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Robert Morris and the “Art Magick”
Skillful money-juggling by America’s first financier aided the new nation but led Morris himself to utter ruin
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
He would hardly have been human if he hadn’t encouraged the legend to grow that he was risking his private fortune to finance the Revolution. To a certain extent this may have been true: to a large extent the opposite was true. of one thing we may be sine: the commercial career of Robert Morris was interlocked with the successes and failures of the American cause.
Morris’ appointment as sole superintendent of finance came as the climax of a brilliantly successful business career. It was a career all of his own making.
Born in England in 1734, he was the son of a Liverpool man of a seafaring family who had set himself up as a tobacco factor at Oxford on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is doubtful whether his mother and lather were legally married. His grandmother brought him up. When the lather’s business began to flourish he sent for his son to join him in America. Young Robert Morris was then about thirteen.
He arrived in Oxford to find that his lather had set up housekeeping with a lady named Sarah Wise, whom he had never taken the trouble to marry. Young Robert was placed with a merchant friend of the elder Morris’ in Philadelphia to be educated, and in due time was apprenticed in the countinghouse of the Willing family’s notable import and export firm. He served as a supercargo on trading journeys and showed such enterprise and application that he became one of the Willings’ indispensable men.
He was only sixteen when his lather died. Young Robert inherited about £2,500 in Maryland currency. Sarah Wise’s daughter was provided with a hundred pounds and another hundred was left “to the infant with which she was then with child.” When this infant turned out to be a boy whom the mother named Thomas, Robert Morris raised him as his own son.
When the Willing firm was reorganized, some time after young Thomas Willing came hack from London, Morris, although he was only 21, was taken in as a junior partner. He had made good use of his father’s little legacy in private adventures on the Willing ships, and he had already a substantial sum to invest. He and young Willing became firm friends.
Thomas Willing was a cautious, thoughtful individual who in later life was known in Philadelphia as “Old Squaretoes.” His conservatism combined with Morris’ reckless enterprise made the classical combination for a business partnership. The firm of Willing & Morris was successful indeed.
Morris became one of the great men of fast-growing Philadelphia. His easy, convivial manner made him friends in all directions. He married Mary White, a lady from a respected Maryland family who was reputed a great beauty. He acquired a town house on Front Street and a country house across the Schuylkill. This place, The Hills, was known for its fruit and for the products of the vegetable garden and greenhouse. “You see I continue my old practice of mixing business and pleasure,” he wrote one of his friends, “and ever found them useful to each other.”
It was natural that he should push to the fore in the Philadelphia Committee of Merchants during the Stamp Act agitation. He sat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He was appointed to the Continental Congress. Though he opposed the Declaration of Independence as untimely. when the day came to sign the document he put his name to it in a bold scrawl at the head of the Pennsylvania delegation.
With his practical knowledge of shipping he immediately became the most active member of the Committee of Commerce and of the Marine Committee that handled naval affairs. He saw to it that his firm’s network of correspondents in the West Indies and in European ports became indispensable in the procurement of war materials. He treated the Continental Congress and the state of Pennsylvania as he would commercial partners. While he procured them the munitions they needed he indulged in profitable speculations on his own.
As early as the fall of 1777 Willing and Morris dissolved their main partnership, though they remained associated in a number of enterprises. It is likely that the cautious Willing was already finding Morris’ speculations a little giddy. The failure of young Thomas Morris may have had something to do with Willing’s decision to dissolve the partnership. Robert Morris had given his young half brother “the best education that could be obtained in Philadelphia,” had brought him up in his own countinghouse and had sent him off to Europe to represent Willing & Morris and the United States in a number of delicate negotiations. Thomas took to drink and gambling, fell into the hands of sharpers, and finally died in France in a desperate fit of dissipation. This was not the way Old Squaretoes believed in doing business, ft is possible, too, that Willing was suffering some doubts that winter about the success of the American cause. When Howe occupied Philadelphia he chose to remain in the city as a noncombatant.
Morris, on the other hand, was thoroughly committed to independence. As a merchant, by this time, he was quite able to stand alone. His investments were scattered over the middle and southern states and all of the Atlantic ports. He was involved in nine major partnerships in various American seaports, as well as in numberless smaller enterprises. By the time the fighting ended his fortune was thought to be without equal in America.