History professor reveals story behind the ‘folly’ of an important, yet overlooked American founder

Ryan Smith explains in “Robert Morris's Folly” how a key financier of the American Revolution fell from grace.

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In a new biography, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ryan Smith, Ph.D., reveals the story of the downfall of Robert Morris, an important, yet largely forgotten, figure from the American Revolution.

Smith, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, writes in “Robert Morris's Folly” about how Morris — a wealthy financier of the Revolution who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution — ended up in financial ruin and public disgrace.

Smith recently discussed his new biography, explaining Morris' story, Morris' folly, and how it can give us insight into life in the era of the American Revolution.

Who was Robert Morris, and what made you want to tell his story?

I never thought I would write a biography, nor did I have much interest in the American “founding fathers.” But when I came across Robert Morris in an old study of Philadelphia, something about his dramatic end just grabbed me. He was essentially an orphan when he entered the city a few decades before the American Revolution. He became a wealthy merchant and patriot, eventually signing the Declaration of Independence. Near the end of the war, [the] Continental Congress named him as “Superintendent of Finance” when it was unable to pay or supply the military, and Morris was instrumental in its ultimate success. But in the decades following the war, Morris made many poor land speculation decisions, and he died in disgrace after nearly wrecking the economy and then going to prison. Morris is still largely unknown, and while a few other historians have told the story of his rise, no one had really told the story of his fall. I found it to be relevant and refreshingly human.

What was Morris' “folly?”

The “folly" refers to two things: his house and his attempted fortune, both of which failed at the same time. In the midst of his land speculations of the 1790s, Morris set out to build the grandest house in Philadelphia, for his home. He gave the commission to P.C. L’Enfant, the designer of the city of Washington on the Potomac. For five years, they poured all the time, talent and money into the mansion that they could. As it rose, it looked like nothing the nation had ever seen. It commanded an entire city block. The citizens of Philadelphia generally thought it was ridiculous, so they named it “Morris' Folly” when Morris couldn't complete it. They tore it down immediately and replaced it with more sensible row houses, and so it became emblematic of his failings.

What sort of research went into this book?

Much more than I anticipated at the start. Many of Morris' letters for this period are held by the Library of Congress, and his account books for this period are held in Philadelphia. His account books are voluminous, but they are a mess. So I spent a lot of time trying to understand them. Also, it is hard to write an architectural history of a building that no longer stands, so I tried to ferret out references to it from Morris' contemporaries. A few pieces from his house survive, so I went to examine them in Philadelphia, Maryland and Charleston. It was like a treasure hunt.

Were you surprised by anything you uncovered?

I was surprised by Morris' personality. Through everything, he remained upbeat and amiable. He really loved life. Unlike many of the founders, he was not bookish and not inclined to the military. He ate a lot and drank a lot and made friends everywhere he went, even in prison. He also got along well with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. And I am still surprised that no other scholars have wanted to dig into his story.

Does Robert Morris' story give us any insight into early America?

It reinforces the notion that the republic's early years were really bumpy. There were a lot of highs and lows, a lot of passions. The outcome can all seem inevitable now, but people at the time had the sense that the new nation could really fall apart. Morris' story also shows that art and architecture could signify as much to people as dollars or policies.

Do you think his story has implications for modern America?

I started working on this project in early 2007. We all know what happened to the economy in 2008. So I knew this story could resonate with our modern concerns about people in high places making poor financial decisions. Even more, I think the story of Morris' house shows that public debates over the role and behavior of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans go back to the beginnings of the nation. They had a hard time figuring out that role, and so do we. Lastly, I think the story offers a useful response to our tendency to valorize the “Founding Fathers” and their decisions.

How does this book fit into your larger body of scholarship?

I study how American buildings and the landscape play a role in shaping our history. My first book, prior to “Robert Morris's Folly,” explored how church designs played into Protestant and Catholic religious hostilities in the 19th century. This current book is different in that it is set in only one locale, so I enjoyed being able to set the scene and delve into the related characters more deeply. The narrative mode strikes me as a tool that art historians should be employing more.

What will you be working on next?

I am sad to be leaving Morris and his world for now, but I have a few new ideas that I am beginning to chase down. Abandoned lighthouses. And Virginia cemeteries. And spiritualist “table-tipping.” Choosing among them has been difficult.

For more information on "Robert Morris's Folly," published by Yale University Press, go here: http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300196047


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