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 was soon 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 the Revolution, the firm of Willing and Morris was one of the largest and most prosperous among the commercial houses of Philadelphia. Although Morris was strongly attached to the mother country, in 1765 he joined the opposition to the Stamp Act.
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. Morris held 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. He worked hard as a member of the committee of ways and means 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 campaign that resulted in the capture of Yorktown. In February 1781, he was unanimously elected Superintendent of Finance. In that position, 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 on 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 Morris 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 and recommended Alexander Hamilton. In partnership with Gouverneur Morris, he went into the East India and China trade. His speculations ultimately failed, and in 1798 he was arrested for debt.
Morris sought refuge from his 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 a letter signed by both President and Martha Washington. They urged 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 upon 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.
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