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Bit-O-History: Morris and Morris — the Founding Fathers time forgot

During World War I, the French army withstood an incredible artillery barrage from superior German forces and a frontal assault of tens of thousands of German troops for over a week at Fort Vaux, until the French soldiers found themselves literally dying of thirst and were forced to surrender. (John Pyle/TheBlaze)

Given the popularity of our Independence Day tribute to the history of the Revolutionary War, we have decided to run a series of short posts about events in world history that you might not be familiar with. These posts are not intended to be exhaustive in any way, but rather merely to introduce the reader to the subject and provide resources for further study. We hope you enjoy.


If you ask any American who is relatively familiar with the story of America's founding to name America's Founding Fathers, you'll probably get a list that looks something like this: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin. Americans with more than a casual interest in history will probably (rightly) add John Jay to the list. But two men who lived in the tumultuous period of America's founding were equally vital to the founding of the American republic as any of the men above. Their names were Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (no relation), and it is no exaggeration to say that without their contributions, America as we know it might not exist today. At the very least, it might look much different than it currently does.

Governeur Morris (left) and Robert Morris (right). Original paintings by Charles Wilson Peale (1783 and 1782, respectively).

Robert Morris — The Financier

The thing about wars is that they cost money. This was an especially important fact in the American Revolutionary War, because most of the world did not recognize the United States as an independent country and was extremely hesitant to loan the American rebels any hard currency. The extreme hardships the Continental Army faced due to lack of funding have been well documented — in fact, the Revolutionary War was almost lost due to lack of money. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Robert Morris, it almost certainly would have been.

Morris was the sort of prototypical "rags to riches" story that was uniquely possible in the new American territory. He was born in Liverpool, England, the son of a not-very-noteworthy merchant and a mother who abandoned him at a young age. Morris' father emigrated to America and shortly thereafter shipped him off to Philadelphia at the age of 13 to serve as an apprentice with Charles Willing's shipping firm with little more than the clothes on his back. Eight years later, the precocious Morris was a full partner in Willing's firm, and through his shrewd business acumen, transformed Willing, Morris and Company into a dazzlingly lucrative company of worldwide prominence. It is almost certain that at the time the first shots of the war were fired in Lexington and Concord, Morris was the richest man in America.

Unlike a Samuel Adams or a Patrick Henry, Morris was considered politically moderate on the question of American independence through the tumultuous period of debates leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. He supported protests against the Stamp Act, but as a member of the First Continental Congress in 1775, he sided with the faction that favored an attempt to reconcile with the crown rather than immediately declare independence. When the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence, Morris reluctantly agreed but with obvious and publicly stated reluctance.

However, once the die was cast, Morris became the de facto personal financier of the entire war effort. The sad truth was that "The United States of America" did not really exist in the minds of most of the world, and they certainly did not have any credit upon which anyone would loan them money, munitions, or war supplies. Robert Morris, however, had outstanding credit, and he exhausted every bit of it procuring arms and equipment for the Continental Army from his business contacts in Europe and the West Indies.

Because these contacts were willing to supply material only to Morris personally, he was required to mix his private accounts with public funds, which made him the object of bitter and unfair criticism. Radical patriots, probably angered in part by his moderate stance, savaged him publicly in the press as a war profiteer, a judgment that has been universally rejected by historians. The actual truth is that Morris lost huge, substantial sums of money funding the Revolutionary War — and for his trouble was the object of daily slander on the streets of America.

The poverty of the Continental Army — in which starvation, disease, lack of munitions, and lack of proper clothing ran endemic — is the stuff of historical legend. Without Morris' tireless efforts to provide the army with what little they had, it is not plausible to suggest that they would have been able to survive, much less win the war. It should also be noted that Morris also acted as the Secretary of the Navy (known as the "Agent of Marine" at the time) during the war, a position he took without pay.

