The Remarkable Roscoe, Part II

If Roscoe Conkling’s support of Abraham Lincoln and opposition to Andrew Johnson in the 1860s grew out of an understanding of the needs of the entire country, then it is also clear that his later relations with Grant, Hayes, and Garfield were colored by his preoccupation with the local political machine he sought to preserve. His contemporaries recognized that he was intelligent and capable.

A one-time ally, railroad executive Chauncey Depew, made the point in retrospect. “Roscoe Conkling was created by nature for a great career.” That he wasted his talents “was entirely his own fault. Physically he was the handsomest man of his time. His mental equipment nearly approached genius… His oratorical gifts were of the highest order, and he was a debater of rare power and resources. But his intolerable egotism deprived him of the vision necessary for supreme leadership…. [H]is wonderful gifts were wholly devoted to partisan discussions and local issues.”

The shift in his attention away from national needs toward an increasingly narrow and self-interested point of view manifested itself during the Grant administration. From 1869 onward, the junior Senator from New York was Grant’s most steadfast supporter. In turn, Grant made it possible for Conkling to become the dominant political figure in New York State Republican politics.

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant.  The 18th president's friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade.  (Library of Congress)

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant. The 18th president’s friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade. (Library of Congress)

One of Grant’s early foreign policy initiatives was the annexation of San Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). Grant’s objectives were many: to establish an American naval station in this island nation, to provide trade opportunities for the Dominicans, to offer “the protection of our free institutions and laws, our progress and civilization,” and to encourage recently freed blacks to emigrate. This last goal might have resulted in the elimination of the race issue in the U.S.; at the least it might have forced white Southerners to treat black Southerners more fairly – at the risk of losing black labor. When Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Charles Sumner, objected, it was Conkling who, at Grant’s request, took the lead in having Sumner removed from his post.

Conkling’s support of Grant strengthened their bond. Happily for Conkling, Grant’s relationship with New York’s other Senator, Reuben Fenton, was not good. Fenton fawned over Grant, which the latter did not like. Conkling, by contrast, was always respectful, yet stuck to his guns when challenged. Grant liked that!

When it was time to appoint a new Collector of the Port of New York, Grant’s choice favored Conkling rather than Fenton. The Collectorship was the most important appointive post in the nation. More imports came into New York than into any other port in the nation. The job of Collector carried many responsibilities and perks, and presented many opportunities to preside over a workforce that would be loyal to a man who knew how to build a political machine. Conkling and Fenton were rivals to be that man. Each man wanted to dominate New York’s Republican Party. The two men who had the best chance for being appointed were Thomas Murphy and William Robertson. Robertson was an ally of Senator Fenton. Murphy was more of an independent. Conkling threw his support to Murphy. After Grant appointed Murphy, Conkling’s authority in New York increased as Fenton’s withered.

However, Conkling’s rise did not help Republicans nationwide. Historically, a President’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. In addition, there was dissatisfaction with some Grant policies and appointments. Consequently, Republican majorities in the Congress were reduced after the 1870 midterm election.

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country.  Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position.  (Wikipedia.com)

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country. Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position. (Wikipedia.com)

Despite the President’s declining prestige, Conkling defended Grant unstintingly. To a correspondent he wrote, “He has made a better President than you and I, when we voted for him, had any right to expect…” Conkling reminded an audience at Cooper Union of Grant’s storied service to the nation. Grant was “honest, brave, and modest, and proved by his translucent deeds to be endowed with genius, common sense and moral qualities adequate to our greatest affairs…” He had “snatched our nationality and our cause from despair, and bore them on his shield through the flame of battle” To a nineteenth century audience, Conkling’s vivid descriptions of Grant most certainly struck a chord. One can only imagine how his physical presence and voice reinforced the sentiments he expressed.

Two developments in 1871 and 1872 illustrate Conkling‘s growing authority, and the political alliances that would in time undo that authority. Late in 1871, Thomas Murphy resigned as Collector of the Port of New York. Conkling recommended the appointment of Chester Alan Arthur as the new Collector. Grant made the appointment.

