Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Levi P. Morton

Levi Parsons Morton was born on May 16, 1824, in Shoreham, Vermont. His father was a Congregational minister who was unable to afford a university education for his son. Levi's hard work and dedication led him to leave his common school at the age of 14, traveling to New Hampshire to work as a clerk at a local general store. He spent two years at the store before moving to teach at the Boscawen common school.

In 1842, Morton assumed another general store clerkship, rising to the position of manager while diligently saving his earnings. By the time he was 21 years old, he was able to purchase the store from its primary creditor. After earning a small fortune, he joined the James M. Beebe and Company dry goods firm, where he became a partner in the firm and opened an office in New York on his own. The business prospered until the outbreak of the Civil War, when it faced bankruptcy due to its inability to collect debts from Southern clients. Morton was able to revive the failing company and repay the earlier debts.

After founding his own banking house in 1863, Morton began establishing friendships with powerful political figures, such as President Ulysses Grant. Morton also cultivated connections with Senators Roscoe Conkling and Thomas Platt of New York, both of whom were active in the Republican Party machinery. Morton used his growing influence to run for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1876. He lost by a slim margin but made a second attempt in 1878. Divisions within the Democratic Party and his popular rescue of a Republican newspaper helped him win the election easily. During his brief tenure in the House, Morton served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and was a vocal proponent of the gold standard. He remained a consistent advocate of the gold standard throughout his political career.

After Morton served on the Republican Party's national finance committee in 1880, President-elect James A. Garfield looked to him to fill the vice presidency in order to satisfy the interests of the New York party machine. Roscoe Conkling, however, was not satisfied, and he advised Morton to turn down the offer because he did not think Garfield could win the election. When Garfield won, Morton sought the position of secretary of Treasury, but Garfield questioned the legitimacy of giving the position to a banker. Garfield instead appointed Morton minister to France, and Morton resigned his House seat in 1881 to accept the post. By the time he sailed for France, however, President Garfield had been assassinated, and Chester A. Arthur had become President.

While in France, Morton's main accomplishment was achieving stronger legal rights for American businesses operating in France. On July 4, 1884, he formally accepted the Statue of Liberty from Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi and arranged for its shipment to New York. He returned to the United States soon after, raising funds for the presidential election, which the Republicans lost. He then made two unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. In 1888, Republican presidential candidate, Benjamin Harrison, selected Morton as his vice presidential candidate. Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland 233 to 168 in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by 90,000 votes.

Vice President Morton was best known for his conflict resolution in the Senate. As the presiding officer, he was dedicated to working out problems and forging compromise, even when this meant acting against the wishes of his own party. He angered many members of the Republican Party when he refused to end the Democratic filibuster of the Force Bill, which would have mandated cooperation from election officials to allow African Americans to vote. Although Morton was well regarded in the Senate and willing to accept a second term as vice president, Harrison decided to choose a new vice presidential candidate for his unsuccessful reelection attempt in 1892. In 1894, Morton was elected governor of New York, and he was instrumental in creating Greater New York City, merging New York City and Brooklyn. He briefly sought the presidential nomination in 1896, but William McKinley outmaneuvered him. Afterwards, Morton decided not to run for a second term as governor, preferring instead to retire back to the world of finance, creating the Morton Trust Company in 1897, which was subsequently merged with J.P. Morgan's Fifth Avenue Trust. Levi Morton died on his 96th birthday on May 16, 1920.