Robert Morris

“ WHEN future ages celebrate the names of Washington and Franklin, they will add that of Morris.” These are the words of David Ramsay, the worthy biographer of Washington and historian of the Revolution ; and writing in 1790, he stated a comparative estimate of these men widely prevalent at that time. But his prediction is as yet far from fulfillment. In these days of centennial celebrations the names of Washington and Franklin are on nearly every tongue; and within a few years they have been the subjects of several noteworthy biographies, and of numerous sketches, criticisms, and reviews. Yet seldom is the name of Robert Morris associated prominently with theirs. Concerning him during the whole century not a dozen papers have been published, and not a single biography of the first, class. Was Morris, then, overestimated by his contemporaries ? Or is the obscurity that surrounds his name to be ascribed to the prejudice and shortsightedness of historians ? Whatever the reason, a character so pure and magnanimous, and a career so varied and active yet so pathetic, should not remain unknown and unappreciated by the American people.

In the early life of Robert Morris two facts stand out in relief, his foreign birth and his honest, sturdy self-help. To their influence, doubtless, was due much of that independence, boldness, and robustness which marked his maturity. He was born in Liverpool in 1734, and came to America at the age of thirteen. Left an orphan soon after, with but little property, he resolved to give up his studies, and to obtain remunerative employment; and naturally his course was largely determined by what had been the occupation and associations of his father. The latter had been a merchant for many years in Liverpool, England, and for a short time prior to his death at Oxford, Maryland. The same calling was now chosen by the sun, and under very favorable auspices. He changed his residence to Philadelphia, the thriving metropolis of the colonies, and obtained a position in the counting-house of Charles Willing, the proprietor of a large and well-established mercantile business. Evidently this opportunity was fully improved; for in 1754, at the death of Charles Willing, his son, Thomas Willing, took Morris into partnership, though the latter was but twenty years of age.

The firm of Willing and Morris enjoyed great prosperity, constantly gaining in the confidence of the public and in the extension of its trade. At the approach of the Revolution it had become the largest importing house on the continent. From a commercial standpoint, therefore, it viewed with deep concern the gradual alienation of the colonies from Great Britain, involving as it did a corresponding diminution in the import trade. Yet both Willing and Morris preferred patriotism to self-interest. They promptly Signed the nonimportation agreement in 1765, and readily joined other temperate measures against unwarranted aggression. But to all violent or revolutionary movements they were uniformly and firmly opposed. Throughout the exciting events and fierce contests that preceded and finally precipitated the Revolution they were found on the side of the moderate or conservative party, which, led by John Dickinson, advocated constitutional resistance, in opposition to violent separation, as a means of maintaining the rights of America.

This course ran directly counter to the Declaration of Independence. When that measure was moved in the Continental Congress, Morris was present as a representative of Pennsylvania, having a few months before entered public life for the first time at the urgent solicitation of his friends and fellowcitizens. From first to last he strenuously opposed the motion, believing with Dickinson and many other able and patriotic members that it was both premature and impolitic. In reference to his attitude he wrote thus to Joseph Reed : “ I have uniformly voted against and opposed the Declaration of Independence, because in my poor opinion it was an improper time, and will neither promote the interest nor redound to the honor of America ; for it has caused division when we wanted union, and will be ascribed to very different principles than those which ought to give rise to such an important measure.”

Morris’s position must be conceded to have been taken with much reason and with thorough consistency. Throughout the early stages of the controversy with Great Britain unanimity had marked the general plans and action of the colonics. It was not until the scheme of absolute separation was broached that discord arose ; and the more the idea was promoted the greater became the breach. Moreover, to aim at independence was inconsistent with the professions, all along reiterated and emphasized, of attachment and loyalty to the mother country. The aim would belie these professions. From the conservative standpoint, it would cast dishonor on both cause and people. Complaint would merge in treason, and patriots would turn rebels.

Yet the conservative position has not been fairly treated by historians. For their caution and consistency, Dickinson, Morris, and their party have been called cowards and time-servers ; and for their devotion to principle they have suffered obscurity. But radicalism having finally triumphed in the Declaration of Independence, its adherents have ever received unmeasured praise.

