Born on May 16, 1824, in the little village of Shoreham, Vermont, Levi Parsons Morton was named for his uncle, the first American missionary to Palestine. He was the son of a Congregational preacher, who moved his family from church to church in New England, never accruing much wealth. Although young Morton wanted to attend college, his father was too poor to send him. An older brother advised him not to worry about further schooling since "a self-taught man is worth two of your college boys." Instead, Morton took a job in a country store. After getting his fill of heavy manual labor, he sought respite as a teacher in a country school. Then he took another clerkship in the general store of W.W. Estabrook, in Concord, New Hampshire, where he learned the bookkeeper's art of calculating profit and loss.
Estabrook dispatched Morton to run his store in Hanover, New Hampshire. There the young Morton lived with the family of a Dartmouth College professor and met Lucy Young Kimball, whom he would eventually marry thirteen years later. But first he had a fortune to earn. Morton later recalled that he was happiest "when I was learning how to accomplish things; when I was building up my business." When his employer went bankrupt, the chief creditor, James M. Beebe, came to New Hampshire to inspect the situation and was impressed enough with Morton's industriousness to invite him to join James M. Beebe & Co. in Boston—"the business Mecca for every Yankee boy." Beebe & Co., Boston's largest importing firm, soon took Junius Spencer Morgan as a partner, thus introducing Levi Morton to Morgan's son, J.P. Morgan, who would one day become his principal rival as a banker. In 1854, Beebe sent Morton to New York City to take charge of the company's operations there. A year later, Morton formed his own dry goods company in New York. Finally wealthy and secure enough to settle down, he married Lucy Kimball in 1856. The new Mrs. Morton disliked his Old Testament name of Levi and began calling her husband "L.P," as he became known among family and friends thereafter.
Morton's chief business was importing cotton from the South for New England's textile industry and exporting manufactured goods from the North to the agricultural South. When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, his loss of southern clients forced him to suspend business. For the next decade, Morton worked to pay back creditors, dollar for dollar. Although the war soon stimulated the northern economy and rebuilt Morton's financial base, he saw a safer and more profitable future in banking. In 1863, he founded a Wall Street banking house, later named Morton, Bliss & Co., with a London firm called Morton, Rose. By the end of the war, Morton's bank could challenge the powerful Jay Cooke & Co. for the right to handle government transactions. In 1873 Cooke's bank failed, leaving Morton as one of the preeminent bankers in the nation.
Morton's gracious manners and generous campaign contributions made him many friends in Washington, among them President Ulysses S. Grant and Grant's strongest supporter in Congress, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Morton and his British partner, Sir John Rose, expanded their financial and political fortunes by facilitating U.S. negotiations with Great Britain to settle the "Alabama Claims." During the war, Britain had violated its neutrality by allowing the construction of Confederate shipping on its soil. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, pressed the administration to demand large-scale compensation from Britain, including the annexation of Canada, even if those claims led the two nations to war. Morton and Rose persuaded the British and Americans to accept international arbitration of their war claims; the U.S. to reduce its demands; and the British to pay $15 million in damages, for which the house of Morton, Rose acted as disbursing office. When advised that the government's position would be strengthened by using Morton, Rose as its agent, President Grant questioned whether Morton's firm was strong because of the government's patronage rather than the other way around.
After his wife Lucy died in 1871, L.P. Morton married Anna Livingston Reade Street in 1873. Anna's connections as a member of New York's old Knickerbocker society helped propel Morton into New York's political scene. From all accounts, Anna Morton combined great charm, wisdom and prudence, making her admirably suited to be the wife of a political man. In 1876, Morton became financial chairman of the Republican National Committee. Aware that success in this position might reward him with an attractive diplomatic post, he was also considering a race for Congress. Morton asked his friend Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New-York Tribune, "If elected, and I wanted a foreign mission, could I well resign and accept that, or if defeated, what then?" adding "I have never made a speech in my life." Reid encouraged him not to worry about speechmaking but advised that a resignation from a newly won office would create some bitterness.
When Morton declared his candidacy for a House seat from New York's Eleventh District, a fashionable residential area around upper Fifth Avenue, he ran on a platform of sound currency based on the gold standard. That plank would remain consistent through his next quarter century in politics. His opponents pictured him as a plutocrat and "a tool of Wall Street," charges that would similarly follow him in every election.
He was an unsuccessful candidate for election in 1876 to the 45th Congress, but he was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to be an honorary commissioner to the Paris Exhibition of 1878. Morton was elected, as a Republican, to the 46th and 47th Congresses. He served from March 4, 1879, until his resignation, effective March 21, 1881.
The 1880 Republican presidential nominee, James A. Garfield, asked Morton to be his vice presidential running mate, but Morton declined the offer. If he had accepted and history continued on the same course, Morton would have become the 21st President, instead of Chester A. Arthur, after Garfield's assassination. He asked to be appointed Minister to Britain or France instead.
He was United States Minister to France from 1881 to 1885. (A deluded Charles J. Guiteau, reportedly decided to murder Garfield after he was "passed over" as minister to France.) Morton was very popular in France. He helped commercial relations between the two countries run smoothly during his term, and, in Paris on October 24, 1881, he placed the first rivet in the construction of the Statue of Liberty. (It was driven into the big toe of Lady Liberty’s left foot.)
From 1889 until 1895, Levi Morton lived at this residence in Washington, D.C. Morton was elected Vice President of the United States, on the Republican ticket with President Benjamin Harrison, in which capacity he served from March 4, 1889 to March 4, 1893. During his term, Harrison tried to pass the Lodge Bill, an election law enforcing the voting rights of blacks in the South, but Morton did little to support the bill against a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. Harrison blamed Morton for the bill's eventual failure, and, at the Republican convention prior to the 1892 election, Morton was replaced by Whitelaw Reid as the vice-presidential candidate. Harrison and Reid went on to lose the 1892 election, to Grover Cleveland and Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidates.
Levi Morton was Governor of New York in 1895 and 1896. He was considered for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1896, but the Republican Party chose William McKinley instead. After his public career was over, he became a real-estate investor.