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Excerpt: 'Robert Morris: Financier Of The American Revolution'

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Morris' position with the firm, and his bond with Thomas Willing, were altered dramatically with the death of Charles Willing in 1754. There was an element of irony in the circumstances of his demise: the thousands of indentured servants arriving in Philadelphia, many of them on Willing's ships, had introduced "jail or ship fever" to the local population, the "sickness spreading in the town… owing to the unhealthiness of the vessels and the Palatine passengers." Obliged as mayor to make rounds of the "pest house," Charles Willing contracted the fever and died on November 29. This left Thomas, twenty-three years old, in charge of the family business.

Thomas quickly assumed his father's public functions as well. He took a seat on the City Council in 1755, and held a variety of offices for the next twenty years, including stints on the Assembly, two terms as mayor of Philadelphia, and ten years as an associate justice on the colony's Supreme Court. As his responsibilities multiplied, Willing came to rely more and more upon Robert Morris. When Morris turned twenty-one, in 1756, his seven-year apprenticeship was complete, and he became a full-fledged employee, a virtual partner with Thomas. In the spring of 1757, Willing decided to make it official, dissolving the old firm and creating "Willing Morris & Company." It marked an extraordinary leap for Morris: his rapid transition from apprentice clerk to vested partner was an unprecedented ascent at a time when rank of birth was largely determinative, especially in staid Philadelphia.

Announcing his decision, Willing credited Morris as a "sober honest lad," and declared that the two of them would team up "to more advantage than either could do singly." That Morris brought a rare degree of acumen and vigor to the partnership is evident; his sobriety, however, appears to be a bit of an embellishment. Letters Morris received from friends around this time suggest that he was a young man who enjoyed a drink and a night on the town. One such correspondent, a friend and trading partner in Jamaica, boasted to Morris that, "drunk I shall be today, having a half dozen friends and a batch of true London claret. This town is turned devilishly debauched…" There's no record of Morris' answer to his friend, but in the years to come he gained a reputation for grand parties and a bountiful wine cellar. At a time when business was routinely conducted by "a numerous body of twelve o'clock punch drinkers," when Philadelphia boasted more than one hundred taverns, and a hundred more houses licensed to sell rum by the quart, Robert Morris was a first class carouser.

On at least one occasion, Morris' revelries led to more than just a hangover. That is to say, sometime around 1763, Morris sired a baby girl. She was born out of wedlock, like Morris himself, and little is known about the mother. The child was named Mary, and known to her family and friends as Polly; she did not live with Morris, but he appears to have provided for her room and board, and she apparently obtained a good education in Philadelphia. Polly was married in 1781, around age 18, and remained in touch with Morris during her adult life. Robert was also managing the affairs of his half-brother Thomas; he enrolled him in school and, around the time the boy turned sixteen, took him on as a clerk in the counting house.

Morris' family life, then, was a bit chaotic, but his focus was on business. He lived close by the docks on Front Street, just a short stroll from the Willing business complex. His day entailed drudgery at his writing desk in the counting house, attending arrivals and supervising the lading of outgoing vessels, and meeting with vendors and other merchants at the City Tavern, at the India Queen, or at any of a dozen other dens where merchants did their business. Working days were long, varied and convivial, and perhaps best captured in this observation by a foreign traveler of the life of the American merchant:

They breakfasted at eight or half-past; and by nine were in their counting houses, laying out the business of the day; at ten they were on their wharves, with their aprons around their waists, rolling hogsheads of rum and molasses; at twelve, at market, flying about as dirty and diligent as porters; at two back again to the rolling, heaving, hallooing, and scribbling. At four they went home to dress for dinner; at seven, to the play; at eleven, to supper, with a crew of lusty Bacchanals who would smoke cigars, gulp down brandy, and sing, roar, and shout in the thickening clouds they created like so many merry devils, till three in the morning.

The next morning, of course, it started all over again.

In pursuing the day-to-day business of the trading house, Robert Morris was performing the same duties as most of the other traders on the Philadelphia waterfront. What set the firm of Willing & Morris apart, what helped elevate them above their competitors, was their spirit of creativity.

Underwriting insurance was one such innovation; with rates in England high and sometimes prohibitive, Willing in 1756 pooled eighty thousand pounds with five other Philadelphia merchants to insure their own vessels and offer policies to other traders.  The firm's advance position in the Indian trade gave rise to another fiscal innovation. This substantial line of business was regulated by the colony to prevent abuses and the frontier violence that resulted; Willing was named to a nine-member Indian Affairs board that was empowered to raise funds by borrowing private capital at six percent interest. This opened a whole new practice of financing government projects through bonds and other promissory notes, and Willing took a direct hand in most of the early negotiations.

It's hard to say what role Morris played in designing these financial experiments; most of the paperwork that survives is subscribed by Willing. But Morris was working closely with his partner, gaining hands-on insights into the process of credit and capital formation at a time when most entrepreneurs engaged only in those operations they could finance from their own funds. Even as a passive observer, he may have recognized the same creative spirit at work that his father had introduced to the Maryland tobacco trade. In retrospect, these early projects look seminal: Morris later put the same principles to work on a grand scale, endeavoring to restore the finances of a beleaguered national government. It was a mercantile world, but Morris and his partner were practicing capitalism.

Excerpted from Robert Morris: Financier Of The American Revolution by Charles Rappleye. Copyright 2010 by Charles Rappleye. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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Charles Rappleye