Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Robert Morris: The Dark Side
The richest man in America suddenly was locked in debtor's prison, $12 million in debt. While in prison, he reduced that to $3 million, and got released under a new bankruptcy law he helped devise.

R. Morris, Land Speculator

Robert Morris

In many recent years, someone becomes a millionaire through real estate speculation; it can be done. However, no one supposes it is easy to do, or free of risk. It would be foolhardy for anyone who knew nothing about real estate speculation to step forward, buy huge tracts of land, and expect to multiply his wealth in a year or two. That is, however, essentially what Robert Morris, Jr. did in 1785. Like his friend Benjamin Franklin, Morris was acutely sensitive to the prevailing notion that public leadership was only fitting for gentlemen, and a gentleman did not, could not, must not, engage in trade. The world was then in transition between an era when a gentleman was one of the few educated people around, a man who had attended college as John Adams described it, and who was able to live in upper-class style as a result of inheriting well or marrying well. The time was soon to arrive when public service was equivalent to improving the national economics through invention or organization, but a decade or two earlier, public service was military or diplomatic. Morris got caught in the transition.

Suddenly caught in a society he did not understand, Morris renounced his achievements as a merchant, considerable but tainted with society's disdain for scrambling for personal advantage; and as the expression goes, cashed out. Aristocrats were still understood to own vast tracts of land, however, and somehow an estate was not tarred with a commercial brush. An opportunity opened up quite soon to acquire the land along the Genessee River in upstate New York, with Morris turning it over quickly to new migrant settlers at such a profit that it was rumored he was once again the richest man in America. However, the land was cheaper and more abundant in America than in Europe, subject to violent fluctuations as immigration flourished and declined along with the economics and wars of Europe. The supply of land in the new continent was nearly inexhaustible, while the supply of immigrants was highly variable. Without a safe place to park idle money temporarily, Morris plunged on, buying land with money made on other lands, not yet paid for. Many of his customers were just as innocent as he was, but others were savvier and more ruthless. That was peculiarly true of the Scotch-Irish, who having been evicted first from Scotland and then from Northern Ireland, were among the first American immigrants to recognize real estate as a simple commodity, to be traded unsentimentally.

Originally published: Wednesday, October 19, 2011; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019

So true. Hosetny and everything recognized.
Posted by: Champ   |   Nov 25, 2011 11:30 PM