- Historic Sites
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
Over the Madeira after dinner his table hummed with talk of vast profits to come. There were profits all right. The Empress of China sailed safely back into New York in 1784 after inaugurating the great China trade. The grand old Alliance , bought from Congress by a syndicate in which Morris took part, was dispatched to the Far East in the opposite direction. Settlers were pouring into the western country. The corner in tobacco lowered the price disastrously for the planters in Maryland and Virginia, but the farmers-general made their advance payments on schedule in His Christian Majesty’s good silver coin. Morris’ difficulty, like that of the Continental Congress, was that his income never could keep up with the vast inflation of his credit. It was only by an extraordinary use of the “art magick” that he staved off bankruptcy as long as he did.
After Washington’s election as President and the formation of a general government on the new plan the Constitution had sketched out, a rumor went around that Robert Morris would be secretary of the treasury, but even Washington, who loved him, felt his affairs were too involved. It would be risking “animadversions” to offer him public office.
L’Enfant’s baroque plans for a new town house for the Financier had put him to ruinous expense and made him a laughingstock. “Morris’s Folly” people called it. He lost a vast block of Georgia land for nonpayment of taxes. He defaulted on payment on 6,000 lots he had bought inside the ten-mile square of the new capital city where he, with a partner, had contracted to build 120 brick houses. The difficult year of 1797, when the failure of the Bank of England extinguished credit for a while throughout the whole Atlantic trading community, put an end to him. “Who in God’s name has all the Money?” he wrote plaintively.
For fifteen years since his resignation as financier, the man whose financial judgment and whose taste in worldly things Washington had always deferred to, had managed somehow to keep in the air, by endless juggling of paper and kiting of promissory notes, an unbelievable structure of interlocking partnerships, land options, loans, mortgages, speculations in everything from ship’s timbers to snuffbottles. Now ingenious men figured that Morris and his last partner John Nicholson were between them in default of something like 34 millions of dollars.
By the fall of 1797 the bailiffs closed in. Morris no longer dared venture on the streets for fear of arrest. There was hardly a man in the country he didn’t owe money to. He retreated to The Hills and there held the process servers and sheriff’s deputies at bay for three months. His spirit never faltered. “Castle Defiance” he called his country house in his desperate notes to Nicholson, who was holding out in similar fashion in what he called “Castle Defense” downtown. “If I ever get square I shall never contract another debt,” Morris confided to his accomplice in dishonor.
While Morris was still holding out in the upper story of The Hills, with the front door barred and a fowling piece in his hand, the estate was knocked down under the auctioneer’s hammer. L’Enfant’s marble folly, Morris’ old downtown mansion, the house where President Washington had lived during his second Administration, the choice building lots, everything went. At last on February 15, 1798, Morris gave himself up and was carted off to the debtors’ section of the Prune Street Jail. There he remained until the passage of a bankruptcy act late in 1801.
When George Washington, as commander in chief of Hamilton’s provisional army during the troubles with the French Directory, visited Philadelphia for the last time he made a point of dining with his old friend. Instead of at The Hills, where the asparagus and strawberries were always so fine in the spring and the apricots and plums in summer and the pears and hothouse grapes in the fall, and where the claret and Madeira and the roast meats were of the rarest, Washington dined with Morris and his wife in a dim, ill-smelling room with barred windows.
When George Washington, erect and stately in his buff and blue uniform with the shining epaulets, strode with a jingle of spurs into the prison room which Mrs. Morris had worked hard to make a little homelike with a few faint evidences of former grandeur, he found both Morrises pale and shrunken after their ordeal of that summer. As soon as he had heard that a fresh epidemic of yellow fever had begun, Washington, who knew they were in financial difficulties but did not realize to what extent, had written to his old friends to come at once to stay with him at Mt. Vernon.
When Washington’s letter reached him the door was already locked on the Financier. His wife, who had taken what Abigail Adams, who called on her there, described as a small neat room nearby, refused to leave him. Together they braved the yellow fever. The streets around were filled with dead. Imprisoned debtors died in the adjoining rooms. They had been spared. They were grateful to God.
Even in this last extremity Morris couldn’t keep his sanguine spirits down. He was already revolving vast new schemes by which he could take advantage of some sudden rise in values to pay off his creditors and spend himself into wealth once more. Though he was eventually to regain his freedom and to live obscurely for a few years after, his great days were over. It was all his good friend Gouverneur Morris could do to salvage a small income for Mrs. Morris out of the wreckage of America’s greatest fortune.