He isn’t as famous as his friend George Washington, but without Robert Morris, the American colonies’ bold attempt to throw off British rule never could have succeeded.
Orphaned as a teenager, Morris was a self-made millionaire with an amazing life story. Born in Liverpool in 1734, he never knew his mother, and was raised by his grandmother after his father gave up his trade as a nail maker to try a new start as a tobacco trader in the colonies. When he was 14, Morris sailed over to join his father. But soon after, the elder Morris accidentally was killed by a ship’s cannon firing a salute to him.
By then, Morris was working as an apprentice at a Philadelphia import-export firm. He eventually became a partner, and the reputation (and wealth) of the shrewd young businessman at Willing & Morris grew quickly.
When he was 31, Morris was picked by Philadelphia’s wealthy business elite to be their spokesman in opposing the Stamp Act. The British bid to squeeze money out of the colonies spurred the slogan, "No taxation without representation!"
Morris was hosting a party in 1775 when a messenger burst in with news of fighting in Massachusetts. Morris and Ben Franklin started planning how to beef up Pennsylvania’s militia, and soon the new Continental Congress had Morris devising how to smuggle in arms and other supplies to create a new American army and navy.
After signing the Declaration of Independence, Morris was committed to the cause. The winter after that first Fourth of July, with Redcoats threatening to capture Philadelphia, Congress fled to Baltimore. But they left one man behind to manage the country’s affairs and find enough money to keep Washington’s men from deserting: Robert Morris.
As superintendent of finance, he hounded the states throughout the war to pay their taxes so soldiers could be armed and fed. He often used his personal credit to secure loans for the colonial forces. Much of the Willing & Morris fleet became "privateers," attacking British ships and seizing their cargo. When demand for lead to make bullets pushed prices up so high that people melted their drainpipes to sell the metal, Morris had 90 tons of lead ballast stripped out of one of his ships and turned over to the army.
His rivals accused him of war profiteering, but a congressional investigation exonerated and praised Morris. He later played a key role at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, then became one of Pennsylvania’s first senators.
When George Washington became president, there was no White House. Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. So Morris invited the First Family to move into his mansion, where they lived for Washington’s two terms. Morris and his wife, Mary, moved next door.
As an old man, Morris used his fortune to buy millions of acres of frontier land, confident in a real estate boom as the country grew and prospered. A boom eventually came, but too late for Morris. He was put in debtor’s prison in Philadelphia, where Washington and other great men visited him. Congress eventually rewrote the bankruptcy laws, so the "Financier of the Revolution" lived out his final years in dignity at home.