Nor were the conservatives more fortunate at the hands of their contemporaries. Their cause was not popular. Nearly all those members of Congress who had espoused it suffered defeat at the ensuing election. Dickinson. Allen, Willing, and Humphreys were all relegated to private life. Indeed, Robert Morris was the only delegate from Pennsylvania opposed to the Declaration of Independence who was returned to the next Congress; and apparently to no one was this a greater surprise than to himself. “ I did expect.” he wrote to Joseph Reed, “my conduct on this great question would have procured my dismission from the great Council; . . . and although my interest and inclination prompt me to decline the service, yet . . . it is the duty of every individual to act his part in whatever station his country may call him to, in hours of difficulty, danger, and distress. . . . The individual who declines the service of his country because its councils are not conformable to his ideas makes but a bad subject; a good one will follow, if he cannot lead.”

It was doubtless largely due to tins reasonable, disinterested spirit that Morris was thus excepted from the popular displeasure. He possessed throughout the contest the good will even of his opponents. “ I will tell you what I think of him,” replied John Adams to an inquiry made by General Gates at this time concerning Morris. “ I think he has a masterly understanding, an open temper, and an honest heart.”

In Congress these qualities gained him great favor and confidence. His vigorous intellect and uncommon business experience were speedily recognized and widely employed. He had barely entered Congress when he was made chairman of the Secret Committee, a position at that time demanding the highest integrity and abilities ; for to this committee was entrusted the power of expending the public money at its discretion in arming the Continental forces. He was also placed on the early committees charged with providing a navy. But his talent and experience were suited rather to finance and commerce, and it was in these departments that he became particularly useful. In April, 1776, he was specially commissioned to negotiate bills of exchange, and otherwise to obtain money for the emergency ; and in March, 1777, he was placed upon the Committee on Commerce, the successor to the Secret Committee already mentioned.

So varied, valuable, and patriotic were Morris’s services in finance that Washington himself soon began to look to him when all other help failed. In December, 1776, when, at the approach of Cornwallis, Morris was left as chairman of a committee in charge of Philadelphia,— Congress having fled to Baltimore, — he received a letter from Washington, then at Trenton, entreating him immediately to send money, that the army might be kept together. The response is graphically described by Bancroft : “ 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.' ” Washington did repeatedly depend on Morris’s exertions, and seldom, if ever, in vain ; and the gratitude and respect which they inspired begat a lifelong friendship. Congress was quick to recognize and appreciate the spirit and abilities thus displayed. It desired also to honor them. When, in the fall of 1777, John Hancock was obliged, from illness, to resign the presidency of Congress, Robert Morris was urged to accept the position. It was the highest civil office in the United States, but it did not entice him from the course he was pursuing. He was still a member of the great commercial house of Willing and Morris, now the agents of the government in furnishing military and naval supplies ; and what time he could take from his engrossing business was already fully and usefully occupied in the service of his country.

He could well be spared as a presiding officer ; for he was becoming indispensable in another capacity. Both in and out of Congress his abilities and energies were taxed to the utmost in providing for the destitute army; at one time he was conferring with Washington in camp, at another devising plans in the Committee on Finance, and at another founding in Philadelphia the Bank of Pennsylvania, and himself subscribing fifty thousand dollars for its objects. To estimate the number or value of his services at this time would be a difficult though worthy task. They were fully appreciated by his associates ; and when, in the spring of 1781, Congress, with a view of reforming the Continental finances, instituted a superintendency of finance, it unanimously selected Robert Morris for the position.

The appointment was regarded with much favor by the leading patriots. Franklin, from Paris, expressed his “great pleasure” at the selection. “ From your intelligence, integrity, and abilities, there is reason to hope every advantage that the public can possibly receive from such an office.” “ ’T is by introducing order into our finances,” Hamilton wrote to Morris, “by restoring public credit, not by gaining battles, that we are finally to gain our object.

. . . You are the man best capable of performing this great work.” Equally cordial were Washington’s congratulations : “I felt a most sensible pleasure when I heard of your acceptance of the late appointment of Congress to regulate the finances of this country.”

