The year 1780 ended badly, and the new year boded worse for America’s War of Independence. Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treason and defection to the British army had left Gen. George Washington’s officer corps in disarray, demoralized. Officers of all ranks eyed each other suspiciously, questioning each other’s decisions, while distrust of officers provoked mutinies among the rank and file. On January 1, 1781, 2,400 Continental Army veterans in the Pennsylvania Line, some unpaid for as many as three years, seized company arms and ammunition, fired at and wounded several officers, then, led by their sergeants, marched off toward Philadelphia to force Congress at bayonet point to pay them their due.
With Congress bankrupt, all eyes turned to Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris. Called “The Financier,” Morris had already worked financial miracles saving Congress from bankruptcy three times, magically producing funds from no-one-knew-where to pay Continental Army troops and sending Congress enough money to buy arms and ammunition for the Army. Morris seemed able to draw money from thin air. Washington called it “Art magick.”
There was nothing magical about it. Born in the grime and poverty of England’s Liverpool slums, Morris had sailed to America at thirteen and, with no formal education, worked on Philadelphia’s docks, then in a counting house, where he mastered international trade techniques and earned a partnership in a major trading firm. He soon discovered a flaw in international trade that would make him rich. Why, he asked, spend capital to acquire goods, transport them across oceans, then store them for months, often years before selling them?
Answering his own question, he defied principles of mercantilism, then the world’s centuries-old economic system, which drove nations to spend their national treasures conquering foreign lands to plunder natural resources that enriched only royalty and nobility. Morris undermined mercantilism with a more efficient, less costly type of trade that dispensed with wars of conquest and used capital instead of cannons to amass wealth. While others bought and collected things, Morris collected money and laid the foundation of a revolutionary new economic system that would later be called capitalism. It made Morris America’s richest man and converted the United States economy into the richest, most productive on earth.
Using exotic trading techniques that would become routine a century later, Morris developed an other-worldly knowledge of market values. Blessed with an astounding memory and an ability to make instant, accurate calculations, he was a naturally gifted trader, quoting prices in British pounds, French livres, Dutch florins, and a dozen other currencies with equal fluency, converting one into another without pausing. He knew instinctively when to buy, sell, or walk away; he intuited impending market shortages or surpluses and took full advantage.
He was brilliant.
But Morris was not just a daring capitalist; he was a daring patriot. Incensed by British taxation of the fruits of free enterprise, Morris joined fifty-five other wealthy Americans at a congress in Philadelphia and signed a Declaration of Independence on behalf of thirteen British colonies in America. But with Congress dependent on voluntary state contributions to fund its operations, it lacked funds to feed, clothe, shelter, and arm Continental Army troops adequately. The result was increasingly widespread troop suffering and discontent.
“There is such a combination of circumstances to exhaust the patience of the soldiery that it begins at length to be worn out,” Washington lamented to Joseph Reed, “president” (i.e., governor) of Pennsylvania. “We see in every line of the army the most serious features of mutiny and sedition . . . and unless a system very different from that which has prevailed be immediately adopted throughout the states, our affairs must soon become desperate beyond the possibility of recovery.”
Washington was incensed that Congress was “deeply in debt” at a time when “the nation is rich and their riches can afford a fund which will not be easily exhausted.”
When the American Revolution began, Congress had boasted of that wealth, and, with the signature of the famed financier Robert Morris on its Declaration of Independence, Congress had no difficulty floating nearly $40 million worth of paper in foreign lands and borrowing more than $20 million. Like some foreign governments, investors assumed that in lending to the American Congress, they were lending money to a government backed not only by the nation’s wealthiest man, but by an oligarchy of wealthy plantation owners who ruled the entire South and merchant-bankers who ruled the North.
“The creditors trust the union,” Morris declared, insisting that the strength of the states “is derived from their union.”
But the states refused to form a union; there were no “United” States of America. Although Congress had made a show of unity by drafting and approving a constitution they called Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the Articles created a nation on paper but not in fact. Indeed, the Articles of Confederation provoked nothing but discord.
