Mary White Morris
Wife of Robert Morris, The Great Financier of the Revolutionary War and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
1749 – 1827 A.D.
Mary White, who afterward became the wife of Robert Morris, the great financier of the Revolutionary War, was born April 30, 1749, the youngest child of Thomas and Esther White of Philadelphia. That she was well educated and carefully trained in the accomplishments of her day, is evidenced by the social position she so gracefully filled in after life and by the literary style of such of her letters as remain to us. She was prominent in Philadelphia society before her marriage and is referred to in the opening stanza of Col. Sheppen’s Lines Written in an Assembly Room designed to commemorate the beauty and charms of Philadelphia’s belles:
“In lovely White’s most please form,
What various graces meet;
How blest with every striking charm,
How languishingly sweet!”
She was married to Robert Morris, March 2, 1769 by the Rev. Richard Peters. Her husband was at the time thirty-five years old, and one of the most prominent merchants of the day. Maternal cares came early to Mary Morris, her son Robert being born in December of the same year as her marriage. The second child, Thomas, was born February 26, 1771, and their oldest daughter, Hettie, was born July 30, 1774.
Toward the close of 1776, when the British were approaching Philadelphia, Congress moved to Baltimore. Mr. Morris remained in Philadelphia but sent Mrs. Morris to follow Congress and visit her step-sister, Mrs. Hall, with whom her father and mother were then staying. Here she remained for several months and her letters to her husband are of interest, giving as they do glimpses of her real character. On December 20th she wrote:
“…I long to give you an account of the many difficulties and uneasiness we have experience in this journey. Indeed my spirits were unable to the task after that greatest conflict, flying from home; the sufferings of our dear little Tom distressed us all, and without the affectionate assistance of Mr. Hall and the skilfulness [sic] of Dr. Cole, whose services I shall never forget, I don’t know what might have been the consequence, as it was a boil of an uncommon nature and required the surgeon’s hand. We had reason to apprehend, too, we should lose our goods. The many circumstances of this affair I must leave till I see you, as neither my patience nor my paper will hold out….But after all the dangers, I’ve the pleasure to inform you we are safely housed in this hospitable mansion….I thought I was prepared for every misfortune; for, as you observe, of late we have little else. Yet, when Lee is taken prisoner (Gen. Charles Lee at Basking Ridge), who is proof against those feelings his loss must occasion?”
On December 30th, on receipt of the news of the victory of Trenton, she wrote to her husband:
“…We had been for many days impatiently wishing for a letter from you, as the news we hear from any other quarter is not to be depended upon; but when the welcome one arrived, which brought those glad tidings, it more than compensated for what our unfortunate circumstances prepared our minds to expect….but I hope, indeed, the tide is turning, and that our great Washington will have the success his virtues deserve, and rout the impious army who, from no other principal but that of enslaving this once happy country, have prosecuted this Cruell war,…”
After hearing of the Battle of Prinston, she wrote on January 15, 1777:
“…I tryed [sic] to be cheerful; how could I be really so when hourly in expectation of hearing the determination of so important a Battle, and when the express arrived and pronounced Washington victorious, would you believe it, your Molly could not join in the general rejoicing? No! nor never can at a victory so dearly bought….”
In March, 1777, Mrs. Morris returned to Philadelphia. Evidently the separation from her husband and the worries and anxieties she had experienced had impaired her health, for in a letter written to her “Mama” on March 15th and addressed to “Mrs. White, at Aqula Hall’s, Esqr., ear Bush Town, Maryland,” she writes: “I suppose Jemmy Hall has told you how everybody exclaims at my thinness; several of my acquaintances did not know me till they had time to recollect and then declared there was very little traces of my former self…”
In a postscript to this same letter, she adds: “Billy has been told that Congress appointed him their Chaplain when in Baltimore, but has not yet heard it from them, and begs it may not be mentioned.” “Billy” was her brother, the future eminent prelate and father of the Protestant Episcopal Church in this country, Bishop William White.
Mrs. Morris had not been at her home a month before fears of Howe’s approach made it necessary to move again. On April 14, 1777, she wrote her mother: “…We are preparing for another flight in packing up our furniture and removing them to a new purchase, Mr. Morris has made ten miles from Lancaster….”
A fortnight later, she writes: “I am not yet on dear Philadelphia ground, but expect soon to inhabit the Hills, where we shall remain, if possible, in the enjoyment of all that is beautiful to the eye and grateful to the taste,…We intend sending off our best furniture in Lancaster with all the linen we can spare, and stores of all kinds, that our flight may be attended with as few incumbrances [sic] as possible.”
In September, 1777, the near approach of the British Army obliged Congress to remove from Philadelphia, first to Lancaster and afterward to York, and at this time Mr. and Mrs. Morris removed to their country place, the Hills, where they remained until after the evacuation of the city by Sir Henry Clinton early in the summer of 1778. On July 2 of that year, Congress reassembled in Philadelphia. At this period, Benedict Arnold had command in the city, and Mrs. Morris, writing to her mother in November, said: “I know of no news, unless to tell you we are very gay, is such….Tell Mr. Hall, even our military gentlemen here too liberal to make any distinctions between Whig and Tory landyes – if they make any, it is in the favour [sic] of the latter. Such, strange as it may seem, is the way those things are conducted at present in this city. It originates at Headquarters and that I may make some apology for such strange conduct, I must tell you that cupid had given our little general a more mortal wound that all of the host of Britons could, unless his present conduct can expiate for his past – Miss Peggy Shippen is the fair one.”
