Financial History 143 Fall 2022 - Page 42

BOOK REVIEW
BY GREGORY DL MORRIS
Robert Morris : Inside the Revolution By Robert M . Morris
652 pages with footnotes , index , tables , b / w photographs
Trine Day Publishing , 2022
This is a fascinating and frustrating book . A meaningful work of research and scholarship , to be sure . Also heavily overwritten and inconsistent .
For consistency and clarity in this review the subject will be referred to as the subject , or as Morris . The author , a descendant of the subject , will only be called the author . The name of the reviewer , no relation of either subject or author , will only appear in the byline .
The author shows a clear understanding of both the subject and the period , as well as a rare comprehension of how the factional fault lines that beset the United States today are straight lines from the earliest colonial sectionalism . Those in turn are directly derived from whence the settlers came in the British Isles and around Europe .
For readers of this publication in particular , the author has a firm grasp of finance , economics , banking and trade , both in principle and in detail . All that , as well as the excitement of discovering a forgotten Founding Father , should have made for a ripping good read .
Alas , what is presented as a finished book reads more like a late manuscript , overstuffed with details and digressions to the point of distraction . There is no page of acknowledgements , so readers cannot know if the manuscript eluded editing entirely , or if the editors were simply overwhelmed .
Part of the problem is that the author is trying to chase three rabbits , and they all get away . There is the straight biography of Robert Morris , signer of the Declaration of Independence , Articles of Confederation and the Constitution ; the trifecta of present at the creation . He was also a pioneer in global commerce , using his extensive network of ships , trading partners and credit to underwrite a good part of the War of Independence .
That basic biography is overlain by an exoneration of the subject who , despite being a mild Quaker gentleman , made more than a few powerful and vindictive enemies , including the numerous and powerful Lees of Virginia . The author is at pains throughout to note how the subject ’ s enemies were scoundrels in their own right — some even consorting with the British — beyond their efforts to foil Morris in his day , and then have him forgotten after .
The third subject is , as the subtitle indicates , an interesting look inside the revolution . Even the most casual history buff is aware that the course of US independence was much more like The Perils of Pauline than the inevitability by which it is often presented .
In the hands of a more skilled craftsman , or perhaps just one not quite so close to his subject , those three narratives could have enhanced each other . As it is , they get in each other ’ s way . This might have been a discrete trilogy ; or even book one , two and three , bound together . As a single volume it definitely should have been kept to 400 or so pages .
Which is not to say the book is badly written , just overwritten . Again , serious scholarship and archival research went into it , as is evident with the numerous citations and dozens of footnotes per chapter . Any few of those would have sufficed in each situation . So many belabors the points .
Robert Morris , Jr . was born in the global trading hub of Liverpool , England in 1734 , and migrated to the colonies in his teens . As a Quaker , he gravitated to Philadelphia . Showing his business acumen early , he became a partner in a shipping firm . He was also an early adherent to the colonies ’ self-determination . He was active in both state and inter-colonial assemblies . On the eve of the revolution , Morris was considered the richest man in the colonies .
Morris served in Congress , and notably on the Secret Committee of Trade , which was responsible for scraping together funds to pay for supplies from Europe , then getting them through the Royal Navy ’ s blockade . Legislative and executive duties overlapped in Revolutionary America , and Morris ’ s overlapping responsibilities extended beyond finance into diplomacy , espionage and smuggling , as well as maritime and naval affairs .
In 1981 , after the Battle of Yorktown had effectively settled the fighting , Morris was made Superintendent of Finance , and also Agent of Marine . His battles in Congress to establish the Bank of North America presaged the struggles in coming decades over the first and second Banks of the United States .
A diligent and practical financier , Morris worked tirelessly to reform the haphazard supply and accounting practices of the revolutionary government . As a signer of the Articles of Confederation , he worked hard to reform and amend that clunky document , to little avail . He retired in 1784 , only to be named to the Philadelphia Convention that wrote the Constitution three years later . He was quietly influential in crafting the document , and active in helping Pennsylvania ratify it . He was
40 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Fall 2022 | www . MoAF . org