After the war, Morris was persuaded by Benjamin Franklin — much against his will —  to assume responsibility for the fledgling country's fiscal policy. After his bitter experience with public savagery during the war, Morris resisted Franklin's pleas for months, but eventually capitulated. He had seen firsthand how the Continental Congress' failure to raise revenue from the states had impacted the Continental Army, and he was determined to see that America was able to pay her post-war debts, particularly to the soldiers in the Continental Army.

See, in order to induce soldiers to leave their homes and farms and tolerate the miserable, destitute conditions in the Continental Army, the Continental Congress had promised soldiers a lifetime pension of half their Army pay (which is to say, the pay they were supposed to have received, as opposed to the pay they actually received, which was often nothing at all). Morris immediately realized that this was an obligation that the post-revolutionary government had no way to meet. The soldiers realized it, too, and this realization nearly led to a military coup during the course of the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783. An impassioned personal plea from George Washington was largely responsible for ending the Newburgh Conspiracy. However, Congress also paid at least some of vast arrears due to Continental Army members, and further promised to honor at least five years worth of pension pay for soldiers.

Morris understood that the revenue streams available to the fledgling country — which consisted chiefly of begging each individual sovereign state for money — were still not sufficient to meet this obligation, and he attempted a number of measures to ensure that the newly formed country could meet at least basic obligations to creditors, including the founding of a national bank and the passage of an impost, but all his efforts were thwarted by the structure of the Articles of Confederation, which effectively allowed a single state to veto any national policy.  In 1781, two states (Rhode Island and Virginia) were able to scuttle the first impost plan, and in 1783, a single state (New York) scuttled a modified plan.

Morris came to realize that the country as currently constituted could never raise enough money to pay for the promised pensions (or anything else), a realization that was vindicated with the eventual demise of the Articles of Confederation. Worse, he came to realize that there was significant sentiment in the colonies for refusing to pay Continental Army soldiers any pension at all. According to historian Joseph Ellis:

Even that meaningless commitment generated widespread criticism, especially in New England, where returning officers were greeted with newspaper editorials describing them as blood-beaked vultures feeding at the public trough. At least in retrospect, the dissolution of the Continental Army in Spring 1783 was one of the most poignant scenes in American history, as the men who had stayed the course and won the war were ushered off without pay, with paper pensions and only grudging recognition of their service. Washington could only weep: "To be disbanded... like a set of beggars, needy, distressed, and without prospect... will drive every man of Honor and Sensibility to the extreme Horrors of Despair."

It was too much for Morris, who resigned his post in disgust, but decided to pay each and every soldier in the Continental Army three months' pension out of his own personal funds. As Ellis notes, "he spent his last days in office writing personal checks" to Continental Army soldiers, an endeavor that nearly bankrupted him.

Morris was eventually part of Pennsylvania's delegation to the Constitutional Convention, which made him one of the few men in American history to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. After the ratification of the Constitution, he became one of Pennsylvania's first senators, serving from 1789-1795. Morris was eventually bankrupted in the Panic of 1796-1797 and thrown in debtor's prison. He was released through an act of Congress in 1801 and returned home to Pennsylvania where he lived quietly (and modestly) until his death in 1806.

Gouverneur Morris — The Penman

James Madison is often called "the Father of the Constitution," and there is an argument that he deserves the title. Certainly, Madison was largely responsible for guiding the Constitutional Convention to a wholesale rejection of the Articles of Confederation, rather than a rewrite that tinkered around the edges. It is definitely also true that Madison's Virginia Plan formed the principal structural basis for the form of government that emerged from the convention, although Madison himself originally felt that his efforts at the convention were a failure because of the compromises he was forced to accept to that plan. But the Constitution might have had a completely different shape than it does now if not for the efforts of Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the son of a wealthy New York merchant whose family was divided by the American Revolution. Morris had one half-brother who was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and another who was a major-general in the British army during the war. Morris himself enrolled in King's College (now Columbia University) at age 12, and after college studied law. He gained his admission to the bar in 1775. At the time, he was already a fierce advocate for independence, which brought him into conflict with his family. When the British captured New York at the outset of the war, his mother — a British loyalist — gave the family's estate in Manhattan to the British army for military use.

