HOW SAYING “NO THANKS” KEPT HIM OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE
This week’s column begins with a confession. The name Levi P. Morton doesn’t leap to mind, even for certifiable history nuts like me. You’ll only recognize it if you’ve ever memorized all the vice presidents of the United States. (Don’t laugh; I met a woman in college who actually had to do that once. It remains the weirdest homework assignment I’ve ever heard of.)
Yes, Levi was vice president #22. And he very likely might have had the Big Job himself, if a single decision hadn’t denied him his one chance to live in the White House.
Here’s the story of how he made the wrong call.
Even by the highly mobile standards of life in the early 1800s, Levi Parsons Morton moved around. A lot.
Born to a Congregationalist minister and his wife in Vermont in 1824, Levi dropped out of school to work in a general store in Massachusetts, then taught school in New Hampshire and eventually went into banking in New York City.
He made a lot of money, which he generously showered on Republican political candidates. Defeated in his first bid for Congress from New York in 1876, he won two years later. Wealthy and well-liked, it didn’t take him long to be admitted into Washington’s Inner Circle.
Levi became friends with a fellow congressman, Ohio’s James Garfield. When the 1880 presidential campaign began Garfield jumped into the race, even though he was a long shot. To the surprise of many, he won the Republican nomination.
Which is where Levi’s fateful decision came into play.
Garfield faced a tough opponent in Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, a popular Union Civil War general. Garfield needed to carry New York state in order to win. So he asked Levi to be his running mate.
Politicians have a computer in their head that runs 24/7. They feed information into it, it does the political calculations, and then tells them the best option for advancing their career. Levi was no exception.
He reviewed the political landscape and decided Garfield wouldn’t win. Even if he did, the vice presidency was a dead-end job that rarely led to the presidency. So Levi politely said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Garfield turned instead to another New Yorker, Chester A. Arthur.
Garfield beat the odds and pulled off a squeaker win, edging Hancock in one of the closest popular votes ever: 48.27% to 48.25%.
Levi was still in Garfield’s good graces, and he received a sweet plum as his reward for supporting the GOP ticket – ambassador to France.
He was in Paris in the summer of 1881 when Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a mentally unhinged nobody who, in an incredibly ironic twist, was furious over not getting the French ambassadorship himself.
(Guiteau was probably the most seriously mentally ill of all four American presidential assassins. During the campaign he had written a rambling, almost incomprehensible pamphlet urging Garfield’s election and seemed to think that entitled him to hold high office.)
And so Chester A. Arthur, not Levi P. Morton, became president #21 when Garfield died. (Click here to discover the extreme makeover Arthur gave the White House after he moved in.)
But when re-election rolled around four years later, they were swept out office by Grover Cleveland.
Levi had one last hurrah left in him and was elected governor of New York in 1894. He hoped to be the GOP’s standard bearer in 1896, but the party picked William McKinley instead. (Who, ironically, was shot in 1901).
Levi’s presidential dreams were finally over. When his term as governor ended he returned to the private sector, adding to his substantial fortune through savvy real estate investments. He died in 1920 at age 96, a very rich man, a former congressman, ambassador, vice president and governor, but having never won the one office he really wanted.
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