Declaration of Independence Signer
Robert Morris Signs a Promissory Note
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Morris signs a note involving his two partners in the doomed North American Land Company. Here, he orders John Nicholson to pay James Greenleaf $5,000 four years hence, in a move that no doubt contributed to Morris’s bankruptcy and imprisonment in 1798. ROBERT MORRIS.
Partially Printed Document Signed, Promissory Note, John Nicholson to John Greenleaf. Philadelphia, Pa., August 1, 1795.
No. 2. $5,000 Dollars. Philadelphia, 1st August 1795
Four Years After the date pay to James Greenleaf—or Order, Five Thousand—Dollars, for Value received by
Your Obedient Servant,
[signed] Robt Morris,
[signed] John Nicholson, Esq,,r
Philadelphia. Authorized [signed] Jno Nicholson
Morris, Nicholson, and Greenleaf formed the North American Land Company in February 1795, but the three also remained independent speculators. In South Carolina, the trio “acquired much more land than they included in the company,” according to historian Barbara Ann Chernow. Of the 900,000-plus acres of land purchased by “notes in favor of and endorsed by each other,” only 300,000 acres became part of the holding company. They assigned the remaining 604,018 acres for sale in Europe, but eventually “mortgaged these lands to Greenleaf” before making them part of the company’s “Aggregate Fund” by June 1796. It is possible that this note pertains to those South Carolina lands, either as part of the original volley of notes naming each other that were used to purchase the land, or as part of the later mortgage to Greenleaf. Morris notes the details of the initial transaction in his account book entry on August 1, 1795.
Robert Morris (1734 – 1806), signer of the Declaration of Independence, merchant and land speculator, is best known for his role as financier for the Continental Congress. With the national government virtually bankrupt, Morris risked his own personal fortune by purchasing supplies for the army, pressuring the states for cash contributions and securing a major French loan to finance the Bank of North America. He spent his remaining years in various public positions, including senator of Pennsylvania. Morris speculated extensively in Western land after the war, forming the North American Land Company with James Greenleaf and John (Jonathan) Nicholson. Soon after, however, 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. It has often been said that while George Washington was president, he felt he could not pardon his long-time friend, but visited Morris in debtor’s prison as a show of support. That story is half true. Morris didn’t enter debtor’s prison until 1798, two years after Washington’s presidency, so Washington couldn’t have pardoned him, but he did visit Morris in prison, where the latter remained 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 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.
James Greenleaf (1765 – 1843) was the youngest partner in the North American Land Company with Morris and Nicholson. He was a merchant in New York and Amsterdam, where John Adams, his cousin by marriage, was ambassador. He purchased 3,000 lots in the new Federal City, speculating on the future U.S. capital, and in December 1793, purchased 3,000 additional lots in partnership with Morris and Nicholson, bringing the company into the Federal City real estate property market. Washington himself would purchase some of the lots when the company went bankrupt.