By Bill Korach. The Report Card in cooperation with Jacksonville’s First Coast Tea party presents profiles of the 39 signers of the Constitution in honor of its 224th Anniversary.
Morris was born to Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizabeth Murphet in Liverpool, England, on January 20, 1734. At the age of 13 Morris moved to Oxford, Maryland, where he lived with his father, Robert Morris, a tobacco factor. The younger Morris was provided a tutor, but he quickly learned everything that his teacher had to impart. His father arranged for him to go to Philadelphia, where he stayed with Charles Greenway, a family friend, who arranged for young Robert to become an apprentice at the shipping and banking firm of Philadelphia merchant (and then mayor) Charles Willing. The partnership of Willing, Morris & Company lasted until 1779, and they often collaborated thereafter. Eventually they sent ships to India, China, the Levant and the West Indies, and the firm’s business of import, export, and general agency made it one of the most prosperous in Pennsylvania. As a result Morris became both wealthy and influential in Philadelphia. 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 promised not to execute 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, the stamp tax was lifted.
Morris was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778.
In 1775 the Continental Congress contracted with Morris’s company to import arms and ammunition. On July 1, 1776, Morris voted against the Congressional motion for independence, causing the Pennsylvania delegation, which was split 4-3, to cast its vote in the negative. The following day, Morris and John Dickinson agreed to abstain, allowing Pennsylvania to vote for independence. The final vote was therefore 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.” He loaned £10,000 to pay Washington’s troops. This helped to keep the Army together just before the battles of Trenton and 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. As Superintendent of Finance Morris instituted several reforms, including reducing the civil list, significantly cutting government spending by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightening accounting procedures, and demanding the federal government’s full share of support (money and supplies) from the States.
Morris obtained supplies for the army of Nathaniel 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 over $1,400,000 in his own credit to move the Army. He was also Agent of Marine and coordinated 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.
Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He managed to get Gouverneur Morris onto the Pennsylvania delegation. Although Robert Morris said little at the Convention, his former assistant, Gouverneur Morris (no relation), and his lawyer, James Wilson, were two of the three most talkative men there. Both opposed slavery during the Convention. Gouverneur Morris actually wrote the polished draft of the Constitution. While it was widely known at the time that Morris was active behind the scenes, his only significant role of record during the Convention was to nominate his friend George Washington as its President.
As a senator from Pennsylvania, Morris is credited with helping to bring the Federal Government to Philadelphia in 1790, for a 10-year period while Washington, D.C. was under construction. He gave up his home to be used by President Washington as the Executive Mansion, 1790-97. It was later used by President John Adams, 1797–1800, prior to the move to the White House.
In the 1790’s Morris made large and unsuccessful land investments that caused his financial ruin. He was jailed for debt. The US Congress passed its first bankruptcy legislation, the temporary Bankruptcy Act of 1800, in part, to get Morris out of prison.
Morris died in 1806 after a lifetime of service to his country. He is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in America. Robert Morris and Roger Sherman were the only ones to have signed all three key documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.