How a Capitalist and Entrepreneur Saved America
Who was the most indispensable man to the success of the American Revolution? There is little doubt among historians and common citizens alike that the answer is George Washington. But who was second? Most would likely conjure up images of Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, or Benjamin Franklin. However, there was someone who served as the lynchpin to American success in the late 18th century. He was a “Wizard of Oz” type character in the drama that was our fight for independence, carefully pulling the strings of power behind the scenes to ensure that our fledgling nation had the tools necessary to win the war of attrition against Great Britain. His name was Robert Morris.
Morris was known as the Financier of the Revolution, but was not always endeared in the hearts of the more well known founders. A wealthy and prominent merchant from Philadelphia, he served on the Second Continental Congress as we hurtled towards war. He was ever the cautious patriot, ideally wanting to see a peaceful resolution between the colonies and the mother country. This is not to say he didn’t support the ideals of liberty that embodied the Revolution. He was just wary of a war with the most powerful military in the world, fearing that it could be disastrous, particularly to the economy of which he was intimately tied.
1776: The Precipice of Defeat
As the debate over independence heated up in the summer of 1776, he found himself aligned, and often times leading, the “conservatives” in Congress. Throughout that year and the years of conflict to come, this conservative caucus served as a vital and calming tonic to the liberal, more passionate members of the Continental Congress. This created a necessary balance in our revolutionary process that has been notably absent in other revolutions around the world. Our revolution is an exception, as most throughout history have devolved into anarchy and despotism. The French Revolution is a prime example.
The vote on the Declaration of Independence finally arrived on July 2nd. Morris voted against it. In his mind the timing wasn’t right for this monumental step just yet. As we all know, the Declaration was unanimously adopted (with the exception of New York, who abstained) and the colonies continued full force into the maelstrom of war. Though Morris cast his vote against independence, he both signed the document and immediately committed himself to defending it. His talents for finance and logistics were well known by the other delegates, and though many despised his moderation, they recognized that his abilities were essential to success.
As 1776 dragged on, Washington’s army was met with a string of blistering defeats. After racing across Manhattan, the British were soon chasing the American army across New Jersey. Panic soon gripped the capital of Philadelphia, and with fears that the city was to be captured by the British (which would mean their imprisonment and likely execution as traitors), Congress chaotically evacuated.
Everyone, that is, except Robert Morris. He understood that if the government abandoned its post at that crucial moment, Washington would likely be unable to hold his army together for want of supplies and necessary funding. If this were to happen, the nation they had fought to sustain would wither away. With Congress in exile, he received official sanction from that body to “execute Continental business.” Throughout the months of November, December, and January Morris essentially took control of all facets of the government. For that period of time Morris was the government. With Washington’s army in retreat and on the verge of dissolution, Morris wrestled control of the provisions of blankets, muskets, pistols, gunpowder, lead, and other supplies that were tied up in the chaos of Philadelphia. He organized the logistics to take control and transport all of these materials to Washington’s camp in the last week of December 1776. This provided Washington what he needed on the eve of his famous crossing of the Delaware and his shocking victory at Trenton. Without Morris, this would have been an impossibility.
This was not the end, but the just the beginning of his irreplaceable service to the nation. As the war dragged on, Morris made it a habit of using is own money and lines of credit to keep the nation financially solvent. Using his extensive contacts as a merchant, he established an international cadre of agents and spies that spanned across the entire northern hemisphere. These individuals provided valuable information and supplies for the Americans, and they were all organized by Morris himself. His most critical asset was, believe it or not, a french playwright.
Prior to the official alliance with France, Morris understood that obtaining arms and munitions from Europe was key to success on the battlefields of America. Though the French were sympathetic to America, they couldn’t be seen blatantly giving aid to the Americans for it would obliterate their stance of neutrality. Therefore, creative measures had to be taken. With the help of Silas Deane and through Beaumarchais, the french playwright, Morris set up a shell company called Rodrigue Hortalez & Co., which essentially served as a front for smuggling weapons across the Atlantic. Dodging British spies and engaging in secret negotiations with French government officials, they succeeded in their mission. With weapons in short supply, the American army was on the verge of a major battle in Saratoga, New York. Thanks to Morris’ logistical genius, the first shipment of arms obtained by Rodrigue Hortalez & Co. arrived just in time for what turned out to be the turning point of the war. The victory at Saratoga, which was won due in large part to the weapons provided by Morris, Deane, and Beaumarchais, essentially sealed the official alliance with France.
National Stability, Personal Downfall
While he waded through a maze of personal correspondence with his agents, he served as America’s first chief executive, continued to personally bankroll the army and the bulk of the economy, and established the United States Navy.
As the war came to a close, the nation’s next hurdle was economic stability. Morris took the reins on this problem as well, crafting what came to be our earliest financial institutions. He was a major contributor in obtaining an official charter for the Bank of North America in 1782, which was our original national bank. As Washington began to assemble his inaugural cabinet, he asked Robert Morris to be the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Exhausted and nearly broke, he turned down the role and instead recommended Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was one of Morris’ prodigy’s, and as he took office he began to implement many of the plans designed by his mentor.
During and after the war Morris was constantly criticized by the more liberal faction of Congress. He was dogged by accusations of melding the nation’s finances too closely to his own during the war, allowing him to profit from the conflict. Though profiting from the war was fairly commonplace and even accepted in many cases at the time, Morris reaped little financial benefit. Buried in debt in large part due to his personal contributions to the Revolution, he eventually lost everything and spent a number of years in a debtor’s prison during the twilight of his life.
There were few people at the time who were as talented or who sacrificed as much as Robert Morris. However, due to his unpopularity amongst his fellow revolutionaries and the misunderstanding of his many contributions, he has virtually been written out of the history books. The American Revolution, though romanticized over the last two centuries, was a messy and ugly affair. Morris’ involvement and sacrifice embody that truth. So, when you’re next asked about the Revolution, be sure to mention Robert Morris: the financier, the entrepreneur, and the first American capitalist that saved America.
Follow this author Twitter: @crizzuto10