Robert Morris’s Folly

The architectural and financial failures of an American Founder.

Robert  Morris
Oil on canvas painting of Robert Morris by Robert Edge Pine, circa 1785.

Among the Founding Fathers, Robert Morris remains relatively unknown, at least as compared to the likes of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, among others. Never mind that he was one of only two Founders who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and that he was one of the wealthiest men of his era, responsible for supplying and funding Washington’s troops at a time when the Continental government could not.

It’s likely that Morris’s importance to the success of the American Revolution would be better remembered had he not suffered a devastating blow to his reputation near the end of his life, when he went broke and landed in debtors’ prison. Worse yet, in the midst of his decade-long financial challenges he commissioned Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant to design and build a palatial town house, one that occupied an entire city block between Chestnut and Walnut Streets and Seventh and Eighth Streets in Philadelphia. The house, an architectural monstrosity which became known as “Morris’s Folly,” inspired architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to quip: “It is impossible to decide which of the two is the maddest, the architect, or his employer. Both have been ruined by it.”

In the book “Robert Morris’s Folly” (Yale University Press), Ryan K. Smith—associate professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University—recounts the story of the Folly and its role in damaging Morris’s finances, while at the same time refocusing attention on his earlier successes. In the following Failure Interview, Smith offers insight into how and why it all went wrong for Morris, reveals how much Morris spent on his never-completed house, and concludes with a few thoughts about how he believes this forgotten Founding Father should be remembered.

Who was Robert Morris?
Robert Morris was an immigrant from England who arrived in Philadelphia at the age of fourteen. He was a financial prodigy and became a partner in a mercantile firm early in life and from there got roped into political appointments. He never seemed to have much ambition for politics, although he certainly held his share of political positions. He saw himself as a merchant and as an entrepreneur. And he was a commanding presence during the American Revolution. As superintendent of finance he was the most powerful government minister and was seen as having almost singlehandedly funded the war effort. However, things got away from him in the 1790s and all of his earlier successes—and his reputation—were wiped away. He was not well-regarded at the time of his death. His obituary in the [Philadelphia] United States Gazette was only one sentence long.

What brought on his financial troubles?
There has been a lot of speculation and some historians wonder whether it was a psychological issue. Another idea that I find particularly persuasive is that his time as superintendent of finance—when his paper was more valuable than that of the Continental Congress—gave him an inflated sense of his own ability. He was doing so much that perhaps he was unable to shake that sense of worth or confidence, so his risks just kept getting bigger and bigger.

But things started going poorly for him by the late 1780s after he engaged in a tobacco contract to supply France with all of the tobacco from the United States for three years. This was a very difficult contract to pull off given the state of trade, and it also pitted him against the southern tobacco planters. That sent him in a downward spiral that he tried for many years to get out of. He saw land as one way to get out of the hole that the “Tobacco Scrape” (as he called it) put him into. But just as he started to get out of that hole he plunged into more speculation. Ultimately why he failed is that he could not pay back his creditors, to whom he had made pledges in order to sign for all his lands. One creditor after another started turning to him for payment and he ended up going to debtors’ prison for three-and-a-half years.

Since you mentioned debtors’ prison, what was it like for him there?
Morris was an interesting Founder because he was not very bookish and not trained at a university. He wasn’t inclined to the military either. He was used to the world of business, and within that he seemed to get along with people. He had an ability to make deals and inspire confidence. And that carried through when he went to debtors’ prison, even though it seems like half of Philadelphia and many people beyond were terrifically angry at him, because when he was unable to uphold his own credit it meant that a lot of other people were at risk of losing their properties as a direct result of his collapse. Yet you didn’t find people attacking him directly. We have documentary evidence of individuals meeting him in prison and finding him pleasant and trying to make the best of the situation. He acknowledged errors on his part and acknowledged some of the pain he caused. Prison was also eventful for him; he survived a yellow fever epidemic there, and one of his adult children died while he was in prison and he was unable to go to his son’s bedside. That was very painful for him.

Was Morris part of the inspiration for the first Bankruptcy Act?
Various states experimented with bankruptcy laws and even Pennsylvania had an insolvency law on the books for a short time and then took it off. Morris didn’t want to be considered a “bankrupt.” Once a person entered bankruptcy, they lost claims to everything they had up until that point. And Morris thought he was going to be able to salvage a good amount of property out of his failure and loss of credit.

There is a fantastic book by Bruce H. Mann called “Republic of Debtors” (Harvard University Press) which talks about bankruptcy during this time period. Before this time, when a debtor could not pay back their debts it was seen as a moral failing and the feeling was that they should be punished like a criminal. But during this period there was a trend toward seeing bankruptcy as less of a moral failing and more as a business failing or due to impersonal forces.

But Morris was certainly in the minds of the legislature when Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act (1800). And it did have the effect of, within a few months, releasing him from prison. But I don’t know whether we have the smoking gun of members of Congress [saying], ‘We have to get Morris out of prison because he was a Revolutionary War hero.’

