father five sons and two daughters.

After the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he helped procure arms and ammunition for the revolutionary cause, and in late 1775 he was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He worked closely with General Washington, wheedled money and supplies from the states, borrowed money in the face of overwhelming difficulties, and on occasion even obtained personal loans to further the war cause.

Morris owned what became known as the President's House in Philadelphia

As a member of Congress, he served on the Secret Committee of Trade, which handled the procurement of supplies, the Committee of Correspondence, which handled foreign affairs, and the Marine Committee, which oversaw the Continental Navy. Morris was a leading member of Congress until he resigned in 1778. Out of office, Morris refocused on his merchant career and won election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, where he became a leader of the "Republican" faction that sought alterations to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Immediately following his congressional service, Morris sat for two more terms in the Pennsylvania legislature (1778-81). During this time, Thomas Paine and others attacked him for profiteering in Congress, which investigated his accounts and vindicated him. Nevertheless, his reputation suffered. Although Morris was re-elected to the Pennsylvania legislature for 1785-86, his private ventures consumed most of his time.

Robert and Mary Morris were greatly honoured and respected by the Washingtons. From a source in the Queens of American Society, we learn that “At Mrs. Washington’s drawing rooms, Mrs. Morris always sat at her right hand; and at all the dinners, public or private, at which Mr. Morris was a guest, that man was placed at the right of Mrs. Washington.

Partners of Robert Morris started buying up thousands of acres in Washington, DC and entangled him in a massive losing venture. They arranged with a group of investors to take over the properties, but after the deal was signed the investors reneged. At one point Morris and his partners believed that they had a new loan from Holland and exercised options for over 6 million acres. The loan failed to materialize due to the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon and Morris was blamed for a recession in the middle states. His political enemies used this event as the basis for attacking his programs of free market capitalism, and moved their agrarian agenda forward.

Morris declared bankruptcy in February 1798 and was taken to Prune Street debtors’ prison where he remained in custody for three and a half years.  By the time he was released in 1801, under a federal bankruptcy law, however, his property and fortune had vanished, his health had deteriorated, and his spirit had been broken. He lingered on in poverty and obscurity, living in a simple Philadelphia home on an annuity obtained for his wife by fellow-signer Governor Morris.

Statue of Robert Morris in Independence
 National Historical Park

Robert Morris died in 1806 in his 73d year and was buried in the yard of Christ Church.

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