Robert Morris was born in January of 1734 in Liverpool, England. His parents were Robert Morris, Sr and Elizabeth Murphet. His father was an agent for a shipping firm, and though his parents did wed each other, his biographer, Charles Rappleye, believes he was probably born out of wedlock, as his maternal grandmother raised him in her house until he was thirteen years old.
When Robert was thirteen years old, he moved to Oxford, Maryland in the American colonies, where his father had established a prosperous tobacco trade business. After living with his father for two years, Robert was sent by him to Philadelphia, which was the most prosperous city in the colonies at the time. There, Robert was to apprentice under the care and tutelage of his father’s friend, Charles Greenway.
At Charles’s place, Robert eventually became a partner in Charles’s shipping firm in his late teens. The firm was a successful one, and Robert gained valuable business experience. In fact, he quickly proved himself an adept businessman, and became involved in all sorts of areas of business and trade, including agriculture, real estate, and slaves.
Robert had his first taste of political life when he joined in with the other Americans in opposing the British Stamp Act of 1765. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he assisted the Continental Army in procuring arms and ammunition. Because of his assistance in this matter, and his involvement in local politics, he was selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, being a member of the Pennsylvania delegation, as he had continued to live in Philadelphia after his father sent him there. While on the Congress, he was a member of its Secret Committee of Trade (which procured supplies for the American war effort), its Committee of Correspondence (which handled foreign affairs), and the Marine Committee (which supervised and commanded the Continental Navy).
While serving on the Congress, Robert became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, thus securing his place in American history.
Robert was respected as a leading member of the Continental Congress until he resigned from it in 1778. Once he left the Congress, Robert went back to his merchant career, and also won election to a place on the Pennsylvania Assembly. While serving on the Pennsylvania Assembly, Robert became the leader of the so-called Republican faction of that group, who were known for wanting changes made to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Before being chosen to serve on the Continental Congress, Robert married Mary White in 1769. Mary was the daughter of a wealth and well-known and respected lawyer and landowner. Together, Robert and Mary had seven children, the first of whom was born later the same year they got married. The family lived on Front Street in Philadelphia at first, and also owned a second home called The Hills on the Schuylkill River, which was north of the city. Later, Robert bought another manor house, which he called Morrisville, which was located across the Delaware River from Trenton, New Jersey. Robert and his family attended the same church as Benjamin Franklin, which was the Anglican Christ Church. It was a popular church among the leading citizens of Philadelphia. Within their household, Robert and his family employed quite a few servants, and owned several slaves.
Robert also had a daughter out of wedlock with a woman other than his wife. This daughter was named Polly, and she was born about 1763, before Robert and Mary got married. Robert financially supported Polly, and stayed in contact with her throughout the rest of his life. He also financially supported a younger half-brother than his own father had sired out of wedlock just before his father crossed over to the other side. This half-brother, named Thomas, became a partner in Robert’s shipping firm when he grew up.
After the Pennsylvania Assembly ratified its new Constitution, which reflected many of Robert’s ideas and suggestions, he and his allies in the assembly helped ensure that Pennsylvania ratified the new United States Constitution, so it could be approved by the required number of states to become the law of the land. Robert was then selected as one of the first two members of the United States Senate from Pennsylvania (in the time when state legislatures chose Senators, rather than the people electing them, which was not done until the early 1900s).
George Washington wanted Robert to be the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, but he did not want it. Instead, he suggested Alexander Hamilton for the position. While in the US Senate, Robert supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, and became aligned with the new Federalist Party.
While serving in the US Senate, and afterward, Robert went into deep debt on land speculation. When he became unable to pay his creditors, he was thrown into the debtor’s prison on Prune Street in Philadelphia. There he stayed from 1798 to 1801. At that time, the US Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, which was its first bankruptcy legislation, and it did so mostly to get Robert out of debtor’s prison. After getting out of debtor’s prison, Robert lived a quiet life away from the public sphere, and while he lived comfortably after being discharged of his debts by two-thirds of his creditors, he was considered destitute. Provisions were made for his wife Mary to have a generous annuity of $1,500 a year, which is equal to $23,000 a year in today’s money. This was done by the sale of some land. He was also able to keep an old gold watch that was left to him by his father, and was permitted to leave it in his will to his son, Robert.
Robert crossed over to the other side in May of 1806, and was buried in the churchyard at Christ Church, without any public ceremonies to commemorate his crossing. Biographer Charles Rappleye believes that Robert is not more remembered for his place in American history today because he was “too rich to be a folk hero,” and because his eventual loss of his family fortune stripped him of any “Midas-like mystique.” Yet, many historians believe he should be better remembered than his is because of his important role in helping the Americans win the American Revolution.