The Remarkable Roscoe: Friend and Nemesis of Presidents (Part I)

 Arguably, the greatest adversary James A. Garfield ever encountered in his national political career was the New York senator and political boss, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling, a man who thrived on battling perceived enemies, was also one of the most colorful political figures of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Two descriptions of Conkling, one modern and one contemporary, make the point well. David M. Jordan, Conkling’s most recent biographer, captured an unforgettable presence and a most striking personality:

“‘Lord Roscoe,’ many called him, and he carried himself like a member of the higher peerage. Roscoe Conkling steps from the pages of history angry, haughty, larger than life. Although he was vindictive and overbearing, he was handsome, intelligent, and capable of orating for hours at a time without losing either a word of his memorized speech or a listener; gaudy as a peacock, he makes the political leaders of our era pale into shadows in comparison. He was not a pleasant man, but he stirred strong emotions, and he had a considerable impact on American history.”

Roscoe Conkling was a Senator from New York and one of the most powerful political figures in the United States during much of the 1870s and early 1880s.  (Wikipedia.com)

Roscoe Conkling was a Senator from New York and one of the most powerful political figures in the United States during much of the 1870s and early 1880s. (Wikipedia.com)

Less charitably, Conkling’s bete noire in politics, James G. Blaine, delivered a salvo at Conkling on the floor of the House on April 30, 1866, that made the two men adversaries for the rest of their careers. Sneered Blaine after several exchanges between the two:

“The contempt of that large-minded gentleman is so wilting; his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and all the members of this House that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him.”

These withering remarks were aimed at a dynamic, very influential political personality, someone who was taken very seriously in his day. The Conkling-Blaine rivalry dominated Republican Party politics throughout the late 1860s, 1870s and early 1880s.

Roscoe Conkling was born on October 30, 1829 (just weeks after his future political acolyte, Chester Alan Arthur) in Albany, New York. Little is known of his earliest years, but biographer Jordan notes that by age fourteen, young Roscoe’s interest in politics had taken root. At age sixteen, he was studying law in Utica. At twenty, he was committed to the abolition of slavery. In this commitment, he had something in common with James A. Garfield, whose own antislavery sentiments were just beginning to emerge at this time. 

James G. Blaine made himself one of Conkling's lifelong enemies when he insulted Conkling in an 1866 speech on the House of Representatives floor.  The two would square off against one another many times over the following 15 years.  (Politico.com)

James G. Blaine made himself one of Conkling’s lifelong enemies when he insulted Conkling in an 1866 speech on the House of Representatives floor. The two would square off against one another many times over the following 15 years. (Politico.com)

The future Senator from New York was physically impressive. He stood six feet, three inches tall, was “erect and muscular,” and blond. He sported a “Hyperion” curl on his forehead that was the delight of political cartoonists; at a time when the sartorial standard for men was black, Conkling made an elegant figure, sporting colorful vests of yellow or lavender and light-colored trousers. He was an advocate of physical fitness, a skilled and avid horseman and an enthusiast for boxing. 

Conkling was also blessed with intelligence and physical appeal. Though married to Julia Seymour in 1855 (she the sister of Horatio Seymour, a future governor of New York and the 1868 Democratic presidential nominee), many women found him attractive. He “exud[ed] animal vigor, even sexuality,” according to David Jordan. Altogether, the pride he took in his physical and oratorical prowess was part and parcel of his political mystique.

Like Garfield, Conkling possessed a driving need for “self-improvement.” He read a great deal – Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, and Byron. According to David Jordan, he possessed “a prodigious memory” by which he could “reproduce verbatim” much of what he read. 

Elected to Congress in 1859, his acid tongue shortly found a target in President James Buchanan during the secession crisis of late 1860. Buchanan, he said, was “petrified by fear, or vacillating between determination and doubt, while the rebels snatched from his nerveless grasp the ensign of the Republic, and waved before his eyes the banner of secession…”

Though he had supported Seward for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, he believed as Lincoln did, that slavery in the United States would be eventually abolished. Early in the war, he favored President Lincoln’s idea of compensated emancipation – paying slaveholders to free their slaves. Even so, Conkling was a fiscal conservative, and opposed financing the war with paper money. He was for “sound money,” that is, money backed by gold. Here was another view he shared in common with James Garfield. 