In September, 1779, Mrs. Morris was called upon to mourn the loss of her father, Col. Thomas White, who died on the 29th, inst.
Early in the year 1781, Robert Morris was made superintendent of Finance. He was supreme in his position, appointing and removing subordinates, etc., at his own discretion. This power, combined with his wealth and social position, gave him considerable prominence, which was shared by his wife. Their home was visited by all the distinguished men of the time, including a number of illustrious foreigners, Prince de Broglie, Luzerne, the French Minister, the Marquis de Chastellus, and others. Luzerne borrowed, on his personal credit, twenty thousand pounds in specie, which he sent to Washington, and it was this money which enabled the great Commander to compel the capitulation of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
It was to Mr. Morris and his wife, that the honour [sic] fell of entertaining Washington in the latter end of summer of 1781, when the General, accompanied by Count de Rochambeau and other foreign American officers passed through Philadelphia on their way to join La Fayette near Yorktown, where they hoped, with the aid of De Grasse, who was hourly expected with his fleet, to capture Cornwallis and his army.
It was in the fall of 1781 that Mrs. Morris’s two eldest sons, Robert, aged 12, and Thomas, aged 10, were sent to Europe to be educated, the Revolution having made such matters difficult in this country. In the latter part of May, 1887, when the convention met to frame a constitution for the United States, Mrs. Morris again had the honour [sic] of entertaining General Washington. Mr. Morris, who eleven years before had signed the Declaration of Independence, was a member of this convention, and it was upon his motion that Washington was selected to preside over the proceedings. Washington made his home with the Morrises during the entire time he was attending this convention. When Washington was inaugurated the first time, Mrs. Washington did not accompany him to New York, but on Tuesday, May 19th, accompanied by her grandchildren, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis, set out in her private carriage for the seat of the government. She received ovations all along her route, and on Tuesday, when she reached Gray’s Ferry, just outside of the city, she was met by Mr. Morris, whose guest she was to be, and accompanied by her entered the city escorted by a large concourse of military an dcitizens amid great demonstration.
Mrs. Washington remained with Mrs. Morris until the following Monday, when she departed for New York, taking Mrs. Morris and her daughter Maria in her carriage as her guests. They were met on Wednesday at Elizabethtown by the President and Mr. Morris, and crossed over to New York on the President’s barge. On Friday, May 29th, Mrs. Washington gave her first levee, at which Mrs. Morris was present, occupying the first place on her right, and in all her subsequent levees in New York and afterward in Philadelphia, when present, Mrs. Morris occupied this place of honour [sic].
Mrs.Morris remained in New York with her husband until July 5th, when she returned to Philadelphia, Mr. Morris being detained in New York by his senatorial duties. It was mainly through his efforts that the seat of government was moved the following year to Philadelphia. As soon as it was definitely settled, Mr. Morris offered his handsome residence, first in the city, for the presidential mansion. The relations between the Washingtons and the Morrises were of the warmest. When Washington was elected President, he offered the Treasury portfolio to Morris who declined it, but recommended Alexander Hamilton, who was appointed.
The history of the unfortunate wild land speculation of Morris, which wrecked his fortune and afforded the most unhappy chapter in the life of Mary Morris, is too well known to need retelling it here. On February 15, 1798, he was arrested and next day taken to the debtors’ department of the old Prune Street Prison, where he remained for three years and a half, until liberated, in 1801, by the General Bankrupt law. It was in October of this year that William Morris, third son of Mary and Robert Morris, died of the malignant fever, in his twenty-seventh year.
During the confinement of Mr. Morris, his devoted wife and daughter Maria were his almost constant companions. Day after day Mrs. Morris visited the prison and dined at the cell table of her unfortunate husband, and while the malignant fever raged terribly in Prune Street, and had infested the city, she never left him but continued her daily visits, though she had to walk through two rows of coffins piled from floor to ceiling of the room which adjoined his.
It was through the instrumentality of Gouerneur [sic] Morris, who though not a relative was one of the most intimate friends of Robert Morris, that Mrs. Morris was kept from absolute want during the incarceration of her husband. the title to the four tracts of land, containing three million three hundred thousand acres, which had been conveyed to the Holland Land Co. by Mr. Morris in 1792 and 1793, proved defective and required confirming, for which Gouverneur [sic] Morris compelled the company to pay Mrs. Morris an annuity of $1500 during her lifetime, and this was all that she then had to live upon.
Robert Morris came out of prison a broken-down old man and lived about five years, dying in 1806. After his death, Mrs. Morris removed to Chestnut Street above Tenth, on the south side, where she passed the remainder of her life. She was residing here when La Fayette made his famous tour through the country, in 1894. He arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, September29th, and was tendered the greatest ovation of his visit. On the evening of his arrival he called upon Mrs. Morris, the first private visit that he made in the city. He had not seen her before that day in thirty-seven years, but driving past her house that afternoon noticed her at the window and recognised [sic] her. At the personal request of General La Fayette, Mrs. Morris attended the grand Civic Ball, given in his honour [sic] at the new Chestnut Street Theatre on the night of Monday, October 5th. Mrs. Morris, who was sixty-seven years old at the time, was described as “tall, graceful, and commanding, with a stately dignity of manner.”
Reference: The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. Third Volume, Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.