When Wachovia disclosed the link between slavery and its founders, Rob Morris decried it as an "unfair attack."
Philadelphia memories go back a long way.
So when Wachovia Corp. declared in a report this month that bank founder and Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris and his partner "amassed at least part of their personal fortunes from the slave trade," a descendant, Rob Morris of Westtown, cried foul at the "unfair attack."
Morris did own slaves eight generations ago, as did Benjamin Franklin and other prominent Philadelphians. Robert Morris and Thomas Willing also "engaged in the slave trade" as a side business to their shipping and property investments, said Morris, a software consultant.
But "they lost money" on slavery, Rob Morris said. The ship they sent to buy West Africans was seized by French raiders. The plantation they bought in Louisiana was expropriated by the Spanish. "So there is no way that Robert Morris could have taken money from slavery and put it in that bank."
Why is this all coming out now? In response to new slavery-disclosure laws in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, the North Carolina-based bank reported both slave ownership by its Southern predecessors and investments in slave-worked industries by banks it acquired up North. Wachovia traces its earliest roots to the bank Morris founded in 1782.
"Given that banks like Wachovia have moved into Northern urban areas, I don't think they have much to lose, and they may gain, by admitting they owned slaves" and profited from slavery, said Walter Licht, labor historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
But Rob Morris said that acknowledgment, if distorted from the context of the times, carried its own risk. "There are a lot of hurt feelings. Everybody wants to find someone else to blame. What I object to is manipulating the hurt feelings of others," he said.
"We stand by the research," Wachovia spokeswoman Barbara Nate said, declining to comment further.
Morris said his research showed that a Willing and Morris ship, the Nancy, made two trips to buy enslaved Africans for resale in America. In 1762, Willing, Morris & Co. sold 170 slaves from what is now Ghana in what is now Wilmington. But on the second trip, Nancy was seized by French privateers, licensed to steal Anglo-American cargoes in the French and Indian War. (Later, Morris backed American privateers that seized British slave cargoes.)
Morris and Willing also bought a Louisiana indigo farm and 40 slaves to work it. But they lost title after Spain took Louisiana from France; the partners were able to keep and sell the slaves, but the venture was a loss, Rob Morris said.
Some East Coast merchants did make big fortunes in the slave trade, he said. Rhode Island-based Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rivera grew wealthy importing shiploads of Africans, until they backed the losing side in the American Revolution.
But such big-time slavers are not mentioned in Wachovia's or other recent corporate reports on slave dealings, Morris complained, perhaps because they are not easily linked to existing firms.
While the Wachovia report sees slavery as tainting a wide variety of early economic activity, Rob Morris calls slavery a primitive system pushed aside by the industrial capitalism that Morris and his Federalist supporters stimulated through currency, banking and tax policy.
Those contrasting views are as old as American politics, said Temple University historian David Waldstreicher, author of Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution. Some Federalists criticized Democratic planters for slavery; Democrats called Federalists hypocrites for relying on slave markets for Pennsylvania flour and New York cloth.
"Robert Morris' and the Federalists' entire economic system couldn't function without slavery," said Michael Zuckerman, professor of early American history at Penn. "The tentacles of slavery were so [widespread] that to steer clear of it was difficult, unless you were a frontier farmer, made your grain into whiskey, and drank it." Before the Civil War, "there would be no American economic growth if it weren't for slavery and slave regimes."
Rob Morris said he did not want history suppressed, but told fairly. "We didn't evaporate," Morris said of his and other old Philadelphia families who cherish the Founding Fathers' reputations. "And we still care."