For a man who descended the pages of history with the unsavory reputation of a corruptionist, Conkling was seen early in his career as “an opponent of all sorts of jobbery and corruption.” And in fact, he does not seem to have been politically corrupt. He does not appear to have benefitted financially from his political wire pulling.

Conkling dressed very well and was described as "strutting" rather than walking.  This led to him being regularly mocked as a "dandy" and a "peacock," as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon.  (Jackdaw Cartoons)

Conkling dressed very well and was described as “strutting” rather than walking. This led to him being regularly mocked as a “dandy” and a “peacock,” as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon. (Jackdaw Cartoons)

Conkling was regarded as “a consistent and warm personal friend of President Lincoln.” This was probably an exaggeration. In 1864, when Conkling was running for reelection, some local Republicans wanted another candidate. Abraham Lincoln endorsed him in a letter that read in part, “I am for the regular nominee in all cases… no one could be more satisfactory to me as the nominee in that District, than Mr. Conkling. I do not mean to say there are not others as good as he is… but I think I know him to be at least good enough. Given the divisions in the Republican Party at the time, Lincoln was choosing his words carefully.

Whether for reasons of humanity or because it was the “politically correct” stance to take, Conkling opposed the “Black Codes” of the South that restricted the employment opportunities and geographical movement of blacks. He insisted that the southern states repudiate the Confederate debt and the right to secede. He helped to write the 14th Amendment, which gave blacks citizenship. Like Garfield, he insisted that the southern states ratify the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote, before they could be readmitted to the Union. To demonstrate his support for the first black member of the Senate, he made it a point to escort Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce about the chamber when other white senators shied away.

Like other Republicans, Conkling became increasingly bothered by the leadership style of Andrew Johnson, and supported his impeachment. When Johnson took his national “Swing ‘Round the Circle” during the 1886 election, Conkling referred to the president as an “angry man, dizzy with the elevation to which assassination has raised him, frenzied with power and ambition…”

Conkling developed close ties with Johnson’s successor, Ulysses S. Grant. He admired Grant’s service during the war and became a loyal ally. The two men worked well together. Conkling supported Grant’s cabinet appointments, his Reconstruction policies, and the president’s efforts to annex Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) to the United States. Conkling supported Grant’s appointment of Thomas Murphy to be Collector of New York in 1870, and Grant approved Conkling’s recommendations for other New York appointments.

Murphy proved to be a less than scrupulous public official. In 1871 he was forced out of his position. Conkling recommended the honest, efficient, and courteous Chester Alan Arthur as his successor, and Grant made the appointment. And unlike Murphy, Chester Arthur was no party hack. He ran the port well, and through it he helped Roscoe Conkling build and maintain a political machine in New York.

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  He was a Conkling loyalist and acolyte who owed most of his political connections and success to Conklng.  (Wikipedia.com)

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Conkling loyalist and acolyte who owed most of his political connections and success to Conklng. (Wikipedia.com)

Revelations of waste and scandal during the first Grant administration led to a revolt within the party in 1872. Well-born gentlemen, newspaper editors, and politicians (in both parties, really) stressed the need to appoint government workers on the basis of merit, not political loyalties. Conkling was threatened by such talk of reform. He had built a political machine in New York based on his ability to control who received federal jobs. To him, Civil Service Reform was more properly “snivel service reform.”Concern over Grant’s administration meant that there was no chance that he would be his party’s nominee for a third term in 1876. That year’s contested nominating convention put forth Governor Rutherford B. Hayes as the Republican choice to succeed Grant. Hayes was perceived as a reformer, but Conkling was unimpressed. He dragged his feet during the campaign, and probably for that reason Hayes lost New York.

