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RobertMorrisJrRobert Morris, Jr. was an English-born American merchant, and signer ofRobert Morris Jr. the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, and was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he served as chairman of the “Secret Committee of Trade” and as a member of the Committee of Correspondence.

Morris was born to Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizabeth Murphet in Liverpool, England, on January 20, 1734. At the age of 13, Morris emigrated to Oxford, Maryland, to live with his father, who was a tobacco factor. The younger Morris was provided a tutor, but he quickly learned everything that his teacher could pass on.

His father sent him to Philadelphia for study, where he stayed with Charles Greenway, a family friend. Greenway arranged for young Robert to become an apprentice at the shipping and banking firm of the Philadelphia merchant (and then mayor) Charles Willing. A year later, Robert’s father died after being wounded in an accident when hit by the wadding of a ship’s gun that was fired in his honor.

In 1757, Morris became a business partner with Thomas Willing. Their partnership was a merchant firm with interests in shipping, real estate, and other lines of business. The partnership was forged just after the Seven Years’ War began (1756–1763), which hindered attracting the usual supply of new indentured servants to the colony. Potential immigrants were conscripted in England to fight in Europe, and the contracts for those already in the colonies in America were expiring. Indentured servants could legally break their contracts to join the British forces to fight against the French and their Indian allies.

At the same time, the British Crown wanted to encourage the slave trade to enrich the King’s friends. While Morris was a junior partner and Willing was pursuing a political career, the company Willing, Morris & Co. co-signed a petition calling for the repeal of Pennsylvania’s tariff on imported slaves. (About 500 slaves were imported into Philadelphia in 1762, the height of the trade)

Both partners supported the non-importation agreements that marked the end of all trade with Britain, including the importation of slaves. They became advocates for free trade, which would end the kind of trade restrictions that gave rise to the business. As a government official, Morris tried to tax the domestic slave trade, and to lay a head tax on the slaves payable by the owner. His efforts were resisted by the Southerners who fought all his measures. While Morris’s fortune did not come from the slave trade or from slave labor, he owned one or two slaves who worked as household servants.

The Stamp Act of 1765-1766 was a tax on all legal documents. The merchants banded together to end what they saw as an unconstitutional tax. Morris began his public career in 1765 by serving on a local committee of merchants organized to protest the Stamp Act. He mediated between a mass meeting of protesters and the Stamp Tax collector, whose house they threatened to pull down “brick by brick” unless the collector did not carry out his job. Morris remained loyal to Britain, but he believed that the new laws constituted taxation without representation and violated the colonists’ rights as British citizens. In the end, Britain lifted the stamp tax.

After Britain passed the Tea Tax, the tea ship Polly reached the lower Delaware Bay. Philadelphia ordered the bay pilots not to bring it to port. Morris was a warden of the port at that time. Captain Ayers brought the Polly, in by following another ship up the bay, and set off a protest. At least 20% of the population filled the street as Ayers was escorted to the State House. A meeting with Ayers and the port wardens, including Morris, was held. Ayers agreed to leave Philadelphia without delivering any taxed tea. Bostonians handled the matter quite differently.

On March 2, 1769, at age 35, Morris married 20-year-old Mary White. Together they had five sons and two daughters. White came from a prominent family in Maryland; her brother was the well-known Anglican Bishop William White.

Morris worshiped in Philadelphia at St Peter’s Church on Pine Street and Christ Church on 2nd Street, both of which were run by his brother-in-law, Bishop William White. Morris remained a constant worshipper and supporter at this Anglican Church for his entire life. Both Morris and his brother-in-law William White are buried at Christ Church, in the churchyard located at Second and Market. Because of the locations and reputations of Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, they served as places of worship for a number of the notable members of the Continental Congress, sometimes including George Washington.

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). He was also elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778.

In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris’ company to work with the Secret Committee of Trade after 14 March 1776. He devised a system to smuggle war supplies from France a year before independence was declared. He handled much of the financial transactions, contracting with merchants and business firms to obtain needed war materiel and purchasing commodities for export to pay for it.

He served with John Adams on the committee that wrote the Model Treaty. The Model Treaty incorporated his long held belief in Free Trade. It was an outgrowth of his trading system, and acted as the basis for the 1778 Treaty with France.