Morris was elected as a member of Continental Congress after the outbreak of the war and is credited with casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of George Washington in 1778 when the Conway Cabal attempted to have Washington removed as commander of the Continental Army. He moved to Philadelphia in 1779 and in 1780 lost his left leg below the knee in a carriage accident. He worked as assistant superintendent of finance under Robert Morris from 1781-1785 and was elected as one of Pennsylvania's delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which is where he made his most lasting mark on American history.

Morris was known as a fiery orator and a man who was absolutely fearless when it came to making political enemies. And at the Constitutional Convention he made his mark on the future of the country in a way that was more prominent than any other person who attended, with the possible exception of Madison. According to notes taken at the Convention, Morris rose to speak more than any other delegate, including Madison, totaling an astounding 173 speeches. During the convention, there was an almost unspoken understanding that the subject of slavery should be avoided as much as possible, because it was the one intractable political issue that threatened the entire endeavor. Morris would have none of it. According to Madison's notes, Morris railed against what he perceived as the cowardice of the delegates for refusing to confront slavery head on. From Madison's notes:

He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. ... Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings.

Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included? The Houses in this city are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina.

Morris' personal force at the Convention led him to be included in the Committee on Style and Arrangement (along with Alexander Hamilton and Madison) when the time came to draft the document that reflected the compromises that had been assiduously hammered out during the course of the convention. As Madison would later attest, however, the lion's share of the credit belonged exclusively to Morris. The original draft Morris, Hamilton and Madison were given to work with was a hopeless mish mash of 23 confusing articles. Morris effectively trashed this and reworked the document into the streamlined, seven-article document with which we are familiar. It is primarily through the work of Morris' hand that the Constitution is still a document that is readable by ordinary citizens some 240 years after its drafting.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Morris drafted a preamble to the Constitution that changed both the shape of the debate over ratification and was perhaps responsible for forming, more than anything, the understanding that the Constitution was intended to represent a truly unified country. In the original draft of the preamble, the Committee on Detail had written, "We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts..." and so on. Morris unilaterally changed this language to "We the People of the United States."

The significance of this change cannot be overstated, especially within the historical context of 1787. At that time, there was very little public conception of any such thing as "the United States," but rather each citizen in America considered themselves as citizens of the sovereign colony of Massachusetts, or New York, etc. Morris' change, stated boldly in the opening words of the Constitution, forced the ratification conventions to confront the reality that they were not voting for a different confederation of independent states, but were instead voting to transform a loose confederation of independent entities into a single, unified nation. These words were assailed by opponents of ratification as proof that the Constitution's drafters intended to fundamentally change the government of the new territory, as indeed they did. By forcing the states to accept this language as part of the ratification process, "We the People of the United States" became an actual thing that had not, in all truth, existed prior to that point.

After ratification, Morris moved to France and became minister plenipotentiary to France from 1792 to 1794. His diaries from that time period have come to be understood as invaluable historical artifacts of the French Revolution. He afterward returned to America and served a partial term in the Senate due to the resignation of James Watson. He was defeated for re-election in 1803, but he continued to play an important secondary role in American society, including serving as chairman of the Erie Canal Commission. He died in 1816 when he caused himself internal injuries and infection after trying to use a whalebone as a catheter to remove a blockage in his urinary tract.

After the ratification of the Constitution, neither Robert Morris nor Gouverneur Morris played as significant a role in America's history as did Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or others, and perhaps this plays a role in the fact that very few Americans could identify them by name or describe their contributions to the founding of this country. But without these two men, it is difficult to imagine that our country would exist in the form it does today.

References for further study: 

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye

Robert Morris: Patriot and Financier by Ellis Paxon Oberholtzer

Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution by Richard Brookhiser

Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government by Senator Mike Lee

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