Financier of Freedom: When Robert Morris Pledged His Fortune as He Signed the Declaration of Independence, He Meant It. His Resources and Financial Skills Helped Win America's Freedom. (History - Greatness of the Founders)

Article excerpt

Wealthy Philadelphia businessman Robert Morris probably didn't expect that so quickly he would have to lay his considerable "fortune" on the line to defend the Declaration of Independence he had signed. But as the Declaration's first winter loomed, the War for American Independence had fallen to its lowest ebb. American forces had failed to win a single battle against the British invaders since the Redcoats had invaded New York several days before the pivotal document was written. The British had inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Americans at Long Island, and they destroyed American forces that had invaded Canada. Washington's army had also lost most of its supplies to the British invaders. Consequently, American credit abroad had become nonexistent and few expected to see the Declaration of Independence survive another year.

In December 1776, Thomas Paine penned his pamphlet, The American Crisis, correctly asserting that, "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Commander-in-Chief George Washington read the pamphlet to his troops in Morristown, New Jersey, on Christmas Day.

Congressman Robert Morris wrote to Washington a little earlier in the month, enclosing a little more than five hundred dollars along with his letter for Washington to use in obtaining intelligence on the British encampments. Much more money was needed, the commander-in-chief wrote back with a clear tone of urgency. "If it be possible, sir, to give us assistance, do it; borrow money while it can be done; we are doing it upon our private credit. Every lover of his country must strain his credit upon such an occasion. No time is to be lost." General Washington implored the wealthy businessman to find $10,000 for his ragtag army so they could obtain supplies for a counteroffensive against the British, who had halted their advance as winter began. Washington had reported to Congress that credit for supplies to equip his army had disappeared, and that some of his troops were "entirely naked and most [were] so thinly clad as to be unfit for service." The Americans were losing the war on both the military and the eco nomic fronts, and they were doing worse on the economic front than on the field of battle.

Morris immediately pleaded with a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker to loan him the money and forwarded it to Washington shortly before Christmas Day. Washington crossed the Delaware River Christmas night to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton. By the end of the following day, the garrison's 900 Hessians were dead or taken prisoner.

Morris did not rest on his financial laurels after the victory at Trenton. Historian George Bancroft recorded Morris' next move: "On New Year's morning Robert Morris went from house to house in Philadelphia, rousing people from their beds to borrow money of them; and early in the day he sent Washington fifty thousand dollars, with the message: 'Whatever I can do shall be done for the good of the service; if further occasional supplies of money are necessary, you may depend upon my exertions either in a public or private capacity.'" The day after Morris sent his letter, Washington advanced into Princeton, winning a second dramatic victory over British troops.

The victories of Trenton and Princeton reversed much of the British conquest of the previous summer and fall, and caused British General William Howe to abandon completely his forts in New Jersey. More importantly, these military victories boosted troop morale and the position of American independence with congressional ambassadors abroad, laboring to win creditors and allies in the war effort.

Morris Goes to Congress

The English-born Robert Morris had moved to Philadelphia as a child and had become a very successful businessman, despite a humble birth and little formal education. …