The choice also met general approval. In fact, it marked the culmination of Morris’s popularity. The admiration and respect felt for his long and honorable career as a merchant had been enhanced by his disinterested, incessant, and efficient exertions as a patriot. They were further strengthened by his attractiveness as a man. He possessed a tall and massive person, an open countenance, and engaging yet dignified manners. Genial, frank, and generous, he attached friends and conciliated opponents. Few public characters of the time revealed so much to charm and so little to repel.

It was in the home and in society that these qualities appeared to the best advantage ; and here, fortunately, they were supplemented by the virtues and accomplishments of his wife. In 1769, at the age of thirty-five, he had married Mary White, sister of William White, who became the second bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. She was then in her twentieth year, a belle in Philadelphia society ; and her beauty was celebrated, after the manner of the day, by Colonel Shippen, in his Lines written in an Assembly Room. Her excellent training and her social career well prepared her to preside over the luxurious home of Robert Morris. Possessing wealth corresponding to his success in business, he maintained a style of living surpassed by none; and in such surroundings his wife’s grace and dignity found a fit setting. Elegant, easy, and refined, she deserved to be what she now became,— the first lady in Philadelphia.

Shortly after his marriage, Morris purchased a tract of about eighty acres in one of the most beautiful situations in the vicinity of the city. Bordering on the Schuylkill where its banks were high and wooded, it commanded varied and delightful scenery, while in its seclusion it had the aspect of a quiet retreat. This estate he improved and adorned at great pains and expense. He laid it out in walks, drives, and groves ; and on an eminence he erected a commodious house with broad piazzas overlooking the river. This was his favorite summer residence, and was called The Hills. It formed a delightful refuge from the toil and turmoil of the neighboring city. Here he could have, as Mrs. Morris wrote to a friend, " the enjoyment of all that’s beautiful to the eye and grateful to the taste.”

More imposing and elegant than The Hills, though less inviting and restful, was his city mansion, the scene of the greater part of his generous hospitality. Notwithstanding his intense activity in business, he found time to perform those many social duties involved in his prominence as a public man. He kept his house open, both to his fellow-citizens and to strangers, with a cordiality and a liberality as constant as they were unaffected. Thus, after the alliance with France, he entertained several Frenchmen of distinction, notably the Chevalier Chastellux and the Prince de Broglie, each of whom has left a racy account of his reception. For many years this house was the centre of social life in Philadelphia.

The extent to which Morris did the honors of the city may be inferred from the part that he took in entertaining Washington and Rochambeau when, in 1781, they passed through Philadelphia with the allied armies on the way to Yorktown. Morris himself describes the incident in his Diary, under date of August 30: “ Went out to meet his Excellency General Washington, who arrived in this city about one o’clock, amidst the universal acclamations of the citizens, who displayed every mark of joy on the occasion. His Excellency alighted at the City Tavern, received the compliments of many gentlemen who went out to escort him, and of others who came there to pay him their respects, and then adjourned to my house with his suite, Count de Rochambeau, the Chevalier Chastellux, General Knox, General Moultrie, and others, to dinner.” Such public Services, the more valuable because few were either able or disposed to undertake them, were frequently and heartily performed by Morris, and that with great honor to his city and his country. They made him the more acceptable as superintendent of finance, since it became evident that he would fully maintain the dignity of the position.

It was not so great a task to uphold the dignity as it was to meet the difficulties of this office. For its institution there had been no precedent in American finance ; so there was none for its management. It had come into existence by force of circumstance, and was subject to the same influence in the formation of its policy and conduct.

The great gain effected by the establishment of a superintendency of finance lay in the fact that it fixed responsibility. Before, during the Revolution, the finances of the general government had been managed by a committee appointed and supervised by Congress, with the result of great disorder and confusion. Such a result had early been foreseen by Morris. Writing to the Committee of Secret Correspondence in 1776, he had said, “ If the Congress mean to succeed in the contest, they must pay good executive men to do their business as it ought to be, and not lavish millions away by their own mismanagement.” Now, after four years of costly experience, Congress followed his advice. The unwieldy committee was superseded by a single responsible superintendent. But the evil consequences of the old system and practice were not so easily eliminated. They persisted, to the constant annoyance of the new régime.

