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Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder

 by Ryan K. Smith, Yale University Press

FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, Robert Morris was a man of wealth and prominence. A successful businessman, he owned factories on the Delaware River and land in Philadelphia, and used his own funds to save George Washington’s army at Valley Forge from starvation. The two men became close friends. Morris later became a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and was elected a U.S. senator. Yet Morris’ life ended in bankruptcy and poverty. At his death in 1805 he had little to bequeath to his heirs but a gold watch his own father had left him, a gold-headed cane, which was a gift from John Hancock, and a few other personal possessions. It was probably the most spectacular fall in early American history, brought on by ambition, greed and too much of the reckless speculation in land that characterized the early American republic. Not to mention the folly of the book’s title—the gargantuan house Morris commissioned for himself on a whole city block in Philadelphia. It was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect who had designed the city of Washington, and if finished would have been the largest private house in America.

It makes a wonderful, if sobering story, and Ryan Smith, who teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells it with panache, and in amazing detail. The detail is earned. The 122 pages of footnotes are half as long as the book’s text.

Morris’ land purchases, millions of acres scattered all over the country, are the most fascinating element of this tale. Most of the founding fathers engaged in land speculation, but none on the scale of Morris. His deals required foreign, usually Dutch, money to finance and depended on arrangements with Indian tribes who occupied and owned the land—risky deals in the extreme. In the upshot, settlers who moved west generally claimed land by right of the labor they put into improving it. No authorities, and certainly not Robert Morris, were around to force them of the land. Beyond that, the land had seldom been surveyed. A deed written in Philadelphia was just a meaningless piece of paper to Indians and settlers.

Morris’ imprudent purchases left him with more than $2 million in debt, and with no means to pay. The various fiscal manipulations, the debt piled on debt, sound like a Ponzi scheme and make Morris look like the Bernie Madoff of his time. His prodigal behavior was capped by his house, famous throughout the land for its extravagance. It was marble-clad in a city best known for its brick. It was furnished with dressers and desks acquired at a sale of Marie Antoinette’s possessions, after her beheading. Morris and his family never spent a day in the house before it was sold, unfinished, to creditors. No trace of it remains.

For Americans of Morris’ time, the great man’s fall was a moral lesson— veer from the path of success onto the road of excess and you can end up in debtors’ prison. Morris spent three years there, during which time he schemed to recoup his losses and his stature, if not his house. He never did.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.