“[Our] strength is derived from . . . union,” Robert Morris argued in vain in Pennsylvania. “Everything therefore which injures that union must impair the strength which is dependent upon it. . . . Nothing therefore ought to prevent the free and generous communication of all necessary powers to Congress.”
Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, however, disagreed—fiercely. Calling “the sword and the purse” the two greatest powers of government, Henry raged against giving Congress powers over either. “The junction of these without limitation in the same hands is . . . despotism,” he thundered, then demanded that such powers be controlled by the states.
Even as their Continental Army troops fought under a single military banner, state political leaders rejected even the most fragile political ties to each other—including powers to tax and raise money to arm, dress, and feed their own men. Their inaction left the Continental Congress an impotent debating society that became a laughingstock among nations and the object of loathing among bedraggled American troops, who adjudged it a den of rich thieves profiting from bloodshed on the fields of battle.
Morris and a handful of his supporters in Congress, however, continued doggedly in their calls for a stronger union, even demanding powers to raise funds with the very taxes they had once loathed as confiscation of private property. They met nothing but catcalls, shouts, and reminders that they had staged the revolution to end government taxation, not restore it.
Although Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed held army mutineers in check, the uprising sparked a similar action by the New Jersey line, and state leaders, frightened by the specter of a nationwide epidemic of mutinies, began yielding to Morris’s demands to strengthen central government.
On February 2, 1781, Maryland became the last of the thirteen states to ratify the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” creating “The United States of America.” Congress acted immediately to streamline its government operations, replacing unruly committees with individual heads to administer the principle government departments: war, marine, treasury, and foreign affairs. Then, on February 20, Congress unanimously elected Robert Morris Superintendent of Finance to head the most important department, the Department of Treasury, granting him “all the powers, privileges, authorities, and emoluments” of that powerful office. Although Morris had served as de facto Treasury head since the beginning of the Revolution, he had only chaired a committee, whose collective approval had been necessary for every decision he made. Congress now gave him unprecedented direct control of the nation’s finances, making him the nation’s first and most powerful executive.
As delegates stood to applaud their new appointee, however, Morris shocked them by remaining seated, staring ahead glumly without as much as a smile or nod to acknowledge his appointment. As the applause died, silence fell over the chamber, and the presiding officer—not knowing what else to do—adjourned the session, leaving Morris alone with his thoughts.
Although Morris, like most delegates, believed his new office was essential to creating a stronger central government, he did not want the job. More than twenty years of stress in international trade and six equally stressful years in public service had exhausted him. He had looked forward to a life of luxurious repose with his wife and their six children in his Philadelphia mansion and palatial country estate. In addition, the arrival of French General Rochambeau with 5,000 French troops gave Washington a numerical advantage in manpower and firing power that seemed all but certain to end the war quickly and bring peace and independence to America. And Morris wanted nothing more than peace—on the fields of battle, of course, but also at home, with his wife and family and cellars of fine French wines.
“This appointment,” he raged in his diary on the day after Congress had appointed him, “was evidently contrary to my private interest and if accepted must deprive me of those enjoyments social and domestic which my time of life required and which my circumstances entitled me to, and as a vigorous execution of my duties must inevitably expose me to the resentment of disappointed and designing men and to the calumny and detraction of the envious and malicious. I was therefore absolutely determined not to engage in so arduous an undertaking.”
Leaders across the land, however, pleaded with him to accept the post. His young friend Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, a top aide to General Washington, argued that only his acceptance of the post could ensure American independence. “‘Tis by introducing order into our finances by restoring public credit—not by gaining battles—that we are finally to gain our object,” Hamilton wrote to Morris.
But Benjamin Franklin warned Morris that “the business you have undertaken is of so complex a nature and must engross so much of your time and attention as necessarily to hurt your private interests . . . while you are sure of being censured by malevolent critics . . . who will abuse you while you are serving them.”
