Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution
By Charles Rappleye
(Simon & Schuster, 530 pages, $30)
The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
By Joshua Kendall
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 355 pages, $26.95)
Robert Morris and Noah Webster are Founders of the American Republic. In Charles Rappleye’s Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution and Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, we are presented with two men of vastly different personalities and talents who helped to shape our nation. Their patriotism, entrepreneurial skills and self-interest has provided a model for our common culture. Though their contributions differed radically, both appreciated capitalism and used the free market to create a truly United States.
Morris and Webster both wanted a strong federal government. The former saw it coming through a common currency regulated by a national treasury. The latter envisioned a nation bound by a common language which would form an American identity.
Winning the American Revolution required money which the colonial government did not have. The stories of Washington’s ragtag army, with its lack of provisions and minor mutinies, are part of the lore surrounding the colonists’ victory over their well-supplied British counterparts. This original financial crisis was due to the Continental Congress’s inability to tax the colonies and the worthless Continental script that was being printed to pay the army. The present decline in the value of the dollar is similar to the monetary crisis of the Revolution since now, as then, we have fiat money with neither gold nor silver to back it up.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that without the financial acumen and personal credit risks taken by Robert Morris of Philadelphia (1734-1806) the Revolution would have failed. Charles Rappleye says, “Morris committed his own fortune to the demands of the national cause” and quotes Morris as saying:
“My personal Credit, which thank Heaven I have preserved through all the tempests of the War, has been substituted for that which the Country had lost,” Morris explained to a friend. “I am now striving to transfer that Credit to the Public.”
Noah Webster (1758-1843), meanwhile, was instrumental in strengthening our national identity by compiling a truly American vocabulary with words, definitions, spelling and grammar germane to the new nation. Kendall writes, “But Webster had done more than just improve on the spelling books of his British predecessors. He had also helped give birth to a new language, which in turn would soon unite a fledgling nation.”
Webster told George Washington, “our nation is but a name and our confederation a cobweb.” He gained Washington’s support for his projects because Washington realized that nothing better unites a people than a common tongue. His insights and contribution helped to meld the Colonies into one nation. As Kendall states:
Together, Noah Webster, Jr., the man of words, and George Washington, the man of action, would continue to work to unify America. Recognizing Webster’s remarkable knack for getting Americans to think of themselves as American, Washington relied time and time again on his trusted policy advisor.
Kendall describes Webster as having a penchant for demography, collecting data and studying the etymology of words. His obsessive-compulsive behavior was perfectly suited for his magnum opus — Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Those who are seeking legislation, i.e., The English Language Unity Act, 2011, to make English the official language of the U.S. can claim both Webster and Washington as supporters.
Morris was an English émigré and an experienced merchant. He became a partner of Thomas Willing and Co., a famous Philadelphia Trading Company. Although he was originally hesitant to break with England he eventually signed the Declaration of Independence. His international connections lent itself to aiding the financial crisis in his home colony of Pennsylvania and the Continental Government during the Revolution. He became a key player as a member of the Secret Committee which funded the munitions for the Colonies. Later, under the Articles of the Confederation (1781-1782), he was made the Superintendent of Finance. Washington called him “The most powerful man in America.”
Morris and Webster are models of the entrepreneurial spirit present at the nation’s beginning. Both showed creativity and a willingness to work, as well as to take the risks necessary to succeed. Rappleye states, “To Morris, the primary role government should take in affairs of commerce was to get out of the way.” Morris is quoted as saying “I assert boldly that commerce ought to be as free as the air, to place it in the most advantageous state to mankind in general.” This stands as an indictment against the present government interventions in our financial system. The Dodd-Frank Act, 2011, for example, expanded government regulation of the market which causes a decline in U.S. competitiveness, innovation, and economic growth.
Morris was a pivotal figure in establishing a Bank of North America (1781). He knew that if the young nation was to flourish then private credit had to be established. Many feared that the banks were only a tool for the rich to grow richer. Because of this, the State of Pennsylvania was on the precipice of revoking its charter. Morris, however, according to Rappleye, “helped turn the tide of popular opinion against state intervention in the market.” He says, Morris “opened the door to a new era of commerce, limited state sovereignty, and social mobility.”
Webster also contributed to American enterprise through his persistence in getting copyright laws passed in his home state of Connecticut and through his prodding in six other states. He strongly supported the new Constitution because, he said, “This constitution will place the regulation of literary property in the power of Congress and of course the existing laws of the several states will be superseded by a federal law.” With Webster’s support, a national copyright law passed Congress in 1790. This of course protected intellectual property and encouraged Americans to develop their talents and grow in wealth for their efforts.
Toward the end of his life, Kendall believes that Webster lost touch with the promise of America because of his acceptance of inequality. As Kendall puts it:
Inequality, an embittered Webster had come to believe, was inherently good. While, as the papers reported, he still “retained the full power of his faculties,” Webster had lost touch with the promise of America, which he himself had championed a half century earlier. It was the expert definer rather than his fellow countrymen who could no longer appreciate the true meaning of “liberty” and “equality.”
But it is more likely that Webster was only being faithful to the Founders’ belief in a meritocracy where equal opportunity, as opposed to equal distribution, was the key to national greatness and personal fulfillment.
Reflecting on his own life, Webster saw that being poor need not be a permanent condition in America. The present egalitarian ethos now regnant in our country discourages personal initiative and (as Alexis de Tocqueville feared) encourages mediocrity. It also creates serial poverty. The tragedy of this equalizing philosophy is seen in the 2011 Budget Crisis which was brought about by an entitlements mentality and relies on taxing the rich for its sustainability.
Morris seems to have a handle on the essence of America which is based on the truth of American capitalism in which financial inequality is a fact of life. As Rappleley puts it:
More than that, Morris installed his pragmatic, realist, modernist vision of a free people united by the principles of economic self-interest and not by bonds of state or political authority. For better or worse, that is the feature that distinguishes America from every other nation established in the New World, and set America on its course to becoming the economic powerhouse we know today.
Politicians would do well to read both books.