I he worst of these consequences were those which resulted from the repeated infatuated efforts of Congress to pay the cost of government and war by bare promises. Such expenses should have been met by a resolute draft upon the resources of the country through taxation ; but to this method there wore serious obstacles. Taxation in any form was obnoxious. To be sure, in the several colonies, it bad been tolerated as indispensable to the support of civil government, but it had been kept jealously and exclusively in the control of the people, who, for general purposes, had usually delegated the power of laying taxes to their immediate representatives, the popular branches of their several legislatures; and they were not willing now to extend and entrust that power to Congress, — a body in which they had only indirect representation, and over which they possessed but limited control. Though the advantage and even necessity of an interstate union were generally acknowledged, a large portion of the people regarded with some suspicion the government by Congress which embodied that union. It seemed inimical to the state governments, for it took to itself many powers formerly exercised by them. It was a creature of circumstance, an outcome of revolution, self-constituted, not popularly chosen, with powers suggested by necessity rather than defined by law. Yet distrusted and crippled as it was, Congress was expected to support the Continental armies, and it could not decline the task for lack of power or repute. Those armies were in the field. Foreign invaders were at hand. Money must be had, at whatever cost, by whatever means ; and it was provided in a manner that was certainly expeditious and not without precedent. It was made out of paper.

In the colonies, as early as 1690, bills of credit had been issued to meet a sudden and urgent demand for money. Soon their circulation was attended by depreciation, fluctuation, speculation, and other concomitants of an unstable currency ; but they relieved the immediate stress, and were ultimately redeemed. The people therefore overlooked or forgot the intervening losses and disturbances ; and when, subsequently, like emergencies arose, they resorted to the same expedients, though invariably with similar consequences.

It would seem that by 1775 these repeated uniform experiences must have disclosed the folly of issuing paper money without securing its credit. Yet in that year, either ignoring the teaching of the past or yielding to the imperative need of money, Congress adopted the old baneful policy. It issued two millions of dollars in Continental bills of credit, and pledged for their redemption, not the gold or other commodities, but merely the good faith, of the colonies.

At first the precariousness of this security caused but little anxiety, so great were the confidence and enthusiasm of the people. The bills were freely accepted for their face value, and were quickly expended in maintaining the war. No evil results yet appearing, and the same emergencies recurring, fresh issues were repeatedly made. The war would soon close, it was believed, and the unlimited resources of the country would quickly redeem its promises. Facilis est descensus Averni. By 1781 the issues of this Continental paper exceeded the enormous sum of three hundred and fifty millions of dollars.

In America, never had the craze for paper money gone so far, and never were its consequences so calamitous. Two years more of war were followed by no prospect of peace; the enthusiasm of the people began to cool, and immediately the mountain of public credit was trembling. The Continental money steadily depreciated in value, and national bankruptcy was imminent. In alarm, Congress took measures to revive confidence and fortify credit. It endeavored to raise money first by popular loans, then, strange to say, by a lottery, and finally by taxation, but without much success. Having lost faith, the people hoarded what money they had, in preference to loaning it to such a government or hazarding it in a lottery ; and to taxation they were never less inclined to submit. Nothing availed to stay the falling credit. By the spring of 1781 the Continental bills had depreciated to one five hundredth of their nominal value ; in May of that year they ceased to circulate.

Unfortunately, it was not public credit alone that suffered loss ; there was depreciation of public virtue and private character. Speculation prevailed to an unprecedented extent, carrying with it many forms of luxury, extravagance, and vice ; while suffering reduced the Continental armies and misery filled the hearts of the poor.

Such was the climax of gloom and disaster to which the colonies had come when, in the spring of 1781, Robert Morris was chosen superintendent of finance. To him all eyes anxiously turned for relief. Surely throughout the Revolutionary War no service more puzzling or more harassing was asked of any patriot, Washington himself not excepted. No one so well as Morris appreciated its perplexities and difficulties ; and, considering the variety and importance of his relations in business and society, no one could less afford to undertake it. Yet his response was characteristic : “ In accepting the office bestowed on me. I sacrifice much of my interest, my ease, my domestic enjoyments, and internal tranquillity. If I know my own heart, I make these sacrifices with a disinterested view to the service of my country. I am ready to go further, and the United States may command everything I have except my integrity.”

