- Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction by A. James Fuller
It has been roughly 120 years since the last full-length biography of the colorful and controversial Oliver P. Morton, Indiana governor and U.S. senator during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. That there is no existing collection of Morton's letters and writings to draw on undoubtedly contributed to this time gap between volumes. A. James Fuller has performed admirable work in uncovering perhaps every scrap of paper related to Morton, filling the gaps left by Morton' s scant manuscript record. By situating this research in a vast secondary literature, Fuller has produced a comprehensive and satisfying portrait of an enormously ambitious man who used a combination of ingenuity and brute force to accomplish the political goals he saw as necessary and right.
Fuller argues that Morton held consistently to an ideology of "freedom, Union, power, and party" (p. xxiii). Freedom and Union to Morton were sacrosanct founding principles to be defended at all costs, even, if necessary, by expanding the power of government. The political party best suited to defend against abuse from expanded government power, in Morton's view, was the Republican Party. Morton, however, began political life as a Democrat residing in one of Indiana's most staunchly Whig districts. Like most Hoosiers, Morton viewed slavery as constitutional, though he opposed its spread. He had no patience for abolitionists, and he actively worked against antislavery radicals such as his neighbor in Centerville, Indiana, Congressman George W. Julian. Passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act drove Morton from the Democratic ranks, and in 1856 he unsuccessfully ran as the gubernatorial candidate of the opposition People's Party. By 1860 that party had become the Indiana Republican Party, with Morton elected as lieutenant governor below Henry S. Lane. When the state legislature sent Governor Lane to the U.S. Senate on January 16, 1861, Morton was elevated to the governorship. [End Page 184]
Morton's governing ideology came to maturity as he expanded the power of his office as wartime governor. He established a state arsenal and a system of state hospitals for Indiana's troops. This support for soldiers, who were to become a key voting constituency, continued after the war, when Morton funded the creation of the Home for Disabled Soldiers and the Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home. In 1862 Democrats returned a majority in the state legislature, challenging the governor's war powers. When Morton and the legislature failed to secure a state appropriations bill in 1863, the governor simply funded Indiana's government unconstitutionally—by securing loans from local governments, the Abraham Lincoln administration, and private citizens.
With the war' s conclusion, Morton moved to ally himself with President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction plan and to slow-walk civil rights for African Americans, whom he did not believe were ready for the responsibilities of participatory government. However, the experience of Reconstruction radicalized Morton, who, in 1867, went to the U.S. Senate promising support for African American civil rights and the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan. Fuller appreciates the coincidence that Morton's civil rights conscience grew with his presidential ambitions, for which the support of African Americans would be vital. In 1876 these presidential hopes failed, and Morton instead found himself party to the Compromise of 1877, a symbolic end to the inflammatory type of politics in which he had excelled. Morton died in November 1877 due to complications from recurrent strokes, a condition he had lived with for a dozen years.
Oliver P. Morton was one of the seminal figures of mid-nineteenth-century U.S. political history. Thanks to A. James Fuller's biography, Morton can now be placed wholly within the times he lived.