Name:  Oliver Perry Morton

See a full text list of Biographies


Born:  August 4, 1823
Died:  November 1, 1877
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Oliver Morton, Indiana governor and U.S. senator, was born Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton in Salisbury, Indiana, to Sarah Miller Morton and James Throck Morton, a shoemaker. His mother died when he was three, so he was raised by her family on a southwestern Ohio farm. As a young teenager, he returned to eastern Indiana where he briefly attended a private school and clerked for an apothecary before working for four years as a hatter’s apprentice. In 1843, he began studying at Miami University (Ohio), but dropping out two years later and returned to Indiana to read law. Also in 1845, he married Lucinda Burbank; they had five children, three living to adulthood. In 1847, Morton passed the bar and started his law practice in Centerville, Indiana, serving a short tenure as circuit judge in 1852. The next year, he spent a few months studying at the Cincinnati College school of law before resuming his practice. During the 1850s, he became a prosperous trial attorney, primarily through his work for railroad companies.

Morton began his political life as a Democrat, opposing the (unsuccessful) Wilmot Proviso which intended to ban slavery from territories acquired during the Mexican War (1846-1848). By 1854, with some hesitation, he endorsed the fusion People’s party in Indiana, which opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s opening of those territories to slavery. In 1856, he participated in a convention in Pittsburgh which aimed at cobbling together the various state Republican parties into a national organization. He was also nominated that year as the Republican gubernatorial candidate, but lost the election. At that point, he was urging Republicans not to focus exclusively on slavery, but to discuss labor and other issues. When he ran for lieutenant governor in 1860, however, he himself emphatically emphasized the party’s position against the expansion of slavery. This pattern, whether motivated by opportunism or conviction, was replicated throughout his public life: taking an initially conservative position on a political issue, then gradually shifting to become a strong voice for a contrary position.

Elected lieutenant governor, Morton succeeded to the governorship of Indiana in early 1861 when the new Republican legislature promoted Governor Henry Lane to the U.S. senate. Morton proved to be one of the most efficient governors in raising troops for the Union war effort. Furthermore, he made sure that Indiana soldiers received adequate supplies in the field, proper medical care, and their fair share of promotions. In the 1862 elections, Democrats regained control of the Indiana legislature, and the lower house promptly passed resolutions favoring an armistice and criticizing Lincoln administration policies of emancipation and habeas corpus suspension. The Republican minority forced an adjournment of the legislature, which the governor refused to reassemble. Instead, Morton took over the legislative duties himself for the rest of their two-year term. He borrowed over $1 million from the War Department, private banks and businesses, and wealthy Republican donors, and allocated $900,000. He labeled his opponents as Confederate sympathizers who were undermining the Union cause, and arrested several for treason. In 1864, he was elected governor in his own right and the Republicans won control of the state legislature.

Morton at first endorsed emancipation only as a military necessity, but by 1864 was claiming the policy to be divinely ordained. At the end of the war, he backed the lenient Reconstruction program of President Andrew Johnson. As the Republican tide shifted against Johnson, so did Morton, who endorsed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in defiance of the president’s veto. In early 1867, the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, despite the fact that he had suffered a paralytic stroke in late 1865. At first, his stance on Reconstruction issues in the Senate was moderate, but he soon fervently backed strong protection of civil rights for blacks and played a key role in the successful passage and ratification of the 15th Amendment. During the 1870s, he continued to work for civil rights legislation, such as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, after many Northern Republicans had abandoned the effort.

Morton developed a political machine in Indiana based on his control of the state’s federal patronage, and was reelected to the Senate in 1872. He was a vocal supporter of President Ulysses S. Grant throughout the former general’s scandal-ridden administration (1869-1877). In 1876, Morton was a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, but his advocacy of “soft money” (inflationary paper currency) and railroad regulation lost him support among some segments of the party; consequently, he lost to a compromise candidate, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Morton was one of the Republican senatorial representatives on the Electoral Commission of 1877 which decided the outcome of the contested presidential election of 1876. He cast his vote for Hayes, who was duly elected. Later that year, Morton suffered another stroke and died at his home in Indianapolis.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.











Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to