If the spirit thus exhibited deserved the confidence with which he was regarded, so also did the intelligence and force with which he comprehended and performed his new duties. As he wrote to General Schuyler, he imputed the impending ruin to “a want of system and economy in spending and vigor in raising the public moneys.” To supply this want, therefore, he now bent all his energies. Through his intimate acquaintance with the details of business, he readily detected many abuses that had crept into the management of the finances during the recent reign of disorder and irresponsibility. He was also prompt and resolute in correcting them. Before becoming superintendent he had exacted from Congress the exclusive power to appoint and dismiss all officers employed in his service, and he now used his authority with unsparing hand for the introduction of vigor and economy. In a single day he discharged one hundred and forty-six supernumerary officers.

On the other hand, he called to his aid men of acknowledged talent and fidelity, placing at their head his intimate friend, the brilliant Gouverneur Morris. Through them he extended scrutiny and order to every branch of public expenditure. In particular, he introduced the system of supplying the army by contract, and discarded, so far as possible, the wasteful, haphazard means formerly in vogue. In short, as Continental financier he showed that zeal and frugality by which he had succeeded as a private merchant.

This watchfulness over the public outlay was the more necessary from the meagreness of the public income. The Continental bills of credit, by which, mainly, the war had been prosecuted, had lost nearly all their purchasing power. At the suggestion of Morris, they were now stripped of the character of a legal tender with which they had been clothed, and as fast as they were received in payment of taxes were withdrawn from circulation. Meanwhile, what was there to take their place in supporting war and government? Specie payments had, indeed, been resumed, but with very little specie. What hard money there was in the country was not forthcoming through the inefficient machinery of taxation. Nor could it he obtained by loans; for, as Hamilton wrote to Greene, “public credit is so totally lost that private people will not give their aid, though they see themselves involved in one common ruin.”

Fortunately, there remained to Morris one source of supply not vet exhausted. Mainly through the tact and persistence of Benjamin Franklin, the secret encouragement long accorded to the Americans by the French court had at last given place to open grants of money and dispatch of troops. Upon this aid, several times renewed, Congress had come more and more to rely in maintaining the war ; and soon after Morris became superintendent of finance he found it to be almost his only immediate source of supply. To Franklin, therefore, he appealed with an earnestness and insistence proportional to the need, and at first not without success. The French government was induced somewhat to extend its loans to America, but at the same time it discouraged further appeals, and advised the Americans more fully to use their own resources.

This advice had been anticipated by Robert Morris. Appreciating the uncertainty of foreign support, he had early planned more effectively to enlist the wealth of the country. For this purpose his most important expedient was the Bank of North America, the first incorporated bank on this side of the Atlantic. As early as 1763 he had considered with his fellow-merchants the scheme of establishing a bank in Philadelphia, to accommodate the increasing business of the town, but had given it up on the approach of the Revolution. Now he broached the plan again, but with a more definite, more earnest purpose. “ I mean,” he wrote to Franklin, “to render this a principal pillar of American credit, so as to obtain the money of individuals for the benefit of the Union, and thereby bind those individuals more strongly to the general cause by the ties of private interest.”

To a considerable degree the scheme was successful. In December, 1781, the bank was incorporated by Congress, and a month later was opened under the presidency of Thomas Willing, the partner of Morris. Its notes, secured by deposits of coin, and convertible at the pleasure of the holder, afforded the first example in America of the proper use of paper as currency. They soon circulated at par, and, being also receivable for taxes, greatly facilitated the transaction of business. The capital of the bank was at first four hundred thousand dollars, of which Morris subscribed one half on account of the United States. On the other hand, he immediately employed its aid in anticipating the public revenues, within a short time obtaining advances to the amount of three hundred thousand dollars.

Nevertheless, this assistance did not suffice even for current expenses; and to support the American armies Morris, having exhausted all other sources, repeatedly staked his private credit. In this manner he facilitated the capture of Lord Cornwallis ; for, in September, 1781, by borrowing on his own credit a large sum of money from Count Rochambeau, he was able to discharge a portion of the back pay due the Continental troops : thus checking the revolt that they had threatened, and enabling Washington to execute his designs against Yorktown. Indeed, at one time the amount of Morris’s private notes, issued for the public benefit and received freely in trade, was nearly six hundred thousand dollars; and on several occasions only by strenuous exertions was he able to honor them. His personal credit had been built up slowly by toil and integrity. To him it was a priceless possession, yet he risked it all for the sake of his country.

