Robert Morris: Congress’s Superintendent of Finance

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

As soon as the Revolutionary War began, the Pennsylvania Assembly established a 25-member Committee of Safety to oversee the purchases of firearms and stores. Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant, became the leader of this committee. Let us take a look at the life of this leader and merchant.

United States Declaration of Independence with a vintage American flag.
Robert Morris was dubious about the wisdom of independence, but he signed the Declaration of Independence anyway. (Image: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock)

The Early Life of Robert Morris

Morris was originally from Liverpool, and probably born illegitimate. His father was an agent for a shipping firm, and when the company sent him to Maryland to oversee their interests, he brought his 13-year-old son over with him, and eventually apprenticed the boy to a merchant in Philadelphia, Charles Willing.

He kept ledgers, monitored accounts, issued bills of credit, and when Charles Willing died in 1754, Willing’s son Thomas reorganized the company to make Morris his partner.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Robert Morris: The Member of Congress

The troops of the Continental Army.
Probably 75 percent of the Congress’s wartime expenditures was borne by Robert Morris. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Morris rose in wealth and standing, eventually being appointed as a port warden for Philadelphia. In 1775, he was tagged to represent Pennsylvania in the 2nd Continental Congress.

He was dubious about the wisdom of independence, but he signed the Declaration of Independence anyway. None of his doubts prevented him from advancing money from his own pocket to pay the Revolution’s bills.

Not surprisingly, when the Confederation Congress moved in 1781 to create three executive offices to maintain its day-to-day affairs—for war, foreign affairs, and finance—Robert Morris was unanimously named Superintendent of Finance.

Robert Morris’s New Strategy

Morris, however, had seen enough of Congress’s financial mismanagement and he did not actually accept the post until May of 1781. Even then he put forward some conditions. First, he wanted to solely concentrate on a new financial system, not the payment of old debts or the still-accumulating military expenses of the Revolution.

Second, he wanted to have full power to appoint and dismiss all persons whatever that are concerned in the official expenditure of public monies. And third, he wanted to be permitted to carry on his own private business affairs at the same time.

He achieved a series of small financial wonders for the Confederation: a new $5.9 million loan from France, another $2 million loan from the Dutch.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

The Opposition to Robert Morris

The Virginian, William Lee, whose brother Richard Henry Lee had proposed the original motion for independence in 1776, denounced Morris as the most dangerous man in America. William Lee also accused Morris of plunging the United States of America in public bankruptcy, while he, at the same time, amassed an immense fortune for himself.

In July 1779, a congressional committee report attacked Morris for profiteering. But even more damning to Morris’s reputation was his opposition to paper money.

Robert Morris and Paper Money

From 1779 until his appointment as Superintendent of Finance, Morris  fought tooth and nail on the issue of paper money in the Pennsylvania Assembly.

He vehemently opposed the idea that Pennsylvania’s paper money, like Rhode Island’s, be declared legal tender, with penalties for non-acceptance. Morris insisted that the tender and penal laws were destructive of all credit.

But this only made William Lee indignantly accuse Morris of driving paper money out of circulation and allowing nothing but gold and silver to be current so that Morris could set up a deliberate financial swindle.

Morris had amassed substantial holdings of depreciated paper currency while it was current at 1,000 and 1,200 percent under value and was now, said the accusation, trying to secure to himself the payment of the paper money that he had collected at a substantial profit. Morris was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Learn more about Thomas Mifflin’s Congress.

The Public Assault on Robert Morris

On October 4, a street mob attacked Morris, James Wilson, George Clymer, and 20 or so others who belonged to a Republican Society at City Tavern in Philadelphia.

Morris and the Society retreated to Wilson’s stout, a three-story house at Third and Walnut Streets, and when the mob pursued them, they barricaded the doors and shuttered the windows.

Someone began shooting, and in short order, the mob stormed the house, breaking down the doors and trading gunfire on the stairs which dropped several of them. The mob wheeled up a small howitzer, but as they did, the 1st City Troop of Cavalry appeared and, sabers swinging, dispersed the mob. The battle of Fort Wilson left 4 of the mob dead and 14 wounded.

The Ambitious Plan of Robert Morris

But as clearly as Morris understood that America’s chief peril lay in “the derangement of our Money Affairs”, he could not get the states or the  Confederation Congress to agree to any solution he proposed. On July 29, 1782, Morris submitted to the Confederation Congress an ambitious plan to stabilize the country’s economy.

First and foremost was the approval of the five percent impost passed by the Congress in 1781, which was so obvious a motion that “this Revenue may be considered as being already gained”.

A portrait of Robert Morris.
In 1782, Robert Morris recommended a number of measures to stabilize the battered American economy. (Image: Charles Willson Peale/Public domain)

More Strategies of Robert Morris

Morris also recommended a national property tax on land that was not cultivated by landholders. He suggested to tax such landholdings so that they would both bring in revenue, and stimulate the sale of land by the great landholders to avoid the taxes.

He then recommended recall of paper money by exchanging it for a national loan offered at four percent interest, and thus create a clear, certain, permanent, and increasing basis for foreign borrowing.

Finally, Morris suggested the establishment of a Bank of North America, which would use a public charter and private investment to cater to the needs of the American citizens.

The Failure of Robert Morris’s Plans

Rhode Island sabotaged the impost by folding its arms and refusing to approve it, and a renewed initiative for the impost in 1784 failed as well. The Bank of North America was chartered by the Confederation Congress and incorporated by the Pennsylvania Assembly, and began operations in 1782, backed by the specie Morris had raised from the French and Dutch loans.

But in 1785, Morris’s enemies in the Pennsylvania Assembly engineered a repeal of the state incorporation of the Bank. Morris damaged his own standing by egging on the Continental Army’s mutiny in the hope that he could somehow use the soldiers’ threat to beat back his foes and critics.

By October of  1783, the Massachusetts legislature was instructing its delegation to the Confederation Congress to abolish the office of the  Superintendent of Finance. Instead, the legislature was supporting the setting up of a board of treasury, consisting of three persons, annually chosen from different states, with proper powers.

Disgusted, Morris turned in his resignation and left his post on November 1, 1784.

Common Questions about Robert Morris

Q: When did Robert Morris resign from the post of Superintendent of Finance?

Robert Morris resigned from his post of Superintendent of Finance on November 1, 1784.

Q: Was Robert Morris in support of the paper money?

Robert Morris vehemently opposed the idea that Pennsylvania’s paper money, like Rhode Island’s, be declared legal tender, with penalties for non-acceptance..

Q: Who called Robert Morris the most dangerous man in America.

The Virginian, William Lee denounced Robert Morris as the most dangerous man in America.

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