He financed the American revolution

It takes courage and perseverance to wage war. It also requires financial strength. In the 1700s, Britain was the leading world power with the strongest economy of all countries. Britain ruled the seas, dominated world trade and owned colonies in North America. But it was in the 18th century that the rebellious spirit began to ferment among the colonists in New England. Most of the wealthy among the colonists openly refused to rebel against the English, but there were still enough forces to try to break away from the British regime, supported by the French.

The insurgent colonists called for what was named ”the Continental Congress”. It was there that the revolutionaries and colonists agreed, if possible, to create an army and an own small navy fleet to fight against the British crown. The Congress conferred on itself the right to tax the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, but lacked any organization to tax and collect the taxes. Thre were considerable costs to create and maintain even a small army. With a modern term one can simply say that the plans for a revolution were underfunded. Although France at various stages was willing to support the revolutiony plans, the economy was not secured. No one would at that time lend money to the revolutionaries, who had not yet formed their own state. The Continental Congress was only a temporary very loose organization pending the thirteen states to break away from the British Empire. It turned out that the future of a revolution was completely dependent on an individual financier.

Robert Morris was an eleven-year-old English boy who immigrated to Maryland with his father in 1747. Three years later, his father died in an accident with a gun. The boy then ended up in Philadelphia and began working for the shipowner and merchant Charles Willing. Robert Morris was so enterprising in business that he already became a partner in the business at the age of 20. As a trader, he opposed the taxes and duties that the British taxed their North American colonies. The colonists’ military defeat in Lexington (April 19, 1775) prompted Morris to actively take a stand for an uprising against British rule. As a representative of Pennsylvania, he attended the Continental Congress in 1776 and was one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Morris was appointed by Congress to head the Finance Committee of the Congress, whose task was to try finance the revolution in every possible way. It was Morris who was responsible for handle the colonists financial means to create an army led by George Washington. It has later been estimated that Morris managed to finance the revolution with $ 20,000 each day for over five years.

Revolutionary leaders as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are today named in American history as the leaders and heroes of the revolution. Robert Morris, however, is forgotten.

It is well known that George Washington, with his small army, crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Eve in 1776 and won over the British troops. But what happened next is unknown today. Washington was then desperate because the contract period for the soldiers would expire at the end of the same week. He and everyone else predicted that the soldiers would pack up their belongings and go home. Washington, however, was about to take control of New Jersey shortly, but only if the soldiers did not leave the army. In addition, he realized that within a week the English would regroup and reorganize, beat the colonists and recapture the city of Trenton in New Jersey. Washington explained that he immediately needed $ 50,000 to pay each soldier $ 10 to induce the soldiers to stay in war service for another six weeks. Washington appealed to Morris, who then was the chairman of the Continental Congress Finance Committee, for funding for another six weeks of battle against the ”Red Rocks” (the English). Morris, in turn, turned to a familiar trader, a quaker, and appealed for a $ 50,000 loan. The quiver asked what security could be granted for such a large loan. Morris replied that the lender would take his honor as security. Morris and the colonists received the loan with no other security than Morris’s words and honor. Washington could pay the money to the soldiers, who stayed on their posts and the colonists got control of New Jersey. 

All American schoolchildren have been taught that Washington’s troops suffered severe hardships in their winter camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1777. But they are not taught the reason for the US troops (about 12,000 men) precarious conditions during that winter. The reason to the difficult situation was that Congress, against Morris’s will, had decided on its own new currency and printed its own banknotes. In addition, Congress had decided that all trade in the colonies had to take place in the new currency. However, dissatisfied traders distrusted the new currency. They considered it lacking in value and therefore refused to deliver maintenance to Washington’s troops when they were in the winter quarters in Valley Forge. The troops suffered from almost everything. They lacked food, boots, blankets and much more.

American schoolchildren will also learn that Washington’s small army marched into Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781. That was just in time to capture the British troops, thus ending the colonial war. However, Washington had a few weeks earlier not had the money to manage to march with his army from New Jersey to Virginia. But Robert Morris, however, managed to obtain loans of an additional $ 1.4 million in the short term for the purchase of wheat, corn, salted meat, rum, tobacco and hay. With the borrowed amounts, the colonists also bought boats for the troops to be able to cross the watercourses. The amount was also sufficient for cash payments to the soldiers to cause them to march 45 miles to Yorktown. Later, Morris wrote and about it all: ”I did not just hand over everything I could have borrowed but also every shilling of my own assets. In addition, I was able to make my close friends borrow money for the important expedition to Yorktown. ”

Morris repeatedly suggested that the colonists should draw up a plan to secure their finances, but did not get a hearing at the congress for their proposals. It was only when Alexander Hamilton, a good friend of Morris, became the country’s first secretary of the treasury, possible to establish a first financial plan for the repayment of all the debts. The debts amounted to nearly $ 79 million.

After the Declaration of Independence, Morris continued his own business. It was, among other things, through trading in contracts in foreign currencies that he made a big fortune. He assumed that the number of settlers would rise sharply in the coming years after independence. Therefore, he took the opportunity to acquire about six million acres of land in order to later sell the land to settlers. But the immigration from Europe decreased instead. Taxes and interest on the huge land area he purchased amounted to such amounts that he was declared bankrupt. In 1798, Morris was arrested and imprisoned because he could not pay the debts. So he was put in jail. There he was for more than three years. When he was released, he was 68 years old. Five years later, he died poorly and forgotten. The man who had arranged the financing of the American Revolution and once owned larger land area than anyone else in North America was buried forgotten at a cemetery in Philadelphia. Today, hardly anyone knows his name, while we all know the names of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.

Om Arwidson

Jurist bosatt och verksam i Stockholm
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