He served on the Marine and Maritime Committees and sold his best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress. It was renamed as the USS Alfred (1774), the first ship in the Continental Navy. John Barry, a captain who sailed for his company, became the captain of the Alfred.
Morris used his extensive international trading network as a spy network and gathered intelligence on British troop movements. One of his spies sent the information that allowed the Americans to defend Fort Moultrie near Charleston, South Carolina.
On July 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Congressional motion for independence. The Pennsylvania delegation, which was split 4-3, cast its vote in the negative. The following day, Morris and John Dickinson agreed to abstain, allowing the other Pennsylvania delegates to vote for independence. The final vote was 12 states in favor and no states opposed. (New York’s delegates voted later.) On August 2, Morris signed the Declaration of Independence saying, “I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead.”

Morris personally loaned £10,000 to pay the Continental troops under Washington. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battle of Princeton. He subsequently paid from his own funds the troops via “Morris notes” to continue Washington’s ability to wage war. In March 1778 Morris signed the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Pennsylvania.

During the war, privateers seized the cargo of English ships. As Morris owned an interest in many privateer ships, and his firm helped sell the English spoils as they came into port, he grew wealthy during the war. Seen to be profiting, he wrote a friend that his firm had lost over 150 ships during the war and so came out “about even.” He had lost one of the largest private navies in the world during the War, but he never asked for reimbursement from the new government. Morris acquired this large private navy in the course of privateering during the war. He used money gained to buy shares in a variety of ships that waged an economic war on Britain. During this period he acted as a commercial agent for John Holker, a French national who was one of many military contractors who dealt with the French and American forces.

During this time Thomas Paine, Henry Laurens, and others criticized him and his firm for alleged war profiteering. In 1779, a congressional committee acquitted Morris and his firm on charges of engaging in improper financial transactions, but his reputation was damaged after this incident.

Immediately after serving in the Congress, Morris served two more terms in the state legislature, from 1778 to 1781. While he was in the Pennsylvania Assembly, Morris worked on the constitution and legislation to restore checks and balances, and to overturn the religious test laws. These had excluded from voting 40% of the state’s citizens, including Quakers, Jews, and Mennonites.

Morris and his allies supplied the majority of war materials to the troops when the state failed to act. Pennsylvania went bankrupt in 1780 due to Constitutionalist policies which mandated state-controlled markets and self-imposed embargoes. Ultimately the state called on Morris to restore the economy. He did so by opening the ports to trade, and allowing the market to set the value of goods and the currency.

From 1781 to 1784, he served as the powerful Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. As the central civilian in the government, Morris was, next to General George Washington, “the most powerful man in America.” His successful administration led to the nickname, “Financier of the Revolution.” At the same time he was Agent of Marine, a position he took without pay, and from which he controlled the Continental Navy.

Morris obtained supplies for the army of Nathanael Greene in 1779, and from 1781-1783. He took an active role in getting Washington from New York State to Yorktown, Virginia. He was in Washington’s camp the day the action was initiated. He acted as quartermaster for the trip and supplied his own credit to move the Army. As Agent of Marine, hecoordinated with the French Navy to get Washington’s Army to the Battle of Yorktown (1781). After Yorktown, Morris noted the war had changed from a war of bullets to a war of finances.

At times he took out loans from friends and risked his personal credit by issuing notes on his own signature to purchase items such as military supplies. In 1783 Morris issued $1,400,000 in his own notes to pay the soldiers. He did this during the same year that New Hampshire contributed only $3000 worth of beef toward the war effort, and all the states combined contributed less than $800,000. This extensive use of his personal credit strained his own fortune.

Morris founded several canal companies, a steam engine company, and launched a hot air balloon from his garden on Market Street. He had the first iron rolling mill in America. His icehouse was the model for one Washington installed at Mount Vernon. He backed the new Chestnut Street Theater, started the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and had a green house where his staff cultivated lemon trees. His son Thomas settled the peace with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, four of whom had sided with the British during the Revolution.

In 1786 Washington wrote to Morris discussing his hopes for the democratic process bringing an end to slavery. His reference to how escaped slaves made their way to the North is taken as the first reference to the Underground Railroad. The 1790 census is the first in Philadelphia County that lists slaveholders by name. Morris had none at this time.

Robert Morris was one of Pennsylvania’s original pair of US senators, serving from 1789 to 1795. Unwise land speculation right before the Panic of 1796–1797 led to his bankruptcy in 1798 when he was placed in debtors’ prison. After his release in 1801 he lived a quiet, private life in a modest home in Philadelphia, until 1806 when he died.

Information was obtained from the following references: