Oliver Perry Morton (1823-1877)

The American political leader, Oliver Perry Morton, Indiana's Great War Governor and United States Senator, was born in Salisbury, Wayne county, Indiana, on August 4, 1823. The family name was originally Throckmorton, and was so written by the grandfather, who emigrated from England about the beginning of the Revolutionary War and settled in New Jersey. Governor Morton's father was James T. Morton, a native of New Jersey, who moved in an early day to Wayne County, Indiana, where he married the mother of Oliver P., whose maiden name was Sarah Miller.

Of the early life of Governor Morton but little is known. When a boy he attended the academy of Prof. Hoshour, at Centerville, but owing to the poverty of the family, he was taken from school, and at the age of fifteen, with and older brother, began learning the hatter's trade. After working at his trade a few years, he determined to fit himself for the legal profession, and with this object in view he entered the Miami University in 1843, where he pursued his studies vigorously for a period of two years. While in college, he earned the reputation of being the best debater in the institution, and it was here that, he developed those powers of ready analysis and argument, which made him so celebrated in after life.

He began his profession reading in the office of Judge Newman, of Centerville, and after his admission to the bar was not long in rising to an eminent place among the successful lawyers of Indiana. In 1852, he was elected circuit judge, but resigned at the end of one year and afterward increased his knowledge of the profession by an attendance at a Cincinnati law school. On resuming the practice, the number of his friends and legal cases rapidly increased, and his reputation soon extended beyond the limits of his own state. As a lawyer, he possessed the faculty of selecting the salient points of a case and getting at the heart of a legal question. His mind was massive and logical, and he could apply great principles to given cases, discard non-essentials and reach decisive points.

Up to his thirty-first year, Mr. Morton was a Democrat. The county in which he lived was largely Whig, thus virtually precluding him from holding elective offices. He was opposed to the extension of slavery, however, and upon the organization of the Republican Party he entered the movement, and in February 1856 was one of the three delegates from Indiana to the Pittsburgh convention.

His prominence was such that in 1856 he was unanimously nominated by the new party for governor of Indiana, against Ashbel P. Willard, an able and brilliant speaker, the superior of Morton as an orator, but inferior as a logician and debater. These two distinguished men canvassed the state together, and drew immense crowds. The speeches of Willard were florid, eloquent and spirit stirring, while Morton's style was earnest, convincing and forcible. He never appealed to men's passions, but always to their intellect and reason, and whether in attack or defense, proved himself a ready, powerful debater. Although beaten at the polls, he came out of the contest with his popularity increased, and with the reputation of being one of the ablest public men in the state.

He was elected lieutenant-governor in 1860, and when Henry S. Lane (1811-1881), the Governor, resigned, on January 16, 1861, Morton became Governor. He had been nominated for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Hon. Henry S. Lane, with the understanding that if successful Lane should go to the senate, and Mr. Morton become governor.

In meeting all the extraordinary demands resulting from the Civil War he displayed great energy and resourcefulness, and was active in thwarting the schemes of the secessionists in the neighboring state of Kentucky, and of the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty (secret societies of Southern sympathizers and other opponents of the war) in Indiana.

In 1863 a hostile legislature sought to deprive him of all control over the militia, and failing in this, adjourned without making the appropriations necessary for carrying on the state government. In this predicament Morton appointed a bureau of finance, and appealed for financial aid to private individuals, bankers, the counties, and even the Federal government. The response was so prompt that he was able to conduct affairs practically single-handed until 1865, when a legislature more favorable to his policies assembled.

In 1865, when Morton had a paralytic stroke and went to Europe for treatment, the President entrusted him with a confidential mission to Napoleon III concerning the withdrawal of the French troops from Mexico.

Morton resigned as governor in January 1867 to accept a seat in the United States Senate, in which he served during the rest of his life. He was recognized as one of the leaders of the Radical wing of his party, voting in favor of Andrew Johnson's impeachment, and being especially active on behalf of negro suffrage.

In 1870 Ulysses S. Grant offered to appoint him minister to Great Britain, but he declined the honor on perceiving that a Democrat would succeed him in the Senate.

He was a candidate for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1876, and at the national convention of his party received 124 votes on the first ballot; the nomination, however, finally went to Rutherford B. Hayes.

He died at Indianapolis on November 1, 1877.