A self-effacing figure in the Morris counting house, however, may have settled the matter. A Liverpudlian like Morris, John Swanwick was six years younger than Morris, and had sailed to America to seek his fortune as a—much as Morris had done. Revering the legendary older merchant, Swanwick went to work for Morris, becoming his most trusted aide.
“The safety and glory of the United States are involved in your acceptance or refusal,” Swanwick pleaded. “My opinion [is] that the fate of this country is so nearly tied to yours that as she rises and falls so is your fate determined. . . . If order be not established in the money matters of America” it would mean “the ruin of yourself and this country. . . . “I declare to you, sir, most solemnly . . . that I do not believe there is in America any man fit for this office of Financier but you.”
Deeply moved, Morris responded to Congress on March 13, a month after the appointment. He accepted, but only on his own terms—terms he hoped might make Congress reconsider his appointment.
He expressed appreciation to Congress “for the honor done me” and its “strong mark of confidence,” but said that assumption of the office of superintendent of finance would mean “a sacrifice of . . . much social and domestic enjoyment, and of very material interests.
“I am bound in honor and by contracts to support . . . certain commercial establishments . . . If therefore . . . the Office of Superintendent of Finance is incompatible with [my] commercial concerns and connections . . . I cannot on any consideration consent to violate [these] engagements.” In other words, he would not cut his ties to private business.
In addition to retaining business connections, Morris demanded complete control over hiring and firing, refusing to work with any congressional sinecures. “I think it indispensably necessary that the appointment of all persons who are to act in my office . . . should be made by myself,” he declared, along with “absolute power [his italics] of dismissing . . . all persons whatever . . . The determination of Congress thereon will enable me to determine whether to accept or decline the appointment.”
He also insisted that Congress assume all responsibility for its existing debts and limit his responsibility for government finances to the period after his assumption of his new office.
In effect, Morris all but refused to accept the appointment if Congress did not grant him absolute power.
A week after receiving Morris’s reply, Congress yielded on all his demands. On May 14, Morris accepted the post, promising only “honest industry” in doing so. Intent on establishing cordial relations with Congress, Morris conceded to delegates that continuing to operate his own business might “give rise to illiberal reflections equally painful to me and injurious to the public.” He then announced his intention to put “the accounts of my private business . . . into the hands of other persons.
In accepting the office bestowed on me, I sacrifice much of my interest, my ease, my domestic enjoyments and internal tranquility. 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 still further: the United States may command everything I have except my integrity.
Although Franklin had warned Morris of the dangers inherent in the new post, he nonetheless heaped compliments on Morris and promised “every assistance that my situation here [in Paris] . . . may enable me to afford you. . . . For besides my affection for the glorious cause we are both engaged in, I value myself upon your friendship and shall be happy if mine can be made of any use to you.”
Washington was equally elated, pledging, “My hand and heart shall be with you. And, as far as my assistance will or can go, command it.” In a rare emotional outpouring, Washington promised Morris, “I will aid your endeavors to the extent of my abilities and with all the powers I am vested. I shall be happy in a meeting with you and would have wrote you more fully . . . if the bearer was not waiting. I could not however, refrain from embracing the first opportunity that offered of expressing the pleasure I get at hearing . . . that you had entered upon the duties of your office and to assure you with how much truth and sincerity I am Dear Sir your Most Obedient and Affectionate Servant.”
As Washington wrote to Morris, hungry Pennsylvania troops renewed their mutiny. Washington responded harshly, crushing the disturbances with loyal troops and executing several Pennsylvanians.
“A committee of Congress called on me with a letter from his Excellency Gen. Washington,” Morris scribbled in his diary, “showing the distress of the army for want of bread and . . . empowering Genl. Washington to seize flour . . . wherever he could find it. I determined to procure supplies and pledge my private credit.” Morris then seized direct control of army procurement and finances, bypassing Congress and state governments.
