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tv   Robert Morriss Folly  CSPAN  February 19, 2017 11:12am-11:31am EST

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>> this memorial in downtown richmond pays tribute to the virginia statute for religious freedom. and acted by the state general assembly on january 16, 1786 and then my thomas jefferson. it addresses the principle of separation of church andstate . the three paragraph statute, the basis for our first amendment protections for religious freedom. next we learn about another founding father in the financial scandal that landed him in prison. >> robert morris was an important american founder but it's true that not very many people knew about him. he was the financier of the american revolution, so call because he served toward the end of the american revolution. he helped put that early government on a sound financial footing.everybody was in big trouble at the end of the war so he was a moneyman. he's also not well-known because of what happened to him at the end of the flood. he messed up pretty bad. he was one of the richest
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guys in the country. after the american revolution, he was an important senator from pennsylvania but at the end of his life, he ended up losing basically all of his fortune and went into debtors prison and we he came out of debtors prison and they had very fond feelings for him. he ended up being more or less forgotten area i like to tell the story of robert morris as something like rags to riches and then back to rags again because he started off in humble circumstances. he was born in liverpool in england. we don't think his parents were married originally. his dad ended up coming to america as a tobacco worker in the tobacco industry. so he was brought over as the 13 or 14-year-old boy to live with his father in maryland and ended up not liking maryland and wanted to go to the big city so his father arranged for robert morris to move up to philadelphia. and once in philadelphia, he
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found his niche. he ended up apprenticing at a merchant firm and approved to be a prodigy when it came to trading and accounting and doing all the things that merchants were doing at the time but he rose quickly in the ranks and a cheap partner at a firm when he was quite young. so he didn't have a whole lot of formal education, it was all on the job and that was pretty much characteristic of him through his life. he wasn't one of the more intellectual or cerebral founders, he was a guy who liked doing and he had kind of a common touch as well. you like to drink, he likes to eat, he likes to sing songs at the pump. he had his top friends so he was more of a rowdy, rougher around the edges guy than most of us think of. he was less of a politician in what we traditionally think of as the term when the
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big question of independence finally came in 1776 whether to sign the declaration of independence or support that movement so robert morris was, i'd say, hesitant about declaring independence. he didn't think it was something that would be helpful in the short term but maybe in the long term figure something to work towards so he was not, he took himself out of the meeting when it came time to vote for independence but in the next month or so, when he brought the declaration around for all the signatures, he signed on and pledged his fortune for the war effort and for the rest of his state. as we know, philadelphia was a key city for initiating the american revolution, this was where the congress was meeting and this is where trade was taking place so when the congress started
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meeting there and when the colony of pennsylvania started to think about what was going to do in terms of the crisis with great britain, he was wet over that as the rich guy, as the merchant who had something to say about how this was going to happen or not happen with the mother country. so he ended up being a member of the continental congress quite early, he was also active in the state politics, went and the state had declared independence so he was important for the continental congress early on because he was one of those traders that the congress to help them sign arms and ammunition for the war effort. the colonies up and down the east coast would have a big army or a big maybe ready to go they needed to find those kinds of supplies before the war happened so he was tapped as one of those behind the scenes workers that were arranging for loans and for weapons and for supplies to
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make the war effort go. there's an anecdote, i don't know if it's true or not but it's symbolically true in that when one of the generals was looking for ammunition and there was no ammunition to be had, one of the forces ships came in and morris was able to find lead ballast in the bottom of the ship that they then turned into cartridges. the other anecdote that is often told about morris during the war that personifies his approach to keeping the war effort going was when the soldiers were headed toward yorktown, they paused and put in a little bit of a mutiny to say that they did not want to go any further without getting paid area so morris was able to receive hard money from the french. he was able to borrow and take down directly to the soldiers so that they didn't have to pay enough, they could send it up to their families and ultimately winning the war area but
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mostly how he helped with the war effort was providing money for it. finding loans either among the american population or abroad, with france or the netherlands or spain and other countries that were willing to loan government money to pay their bills, we're all familiar with where the continental dollar was worth and it wasn't worth very much so they ended up getting funds and loans to keep his army in the field. george washington had a lot of patience as commander-in-chief and so he had a good poker face in that he would always approach congress and try to let them know the kind of dire situation his army was in and the needs the soldiers had in order to continue fighting but congress was not very well organized in terms of
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providing the kind of supplies and funding that the army really needed. they basically relied on a voluntary donation basis from each of the states to make sure their treasury had enough to run on and the states were always running behind with what they were supposed to survive so washington would often find terms to morris personally. as a way to appeal to someone within the congress and then when morris became superintendent of finance, usually towards the end of the war, as someone who could personally move the levers of government and provide the army with the resources that it needed when the committees or general congress itself or the state more largely were unable to provide support so washington wasn't very close to a lot of peoplethrough his career, he was famous for being standoffish , keeping counsel to himself, something of a cynic but he seemed to let his guard down around
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robert morris. he found a soul that he felt like he could trust who had been there for him when he needed it so we could consider morris, oddly, one of george washington's friends. when the war was over he was quite relieved. he didn't think he could get out of the position he was in fast enough. at the end of the war or the last i guess 1781, 1784, he served as superintendent of finance which was the most important minister of the congressional government at the time. there were the articles of confederation so he had his hands full. he couldn't meet all the obligations that were coming in so he successfully organized it but it was a frustrating position he wasn't ever one that had an appetite for politics to begin with, didn't see himself didn't like to give speeches on things, that wasn't his ambition. he was ambitious but it was more in terms of his own personal empire, his checkbook, his balance sheet
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and all of his friends that he like to associate with. so once the peace came and he felt like he had provided a sound financial footing for the confederation government as best he could, he was very happy to move into private life again. private life for morris meant being incredibly busy and almost every arena of the economy. he was involved in some of the earliest trade with china from america directly so he financed the early chinese voyages for trade. he was active in factory complexes on the delaware river where he had various clothing and nail making and breweries and other industrial operations there. he was trading debt, government debt and trading the exchange, the private currency of the time and he was still a merchant in some ways, what he had built his fortune on but mostly what he got excited about after the
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war was land speculation. he felt like this was an optimistic time for america, it had a great future ahead of it so he would wait to kind of provide himself with the kind of resources that were surely increasing in value it would lead to all these millions of acres and opened up for the united states. so he sunk most of his fortune and energy into acquiring just acres of land. it's interesting that a period of time where he's making all of these incredible land purchases and he feels like he's on top of the world, he signs on to build a house in philadelphia that's like nothing else that had ever been built in america. the closest parallel would be the president's house in washington dc, what we call the white house. before that in philadelphia, the very wealthy people lived and wrote houses which were phenomenally appointed, beautiful.
