Picture of Robert Morris clipped from a 1903 biography of him
Picture of Robert Morris clipped from “Robert Morris” by William Graham Sumner (1892) – courtesy of The Internet Archive

Robert Morris, one of America’s founding fathers, served as the Superintendent of Finance for the United States from 1781-1784. Morris was chosen for that position in large part on account of his business acumen, which was the source of his great wealth. Because much of his wealth was tied up in international shipping, he unsurprisingly encountered difficulties when the British Navy decided to shut down shipping along the Atlantic Coast after losing the Battle of Yorktown. Through it all, Morris retained his sense of humor, as we will see below.

The Wit of Robert Morris on Financial Losses

I am drawing the following account from “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789,” by Joseph J. Ellis.

When the British Navy shut down shipping along the Atlantic after Yorktown, it seized a large chunk of Morris’s shipping fleet. Morris, writing to a friend, stated: “What I had afloat has all been lost.” How much did Morris lose? In the interest of modesty, he declined to say:

The amount of that loss I will forebear to mention as there might be in it an appearance of ostentation.

Robert Morris

To be sure, in order to lose a great deal of wealth, one must have been wealthy to begin with. To specify the amount of one’s losses would also reveal the amount one had to lose. Morris lost his fleet, but he did not lose his wit, as evinced by his being able to make light of his losses with a touch of dark humor.

Ellis, Joseph J.  "The Quartet:  Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789."
New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.  Kindle.  (Loc. 817-843)

Postscript: Robert Morris’s Gains and Losses

Morris ultimately died destitute in 1806 after a series of financial mishaps that landed him in debtors prison for several years. However, in between the letter we discussed above and his death, Morris personally paid the soldiers of the Continental Army for a few months in 1783, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and signed on behalf of Pennsylvania, and served from 1789-1795 as one of Pennsylvania’s first two United States Senators. We need not forebear to mention that he lived quite a life.