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Robert Morris - Declaration Signer and Financier of the Revolution - is Drowning in Debt and Calls for Help
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Facing ruin, Robert Morris desperately pleads with his partner John Nicholson to cover a debt resulting from speculating in the North American Land Company. Morris, who previously used his own funds to finance the American Revolutionary War, would suffer the indignity of imprisonment for debt between 1798 and 1801.

ROBERT MORRIS. Autograph Letter Signed with Initials, to [John Nicholson], November 21, 1794. 1 p.

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Complete Transcript

Dear Sir

            Mr Summers insisted on & got yesterday the $3000 you mention.

            The enclosed letter is necessary to be signed by you & sent, to prevent the Money if it arrives at Salem, lying there.                          

                                                                        Yours &c / RM

                                                                        Novr  21st 1794

Help, help if you can.

Historical Background 

In this desperate letter, Morris pleads with fellow speculator John Nicholson to sign a letter to cover debts to Andrew Summers. Three months later, in February 1795, Morris, Nicholson, and James Greenleaf formed the North American Land Company with holdings scattered across 4,000,000 acres from Georgia to New York. The three partners also remained “independent” speculators habitually purchasing tracts using promissory notes in favor of and endorsed by each other, as well as reserving large tracts for themselves outside of the holding company. Unsurprisingly, loan deadlines outpaced revenues. The resulting crash came in 1798, after whichboth Morris and Nicholson spent years in debtors’ prison as a result of their speculations.

Robert Morris (1734-1806) immigrated to Maryland from Liverpool at age 13. After studying in Philadelphia, he became a partner in a banking and shipping firm in 1757. In the Second Continental Congress, he initially opposed independence and abstained in the final vote but signed the Declaration of Independence with the Pennsylvania delegation. He signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778 and the Constitution in 1787. Morris served as Superintendent of Finance from 1781-1784, and personally paid £10 million to fund the American army during the Revolutionary War. Morris served as Senator from Pennsylvania from 1789 to 1795. Deeply engaged in land speculation, he bought millions of acres in western New York in 1791, forming the North American Land Company with James Greenleaf and John (Jonathan) Nicholson. Due in no small part to their speculation, the land market collapsed, and Morris was ruined. The final blow came in 1798, when a minor creditor’s claim sent him to the Philadelphia debtor’s prison, where former President George Washington visited him. He remained in prison for three years until his wife was able to bail him out.

John (Jonathan) Nicholson (1758-1800) was a Welsh-born émigré to Pennsylvania who engaged in a variety of business ventures in revolutionary-era Philadelphia. In 1778 he was appointed clerk to the Board of Treasury of the Continental Congress. In 1782 he was appointed state Comptroller General, involving him in the collection of taxes and the liquidation of the assets of Loyalists convicted of treason in absentia. In 1793, he was impeached for personally speculating in federal securities with state funds. He was acquitted but forced to resign, because he was by this time a large public defaulter. In 1795, he joined Robert Morris and James Greenleaf in creating the North American Land Company, which invested in six million acres of lands in six states. Stung by the worldwide panic of 1797 and the Napoleonic Wars (which drove down the European market for American lands), Morris and Nicholson were each imprisoned for debt. Nicholson died in 1800, more than four million dollars in debt. His estate was not satisfactorily settled for over a half-century, and required the creation of a special Nicholson Court of Pleas in 1843.

Andrew Summers (1742-1806) was a wealthy Philadelphia banker and a close friend of Robert Morris. He was an original member of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, founded in 1790.