“There credit, I know, has been stretched to the utmost limits...”.
A member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris specialized in financial affairs and military procurement. This gave him a key role in arming, equipping and supplying the Continental Army, and brought him into a close working relationship with General Washington. Morris wheedled money and...
A member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris specialized in financial affairs and military procurement. This gave him a key role in arming, equipping and supplying the Continental Army, and brought him into a close working relationship with General Washington. Morris wheedled money and materiel from the states, borrowed funds in the face of overwhelming difficulties, and on occasion even obtained personal loans to further the cause. In 1781, he provided the funds that enabled Washington to move his army south and led to the decisive battle at Yorktown that won the war. After the Revolution, Morris believed strongly in the future of western expansion and became heavily involved in real estate speculation in the western lands. By 1790 he had plunged in full force and he soon became the largest private property owner in the United States, holding a controlling interest in eight million acres in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Georgia. To make all of these purchases, Morris borrowed money from every pace he could convince to lend and placed land under mortgages.
Washington, D.C. was incorporated in 1791 for the purpose of serving as the capital of the United States. President Washington himself selected the location just up the Potomac from his Mount Vernon home. Feeling assured that lots in the new Federal City would become valuable after the capital was switched there, Morris invested heavily in them. With John Nicholson and James Greenleaf, he bought at first 6,000 building lots in Washington and later 1,200 more, on some of which they began building 40 or 50 houses. Between being financially over-extended and plagued by Greenleaf’s mismanagement, the partners suffered problems with regard to titles to the property and lacked funds to make payments for their land to the District Commissioners overseeing construction of the city. Their failure threatened plans for the national capital, as their defaults put the Commissioners in a serious financial bind by depriving them of the funds needed for the construction of government buildings. These officials were confronted with the necessity of suspending building activities, and the Federal City was near a standstill by 1795. On May 15, 1795, the Commissioners notified Greenleaf that unless the payments due them were made, they would take legal steps to enforce the obligations. Greenleaf then struck a deal with Morris and Nicholson in which they bought him out, paying for his shares with their personal notes rather than cash.
When Morris and Nicholson also failed to meet their obligations on the Federal City real estate, the Commissioners appealed to the President himself. Washington was deeply interested in the project and concerned about its lack of progress. On July 25, 1795, he wrote Thomas Jefferson asking him to approach Morris and Nicholson “…and in earnest and strong terms represent to them, the serious consequences which must inevitably result to the public buildings in the Federal City, if the deficiency, or part thereof, due on their contract, is not paid…If to pay the whole deficiency is not, at present, within the means…a part thereof…might possibly enable the Commissioners to proceed…” A few days later, Washington wrote, “Morris and Nicholson inform me that a part of their arrearages will be immediately paid up; and that they have made a provision for furnishing the balance in a short time.” Despite the reassurances, however, the funds were not forthcoming.
According to the Washington papers at the Library of Congress, on September 14, 1795, the President wrote Morris a blunt letter. “The motives which give birth to this letter, proceed as much from private friendship, as they do from a sense of public duty…The letter herewith enclosed from Mr. Scott (one of the Commissioners of the Fedl. City) was met by me on my way to George Town…Upon a more detailed conversation with the Commissioners…I am so thoroughly impressed with the ruinous consequences wch. must result to the public buildings from a delay of the payment which the Comrs. have requested, that I should think my official conduct reprehensible if I did not press them upon you most urgently…I could enlarge very much on this subject; but I am sure nothing cd. be added that will not occur to you upon reflection…except suggestions which may not have reached you, and which I pray you to believe have not obtained the smallest credence in my mind, to wit, that…nothing but embarrassments are to be expected from you…”
Morris understood the seriousness of the matter, as President Washington himself had not merely been notified of his delinquency, but out of concern for his city had actively become involved in pressing for a resolution. A week later he answered the President at length, saying “You will readily believe that I have sufferedsevere mortification at being in arrears with my payments to the Commissioners of the Federal City, but my feelings are still more deeply wounded at the idea of an application from them to you upon this subject.” He then went into detail about his efforts to obtain funds to pay the obligations, and generally promised to start making payments. But these words were not followed by funds.
In the next communication, the President turned up the heat on Morris, asking for a specific commitment he could pass along to the Commissioners, and noting his dissatisfaction with the progress of work on the new city.
Autograph Letter Signed as President, Philadelphia, December 3, 1795, to Robert Morris. “I can add nothing in support of the extract on the other side, that was not contained in a former letter from me to you on the same subject. But I would thank you for letting me know what answer I shall return to the Commissioners of the Federal city. Their credit, I know, has been stretched to the utmost limits, in order to keep the wheels moving, even in the slow and unprofitable manner in which they have turned.” This letter is contained in The Writings of George Washington by John Fitzgerald.
On December 7, Morris replied to Washington that he just could not pay, pleading “I am not in possession of money at present…I have made offers that are held under consideration at the moment, which if accepted will put it in my power to remit the sum asked by the Commissioners for the city of Washington…” Now the embarrassment of Morris and the mortification of Washington must have been severe, and it effectively ended the long relationship between the two wartime comrades. Washington would never again address Morris on any matter of substance. In fact, except for a brief cover letter from January 1797 and an August 1798 note wishing Morris and his family good health, Washington is not known to have written nor seen Morris again. This letter was obtained by us direct from the descendants of General John Glover and has not been offered for sale.
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