Mary White was born on April 13, 1749, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the youngest child of Thomas and Esther White. She married Robert Morris, the future signer of the Declaration of Independence and great financier of the Revolutionary War, on March 2, 1769.
Mary was "well educated and carefully trained in the accomplishments of her day." She was "prominent in Philadelphia society" even before she married Morris, "one of the most prominent merchants of the day" at age 35. Mary and Robert became parents of five children, three sons and two daughters.
Mrs. Morris was subjected to many hardships during the Revolutionary War. With the British Army approaching Philadelphia near the end of 1776, Congress moved to Baltimore. Mr. Morris stayed in Philadelphia but sent his wife to Baltimore to stay with her step-sister along with her parents for several months.
After Mary received news of a victory at Trenton, she wrote the following letter to her husband on December 30, 1776: "… We had been for many days impatiently wishing for a letter from you, as the news we hear from any other quarter is not to be depended upon; but when the welcome one arrived, which brought those glad tidings, it more than compensated for what our unfortunate circumstances prepared our minds to expect. … but I hope, indeed, the tide is turned, and that our great Washington will have the success his virtues deserve, and rout the impious army who, from no other principle but that of enslaving this once happy country, have prosecuted this Cruell war, …"
In March 1777, Mrs. Morris returned to her home in Philadelphia. Apparently, Mary's health was damaged by the separation from her husband plus the worries and anxieties of war for she wrote to her mother, "… everybody exclaims at my thinness; several of my acquaintances … declared there was very little traces of my former self. …" In a postscript to this letter, she added that her brother Billy had been appointed to be the Chaplain in Congress. Billy was the "future eminent prelate and father of the Protestant Episcopal Church in this country, Bishop William White."
Mary was not long in her home when fears of the approach of the British Army made it necessary to move again. Even though she began packing household future, etc. on April 14, 1777, two weeks later she wrote that she was still in Philadelphia and was preparing to send her best furniture, any extra linen, and supplies of all sorts in order to flee quickly if necessary. With the near approach of the British Army in September, 1777, Congress moved from Philadelphia to Lancaster and then to York. Mr. and Mrs. Morris moved to their country home, the Hills, about the same time and stayed until the summer of 1778 when Sir Henry Clinton left the city. Congress returned to Philadelphia on July 2, 1778, for Philadelphia was under the command of Benedict Arnold. During this time there were many social events where military gentlemen, including General Arnold, began to keep company with Tory ladies.
Mrs. Morris lost her father in September 1779. In early 1781, Robert was appointed to be Superintendent of Finance - Treasury Secretary. He and his wife became very prominent because of the power of his position as well as their own wealth and social position. They entertained many distinguished men, including numerous foreigners. One of these foreigners was a French nobleman from whom Robert Morris borrowed twenty thousand pounds on his personal credit. He sent this money to General Washington, who used the money to beat Cornwallis at Yorktown and to basically end the war.
Mr. and Mrs. Morris hosted George Washington, Count de Rochambeau and other foreign and American officers when they traveled through Philadelphia on their way to join LaFayette near Yorktown.
Robert and Mary sent their two oldest sons to Europe to be educated in the fall of 1781. The boys were only 12 and 10 years old.
In late May 1887, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia to write a new Constitution, and George Washington stayed with the Morris family while the Founders were meeting. Mr. Morris was a member of the convention, and he nominated General Washington to preside over the proceedings. Robert and Mary Morris remained close friends with George and Martha Washington.
When Washington became President, he asked Morris to be Secretary of the Treasury. Morris declined the offer but recommended Alexander Hamilton whom Washington appointed to the position.
When settlers did not flock to the wild lands purchased by Robert, his fortune was wrecked. He was arrested on February 15, 1798, and put in debtor's prison for three and a half years before being released in October 1801. One of their sons died the same month. Mary and her daughter Maria visited Robert in prison day after day even though malignant fever raged through the area.
Gouverneur Morris, a good friend but not a relative, came to Mary's aid. He compelled the Holland Land Company, who had the title to Robert's three million three hundred thousand acres to pay Mary an annuity of $1500.00 for the rest of her life.
Robert was a "broken-down old man" when he was released from prison, and he died about five years later in 1806. Mary moved to a different home after his death where she lived for the rest of her life.
When General La Fayette made his famous tour through the country in 1824, he made his first private visit in the city to Mrs. Morris. He had not seen her for thirty-seven years, but he recognized her at her window as he passed her house earlier in the afternoon on September 29. At his personal request, Mary attended a grand Civic Ball given in his honor on October 5. Mary was sixty-seven years old at the time and was described as being "tall, graceful, and commanding, with a stately dignity of manner."
Facts and quotes are from Wives of the Signers: The women behind the Declaration of Independence, pp. 155-169.
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