He studied at the University of Michigan and then at Union College, Schenectady, N. Y. , from which he was graduated in 1854.
Soon after his marriage he moved to Nebraska, settled in Nebraska City, and for a number of years edited the Nebraska City News. He was a member of the territorial assembly (1855 - 1858) and served as secretary of the territory (1858 - 1861).
As a Democrat he was an unsuccessful candidate for territorial delegate, for governor, and for United States senator. Morton was a pioneer in the development and installation of many new agricultural methods and for many years was very active in spreading agricultural information and promoting agricultural advancement. As an editor he constantly advocated improved agricultural methods. In recognition of his support of the Democratic party and of his efforts in behalf of agriculture, Morton was appointed secretary of agriculture in President Cleveland's second administration, serving from 1893 to 1897.
In this capacity he emphasized the need for economy in public administration and temporarily stopped the free distribution of seeds. Tree planting was Morton's hobby and life long interest. He set out hundreds of trees by his own hand and to him is generally given the credit for originating "Arbor Day, " observed as tree planting day in Nebraska from 1872 to 1885. It was made a state holiday on Apr. 22, 1885. The idea spread, and Arbor Day is now observed in many states.