Robert Morris, a signer of three important American documents (the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States), was born on January 20, 1734, in Liverpool, England. His parents were Robert Morris, Sr. and Elizabeth Murphet. Robert, the son, immigrated to Oxford, Maryland, at 13 years of age in order to live with his father who was a tobacco factor. His father provided a tutor for him, but Robert quickly learned everything his teacher could teach him. His father then sent him to Philadelphia to study.
Robert lived with a family friend, Charles Greenway, who arranged for him to become an apprentice at the shipping and banking firm of the Philadelphia merchant (and then mayor) Charles Willing. Robert’s father died a year later after being hit by the wadding of a ship’s gun that was fired in his honor. Charles Willing died in 1754, and his son Thomas Willing made Robert his partner at the age of 24 years. They established the prominent shipping-banking firm of Willing, Morris & Co. on May 1, 1757. The partnership lasted until about 1779.
On March 2, 1769, Robert married Mary White; Robert was 35, and Mary was 20. They became the parents of five sons and two daughters. Mary came from a prominent Maryland family; her brother was the well-known Anglican Bishop William White. Bishop White ran two churches in Philadelphia – St. Peter’s Church on Pine Street and Christ Church on Second Street, and Robert worshipped at both of them. Robert was an active member and supporter of this Anglican Church for his entire life. Robert and Bishop White are both buried at Christ Church, Philadelphia in the churchyard located at Second and Market. These churches had good reputations and locations and drew a number of notable members of the Continental Congress, including George Washington.
Morris became active in politics when he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He later became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. He was selected to be a delegate to the Second Continental Congress where he served as chairman of the “Secret Committee of Trade” and as a member of the Committee of Correspondence. He served from 1781 to 1784 as the powerful Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. He was the central civilian in the government and stood next to George Washington as “the most powerful man in America.” He was so successful in administering the funds that he became known as the “Financier of the Revolution.” As the Agent of Marine, he controlled the Continental Navy but received no pay from the position.
Robert Morris was a wealthy man and used much of his own money to fund the war. He was one of Pennsylvania’s original pair of U.S. Senators and served from 1789 to 1795. Unwise land speculation right before the Panic of 1796-1797 caused his bankruptcy in 1798, and he sat in debtors’ prison for several years. Part of the reason that the U.S. Congress passed its first bankruptcy legislation, the temporary Bankruptcy Act of 1800, was to get Morris out of prison. After his release from prison and suffering from bad health, he retired to a quiet and private life in a modest Philadelphia home where he passed away on either May 8 or May 9, 1806. He was survived by his wife who supported him throughout his misfortune. He is buried in the family vault of Bishop William White, his brother-in-law, at Christ Church. A plaque installed later reads: “ROBERT MORRIS signer of the Constitution of the United States of America. Deputy from Pennsylvania to Federal Constitutional Convention May 25, 1787 – September 17, 1787. Erected by the Pennsylvania Constitution Commemorative Committee.”
Morris left a great legacy. His work, “On Public Credit” submitted during the Revolution, to the Continental Congress in 1781, supplied the basis for Hamilton’s economic plan submitted in 1790 under the title First Report on the Public Credit. Morris laid out a national funding plan but its reliance on direct taxation, including a head tax on slaves, prevented his gaining support for it. Hamilton added to the plan as Secretary of Treasury. Along with Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, Morris is considered one of the key founders of the financial system in the United States.
The portrait of Morris appeared on US $1000 notes from 1862 to 1863 and on the $10 Silver Certificates from 1878 to 1880. Morris and Roger Sherman were the only two people to sign all three significant founding documents of the United States – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. Morris is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, or the Articles of Confederation (and he signed all three) whose house is the site of a national memorial in a National Park, but whose life and work are not interpreted.
The dollar sign (“$”) was in common use among private merchants during the middle of the 18th century. It referred to the two columns draped with scrolls on the Spanish milled dollar, which predated the US dollar. Morris was the first to use that symbol in official documents and in official communications with Oliver Pollock. The US dollar was based on the Spanish milled dollar when, in the Coinage Act of 1792, the first Mint Act, its value was “fixed” (per the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 where power is given to the United States Congress “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures”) as being “of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver.”