In striking contrast with his patriotism were the distrust and disparagement with which many treated his efforts. Fortunately, he had foreseen this consequence. Upon becoming superintendent of finance he bad written in his Diary, “A vigorous execution of the duties must inevitably expose me to the resentment of disappointed and designing men, and to the calumny and detraction of the envious and malicious.” He therefore did not alter his policy or conduct. From the men qualified to judge he received hearty appreciation and praise. Hamilton wrote to the Viscount de Noailles, in 1782, “ Our financier has hitherto conducted himself with great ability, has acquired an entire personal confidence, revived in some measure the public credit, and is conciliating fast the support of the moneyed men.” In like manner, the confidence of Congress never wavered. Its committee, appointed to investigate his administration, made their report in June, 1783, expressing their entire approval of his policy, and reciting the success with which it had been executed. “ When men came to look closely at his acts,” says George W. Greene in his Historical View of the American Revolution, “it was seen and acknowledged that he had saved the United States annually thirteen millions in hard money.”

Indeed, had the exertions of Morris been matched by those of the people, American credit might soon have been established. As it was, their meagre, tardy responses to his appeals for revenue constantly neutralized his efforts, and finally drove him to despair. They also provoked his righteous indignation, involving as they did a shameful neglect of the public creditors. Notwithstanding his repeated expostulations both to the States and to Congress, no permanent revenue was provided for paying even the interest on the Continental debt. His position, therefore, became irksome, and when, as the war drew to a close, the people grew less and less mindful of their obligations, he would endure it no longer. In January, 1783, he tendered his resignation of the superintendency of finance; and it was only at the urgent request of Congress that he retained the office till the Continental army was disbanded. Upon his retirement in 1784, the superintendency of finance was discontinued. No one man was found to whom Congress was willing to entrust the power it had freely given to Robert Morris.

Recent historians have imputed this failure to raise a revenue rather to the inability of Congress to enforce taxation than to an unwillingness in the people to support the general government. Morris rightly ascribed it to both causes. His experience soon revealed to him the selfishness of the people, and hence the necessity of a strong government. As early as September, 1783, in a letter to John Adams, he adverted to “the necessity of strengthening our confederation, providing for our debts, and forming some federal constitution.” Accordingly, four years later, the movement toward that end received his earnest support.

Nevertheless, in the Convention of 1787 he did not have that influence over the framing of the Constitution to which his experience and talents entitled him. It would seem that, like Hamilton, Morris was suspected of leaning toward centralization and aristocracy, and the suspicion was not unfounded; for he proposed that the Senators should be chosen for life, and should be “ men of great and established property, — an aristocracy.” He believed that the democratic Representatives would constitute a sufficient check to excess. “If,” he declared, “we continue changing our measures by the breath of democracy, who will confide in our engagements? Who will trust us ? ” Morris’s experience as financier had impressed him first of all with the need of a strong and stable government. But it had also lessened his sympathy with the people, and so far unfitted him to shape republican government. In fact, this work belonged, and so it fell, to men more democratic in principles, like Wilson, and more cautious in temperament, like Madison.

In organizing and conducting the new government, however, the men of executive power naturally tame to the front. Such a man, preëminently, was Washington, the first President, and such were the men summoned to his side. When, in 1789, the President elect visited Philadelphia, on his way to the seat of the new government, he stayed, as was his wont, with Robert Morris. He consulted him regarding the formation of the cabinet, and invited him to become Secretary of the Treasury. As Washington faced the difficult task of organizing and administering a new government, he leaned instinctively, as it were, on his closest friend, the man whose timely and generous aid had secured the glorious victories of Princeton and Yorktown, and whose house had ever afforded the welcome of a home. At the same time he deemed him the one best fitted for the position. “After your invaluable services as financier of the Revolution.” said the President, “no one can pretend to contest the office of Secretary of the Treasury with you.”