The election results were so close, and there was so much controversy over voting irregularities in the South, that the winner of the Hayes-Tilden was disputed. Conkling was a principal author of the legislation that created a Congressional commission to resolve the election. But although he was a Republican, Conkling believed that Democrat Samuel Tilden was the rightful victor. Consequently, he referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud B.Hayes.” No love was lost between the two men.

Samuel Tilden was the Democratic governor of New York when he ran for president in 1876.  He won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a bitterly contested election.  (Wikipedia.com)

Samuel Tilden was the Democratic governor of New York when he ran for president in 1876. He won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a bitterly contested election. (Wikipedia.com)

In 1878, Hayes removed Chester Arthur from the Collectorship. The move was part reform-minded and in part payback. Hayes and his Secretary of State, New Yorker William Evarts, wanted to build a new Republican machine in the Empire State loyal to the reformers. So, the bad blood between Hayes and Conkling persisted into the 1880 election cycle.

Hayes was not a candidate for reelection, but Grant was urged to seek a third term. Though he was genuinely interested in a third term, reformers in the Republican Party were determined to prevent it. Within the New York Republican Party, State Senator William H. Robertson was a leader in the anti-Grant forces. Robertson’s maneuverings at the Republican Convention in Chicago figured large in denying Conkling’s man Grant a third presidential bid. The “beneficiary” of the deadlocked convention was of course James A. Garfield, a man closely associated with Conking’s primary adversary, President Hayes.

(“Stay tuned” for Part II, where the Conkling-Garfield dispute and Conkling’s life after politics will be discussed.)

 -Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

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5 thoughts on “The Remarkable Roscoe: Friend and Nemesis of Presidents (Part I)

  1. Interesting post, but I have a few questions:

    “Whether for reasons of humanity or because it was the “politically correct” stance to take…”
    Could you define “politically correct”? If it means the actions you ascribe to Conkling in this paragraph somehow gained Conkling political points, I’m at a loss to see how. Those actions certainly wouldn’t have gained him any favor in the south and, given the politics of New York, it seems unlikely those actions would have helped him politically as much as harmed him.

    Your description of the Liberal Republican movement is far too sympathetic to their cause. “Revelations of waste and scandal” were hardly the only impetus for their defection from the party. “Well-born gentlemen”? Really? And, why didn’t Garfield go with them?

    Regarding Conkling’s dependence on federal patronage, shouldn’t it be mentioned that Republicans in New York were competing with very strong Democratic machines operating at the local level, i.e. Tammany Hall?

    Finally, what is your evidence that Grant had “no chance” for a third term nomination in 1876? Since Grant removed himself from consideration we can never know for sure.

    • Thanks for your comments, Mr. Pollock. My blog post is based largely on the biography of Mr. Conkling by David M. Jordan. Mr. Jordan made the point in his introduction that very little remains of Senator Conkling’s correspondence, and that much of what is known about him is based on other people’s accounts. My use of the term “political correctness” was meant to acknowledge that his personal view of African Americans is unknown. Like James Garfield and other whites of his day, he might have had seen African Americans as an inherently inferior group. Of course, he may have held a view with regard to race much like that of Thaddeus Stevens. Based on the extant evidence, the answer to that question remains elusive.

      I think it is clear that the Republican Party stood for the preservation of African American rights in the 1860s and early 1870s, and Conkling was quite in line with that stance. I agree that he wouldn’t have gained anything in the South by his opposition to the Black Codes and I agree that he would not have gained any advantage politically in New York with his stance on this issue.

      I am not sure what is wrong with the descriptor “well-born gentlemen,” but I define that group to include men like Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (father of the future President), George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly, Benjamin Bristow, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard. These men, and others like them, were representative of families of some wealth and social standing. They felt that they had been cut out of the political process during and after the war years. These men were opposed to many of the men who supported Grant, Conkling certainly among them.