“A committee of Congress having communicated to me the distress of your army for want of bread,” Morris wrote to Washington on May 29, 1781, “I found myself immediately impressed with the strongest desire to afford you relief. . . . I have wrote to [Albany, New York, merchant-banker] Major Genl. Schuyler and to [New Jersey merchant] Thomas Lowrey . . . requesting their immediate exertions to procure upon their own credit 1000 barrels of flour each to send . . . to camp deliverable to your Excellency’s order, and I have pledged to pay them in hard money.”
Left unsaid was the crushing pressure Morris could exert on individual merchants such as Schuyler and Lowrey. They and most other merchants had taken full advantage of army shortages to hoard supplies and command higher prices. Morris acted to break their collective financial backs by suggesting they might experience inordinately long vendor supply lines and/or payment delays by major clients by failing to supply Washington’s troops without delay.
None dared ignore Morris “requests”—not Schuyler, not Lowrey, not any merchant. Morris and his trading house were simply too powerful to ignore.
“As an occasion has turned up for you to show your activity and attention to the interest and service of your country,” Morris wrote not too subtly to Lowrey, “I must therefore request that you will use your best skill, judgment, and industry in purchasing on the lowest terms you can one thousand barrels of sound, sweet flour and in sending it to camp in the most expeditious and least expensive manner that you can contrive. You understand business too well not to think of sending it forward . . . as fast as you can get it. You will also no doubt seek to procure this quantity as near to the camp as it can be got in order to lessen charges of transportation.”
He was equally blunt with Schuyler: “General Washington is distressed for want of an immediate supply of flour. . . . I must therefore request that you will take the most speedy and effectual measures to deliver . . . 1000 barrels of flour which I am sure you will purchase and cause to be transported on the most reasonable terms that are practicable. No time must be lost.”
Within days, Morris was able to write Washington somewhat waggishly, “I have the pleasure to hear that Mr. Lowry has sent 1000 barrels of flour to camp.”
A few days later, Morris extracted an even better price from Lowrey and boasted to Washington, “I thought proper to agree with him for 1000 barrels more, fresh and sweet, to be delivered to Your Excellency’s order.”
Washington was ecstatic, abandoning his usual austere tone and admitting that Morris’s work “afforded me infinite satisfaction, as the measures you are pursuing for subsisting the Army accord with my ideas” and stand in sharp contrast to the “small degree [with which] the requisitions of Congress had been complied with.”
By early July 1781, Morris had worked other miracles that sent market prices for foodstuffs plunging. Just as he had used his network of traders to bid prices up in peacetime, he now sent them spiraling downward, ordering his merchant partners in different regions to dump enough supplies on the market to undermine prices asked by hoarders. Even the largest merchants knew better than to defy Morris.
“You mention to have been written by Genl. Schuyler respecting a greater supply of flour than he expected,” Morris wrote facetiously to Washington from Philadelphia. “Flour remains so plenty that there has not been a day in which I could not buy 5,000 to 10,000 barrels in this city, and the price has fallen from 28/ and 30/ to 17/ but I think 15/ will buy 112 pounds very soon.” Morris promised Washington that “you cannot want provisions so long as I can find money to pay for them.”
Morris’s barely concealed manipulation of market prices quickly forced the last of the hoarders to release supplies, and speculators soon abandoned foodstuff markets. With many merchants and speculators serving in Congress and state assemblies, they recognized they were no match for Robert Morris. On July 5, 1781, he was able to write to Washington that Congress had passed an act vesting Morris “with powers to dispose of the specific supplies required from the several states [according to] your Excellency’s advice [as] will best promote the public interest and the purposes of the present campaign.”
Morris had less success forcing state governors to comply with requisitions of Congress for money, however. “I must urge the most speedy and punctual compliance,” he wrote in a circular letter which all the states ignored. Morris was not their Superintendent of Finance; they had given him no authority over their finances
As Morris was writing his requisitions, General Comte de Rochambeau was leading a 5,000-man French army from Rhode Island across Connecticut to rendezvous with Washington’s 6,000 troops north of New York City. Washington hoped by massing the two armies there, he would trick British army leaders into believing an assault on New York Island [Manhattan] was imminent and leave a substantial British force in Virginia vulnerable to attack.
