Robert Morris is an often overlooked figure from the Revolutionary period of the United States.
However, his influence, though not always direct, can still be felt to this day.
Even though he never stepped foot in our neck of the woods, his importance cannot be understated. The Morris name appears in several locations throughout Western New York and right here in Batavia, but his prominence in the infant United States often goes by without much notice.
Robert Morris was born on Jan. 20, 1734 in Liverpool, England. He moved to Philadelphia in his teens and quickly became a parnter in a successful shipping firm.
Though he did not fully support breaking with England, he was an early opponent of the Stamp Act in 1765. When revolution was declared, Morris was pivotal in the procurement of arms and ammunition for the Continental Army, as well as bankrolling many other facets of the war effort.
He represented Pennsylvania on the Continental Congress, serving on the Secret Committee of Trade, Committee of Correspondence, and Marine Committee. In 1781, Robert Morris was appointed to the position of Superintendent of Finance, which placed him in charge of all financial matters of the fledgling government, a position he would remain in until 1784.
He also served as Agent of Marine, effectively controlling the Navy.
With the coming of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Robert Morris was picked again to represent Pennsylvania. Morris attended very frequently, but was often a silent watcher than an active participant.
Yet, the eventual Constitution that was ratified was based around many of Morris’s foundational ideas.
With the creation of the Senate, Morris was elected as an inaugural Senator from Pennsylvania. He also was tabbed by President George Washington to be the first Secretary of the Treasury, however, he declined, and recommended Alexander Hamilton.
During his political career, Robert Morris would sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was one of only six men to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
It was during his time as Senator that Robert Morris became ever more embroiled in the business of land speculation.
His first major deal was to acquire the eastern portion of the Phelps-Gorham Purchase in 1790. He then sold that land to The Pulteney Association, a group of land speculators from Britain led by Sir William Johnston Pulteney.
The profits from that first sale allowed Morris to then purchase the remainder of the Phelps-Gorham west of the Genesee River. He then sold the 3.25 million acres of that purchase to the Holland Land Company in 1792 and 1793, which would become known as the Holland Purchase, through negotiations with their General Agent, Theophilus Cazenove.
Morris would keep 500,000 acres, known as the Morris Reserve, which would be sold off piecemeal before 1800.
These early gains prompted Morris to more aggressively invest in open lands around the United States. He formed the North American Land Company in 1795 with two partners to raise money by selling stock of their various land holdings.
This venture would eventually lead to Morris’s downfall as he was not able to pay back many of his creditors, and was arrested and sent to a debtor’s prison in Philadelphia from 1798 to 1801. He was eventually let out after Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, created in part to secure Morris’’s release.
Robert Morris, who once was the richest man in the United States, died with very little wealth on May 8, 1806.
Ryan Duffy is executive director of the Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia. His “History with the HLOM” column appears twice a month in The Daily News.