Ryan Smith is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. This interview is based on his brand new book, Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder (Yale University Press, September 2014).
JF: What led you to write Robert Morris’s Folly?
RS: I encountered Robert Morris’s story while doing research for a seminar paper in graduate school. We were looking at Philadelphia town houses, and I found mention of Morris’s wayward mansion in an old history of the city. Morris’s tale was so dramatic – a central figure of the American Revolution, considered the wealthiest man in the new nation, who suddenly lost everything and went to debtor’s prison while his palatial home was torn down. Not much had been written on any of this, which I found surprising, so I wrote up my paper as best I could and then moved on to other pressing projects. But the story of Morris’s ruin stayed with me, and after my first book came out, it seemed like a story I just had to tell. I also saw it as an opportunity to experiment with blending a material culture study with narrative history.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of RMF?
RS: American anxieties about the role of the nation’s wealthiest citizens go back to the earliest years of the American republic. Robert Morris’s particular travails helped ordinary Americans identify civic boundaries for such citizens, while also revealing the importance of buildings and landscapes for giving focus to these concerns.
JF: Why do we need to read RMF?
RS: First, I hope it is a good read, allowing the reader to chew over some human themes, such as pride, vanity, and failure. But Robert Morris’s story became more urgent after the 2007/2008 global financial collapse, when we saw people in high places making poor financial decisions with tragic results for lots of people. The book provides some historical context for this, as well as the subsequent Occupy movement. In addition, I hope the book offers a useful response to our general tendency to valorize the “Founding Fathers” and their decisions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RS: I was a teenager, on a job site with my father, who is an architect specializing in historic preservation. We were measuring an old church on a riverbank – I was not much help, just holding the tape – and there suddenly seemed to be so much going on in the stillness around this old building, it really fired my imagination. Before then, history was only something I found in textbooks, but the layers of experience evoked by the old church’s walls suggested that there could be so much more. After that, I had some really inspiring American Studies mentors while an undergraduate at my little liberal arts college, and they showed me that such a thing as a life in this field might be possible.
JF: What is your next project?
RS: I have my feelers out now on two new projects. One is a study of the restoration of American lighthouses in the twentieth century. The other is a look at the material culture of American spiritualism — “table turning.” These are very different, but I think there are exciting possibilities for each. It will be sad to leave Morris’s world behind for now, though.
Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.