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Robert Morris Heritage Room and Historical Display

WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH / PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALAN FREED

bustwebDuring the Revolutionary War, Robert Morris used his financial expertise to support the Continental Army in its fight against the British. Had the colonists been defeated, there’s a good chance the British would’ve taken Morris’ head – along with those of the other Founding Fathers. 

Instead, Morris’ head is on display at the university that bears his name. Well, a model of his head, that is. 

The Heritage Room is RMU’s first-ever permanent tribute to its namesake, the celebrated patriot, statesman and financier of the American Revolution – Robert Morris. Located on the third floor of the Nicholson Center, the Heritage Room’s centerpiece is a plaster bust that was used by sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925) to create his statue of Morris, which stands in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. The bust, which was given to RMU in 2007 by the Tudor House Gallery and Museum in Washington, D.C., was preserved and restored by artists at the Carnegie Museum.  

The idea for the Heritage Room came from RMU President Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D., who felt it would be a great way to honor the namesake of the University. 

“Robert Morris University has long been known as place where students can get a superior education in business and finance. The sound financial principles and strategies that Robert Morris depended upon in his support of the American cause during the Revolution were the inspiration for our University’s name,” said Dell’Omo. “When we received this unique gift from the Tudor House Gallery, we wanted to display it in a way that would pay tribute to Robert Morris the individual. The new Heritage Room accomplishes this goal.” 

Robert Morris was born in Lancashire, England, on Jan. 31, 1734 (some sources list his birthday as Jan. 20). In 1748, he emigrated to America to join his father, a tobacco exporter at Oxford, Md. In 1754, he and business partner Thomas Willing founded Willing, Morris & Company. Specializing in importing and exporting, the company soon became one of the most prosperous of its kind in Pennsylvania.  

Like most of the colonists, Morris was strongly opposed to the controversial Stamp Act (1765), which put a tax on every piece of printed paper including ship's papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers and even playing cards. As a result, he quickly became involved in supporting the Revolution. He was particularly influential in obtaining munitions and other supplies as well as borrowing money to finance George Washington’s army.  

“The Heritage Room connects us to Robert Morris as an exemplar of the tradition of American entrepreneurship and business success as well as of the commitment of those with resources to give back to causes and institutions they believe in,” said RMU Provost David L. Jamison, J.D. “It gives the campus a focal point for education of our students and the community about the American Revolution, about philanthropy, and, because of the unique nature of the sculptural piece, even of the fine arts. The Heritage Room is one more way in which we are engaging our campus in learning.” 

The Heritage Room, which was completed in April 2008, will be the central piece in a weeklong celebration of Constitution Day, September 17. A formal dedication of the Heritage Room is planned for Tuesday, Sept. 16.

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From 1775 to 1778, Morris served as a member of the Continental Congress, which contracted his company to import arms and ammunition for the Continental Army. Using his extensive international trading network as a spy network, he gathered valuable intelligence on British troop movements. He also served on the Marine and Maritime Committees and sold his best ship, The Black Prince, to the Continental Congress. Renamed The Alfred, it became the first ship in the Continental Navy.  

As superintendent of finance (1781–1784), in 1782, Morris created the Bank of North America – the first financial institution chartered by the United States, which helped to establish the country’s credit with the nations of Europe. He also loaned the Continental Army large sums of his own money.  

Morris served in the United States Senate from 1789 to 1795, and was one of only two people to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution (the other was Roger Sherman, 1721–1793). The Heritage Room historical display features facsimiles of two of these significant founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. The display also includes an original stock certificate, dated April 17, 1795, which is signed by Morris and countersigned by James Marshall, brother of the future Chief Justice John Marshall, and future husband of Morris’ daughter, Hester. It also features an original power of attorney signed by Morris, dated 1793, as well as a letter from Morris to “Robert Gilmor & Co.,” discussing charter and demurrage issues on a ship called America.

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One of the historical documents in the new Heritage Room was almost lost to history, so to speak. The original deed (pictured left), dated 1795, was donated to RMU by Albert Hoffman. In 1969, Hoffman discovered the document in a garbage can while he was studing law at the University of Denver. He held onto the deed for 26 years and donated it to RMU in February 1995.

HeritageRoomDeed"Know all men by these Presents, that Robert Morris of Philadelphia do hereby constitute and appoint [NAMES ILLEGIBLE] my true and lawful attorneys for and in my name and behalf, to sell, assign and transfer unto any person or persons, four complete shares unto me belonging in the Capital of joint Stock of the President, Directors and Company of the Bank of the United States; and for that purpose to make and execute all necessary acts of assignment and transfer, and furthermore one or more persons under them to substitute with like full power…"

HeritageRoomLetter"Philadelphia, 4 December, 1786

Messrs. Robert Gilmor & Co.

Gentlemen,

If you think a Charter party necessary for the Ship America, have one drawn and send me the rough draft for inspection. I have constantly guarded against paying demurrage in America and should not have agreed to subject myself to it if you had mentioned it, however, I believe there is no danger. You & I must both urge Ridgate and he will get her laden in time. I hope also to get Col. Smith’s ship loaded notwithstanding the circumstances you mention. I find also that you have entered the lists at Richmond & Petersburg but there is plenty of tobacco for us all.

I am, gentlemen, your obedient servant,

Robert Morris"