On August 2, Washington wrote asking Morris to hurry to the Washington encampment. When Morris arrived, Washington explained that the Franco-American army had encamped just to its north in a ploy to force “the enemy [to] reinforce New York” leaving “the [enemy] detachment in Virginia . . . the next object which ought to engage our attention.
I am not without hopes . . . to carry a body of men . . . by water,” Washington told Morris, hoping to get the army to Virginia by the fastest means and spare his men a long, debilitating overland trek. “What I would wish you to inform yourself of . . . is what number of tons of shipping could be obtained in Philadelphia at any time between this and the 20th of this month [August] and whether there could be obtained . . . a few deep-waisted sloops and schooners to carry horses. The number of double-decked vessels which may be wanted, of 200 tons and upwards, will not exceed thirty. . . . You will oblige me by giving me your opinion of the number of vessels which might be obtained at Baltimore or other places in Chesapeake in the time mentioned.
On September 7, Congress named Morris Agent of Marine, with powers of a secretary of the navy to “direct, fit out, equip, and employ” all American naval vessels “in such manner as shall appear to him best calculated to promote the interests of these United States.”
No sooner had Washington informed Morris of the army’s needs for transports on Chesapeake Bay than he stunned Morris by announcing that for the expedition to proceed, “it will be necessary to give the American troops destined for southern service one month’s pay in specie”—in advance!
With that, Morris blanched. He had exhausted his own credit and access to any more of his own or his company’s funds, the balances of which were dispersed and inaccessible in foreign depositories across the western world. With state leaders apparently lacking the will to continue the fight and both Congress and Morris himself without funds to do so, America’s financial miracle maker warned Washington that his expedition to Yorktown was doomed to fail before it even got under way. The two Patriot leaders—now close personal friends—sat grim-faced, each thinking of possible solutions, when Morris remembered a scheme that Benjamin Franklin had once mentioned almost in gest. Instead of passing out handwritten IOUs which few merchants who did not know him personally would accept, Franklin said he had printed his own currency with the formal scrolling and numbering of official currencies.
With the American government’s printed currency—so-called “continentals”—all but worthless, Morris astounded Washington with an audacious proposal to replace worthless continentals with a privately printed currency that mimicked government currency. His new “Morris notes,” he said, would substitute his personal credit, “which thank Heaven I have preserved through all the tempests of the War . . . for that which the Public [credit] has lost.”
It seemed a daring scheme—replacing federal currency with currency backed by one man’s credit, gambling the future of the new American republic on the expectation that every government, banker, businessman, and trader of consequence in the western world knew his name and held a share of his wealth directly or indirectly.
Washington shook his head in both disbelief and admiration, before breathing a sigh of relief, as Morris informed him that a ship with $450,000 in French silver coins—a loan from the French government—was on its way as a back-up for the estimated $400,000 in Morris notes. In printing his notes, Robert Morris risked his business empire and personal fortune to feed, clothe, arm, and pay Washington’s troops, who then sailed down Chesapeake Bay to Virginia for a decisive confrontation with the vaunted British army at Yorktown. Their victory after three days of battle ensured the beginning of the fall of one empire and the beginning of the rise of another. By war’s end, Robert Morris had made the greatest personal financial sacrifice of any founding father. In doing so, he ensured the birth of the American nation and the free enterprise system that had made him rich and would soon make his adopted land the richest on earth.
Nearly twenty-five years after the Battle of Yorktown, Robert Morris, the Patriot who had financed America’s historic victory, invested his entire stock of Morris notes in western lands that Congress had opened to settlers. The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, however, all but shut the Atlantic to would-be European settlers, and, as Robert Morris invested the last of his notes in the West, land values collapsed. Morris went to debtor’s prison for three years, dying penniless in 1806.
