Like Charles Fairbanks (see the earlier article “Almost President: Charles Fairbanks”), Levi Morton made a fateful decision that cost him the White House. As a result, he watched someone else sworn in as President. Like Charles Fairbanks, he later ended up Vice President.
Levi Parsons Morton was born in Shoreham, Vermont, on May 16, 1824. The son of a New England minister, he had little in the way of formal education. At the age of 14, he began working full-time as a store clerk earning a dollar a week. By the time he was 21, he owned his own dry-goods store, and was earning more than $100,000 a year. Before he was 40 years old, he started an international banking firm with Junius Morgan, the father of J.P. Morgan. He was soon one of the richest men in the world.
His first dry-goods store was opened in Hanover, New Hampshire. He then opened a store in Boston. In 1854, he settled in New York City. In 1863, he founded the banking business of L.P. Morton and Company, which became the Morton, Bliss and Company in 1869. Through these businesses, he became one of the most influential of the eastern bankers.
Within the Republican Party, he aligned himself with Roscoe Conkling and the conservative Stalwart faction of the party. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878, and was re-elected in 1880. In 1880, Morton served as the chief fund-raiser for the Republican Party. It was also in 1880 that Morton turned down an offer to become Vice President.
In an effort to unite the party, which had nominated “half-breed” James Garfield for President, it was decided to offer the second place on the ticket to a “stalwart” from the key state of New York. Morton was offered the spot, but turned it down. He had hopes of becoming the Secretary of the Treasury in the Garfield administration. With seven hundred million dollars in government bonds coming due, it was a great opportunity for a banker such as Morton.
President Garfield had no intention of naming part of the corrupt Conkling machine to the position of Secretary of the Treasury. In spite of heavy pressure from Roscoe Conkling to name Morton to the post, Garfield offered the position to William Allison of Iowa, feeling it was important to name someone far removed from the nation’s money center. Allison at first accepted the position, but then changed his mind and declined it. William Windom, a long-time friend of Garfield, was then named to the position.
Morton was instead offered the position of ambassador to France. He was at his summer home, the Chateau Champ Fleuri, when he received the news that Garfield had died. He of course realized that if he had accepted the Vice Presidency the year before, he would have been President of the United States.
After his return from France, Morton tried to revive his political career. He ran for a senate seat in 1885, but lost. He ran again in 1887 with the same result. It seems that Morton was not an exciting candidate on the campaign trail. His favorite subject was international banking and finance, which was not a crowd-pleasing subject.
In 1888, the Republicans wanted to defeat President Cleveland who was running for re-election, and nominated Benjamin Harrison for President. To win, they would need a bulging war chest full of money. They turned to Morton, hoping he would serve as their chief fund-raiser as he had in 1880. They again offered him the Vice Presidential nomination, and this time he accepted immediately, having learned his lesson the last time.
Morton performed his duties with great efficiency. At one point in the campaign, he sent a letter to his friends in the banking business saying simply, “We want money and we want it quick!” Morton and another Republican fund-raiser, John Wanamaker, raised three million dollars, mostly from wealthy industrialists who were afraid that the Democrats would lower tariffs and allow “foreign free trade.”
Of course, selling positions in the new administration raised some of the money. President Harrison later complained, “I could not name my own cabinet. They had sold out every place to pay the election expenses.” Four hundred thousand dollars was raised at the last moment to help swing twenty thousand crucial votes in the swing state of Indiana. One Republican leader later said that the President had no idea how many “were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary” to win the election.
The result of the 1888 election was that Harrison and Morton lost the popular vote by over 100,000 votes, but won the vote in the Electoral College. That was the last time this happened until Bush defeated Gore the same way this year.
Morton bought a large home in Washington, D.C. and had it extensively remodeled. He entertained lavishly and often, trying to influence Congress in favor of the Republican program. When his term ended, members of both parties threw a farewell reception in his honor.
After his term as Vice President, Morton returned to New York and continued his career. He was elected governor of New York in 1894, and served one two-year term. In 1899, he founded the Morton Trust Company. At the 1896 Republican convention, Morton was the favorite son candidate of the New York delegation. He received 58 votes, finishing in fourth place, on the final ballot that nominated William McKinley for President.
Morton continued in the banking business, eventually retiring to Rhinebeck, New York. He died in Rhinebeck in 1920, on his ninety-sixth birthday. His life might have been very different had he accepted that Vice Presidential nomination back in 1880.