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Robert Morris: The Indispensable Founder

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He was a business man, a Congressman, an unofficial Secretary of the Treasury, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a Framer of the U.S. Constitution; one could say that he was a man of many talents, trades, and occupations, but despite all of these titles, Robert Morris was truly the indispensable Founder.

Why do I call him that? After all, many people could bear that title; John Adams for his uncompromising pursuit of independence and liberty could be called such. Or maybe Thomas Jefferson for writing the famed Declaration; or maybe George Washington could win such an honor for being the General that Americans needed to keep up their moral. But above all these great men, Morris is the one who in my opinion deserves this title, for without him the Revolutionaries would not have won the war, and our history would be entirely different.

Above all else, what is it that keeps a war running? If you answered money, you would be absolutely correct; while it is true that a war needs good generals and soldiers in order to be fought, you will not have either for long without money to pay their salaries. No matter how much they believe in the cause, there has to be compensation, not many are going to risk their lives for freedom alone. Money is needed to keep an army supplied with fire arms and ammunition, clothing, shelter and food. And when the new-born U.S. government could not supply their armies with these things, Robert Morris did; this is why he was known as the “ Financier of the Revolution.”

It was Morris’ background as a businessman that helped him be the financier that he was, for it was his credit and record that he had built up that allowed him to procure the funds needed. Take for example the battle of Trenton, that famous scene where Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night (into early the next morning) and launched a surprise attack on the British allied Hessian soldiers encamped at Trenton. Washington and his men won this battle and helped turn the tides of the war by raising American moral and encouraging more enlistment. Little is it known however that without the efforts of Mr. Morris, the battle of Trenton would have never occurred; noted 19th century historian Benson J. Lossing describes the situation in his book Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence:

“Even when the American army under Washington, had dwindled down to a handful of half-naked, half-famished militia, during the disastrous retreat across New Jersey at the close of 1776, he (Morris) evinced his confidence that the final success would ensue, by loaning at that time, upon his individual responsibility, ten thousand dollars. This materially assisted in collecting together and paying that gallant band with which Washington re-crossed the Delaware, and won the glorious victory at Trenton.” (1)

As incredible as the above story is, the story of how Morris was able to procure this loan for the war effort is just as amazing; Lossing once again explains:

“When Congress fled to Baltimore, on the approach of the British across New Jersey, Mr. Morris, after removing his family into the country, returned to, and remained in Philadelphia. Almost in despair, Washington wrote to him, and informed him that to make any successful movement whatever, a considerable sum of money must be had. It was a requirement that seemed almost impossible to meet. Mr. Morris left his counting-room for his lodgings in utter despondency. On his way he met a wealthy Quaker, and made known his wants. “What security can’st thou give? asked he. “My note and my honor,” promptly replied Mr. Morris. The Quaker replied: “Robert, thou shalt have it.” – It was sent to Washington, the Delaware was crossed, and victory won!” (2)

Without the word, credit, and honor of Robert Morris, Washington would not have been able to successfully attack Trenton, the battle would not have been won (if it happened at all), and the American Revolution would have kept spiraling further downhill. But this is not the only instance where Morris was able to provide the army with much needed cash. Lossing writes that “many instances of a similar nature are related, where the high character of Mr. Morris enabled him to procure money when the government could not…Congress, at that time, could not have obtained a loan of one thousand dollars, yet Robert Morris effected loans upon his own credit, of tens of thousands.” But along with obtaining loans upon his own credit, Morris also did invaluable work for the cause in the realm of banking:

“In 1781, the darkest period of the war, Mr. Morris, in connection with other citizens, organized a banking institution in Philadelphia, for the purpose of issuing paper money that should receive the public confidence, for the government bills were becoming almost worthless. This scheme had the desired effect, and the aid it rendered to the cause was incalculable…The Bank of North America was put in successful operation, and there is no doubt that these patriotic services of Robert Morris present the chief reason why the Continental army was not at that time disbanded by its own act.” (2&3)

It is because of Robert Morris that the American Revolution did not go down in flames; it was his monetary actions that supplied “a famished and naked army” with the food and supplies they needed to win, and the moral they needed to keep on fighting for their independence. It was even through the actions of this Patriot that the war was able to come to an end:

“If it were not demonstrable by official records, posterity would hardly be made to believe that the campaign of 1781, which resulted in the capture of Cornwallis, and virtually closed the Revolutionary War, was sustained wholly on the credit of an individual merchant.” (3)

It was the fundraising efforts of Robert Morris that helped Washington to fund the operation that captured top British Officer Charles Cornwallis, a proverbial final nail in the coffin for the British campaign to keep Americans from being independent. Lossing once again provides essential details to this story:

“At the time Washington was preparing, in his camp upon the Hudson, in Westchester County, to attack Sir Henry Clinton in New York, in 1781, Mr. Morris and Judge Peters of Pennsylvania were then at headquarters. Washington received a letter from Count de Grasse, announcing his determination not to sail for New York. He was bitterly disappointed, but almost before the cloud had passed from his brow, he conceived the expedition against Cornwallis at Yorktown. “What can you do for me?” said Washington to Mr. Peters. “With money, everything, without it, nothing,” he replied, at the same time turning with an anxious look towards Mr. Morris. “Let me know the sum you desire,” said Mr. Morris; and before noon Washington’s plan and estimates were complete. Mr. Morris promised him the amount, and he raised it upon his own responsibility.” (3)

It is for these reasons that Robert Morris of Pennsylvania can truly be called the indispensable Founder; without his specific efforts, the Continental army would not have been funded, and would have disbanded. Without his efforts, the battle of Trenton would not have been successful, nor would have Washington’s attempt on capturing Cornwallis, a victory that as noted above, essentially won the war for the Americans. Robert Morris is a man who should never be forgotten;  if it were not for his efforts, it is safe to say that our country would have been doomed from the start, and the American cause for independence would have failed. Robert Morris is a true American hero and one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers, and yet his name is not often enough included in the list of most memorable, but it should be; here is hoping that this account of his actions in support of his Country helps to keep the memory of his importance alive in some small way.

Selected Sources

1. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 95

2. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 96

3. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 97

 

 

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