Morris, Robert (1734–1806, American merchant)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Morris, Robert (1734–1806, American merchant)

Robert Morris, 1734–1806, American merchant, known as the "financier of the American Revolution," and signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Liverpool, England. Morris emigrated to America in 1747 and was soon apprenticed to the merchant Charles Willing in Philadelphia. He showed an unusual aptitude for business and by 1754 became a partner in the firm with the son, Thomas Willing, after the elder Willing's death. He opposed British restrictions prior to the Revolution and served (1775–78) as a member of the Continental Congress. Morris voted against the original motion for independence in July, 1776, as premature, but signed the declaration in August. A member of various committees in Congress, Morris was particularly important in obtaining munitions and other supplies and in borrowing money to finance George Washington's army. Although Morris's vast mercantile interests profited greatly from his congressional activities, both he and his firm were acquitted by Congress of charges of fraud. After leaving Congress, Morris expanded his mercantile and investment operations independently of Willing and by 1781 was almost universally acknowledged as the most prominent merchant in America. The collapse of public credit led to his being appointed superintendent of finance (1781–84) by Congress. Morris labored hard and well in this office; he pressed the states for contributions, retrenched expenditures, took steps toward the establishment of a national mint, guided the organization of a national bank, and extensively used his personal credit to raise funds for the government. He framed, but failed to get Congress to approve, a fiscal program including funding at par of the national debt and the assumption of state debts; it paralleled Alexander Hamilton's program of 1790. Morris was later a member of the U.S. Constitutional Convention (1787) and served (1789–95) as U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. His private business, continued in his terms of office, ultimately ended in bankruptcy as a result of the collapse of extensive land speculation. Morris was in debtors' prison from 1798 to 1801 and never recovered his fortune.

See biographies by E. P. Oberholtzer (1903, repr. 1968) and C. Rappleye (2010); W. G. Sumner, The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution (1891, repr. 1968); C. L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris, Revolutionary Financier (1954, repr. 1972).

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