Levi P. Morton was a businessman, congressman, diplomat, U.S. vice president, and governor of New York. He was born into an old-line New England family in Shoreham, Vermont, the son of a Congregationalist minister. He attended the common schools in communities where his family lived until the age of 14 when he began clerking in a general store in Edfield and, later, Concord, New Hampshire. He also briefly taught school in Boscawen, New Hampshire.
Morton’s manifested business acumen led, at the age of 19, to promotion as manager of the Concord store’s branch in Hanover, New Hampshire, which he bought when the main store went bankrupt. After prospering and gaining more experience in the venture, he accepted a position in 1849 with a major wholesale firm in Boston, J. M. Beebe & Company, in which he was promoted to junior partner two years later. In 1854, Morton moved to New York City to run the company’s branch office, and the next year established a new partnership—Morton, Grinnell & Co.—focusing on the wholesale cotton trade. The business grew until the start of the Civil War in 1861 interrupted the cotton trade and forced the firm’s bankruptcy, although he eventually repaid all his debt.
In 1862, Morton gained financial backing to open an international banking firm on Wall Street and, shortly afterward, a branch in London. He helped the federal government secure much-needed loans during the Civil War. In 1869, his London partner, Sir John Rose, resigned to head the British delegation at the Alabama claims arbitration (which concerned the U.S. demand for reparations stemming from the construction of Confederate ships in officially neutral Great Britain during the American Civil War). Morton acted as mediator between Rose and President Ulysses S. Grant, which helped smooth the way for a resolution to the controversy, embodied in the Treaty of Washington of 1871.
In his youth, Morton had been a Whig, campaigning locally for the party’s 1848 presidential nominee, Zachary Taylor. Morton joined the new Republican Party in the 1850s, and his bankrolling of Republican candidates earned him the nickname “Moneybags.” He was a strong supporter of President Grant (1869-1877), but failed to convince the president to seek a third consecutive term in 1876. Morton himself entered electoral politics that year, when he lost a race for Congress. In 1878, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1880, Morton served as a delegate to the fiercely divided Republican National Convention, which finally nominated a compromise presidential candidate, James Garfield. After defeating Grant and other leading contenders for the nomination, Garfield moved quickly to unify his party by offering the vice presidency to Morton, a visible backer of the former president. The New York congressman declined, however, on the advice of Senator Roscoe Conkling, head of both the Grant bloc and the New York State Republican machine, who believed the Republican ticket would lose the fall election. The convention then endorsed Garfield’s second choice, Chester Arthur, also of New York and a Conkling protégé who ignored his mentor’s similar negative advice. Morton raised a great deal of money for the Republican national tickets in 1880 and 1884.
Morton was reelected to Congress in November 1880, but failed two months later in a bid to become the junior U.S. senator from New York. With Garfield’s inauguration in March 1881, the new president offered Morton the position of either secretary of the Navy or minister to France, and the New Yorker chose the latter. As minister, Morton helped persuade the French to ease their import restrictions on American pork and to grant legal status to American corporations doing business in France. In June 1884, he and the French president, Jules Ferry, officially dedicated the Statue of Liberty before it was shipped to the United States.
With the inauguration of a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, in March 1885, Morton returned to New York State, where he bought a 1000-acre estate he named “Ellerslie.” He lived there with his family, oversaw its dairy, and became a champion cattle breeder. In 1885 and 1887, New York Republicans again bypassed Morton for the senate nomination by selecting William Evarts and Frank Hiscock, respectively; they were both elected.
In 1888, the Republican National Convention nominated Benjamin Harrison, a former senator from Indiana and grandson of President William Henry Harrison, as its presidential nominee. Delegates wanted an Easterner to balance the ticket and overwhelming voted for Morton, who also brought his considerable personal wealth and fundraising ability to the race. Although Harrison and Morton narrowly lost the popular vote, they won the Electoral College count. As vice president, Morton presided over the U.S. Senate in a fair and impartial fashion, so much so that he was criticized for obstructing Republican legislation. His duties in the Senate coincided with the controversial House speakership of Republican Thomas B. Reed, who strengthened the authority of the speaker to circumvent Democratic delaying tactics and ensure passage of the Republican agenda.
In 1892, Morton did not actively seek renomination as vice president, which some supporters interpreted as disinterest. After the Republican National Convention renominated Harrison for president, delegates surprised most observers by nominating journalist Whitelaw Reid for vice president. At 68 years of age, Morton assumed his political career was over, but two years later he became the compromise gubernatorial nominee of the New York Republicans. In a year that saw the entire Republican slate do well, Morton easily defeated his Democratic opponent, David B. Hill, 53%-41%. As governor, Morton worked for civil service reform and backed a new charter allowing the consolidation of the largest New York boroughs into New York City. He did not seek a second gubernatorial term in 1896.
In political retirement, Morton concentrated on reorganizing his businesses into the Morton Trust Company (later part of the Guaranty Trust Company) and supporting various charities, such as the Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In 1856, he had married Lucy Kimball, who died in 1871. Two years later, he married Anne Street, and the couple had five daughters. Morton died at his Ellerslie estate on May 16, 1920, which was his 96th birthday.
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress (online); Harper’s Weekly; Robert F. Wesser, “Election of 1888,” in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections; and, H. Wayne Morgan, “Election of 1892,” in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections.