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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

If you look at an image of the Declaration of Independence and focus on the famous giant signature of John Hancock, you'll see another signature just off to the right. It's much smaller - Robert Morris of Philadelphia.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

He was a self-made businessman who arguably financed the American Revolution. And so we have the latest subject of our series, "American Lives." This week, we're exploring lives that link business and politics.

The author Charles Rappleye works to bring Robert Morris to life in a new biography.

Mr. CHARLES RAPPLEYE (Author, "Robert Morris"): He was tall. He was wide. Philadelphia was a great place for feasting and he was often the guy throwing the banquet. He was at home with stevedores as much as he was with fellow merchants and traders. And he seemed to have that gregarious sort of common touch as well as being very successful and, at times in his career, very rich.

INSKEEP: Robert Morris put his fortune to work, even though he doubted the wisdom of declaring independence from Britain. As a business leader and politician, he initially opposed the Declaration that other colonists favored in 1776.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: He decided to set aside his personal opposition and go with the majority.

INSKEEP: So, you've got this businessman who became one of the founding fathers almost against his own will.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: He was certainly the most reluctant signer of the Declaration. The one thing he believed is that America would not win this struggle, would not prevail against England. And he thought it was very dangerous and a wrongheaded move to actually make the break.

However, at the same time, he was very active in supplying the army with gunpowder, which he was smuggling under the nose of British authorities in Europe and in the Caribbean.

INSKEEP: Now, you described him as a merchant. I think that's a phrase that needs some definition. What is mean to be a merchant in the 1700s?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Well, he was a global capitalist.

INSKEEP: A global capitalist in 1776?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: It's hard to get your mind around, and it was at the dawn of the whole idea of global enterprise. You have your sailing ships and you have very arcane means of finance. A lot of it was based on personal relationships. So, correspondence was critical and reputation was fundamental.

INSKEEP: Personal relationships with people you'd never met.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: It's hard to imagine but, yes. They would learn to trust you, and they had to because you would say that you would pay them but the transit of bills of exchange and of cargos themselves would take years, all of which had to be done on the strength of your personal integrity and their confidence that you were going to do what you said you would do.

INSKEEP: So, this man, Robert Morris, who depends on his reputation, who gambles on sending goods overseas and hoping that the money would eventually come back to him, took that risk again and again...

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...could the revolution had been won without him?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Well, it's easy to say it could not. He certainly came through at critical times for George Washington, who, with his army in the field, needed money to keep them clothed, keep them on the road, get them to Yorktown in particular.

INSKEEP: You said Yorktown. Let's remember: it's 1781, this is the climactic battle of the American Revolution, and General George Washington needed to march his army down to surprise and surround the British and besiege the British in Yorktown, Virginia. What was Morris's role?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Logistics. He was getting the cattle form Connecticut and he was getting the flour from Pennsylvania and Virginia and he was getting it all to the soldiers on the road. And in 1780, the currency had all but failed, so that the only medium of exchange was really Morris's own personal credit.

INSKEEP: Obviously, there were no such things as U.S. Treasury bonds. The government wasn't just going to borrow here.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Well, they were borrowing from Morris. There were Morris notes, and that had become virtually the sole currency of the government.

INSKEEP: Well, now, if Robert Morris was this guy who put his signature on the Declaration of Independence right next to John Hancock, pledging our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor, and he really was pledging his fortune, how is it that he has come down to us in history as something of a crook?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: Morris was in charge of the secret committee that was doing the arms trade, the illegal arms trade, with Europe to supply the American army. And a lot of the contracts that the secret committee let were contracts to their own members, primarily Morris. There was a lot of accusation that these people were enriching themselves in this secret trade.

INSKEEP: I want to try to put this in present day terms. This would be like if I was a defense contractor, got myself elected to Congress and then appropriated money to my own company as a no-bid contractor.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: That's correct. That's pretty much how it went. The secrecy involved required that these people do business only with people that they knew, only with people that they could take into confidence. However, it did come out soon after that this had been going on and there was a very modern sort of outcry against the idea that there was self-dealing here.

He did profit off of the trade but he had not - how shall I say this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: It's a little awkward here. I wonder if this is how the congressional hearings went. But go on. It's fine.

Mr. RAPPLEYE: He was able to show that he had not profited inordinately off of this trade. Morris took heavy losses in a number of his ventures. And to then come in afterward and to point to one venture or two that came in to some success is to miss the larger picture and to misunderstand what was going on. There were people in Congress who, through their whole careers, considered Morris to be everything the revolution was against. He was about commerce, he was about self-interest.

There was an ideological divide within the revolutionaries from the very beginning, between the ideologues who believed that we should set up a society based on ideas that the people would act in a new way. And then there were pragmatists - Morris primary among them - that took self-interest into account. He believed that to expect people to act in any other way was na�ve.

INSKEEP: How did Robert Morris's career end?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: After the war and after the creation of the government, he stepped out of public life, and with this fortune that he had amassed over the course of a career in merchant pursuits, attempted to make his greatest stroke yet. And this was by investing in land, heavily in land. He was convinced that the masses of Europe would soon be flocking into the American hinterland.

INSKEEP: Oh no. Are you about to tell me there was a real estate bubble?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: It was America's first great land boom. Morris ultimately obtained title to six million acres of land from New York state all the way down through Georgia. He was banking on the price going up. It did not and he went bankrupt. And in those days when you went bankrupt, you went all the way down, and he spent three years toward the end of his life in debtors' prison.

INSKEEP: Nobody thought at the time this is one of the founding fathers, this is a hero of the revolution, maybe we should cut him a break?

Mr. RAPPLEYE: America was a very tough place at that time. You rose and you fell and if you fell nobody was there to catch you fall.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Charles Rappleye is the author of the biography, "Robert Morris."

We hear more American lives this week, lives that mix business and politics. Tomorrow, we'll hear how a black owner of Birmingham funeral parlors influenced the civil rights movement.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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