- Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder by Ryan K. Smith
Late in 1798, George Washington was on his way to Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail. He went voluntarily, not to atone for any misdeed of his own but to visit an inmate, Robert Morris. The disgraced merchant, once lauded as the financier of the American Revolution, was nine months into a three-and-a-half-year sentence in the capital city’s debtors’ prison. After years of sidestepping creditors with ever more elaborate schemes involving finance and self-imposed house arrest, Morris found himself imprisoned mere blocks from the most visible evidence of the misplaced attention, trust, and risk that had ruined him: “Morris’s Folly,” an architectural behemoth widely seen as both source and symbol of Morris’s inability, or unwillingness, to limit his outsized financial and aesthetic excess.
As Ryan K. Smith sets forth in the prologue to his narrative history of this building project, the contrast between this shell of Morris’s intended house and his apartment at the debtors’ jail raised broader questions about the relationship between market behavior—commerce, speculation, consumerism—and morality in the young republic. At the very moment fellow Americans canonized George Washington and his Mount Vernon estate in the nation’s nascent civil religion, Smith argues, they looked to Robert Morris and his palatial French pile as a cautionary tale in answering a central question of early republican society: “What do the very wealthiest Americans owe their fellow citizens?” (9).
Smith offers readers a deeply researched account of an early American landmark and the attendant financial rise and fall of its famed proprietor. In the early chapters, he explains how Morris used domestic mobility to construct a personal façade of financial prosperity and social probity. In 1790, for instance, Morris removed his household from the Masters-Penn property in Philadelphia, which he had improved as his main residence since 1782, to the Stedman-Galloway house, one of his rental properties a few doors west on Market Street. He did this to make the former available as a proper presidential abode in the federal capital. Through this professed sacrifice, Morris not only made neighbors of the Washingtons but also convinced the city to invest in improvements to both of his residential properties. Outside the city, the Morrises intermittently inhabited two other properties as escapes from the challenges of urban life. The Hills, Morris’s country estate since 1770, sat on a rise on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River a few miles west of Philadelphia, offering its residents cool shade, picturesque strolls, and the entertaining curiosities of exotic plants nursed in the extensive greenhouses. Like many of his peers, Morris retreated here to escape the seasonal threats of summer heat and epidemic disease in Philadelphia’s urban core. But he also used it as a strategic site of hospitality, entertaining wealthy guests with agendas calculated to gain their confidence and credit. On other occasions, Morris retreated up Philadelphia’s other river, the Delaware, to a tract on the river’s falls that became known as Morrisville. In contrast to the grounds at The Hills, the property at Morrisville offered the family a different sort of urban escape: a landscape of industry rather than leisure. From the comfort of a house favored by his family, Morris oversaw his investments in local production at various mills, forges, and manufactories, all of which were situated to benefit from the site’s natural hydropower. Although mismanagement thwarted profit, the site’s industrial landscape seemed to offer an eternal promise of gain through tangible sources of production rather than ethereal chains of credit.
Morris’s efforts to build a palatial new residence in Philadelphia arose and ultimately failed within this broader project of shaping a complex domestic landscape to amass social and financial power. Beginning in chapter 4, Smith turns to a detailed look at...