Why did Morris build such an enormous, ostentatious home?
The simplest answer is that he had a very large family and liked to hold gigantic dinner parties (where he would have thirty or forty people attending a dinner or dance). The house that he initially had was one of the largest in Philadelphia. It was the executive residence for George Washington when the federal seat was moved to Philadelphia from New York. He also had a beautiful home three miles outside of town on the Schuylkill River. His family would go to this villa on the river and enjoy the views and the cooler air in the summertime. I think why he wanted to build such a big house in Philadelphia was to consolidate those two houses.

The other answer is that there was a sense of social rivalry or competition with the other wealthy elites in town, in particular William and Anne Bingham, a younger and perhaps more fashionable couple. They had just come back from a grand tour of Europe and built a fantastic house that Philadelphians called the Mansion House. So we could certainly see some rivalry between Morris and Bingham trying to outdo one another to build the grandest house in the city.    

What was behind Morris’s choice of L’Enfant as architect?
He admired L’Enfant and had known him for a while. L’Enfant had made his name after the Revolutionary War by renovating Federal Hall in New York City—a beautiful renovation that drew a lot of admirers. And after L’Enfant was tapped to lay out the federal city on the Potomac he seemed like a natural choice.

But when things went south for L’Enfant in D.C.—a whole other parallel to the story because not only was Morris failing but L’Enfant entered a period of failure with his own talents and ambitions—he basically quit the federal project and moved on to another project in New Jersey under Alexander Hamilton. That didn’t go well, either, but Morris still had a lot of faith in L’Enfant and saw that he had the kind of vision that might be able to match his own ambition. Federalists such as Morris liked the idea of expressing the grandeur and power of the United States through architecture and city planning, and for that L’Enfant fit the bill.

Also, L’Enfant didn’t have a lot of competition. L’Enfant was trained at the Royal Academy of Painting in Paris under his father and was one of the most respected artists at the time. But he was never known for being particularly easy to work with, or for being cost-efficient. He always seemed to go over budget. Initially, Morris didn’t worry about the price tag. And L’Enfant certainly didn’t worry about the price tag. It ended up being a bad combination.

How much did Morris spend on the house?
Morris did not keep his accounts in a very organized fashion, but I calculated that it cost approximately $600,000 in 1790s money, an astronomical sum back then.

Why so expensive?
It was very large, larger even than the State House. And the amount of stone work was unprecedented in Philadelphia. Most of the other houses in Philadelphia were either built of brick or wood, and the brick row houses used space efficiently. They were long and narrow and usually adjoined the house next door. But Morris and L’Enfant used sculpture and stone in a more active and aggressive way, relying on the best craftsmen they could find, which was a tremendous expense. They built all sorts of porticos and columns and it was an irregular plan with an unusual roof. L’Enfant also seemed willing to pull down finished parts in order to improve it as construction went along.

How long was the house under construction and what happened to it after construction was halted?
Morris bought the property in 1790 and it was an active construction site from spring 1793 to January 1797. By May 1797 he was frustrated to no end that he had put all this money into the site and it’s pretty clear that he would not be able to continue. And by the early part of 1798 he could see that not only would it not be finished but it would be sold at auction. The new owner purchased it for the cost of the property alone. Then the Folly was leveled and the property subdivided into narrow properties along the lines of every other block around it. A local merchant named William Sansom oversaw the construction of individual row houses that were part of this block of row houses called Sansom’s Row.

Why was the house an architectural failure?
The house was seen as a failure in part because Morris couldn’t finish it. It represented in a tangible way his loss of credit and the imminent loss of all his property. But also because it was so unlike any other house in Philadelphia and just didn’t suit the cityscape at all. It was a peculiar building and people couldn’t make sense of it, even a trained architect like Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who visited the site in 1798. He judged it to be a poor design. So it was also a failure on an artistic level, according to L’Enfant’s peers.

How do you think Robert Morris should be remembered?
That’s a wonderful question. There hasn’t been a lot of work done on Robert Morris among historians. There was a biography that was published in 1903, and there was a good book that came out in the 1950s, but it was solely on his Revolutionary War activities. Then in 2010 Charles Rappleye came out with a thorough, full biography titled “Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution” (Simon & Schuster). Rappleye argues that we should remember him as having a more prominent role in making the Revolution a success, and believes he should be restored into the pantheon of Founders like Washington, Franklin and Jefferson.

I wrote “Robert Morris’s Folly” with a different purpose in mind. I wasn’t trying to tell his life story. I thought we could learn just as much about his failures, because those really resonated with people. And the story of the house seemed to crowd out everything else he had achieved in his life.

I think how he should be remembered is that we need to keep a level of humility in terms of our expectations of people in power. He provides us the necessary corrective to the notion that our leaders are always going to make the right decisions for us and for themselves.