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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 390


This is the grave of Levi Morton.

Born in 1822 in Shoreham, Vermont to a minister, he grew up in various towns around the state, started working as a teenager, taught a little school among other things, and then went into banking. That was how he made his name and by the 1870s, he was one of the nation’s top investment bankers. A very wealthy man, he started playing around with politics. He ran for Congress in 1876 and lost. But well-connected, Rutherford Hayes named him as an honorary commissioner to the Paris Exhibition of 1878, which is exactly the kind of meaningless junket that rich guys at the edge of politics receive. He ran for Congress again in 1878 and this time won a seat in New York. He only served one term because James Garfield named him minister to France in 1881. In fact, he was Garfield’s first choice for VP because that selection was all about making Roscoe Conkling less angry that Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t nominated again. With Garfield seen as something of a reformer, Credit Mobilier notwithstanding, versus Conkling’s corrupt machine and with New York so critical to any presidential victory, Conkling had to be mollified. But Morton turned it down on Conkling’s advice and Garfield turned to an even more obscure Conkling follower, Chester Arthur. Moreover, the minister to France is the job that the lunatic Charles Guiteau demanded and shot Garfield over.

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison approached Morton to be VP and this time he agreed. He was pretty terrible at the job, even given the low bar. He holds much of the responsibility for the failure of the Lodge Bill, which would have mandated greater government oversight over elections, potentially a major tool to ensure black voting rights because he did nothing as the person presiding over the Senate to get it through. Harrison was furious and blamed him directly, dumping him for his 1892 re-election campaign for New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid. There was some talk of putting Morton up to the presidential nomination in 1896 but William McKinley was the choice instead. Morton just went back to his banking and real estate, living the life of the Gilded Age elite, moving between his homes in Manhattan, Newport, and Rhinebeck, as said elite often spent part of the year in their mansions overlooking the Hudson River. He lived basically forever, not dying until 1920, after contracting pneumonia. He died on his 96th birthday. Only John Nance Garner died at an older age among vice-presidents.

Levi Morton is buried in Rhinebeck Cemetery, Rhinebeck, New York. Funny story about this one. I spent a good amount of time in the Hudson Valley because my wife is from there. So we went out to dinner in Rhinebeck and in the corner, there was a lifesized figure of an old Gilded Age looking guy next to a carriage. Naturally, I wandered over. Turns out it was Morton’s carriage and the figure was Morton! Now, I don’t know how many restaurants have vice-presidential memorabilia around the country, but it can’t be too many. I had no idea Morton lived in Rhinebeck because, like pretty much everyone else, I’ve never thought about Levi Morton at all. So then I looked it up and he was buried just down the road. Sometimes, graves find you and not just when you die.

If you would like this series to cover more vice-presidents, and I know how riveting that must be to you, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Hendricks is in Indianapolis and Adlai Stevenson, Sr. is in Bloomington, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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