Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Morton

VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

Levi Parsons Morton

Levi Parsons Morton


Governor of New York, New York's Candidate for President

Levi Parsons Morton, although to-day worth many million dollars, was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like many of the very wealthy men of our country, he was the son of poor parents, and hewed his way to success by his own industry, ability and resolution not to stop short until that success was attained. His mother was the daughter of a clergyman, and his father was a clergyman, Daniel O. Morton, of Shoreham, Vermont, where Levi Parsons was born in 1824, being the fifth of six children. By great economy the preacher was able to send his two older sons to school, but young Levi gathered his first book instruction at the knees of his father and mother. Afterward he attended the common school for a while, but at an age when many other lads are preparing for the academy or college, he started out to earn his own livelihood.

Earlier Years


About the only avenue open for youths of that class is the country store, which, however, has been the stepping-stone to success for more than one great man. Levi had barely reached his teens when he was employed in selling sugar, tea and all the odd knacks that may be found in a village store. But he was made of the right stuff, and at the end of a year he was promoted to a better-paying position in Enfield, Massachusetts, from which he drifted to Concord, finally landing at Hanover. In the last-named place is a well-known university. Unable to attend the institution himself, young Morton found the air of learning congenial, and he was delighted in his intercourse with the students, the professors, their wives and families. Not neglecting his business, he improved himself mentally to the utmost, and looks back upon that episode in his life as among his most pleasing remembrances. While a resident of Hanover, he cast his first vote for General Zachary Taylor, afterward President of the United States.

In Boston


In 1849, when twenty-five years old, Morton removed to Boston, and made a profitable arrangement with the leading dry goods house of James Beebe & Co. At that time there was another young man connected with the house of Beebe & Co., Junius S. Morgan who afterwards became the head of the great banking firm in London.

Morton and Morgan became close friends, and in 1852, Morton was taken in as a member of the firm of Beebe & Co. Here he confirmed his reputation as a man of unusually keen business instincts, and added much to the success of the firm. There seemed, however, to be only one right place for the budding merchant and millionaire, and that was the metropolis of the country. Accordingly, in 1854, he left New England and associated himself with Mr. Grinnell, a New York merchant. The sign of Morton & Grinnell, commission merchants, was hung out on lower Broadway, then the center of the dry goods trade of the city.

In 1856, when thirty-two years old, he was married to Miss Lucy Kimball, who belonged to an old Long Island family. Ere long a commercial panic swept over the country, and all his hard-earned savings were engulfed, but he never lost heart and kept his head so well above water, that in 1863 he was able to establish the banking firm of L. P. Morton & Co. It was the business to which he had long aspired, for which he was eminently fitted, and in which he attained extraordinary success. His old friend, Junius S. Morgan, became a partner, and, in 1869, Mr. George Bliss, who had always been very successful in the dry goods business, joined the firm with a large amount of capital, the style becoming Morton, Bliss & Co. Mr. Morgan soon retired, and going to London, formed other connections. Sir John Rose, who had been Minister of Finance in Canada, shortly after took charge of the New York firm's business in London, which was rapidly growing, and Morton, Rose & Co. soon became a power in that city.

A Memorable Transaction


From 1873 to 1884, Morton, Bliss & Co. were the fiscal agents of the United States Government, and were active in the syndicate that negotiated United States bonds for the refunding of the National debt and the restoration of specie payments. A memorable transaction of the firm was the payment by check of $15,500,000 on account of the Geneva award for the “Alabama” claims, and another of $5,500,000 on account of the fishery award.

Mr. Morton was prominent in society, and in 1870, he bought “Fairlawn,” a magnificent estate on Bellevue avenue, Newport, where he gave many notable entertainments. In the following summer, however, he was afflicted by the death of his wife there. The blow was a severe one, and only after the persistent urgency of his friends he roused himself and entered more vigorously than ever into business. In 1873 he was married to Miss Annie Street, daughter of William I. Street, belonging to one of the oldest families in New York. The country place of the Streets was at Poughkeepsie, and, in deference to the wishes of Mrs. Morton, her husband purchased “Ellerslie,” a few miles above, which is one of the most palatial residences in this country.

In the Congress


Mr. Morton is a type of the successful American merchants and bankers whose peculiar training and mental equipment sometimes lead them to turn their attention to politics. Mr. Morton listened to the persuasion of friends, and, in 1878, accepted the Republican nomination for Congress from the Eleventh district in New York city. It was a Democratic stronghold, but Mr. Morton was successful and was re-elected at the conclusion of his first term. His strength was already so apparent that he was offered the nomination for the Vice-Presidency on the ticket with Garfield. He declined and the honor went to Chester Alan Arthur, who, as is known, succeeded to the Presidency upon the assassination of the President. Garfield offered Mr. Morton the choice between Secretary of the Navy and the mission to France. The latter suited Mr. and Mrs. Morton and was accepted. The family removed to Paris in 1881, and remained until 1885, when Mr. Morton resigned to make way for Robert McLane. He made a most admirable record while in France, and this country was never more capably represented in Paris than by him and his family.

Vice-President of the United States


In 1889 Mr. Morton became Vice-President of the United States, with Benjamin Harrison as his chief. He won the same golden opinions while presiding officer of the United States Senate, and political opponents regretted, scarcely less than political friends, his retirement at the end of four years.

Mr. Morton had become too “available” a candidate for his party to allow him to withdraw from politics, and, though he had reached the age of three-score and ten, when he felt himself entitled to rest, he accepted the nomination for Governor against Senator David B. Hill, and defeated him by a majority of 156,108, at the same election in which Cleveland carried the State against Harrison. Governor Morton's term expires on the last day of 1896. At the beginning of the year, the Republican leaders of the State agreed to unite their efforts in pressing him for the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

His worth and ability were proven long ago. He holds that the office is one too dignified for any person to seek or to decline. When the wife of President Harrison died, Mrs. Morton became the leader of society in Washington, and there was never a more brilliant and popular leader than she. It was her innate graciousness, her infinite tact, and her kindness of heart, more than her beauty and brilliant accomplishments, which won her admiration and respect of all, as the foremost lady of the land. The parents have been blessed with five bright and beautiful daughters, carefully trained and educated, fit companions, all, for their noble mother and worthy father.