George Washington to John Matthews, June 7, 1781, (Washington, DC: The Writings of George Washington, The Government Printing Office, 39 vols., John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., 1937), 22: 176-177.
Washington to Joseph Reed, May 28, 1780, The Writings of George Washington, 18: 434-440.
A unique enterprise in early America, combining many functions of a merchant who bought and sold goods and those of a banker, who loaned money to his retail customers to purchase goods. Merchant-bankers routinely loaned money or merchandise (tools, seeds, etc.) to farmers, accepting some of their future crops as collateral.
Robert Morris, The Papers of Robert Morris (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, E. James Ferguson, ed., 9 vols., 1973), 1: 399 (RM Papers).
Morris to the President of Congress, July 17, 1781, ibid., 1: 397-402.
Patrick Henry to the Virginia Ratification Convention, Richmond, June 14, 1788 (Madison, WI: The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, multi-volume, 1993 – ), 10: 1274-1278.
Robert Morris Diary, February 21, 1781, in RM Papers, 1: 8-9.
Alexander Hamilton to Morris, April 30, 1781, ibid., 1: 31-60.
Benjamin Franklin to Morris, July 26, 1781, ibid., 1: 391.
John Swanwick to Morris, February 20, 1781, ibid, I: 5-8.
Morris to the President of Congress, March13, 1781, ibid., 1: 17-19,
Ibid., May 14, 1781, 1: 62-64.
Franklin to Morris, July 26, 1781, ibid., 1: 391.
George Washington to Morris, June 4, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 22: 159.
Robert Morris Diary, May 28, 1781, RM Papers, 1: 82.
Morris to Thomas Lowrey, May 29, 1781, ibid, 1: 90-91.
Morris to Philip Schuyler, May 29, 1781, ibid., 92-93.
Morris to Washington, June 21, 1781, ibid., 1: 162.
Washington to Morris, July 13, 1781,The Writings of George Washington, 22: 365-367.
Morris to Washington, RM Papers, 1: 213-216.
Robert Morris Circular to the Several States, July 6, 1781, RM Papers, July 6, 1781.
Washington to Morris, August 2, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 22: 450-451.
Robert Morris Diary: September 19, 1781, RM Papers, 2: 297.
Individual states, of course, had been printing their own currencies since 1777, but their values fluctuated so widely as to be of little value in international trade.
Papers of the Continental Congress, 137, III, 337 cited in Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris, Revolutionary Career (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954), 119, 129 n.19. Francis Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washingon: Government Printing Office, 1889, 6 vols.), 4: 692.
A very interesting read on Morris. I always thought there was an injustice served on him somehow with the way he wound up in debtor’s prison, and wondered if the U.S. Government could (or should) have done anything on his behalf. One small point: Footnote #30 was inadvertently left off.
Thank you for such a detailed article. From literally arriving in Oxford, Maryland, as a teen with no shipping knowledge whatsoever to becoming the richest man in the colonies was quite the accomplishment. From sending the first ship to China, sharing his ice house design with his dear friend General Washington, having captains secure seeds for Jefferson and Merino sheep for Dr. Bard, to raising his half-brother as his own. There is so much I am learning about my 5th great grandfather.
Wonderful article, thank you, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Thank you. Neither an “art magick,” or a “gest,” nor the “brilliance” of Robert Morris alone. Rather “it” is a debt, or so it seems to be suggested by Jennifer Baker in her book on paper money as “debt,” Securing the Commonwealth: Debt, Speculation, and Writing in the Making of Early America. See also Benjamin Franklin’s words: “And indeed the whole is a mystery even to the politicians, how we have been able to continue a war four years without money, and how we could pay with paper. . . . This currency, as we manage it, is a wonderful machine. It performs its office when we issue it; it pays and clothes troops, and provides victuals and ammunition; and when we are obliged to issue a quantity excessive, it pays itself off by depreciation.”