4/4/12 - he paid the troops out of his own pocket

In today's excerpt - though history has neglected him, during the American Revolution the most powerful man in the nation's de facto capital of Philadelphia—and perhaps in the entire new nation—was merchant, financier, and sometime slave-trader Robert Morris. He was the wealthiest man in the country, and was responsible more than any other individual for financing the American Revolutionary War. During which he occasionally paid American troops out of his own personal funds. After the war, he was a leader at the Constitutional Convention, and lent his Philadelphia home to be used by Presidents George Washington and John Adams as the first Executive Mansion. Later in life his massive land speculations led to economic failure and debtor's prison. He died in poverty in 1806:

"In the position [of superintendent in the American Revolutionary government, Robert] Morris acted in the capacity of treasury secretary at a time when finances were the most urgent and vexing problem confronting the new nation. More than that, Morris was the chief civil officer in the government, with full authority to hire and fire any employee of Congress or the armed forces. In a very real sense he was, as one of his critics complained, a 'pecuniary dictator.'

"His ascendance may not have been a great moment for American democracy—though his appointment was made by a unanimous vote in Congress—but it was very good for the progress of the Revolution. Faced with an empty treasury, a worthless currency, and an economy in disarray, Morris leaned heavily on his own personal fortune to provide crucial aid to General George Washington and salvage the credit of the rebel government with key allies in Europe, and he projected in detail the scheme for federal revenues that came to be known as Alexander Hamilton's funding program.

"At the same time, Morris laid the foundation for a financial system that would establish America as the world's economic leader. He introduced the concepts of banking and commercial finance on a national basis, and persuaded a skeptical public to endorse his vision and set it in motion. He conceived, and in the years to come would implement, measures to restore the nation's credit and encourage capital formation that speak directly to the financial crisis that confronts the world today. ...

"By nature open, warm, and gregarious, just as comfortable in a grog shop as in the parlors of Philadelphia's mercantile elite, Morris was in the beginning of the war a reluctant but consensus candidate for a series of important state and national offices. Over time, as the old social order was shaken by the new political forces of democracy and liberty, Morris came to be identified as a spokesman for wealth and stability, and was excoriated by early radicals like Samuel Adams as a corrupting influence on the 'Republican virtue' they hoped the Revolution would foster.

"But ... his perseverance and his steadfast integrity won him the allegiance of his fellow founders—Franklin, Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams (though never his cousin Sam), and especially Washington—and he became the leader of the faction that, four years after the peace with Britain, wrote the new Constitution.

"Among this collection of imposing and often brilliant men, Morris was a principal character, a leader and an icon who dominated the councils of the Revolution. Yet he was also enormously controversial. He was rich in an era when popular ideology celebrated austerity. He was skeptical of the virtues of democracy and an unabashed global capitalist—a man ahead of his time. During the Constitutional Convention and in the first sessions of the novel United States Senate, he often let surrogates handle the floor debates because he knew that the simple fact of his endorsement could kill the measures he supported.

"This infamy has persisted to the present day, taken up by historians still grinding axes that were fashioned at the time. The consequence is a curiously warped version of our national story, one that prizes the rhetoric and ideology of the founding epoch and fails to credit the essential pragmatism that distinguishes the American Revolution from so many other subsequent social upheavals."


Charles Rappleye


Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2010 by Charles Rappleye


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