Book Review: Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye

If you want one more biography of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, you won't have to look far.  Go into any Borders or Barnes & Noble, and you'll have no trouble placing yourself between the stony gaze of the one and the mischievous smirk of the other.  (And if the staff have botched their alphabetizing, you may well find them in that order.)

But take a closer look, and you may find sitting innocuously among all the Adamses and Franklins a book by Charles Rappleye on a man named Robert Morris.  Now, you'll have to pass this one over if you're searching for yet another take on Yorktown or that kite-flying incident -- but if the story of a towering player in the American Revolution denied his due by history piques your interest, then consider plucking Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution from the shelf.

Rappleye lays out the reason for his latest work in its introduction: "Morris's absence from the story leaves a gaping hole in our understanding of the social and political struggles that bedeviled the revolutionary war effort, led to the writing of the Constitution, and helped launch America as a financial powerhouse" (1).  In Robert Morris, Rappleye takes it upon himself to fill that hole.

And fill it he does.  Insofar as demonstrating Morris's importance to the American cause, Rappleye succeeds brilliantly: it was Morris who navigated the colonies through financial straits best described as terrifying and Morris who crystallized the fledgling United States' pecuniary foundations while in the Senate and as the superintendent of finance.  And Rappleye illuminates the true significance of this quotidian-sounding latter job (emphasis added):

The job of superintendent of finance is generally compared to the modern secretary of the treasury, but that analogy fails to comprehend the scope of the job.  As the primary administrator in the executive branch of the government, [Morris] would be responsible for every aspect of governance but the disposition of the army in the field. At a time when the central government was comprised of a single legislative house, he would fill the role later reserved for the president of the United States.  (226-227)

But Morris made the case for his historical significance long before he became proxy president in 1781.  On the Secret Committee, he pulled the strings, using his extensive mercantile knowledge and connections both in America and abroad to get the Continental Army the materiel it needed.  And when Congress, fearful of British occupation, fled Philadelphia for three months in the winter of 1777, Morris stayed behind and singlehandedly kept the government running.  It is no exaggeration to say that without Robert Morris, our great experiment in democratic republicanism would have gone broke, withered, and blown away.

Of course, Robert Morris is not without its flaws.  (As Rappleye demonstrates, Robert Morris was not without his, either.)  The small and expected proportion of typos is here, of course, but one oversight stands out: a 65-word repeat on page 413.  Indeed, it seems that either Rappleye or his editors got exhausted in the last fifth of the book, where misprints abound in comparison to the first four.

Most of these typographical punctilios, of course, will ruffle only this grammarphile's feathers.  The bigger problem with Robert Morris is more subtle: bluntly put, it reads slow.  It's the kind of book you can put down, forget about, and then pick up a week later without regrets.  And you will do a lot of picking up -- at 530 pages, the book is corpulent like its namesake and often dense.  There are enough names to warrant the reader's compiling an outline, especially considering that seemingly insignificant people tend to return later to play more important roles.  And if you don't have some background in economics, you'll find yourself floundering through long, abstruse passages on finance.  Keeping track of who's drawing bills on whom can fast devolve into a brain-squishing game of "rock, paper, scissors."

This putative flaw can't really be pinned on the author, though; it should be expected that a book about our first Financier should detail complicated financial arrangements.  And the author, to his credit, has a talent for description.  Early on, Rappleye charmingly sets the social scene in Philadelphia, noting that "[a] dancing assembly met every Thursday evening, enlivened with a punch that called for two hundred limes and five gallons of rum" (21).  Later, he describes a meeting between Morris and his most influential friends so deftly as to put the reader in the room with them:

We don't know the dimensions of Morris's quarters, but the group who assembled would have filled any room.  Save for Thompson, who was slim and wan, each of the men was physically large -- Robert, Gouvernor Morris, Livingston, and Washington all stood six feet tall.  Robert Morris was known for his girth, but he was probably matched by Lincoln, who was marked by "his great bulk and his loose jowel."  Each had an ego to match, and skills of address and command honed in legislative debate or under enemy fire.  (285-286)
The gap between these two instances shows that Rappleye too infrequently employs his admirable scene-setting capability, but he compensates for this with abundant and incisive commentary on Morris's character, both political and personal.  Morris remained circumspect about independence from Britain up until the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and he fought the radicals in the Pennsylvania Assembly and in Congress at almost every turn.  He was often condemned as a plutocrat and a Tory, but a more accurate (and forgiving) label for him is "moderate."  This may cause many politically inclined readers to cringe, but Morris's moderation was not the spinelessness so often characteristic of today's representatives.  Indeed, he was no "moderate" in his personal character -- he stuck to his principles, and his behavior and policies bore them out.  In pressing for a national bank, for example, Morris "wanted nothing to do with the cant about duty and virtue; the key here was to acknowledge the facts of human nature, and let self-interest drive the enterprise" (238).  No Jeffersonian idealism or drum-beating à la Sam Adams -- just hard work and an eye on the goal.  In our modern age, rife as it is with partisan hysterics, we could stand to dispense with barn-burners on both sides of the aisle in favor of the goal-oriented and principled moderation of Robert Morris.

This moderation likely factors into Morris's present lack of fame.  Morris can certainly be considered boring, but this is because he eschewed confrontation and theatrics to make things happen.  And he was wildly successful in this; love him or be bored by him, Morris guided the United States out of the minds of fanciful, utopian, Enlightenment-era thinkers and into the concrete world of the here and now.

Indeed, though Robert Morris is often dry, one theme stands out in bold relief: the terrible precariousness of the American Revolution.  Rappleye's book runs on a convulsive current of urgency, of desperation, which starkly illuminates the pitiful thread on which the newborn United States hung.  Through his steadfast and dutiful toil, Robert Morris kept that thread from snapping, at times completely on his own.

As the author says in the epilogue, "When the credits roll, every gaffer, grip, and catering truck driver may deserve to see his or her name on the screen, but top billing will still be reserved for the stars of the movie" (527).  Rappleye gives Robert Morris the man his billing.  As Robert Morris the book makes clear, it's warranted.

Drew Belsky is the associate editor of American Thinker.