The invitation was declined. Morris was at this time, as he had been from the first, absorbed in his private affairs, and he had uniformly accepted only such offices as no one else could fill. For this position he believed that there was another equally if not better qualified, namely. Alexander Hamilton, and so he intimated to the President. The suggestion, though a surprise, was at once followed, such was the confidence with which Morris was regarded. What momentous consequences it has brought to the development of the United States!

Though he declined to enter the cabinet, Morris nevertheless maintained his intimate relations with Washington. As one of the first Senators of the United States from Pennsylvania he became a prominent supporter of the administration, and in official society he continued to receive marked attention from the President. He was held in equal honor among the people. Indeed, at this time no one save Washington was believed to have done more for the success of the Revolution than Robert Morris.

At the close, of his term in the Senate, in 1795, he retired finally from politics. Had he withdrawn at the same time from business, the distinction that he then enjoyed might have come down in history unquestioned and undiminished to the present day. But his superabundant energies knew no rest. Nay, rather, they seem in these later years to have shaken off that check and rein by which they had been held, for he was now led to make strange ventures, and to explore unknown fields in business enterprise. He seems in his old age to have been carried away, as it were, by the lust and pride of riches; and the misfortune and disgrace to which they brought him almost eclipsed the memory of his patriotism.

The beginning of his misfortune was popularly ascribed to extravagance. In 1793, he began to erect for himself in Philadelphia a residence that for elaborateness of design and richness of execution had no precedent in America. Of two stories and a mansard roof, it was built of red brick freely ornamented with pale blue marble. It had a large central doorway with marble pillars, and at each corner a portico doorway supported by two marble columns ; while distributed to advantage were marble bas-reliefs, pillars, and pilasters. In 1795, this splendid mansion was reported to have “ cost upward of fifty thousand guineas; ” and it was still unfinished. It subsequently transpired, however, that “ Morris’s Folly,” as the structure was named, actually cost much less, and could not itself have caused financial embarrassment. This arose chiefly from reckless speculations in land. Morris had early become convinced that the United States was soon to experience a vast increase in population through immigration, and a rapid rise in the value of its unoccupied land ; and to anticipate the movement he purchased, partly on his private account, partly in company with others, large tracts of land, mainly in the Middle and Southern States. Some profitable transactions at the beginning led subsequently to the speedy enlargement of the enterprise, till he had become interested with others in over fifteen millions of acres, and by himself in over six millions more.

Unfortunately, the national development upon which he had counted delayed its coming, and he suffered the consequences of his rashness. Financial stress and failure soon ensued ; and Morris, threatened and harassed by desperate creditors, fled for refuge to The Hills. In this beautiful place, where he had ever found peace and happiness, he now became a voluntary prisoner; and for several months he endured intense anguish, overwhelmed in the utter wreck of his large fortune, and haunted by the dreadful vision of a debtor’s cell. The vision was soon realized. In February, 1798, his retreat was invaded: he was arrested for debt, and cast into the Prune Street jail. The man who had saved the credit of the nation found no resources in the gratitude due to him for the discharge of his own debts to his fellow-men.

Yet Morris did not repine. Rather, at no time were his virtues more manifest. Cheerful and kind, yet dignified, toward his fellow-prisoners, he endured with fortitude the fate to which, as he acknowledged, his temerity had brought him. Even the fever pestilence, that stalked through the bars and seized its victims by his side, had no terror for him. It was only when his wife and daughter, in their faithful ministrations, were exposed to the disease that he was filled with alarm ; and he was bowed in sorrow when he recalled the destitution and disgrace that had come to his family, and the dishonor that had fallen upon his good name. Yet at all times he was " supported,” to use his own words, “ by the consciousness that he neither intended evil to himself, or to any creditor or other person whatever.” For over three years he “ suffered the severest penalties that opinion and law could inflict; ” and when at last he was liberated by the operation of a new bankruptcy law, he lived but a few years to enjoy his freedom.

He had failed for about three millions of dollars, an enormous sum at the beginning of this century; and of course, among his contemporaries, the damage to his reputation was correspondingly great. At the present day, however, the misfortunes of his old age should not detract from the successes of his prime. The latter were signal and unique. As a patriot and a public benefactor he should stand in the front rank of American statesmen.