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they had a lot of space, plenty of living space but looked more or less uniform throughout the city in that it was a regular streetscape. but morris decided he wanted something much different than that. so he bought an entire city block of land. about two blocks away from the houses of congress and its hall, the city government. and he hired. l'enfant, the engineer who had designed the city of washington dc to design his house for him and the two came up with an incredible design. it was a parisian based mansion, really. a house is what people called it. and it was going to be wider then the tip of the gatehouse, it was going to be bigger than any other house in the city. and it started construction just as morris was prepared to start to unravel but morris felt like he could build the thing so they
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constructed the house over a period of five years, four or five years. they got as high as the roof and it was an incredible roof itself. it was a roof which is a french style and it hadn't been built in america before. the workers building it were italian stonemasons, stone carvers. there were plasterers from europe. there were local philadelphia carpenters, brick makers and dozens and dozens of workers on this house. the irony of it all was that morris and her family were never able to live in the house, just as it was about to be able to open for the family, morris went to debtors prison so it was something that the locals ended up calling morris folly so the house ended up standing in for morris's financial things and the house became a symbol for
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morris's ambition because it was never completed and torn down shortly after. rather than proceeding at a more cautious pace and trying to wrap up some of these dealings, he keeps on with them. he starts to get in trouble, i would say, in a specific way in 75 or 76 when he and one of his main partners, a guy named john dickinson, and that basically creating their own type of currency. they named them after morris and nicholson. they would sign for each other little checks that they would try to pay their creditors for and as they tried to do this, over a period of a year or so they had thousands of dollars that they had to essentially create that after a short period would come do with real money or real credit and that spiraled that he and his partner couldn't get out of so by 1787, things have
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gotten so bad for morris that he retreated out of his family's home in the center of philadelphia and left to live on his country estate outside of town three miles up the river. and he retreated to his home there and the sheriff who were trying to apprehend him and bring him to debtors prison, there was a rule that the sheriff could not break and enter into his private home so as long as he was behind the bar doors, maintaining his operations, he thought then he could get himself out of this and in turn, it was around the corner that sales were going to happen and his credit would come back into full bloom again. but by 1798 in february, he had run out of time and he saw the writing on the wall. he went to the sheriff and
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was sent to death in debtors prison. his friends stuck with him throughout, he even made friends in prison. this was a guy who was very gregarious, love people and could even make new friends while in prison. in his most famous friend of course remained george washington. in 1798 shortly after morris had been there, washington was back in philadelphia out of retirement. over to help train the united states army because of tensions with france at the time and one of washington's stops in the city when he was in philadelphia was to visit his old friend robert morris in debtors prison. we know that you have a meal there, robert morris his wife and with his daughter so we can only imagine that scene with george washington here, the general, the president seated inside morris's cell in the debtors apartment and it was a bittersweet reunion that must've been. washington was determined to do the right thing, determined to follow the laws
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of the country so never sought to do anything that would go against what morris in debtors prison in the first place so morris, excuse me, washington never took any direct steps to try to free morris from prison. and neither did any of his other friends as well. he was on his own at that point. in 1801, he got out of prison and he was tremendously relieved in the end. he decided it was a good thing to be in prison. robert morris occasionally tried to break back into the merchant business or the banking business or the land business but he was never really able to get anything off the ground. i ironic, one of his politically his enemies thomas jefferson who had a different approach to the future than robert morris did , thomas jefferson wondered aloud to his friend james madison about the possibility
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of robert morris serving as secretary of the navy under thomas jefferson . but jefferson acknowledged that morris was still and depraved and would be roughly impossible to his cabinet but it's interesting that there's some good feelings toward morris's abilities from his reputation and the state. it's a weird moment for robert morris in that his protcgc, alexander hamilton who we all know about, the broadway play has been spectacular, it's created interest in alexander hamilton and the nation's early finances and yet there in the shadows remains robert morris. there hasn't been a lot of studies about him. that's one of the things that drew me to a study of morris and to his health which no one had spent much time studying either. so i had to focus on a particular element of the
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last part , in the house as a lens through which we can understand not only morris but the challenges that america faced overall in 1792. it is likely that we still face them today, this question of what's the richest americans, are there limits on what the richest americans can or should be able to do. it's morris's life in his and particularly help show how americans have thought about the question. hollywood cemetery and is 135 acres are located near the oregon hill neighborhood of richmond, named for the holly trees found on the property, it was opened in 1847 and its final resting place of us senator and confederate president jefferson davis as well as us presidents james monroe and john tyler. it's theon


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