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Robert Morris

First US Senator

September 30, 1788


Signer of the Declaration of Independence


ROBERT MORRIS was born January 31, 1734 in Liverpool, England. At the age of thirteen, he left England and joined his father of the same name, who was engaged in the exportation of tobacco on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The boy was sent to Philadelphia, where he had slight schooling, and soon was placed in the counting house of Charles Willing, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. By his diligence and activity he grew in favor and commanded confidence. After the death of Mr. Willing, he was taken into partnership by the latter's son, Thomas, and this connection was maintained until 1793. At the beginning of he Revolution the firm of Willing and Morris was one of the largest and most prosperous among the commercial houses of Philadelphia. Although he was strongly attached to Britain, in 1765 he joined in the opposition to the Stamp Act.


Stockton was large in person, frequently afflicted with asthma, agreeable and lavishly hospitable in private life> He was more respected and feared as a public man than he was liked. On March 2, 1769, Robert married twenty year old Mary White, who was described as "elegant, accomplished, and rich, and well qualified to carry the felicity of connubial life to its highest perfection." In 1775 he was elected to the Second Continental Congress and on July 1, 1776, he voted against the Declaration of Independence, holding out for reconciliation because he considered that "it was an improper time". On July 4, 1776, he declined to vote. Yet on August 2, Robert Morris signed the Declaration, pronouncing that "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." 


When hostilities began, his services became more and more valuable. As a member of the committee of ways and means he worked hard, and gave to the government the full benefit of his credit. Without Morris's help the campaigns of 1780 would have been impossible. In 1779, he supplied General Nathanael Green with munitions of war, and in 1780 he raised $1,400,000 to assist Washington in the movement that resulted in the capture of Yorktown. In February 1781, he was unanimously elected superintendent of finance. As superintendent of finance, he slashed all governmental and military expenditures, personally purchased army and navy supplies, strengthened accounting procedures, urged the states to fulfill quotas of money and supplies, and when necessary used his personal credit by issuing notes over his own signature or borrowing from friends.  


In December 1781, when the financial situation had become desperate, the government being $2,500,000 in debt, he organized the Bank of North America, subscribing $10,000. The bank was incorporated by congress December 31, 1781 and went into operation January 7, 1782, with a capital of $400,000. It was the first financial institution chartered by the United States.


In 1787 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution for Pennsylvania. From 1789 to 1795 he served as a member of the first U. S. Senate from Pennsylvania.  When the new government was organized, he was offered the post of secretary of the treasury, but declined, recommending Alexander Hamilton. In partnership with Gouverneur Morris, he went largely into the East India and China trade. His speculations ultimately failed, and in 1798 he was arrested for debt.  


He had sought refuge from is creditors in his country place, ‘The Hills' on the Schuylkill River, but he was arrested and was confined to the Prunestreet prison, Philadelphia, from February 1798, until liberated by the passage of the national bankrupt law in 1802. When misfortune had overtaken him, Mary showed herself a true wife. Through certain interests in the Holland Land Company, bequeathed to her by Gouverneur Morris, she obtained from that corporation a life annuity of $2,000 before she would sign certain papers to which her signature was indispensable. During her husband's imprisonment Mrs. Morris received an autograph letter signed by both President and Martha Washington, addressed to her while residing temporarily at Winchester,Va., urging her to pay them a visit at Mount Vernon, and to make as long a stay under "our roof as you shall find convenient; for be assured we ever have, and still do retain the most affectionate regard for you, Mr. Morris and the family." Mrs. Morris continued to reside in Philadelphia, and on her husband's release he found shelter in the home that her decision and forethought had secured for him. Robert Morris's last five years, until his death on May 8, 1806 at the age of seventy-two were passed in obscure retirement. 


Autograph letter signed "Robt Morris," dated Philadelphia, 9th March 1798, to John Nicholson, his partner in speculating, from debtors' prison. "The enclosed letters of the 7th from the trustees came hither last night. It appears that they grow sore under your letters and I confess that the reply as to Oden I expected after taking a copy. I suppose you will return this letter with such remarks as may occur."  Docketed by Nicholson, who apparently had no remarks to make. Morris and Nicholson had speculated heavily in land together, but when the bottom fell out of their North American Land Company venture, Morris was left penniless and deep in debt. His letters from jail are scarce.

Source: Centennial Book of Signers

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National Archives and Records Administration

Control Number NWDNS-148-CD-14-39
Media Photographs and graphic materials
Descr. Level Item
Record Group 148
Series CD
Item 14-39
Title Morris, Robert (bust)
Sample Record(s) (larger access file - 91405 bytes)
Format black & white.
Record Type/Genre Paintings
Variant Control# REVWAR #101
Contributors Artist, C.W. Peale
See Also Series Description
Subject Ref. Portraits of Colonial Patriots; Revolutionary War
Items 1 image(s)
Contact Still Pictures Branch (NWDNS), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001 PHONE: 301-713-6660 FAX: 301-713-7436

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