Few men have served the United States at so great a sacrifice. Indeed, few have been called to face so great a crisis. In the spring of 1781, after an exhausting struggle with Great Britain extending over five years, the American leaders were almost in despair of achieving independence. With money exhausted, credit lost, and spirits depressed, how could they longer sustain the war ? Their only hope lay, they at last perceived, in centring responsibility and guidance in some one man, fertile in resources, prompt and vigorous in execution, and stout of heart; and such a man, happily, they recognized in Robert Morris. To him, therefore, they appealed with one accord, and not in vain.

Had it been merely a public honor to which he was invited, undoubtedly he would have declined it, as already he had refused the presidency of Congress. But this was a summons to rescue his country in her direst distress, and he could not resist. For her sake he was willing, as in the event he was obliged, to neglect an engrossing business, to part with peace of mind, and even to risk a great fortune.

He must have known — it was evident to his associates — that to reform the Continental finances was a service which he alone could do. It demanded a business man ; and neither John Hancock nor Thomas Willing, the other men of that class then prominent in Congress, had received such severe and varied discipline as had Robert Morris. They had but increased or confirmed the wealth and social influence which they had inherited. But he, by his wits and his integrity, had gradually raised himself from a clerkship to a partnership, from comparative poverty to great wealth, and from the position of an obscure orphan boy to that of a leading financier. Nor were his talents less original than acquired ; for with this experience in the details and intricacies of business and finance he combined rare readiness, buoyancy, and force of mind. Above all, his convictions were grounded in justice and common sense. “ The whole business of finance,” he declared, “ ... is to raise the public revenues by such modes as may be most easy and most equal to the people, and to expend them in the most frugal, fair, and honest manner.” “ I have no system of finance except that which results from the plain, self-evident dictates of moral honesty.” Indeed, Morris resembled Washington in the rectitude of his conduct and the elevation of his character ; and the resemblance may well have been the basis of their intimacy.

As superintendent of finance he did not disappoint the expectations of his associates. He accomplished substantial, far-reaching reforms. Husbanding his scanty resources, he spread economy and efficiency throughout the public expenditures ; while he rapidly destroyed the pernicious bills of the Continental Congress, introducing in their place convertible notes of the Bank of North America. But to the founding of this institution — the forerunner of our national banks — his constructive work was mainly limited. He was prevented from accomplishing his more important objects — the invigorating of national taxation and the funding of the public debt — by the impotenoy of the Confederation and the decline of patriotism.

Unfortunately for him, he encountered that period of which he wrote to Franklin : “There is a period in the progress of things, a crisis between the ardor of enthusiasm and the authority of laws, when much skill and management are necessary to those who are charged with administering the affairs of a nation.” His skill in administration was manifest, if not unprecedented; and his financial policy was comprehensive, wise, and practicable. But for its success it lacked the enthusiastic support of the people.

In justice, Morris should be credited fully as much with what he planned and attempted as with what he accomplished. His courageous and persistent efforts at reconstruction greatly accelerated, at least, the movement toward consolidation. Upon this point even Bancroft, who is not uniformly fair and considerate toward Morris, is appreciative ; for he says that “ the first vehement impulse towards ‘ the consolidation of the federal union ’ was given by Robert Morris.” In this respect Morris was the precursor of Hamilton. The latter, discovered and brought forward by the former, carried out under more favorable circumstances the work so well begun.

In establishing American credit, therefore, these men deserve a common recognition. Perhaps Morris, the pioneer, encountered greater obstacles, while Hamilton, his successor, assumed greater responsibilities. In their several functions both displayed preëminent skill and zeal. They are the greatest financiers that the United States has yet produced. If Hamilton be called a great genius, Morris should be named a magnanimous patriot. Nowhere is the noblest spirit of the Revolution better manifested than in the words of Robert Morris in accepting the superintendency of finance : “ The contest we are engaged in appeared to me, in the first instance, just and necessary; therefore I took an active part in it. As it became dangerous, I thought it the more glorious, and was stimulated to the greatest exertions in my power when the affairs of America were at their worst.”

Frank Gaylord Cook.