- Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of Civil War and Reconstruction by A. James Fuller
The soldiers' friend. The Indiana dictator. Civil War governor and Reconstruction-era senator Oliver P. Morton has been called both. A. James Fuller's comprehensive biography leaves the reader believing that Morton might better have been called Indiana's Abraham Lincoln. Like the sixteenth president, Morton evolved in his political thinking about race and slavery. Both men fiercely defended the Union and were partisan creatures and crafty politicians. Both men cut some constitutional corners in their efforts to keep the Union intact.
Fuller is a fair-minded biographer willing to acknowledge Morton's flaws, his combativeness and fierce rhetoric. He was a "great hater" (224). But Fuller is determined to relieve Morton from the charge of opportunism that has dogged his reputation. Morton changed party, breaking with the Democrats over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and joining the Republicans. He changed policy, from accepting slavery and white supremacy to becoming a fierce champion of black rights. Fuller argues that Morton had a consistent philosophy, a belief in the Union, liberty, and the Republican Party. Lincoln, Morton, and many others changed in their attitudes and policies as the political landscape changed. Fuller does perhaps try too hard to find a consistent ideological pattern in Morton's philosophy of the parameters between state and federal power. It seems to this reviewer that Morton tended to favor state power when he was a governor and federal power as a senator.
After the 1862 election, Governor Morton faced a recalcitrant Democratic-controlled legislature that threatened his control of military affairs. Republican legislators fled Indianapolis to break the quorum, and as a result the legislature did not pass an appropriations bill. Morton secured funds to operate state business from eastern bankers and the War Department. Fuller states unequivocally that this action was unconstitutional and even accepts the label of "dictator" for Morton's "one-man rule" (148). Fuller is adamant that Morton was scrupulously honest—and was found to be so at the time—in his unorthodox handling of the state's finances. But like Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Morton's actions may have been necessary because of the unprecedented emergency the country faced. Fuller acknowledges that some antiwar Democrats were justly disturbed at wartime curtailment of civil liberties, but Stephen E. Towne's recent work on the wartime conspiracies, Surveillance and Spies in [End Page 329] the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America's Heartland (2015), allows Fuller to give the most authoritative account to date of the threat Morton faced in dealing with antiwar conspirators. It was real.
Assassins tried to kill Oliver Morton. This attempt—along with the possibility of Confederate invasion through Kentucky—contributed to what some biographers have called paranoia. The author acknowledges that, on occasion, Morton sounded paranoid, but Fuller makes clear Morton faced real threats. Someone tried to kill him, antiwar conspirators tried to disrupt the 1864 election, and Confederate troops did invade Indiana on more than one occasion.
Morton is best known as Indiana's war governor, but Fuller correctly emphasizes Morton's long postwar career. Once elected to the Senate, Morton defended the Reconstruction amendments despite their expansion of federal power over slavery, suffrage, and civil rights. Initially dubious about enfranchising black men, fearing that slavery had left them uneducated and unfit to exercise the vote, Morton embraced black suffrage on the grounds that African Americans needed it for their own protection—and the Republican Party needed it to hold the South. Morton became best known for waving the bloody shirt, reminding late nineteenth-century voters that the Republicans had saved the Union and the Democrats were the party of treason. In the Gilded Age, Morton was a "Stalwart," a defender of the Republican Party and President Grant, despite the obvious corruption that swirled around the administration. As reformers emerged more concerned about good government than preserving the Civil War's results, Morton remained an uncompromising voice...