      You are also correct that waste and corruption were not the only factors in the Liberal revolt in 1872. Grant’s attempts at annexation of San Domingo, the failures of military rule to quell violence in the South, his firing of Interior Secretary Cox and the Minister to Great Britain, John Motley Lathrop, contributed to dissatisfaction with him. Grant and his supporters were protectionists, whereas within Liberal Republican ranks, some manner of tariff reduction and free-trade economics held appeal.

      I think that the principal reason that Garfield did not join the Liberal Republicans – despite his own attraction to the economic ideas I just mentioned – was that he identified himself as a loyal Republican. He certainly did not want to see a divided party, because that would create an opening for the Democrats. The Democrats at the head of the government would have been a disaster in his view.

      His stand on the Liberal Republican movement is clearly stated in his diary. On April 27, 1872, he wrote of the upcoming Cincinnati Convention of the Liberal Republicans: “Was there ever so strange a freak in the history of politics! The platform is one of the most striking and, in some respects, the most admirable political declarations I have known. But the nomination [of Horace Greeley] is so at variance with the spirit of the platform. The [Liberal] movement was a revolution but the revolution has revolted. The result is obscured by clouds.” After the election, Garfield’s pragmatic political sense (not meaning to suggest that he was always soundly pragmatic) was revealed in his commentary about the Liberal Republicans and the Democrats, and their joint nominee, Horace Greeley.

      Two days after the election in November, Garfield wrote, “Men who leave a political party to form a new one ought to know that it is due to themselves and the principles they advocate that they should go into the minority at least for one year until their party has attained a growth springing from the principles they advocate. The combination of the Democrats and Liberal Republicans struck for victory rather than for the planting of new ideas.” Again, I doubt that Garfield was happy with the prospect of a second Grant administration, but the alternative was worse.

      I think Grant had no chance for the nomination in 1876 because of the continuing opposition to his administration within a segment of the Republican Party – the worst of the scandals came out in the second term – because of the tradition of a two-term presidency, and because, indeed, he had removed himself. The 1874 mid-term elections caused the Republican Party to lose control of the House and have its margin in the Senate greatly reduced. Violence in Louisiana in 1874 and 1875 and Grant’s attempts to contain it, (sending in General Philip Sheridan, suspending the writ of habeas corpus) though no doubt nobly conceived, did not help matters in that state, and this too contributed to a sense that a third term was probably not a good idea.

      The Democrats seemed to be ascendant in 1876 and they would have pilloried Grant’s record as president. Many Republicans were looking for a new candidate, one who could be run as a reformer. Not wishing to parse too many words, it seems to me that that’s what 1876 came down to, a Democrat “reform” candidate versus a Republican “reform” candidate. Grant would not have fit into that mold: he wasn’t strong in favor of civil service reform (an important issue of the day), nor of overhauling the tariff. If the Republicans desired to make inroads in the South electorally, which they did, then rightly or wrongly, Grant was not the candidate to attract Southern whites in 1876. So, I don’t think Grant had much of a chance for a third term in 1876, but I might replace “no chance” with “very unlikely.”

      Thanks very much for reading the blog and contributing to the discussion, Mr. Pollock.

      • Thank you for the detailed response. I have not read Jordan’s book, I’ll pick one up. The bio of Conkling on my bookshelf was published in 1935. Rather than offer more questions, I’ll just suggest Frank J. Scaturro’s short book “President Grant Reconsidered” (1998), if you haven’t read it.

  2. I have not read President Grant Reconsidered, so this is a book I will look. I know that in recent years some scholarly attention has been paid to aspect of Grant’s presidency that do not concentrate on the scandals. One of the public policy areas that he is given more credit for is the effort to insure the rights of blacks, particularly in the South.

    I would welcome any other questions that might occur to you to ask. You made me dig a little deeper and mine a little more. You helped me to convey my meanings in a more complete way. There’s nothing wrong with that!

    I think a blog like this is supposed to stimulate discussion and ideas, and I wish more readers would ask questions, offer other perspectives, and give useful advice on sources. None of us knows so much that we can’t learn more. So thanks for challenging me and giving me another source through which I can add to my understanding.

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