Arthur was a good choice. He was “honest, efficient and courteous, and unlike Tom Murphy he had none of the air of the party hack.” He was also Conkling’s man. Chester Arthur’s appointment, and the defeat of William Robertson for the gubernatorial nomination in the summer of 1872, outlined the contours of Conkling’s political actions for the next several years. William Robertson blamed Senator Conkling for his defeat. Meanwhile, Chester Arthur became a kind of lightning rod for Conkling. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes would attack Conkling’s power in New York by firing Arthur. In 1880, Robertson’s actions would assault Conkling’s authority in the Republican Party. In time, their conflicting personalities and goals would clash again – and again.

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling's (and therefore Grant's) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1875.  Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling.   (Wikipedia.com)

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling’s (and therefore Grant’s) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling. (Wikipedia.com)

Conkling was steadfast and influential during Grant’s second term. At its beginning, in 1873, a financial panic struck the nation. It was devastating. One response to it among some members of Congress was a bill to issue more paper money so that Americans could pay their debts. Conkling called this proposal “a falsehood and a fraud. It can never be true, and therefore it can never be right or safe.” When the Inflation Act of 1874 was passed, Conkling urged Grant to veto it. After some indecision, Grant followed Conkling’s advice. (James Garfield held the same view of paper money, that it was dishonest and bad for the economy.)

The other major service that Conkling performed for the nation in this period came at the end of Grant’s term. It involved the disputed election of 1876. Was Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, to succeed Grant, or was it to be the Democrat, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York? Nationwide, Tilden had won a quarter million more popular votes than Hayes. But in three Southern states, (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) there were charges of fraud and suppression of the black vote. Who had actually won in these states, and how were their electoral votes to be awarded? In all three states, both parties were determined to send their electors to Washington. There was also a disputed elector in Oregon. It was a quandary for the entire country.

To resolve the matter, President Grant favored creating a Congressional Commission that would review the states’ votes and recognize the appropriate electors. Again serving as President Grant’s strongest ally in the Congress, Senator Conkling led the effort that created the Electoral Commission of 1877. The measure was seen as unconstitutional by many, including James Garfield, because it gave Congress a hitherto unwarranted part in the election of a president. The commission bill passed, however, and the Commission that was created (Garfield was a member but Conkling was not) decided the election for Hayes. David Jordan called it Conkling’s finest moment. Perhaps so, but whether it was his finest moment in behalf of the nation, or in behalf of his party, is an open question.

Ironically, the Republican Conkling believed that the Democrat Tilden had carried Florida and Louisiana, and therefore the election – and he said so publicly. Moreover, Conkling’s lack of enthusiasm for Hayes may have caused the Republican to lose New York. After Hayes was declared the winner, Conkling referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud B. Hayes,” and “His Fraudulency.”

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878.  It didn't take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878. It didn’t take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

What transpired next was a mixture of reform-minded idealism and political payback on the part of Hayes, with Conkling doing all he could to preserve his political machine in New York. On the one hand, Hayes the idealist believed that political work done on federal work time was unethical. On the other hand, Hayes the politician, and his Secretary of State, New Yorker William Evarts, wanted to create a political base favorable to the new administration.

Mixing the ideal with the political, Hayes appointed a commission to investigate several major port cities. Among its recommendations were changes at the Port of New York. In June Hayes attempted to replace Conkling’s allies, Collector Chester Arthur and Naval Officer Alonzo Cornell, with recess appointments. This action failed to achieve the desired result, but in 1879, Edwin Merritt and Silas Burt were confirmed by the Senate as permanent replacements for Arthur and Cornell. The fight over the Collectorship dominated and poisoned political relations between Hayes and Conkling.

(Check back soon for the conclusion of “The Remarkable Roscoe”!)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

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

How Might the 1880 Election Have Gone Differently?

       Each week, the New York Times publishes an “Invitation to a Dialogue.”  On June 19, 2012, Professor Steven J. Brams of New York University proposed the idea of a national popular vote plan as a way around the Electoral College system that avoids the need for a constitutional amendment.  He points out that “as happened in 2000, and three times in the 19th century (1888, 1876, and possibly 1824), the electoral-vote winner might well be different from the popular-vote winner.”

       With the national popular vote plan suggested by Professor Brams, individual states could change their election laws to require that their electoral votes be cast for the national popular vote winner, regardless of the way the state voted.  The popular vote winner would thus be guaranteed an Electoral College victory and the drama of challenges, recounts, and outcomes decided outside the Constitutional framework would be avoided. 

       Perhaps…but consider the presidential election of 1880.  That year, Republican James A. Garfield of Ohio won 4,446,158 votes, 48.3% of all votes cast.  Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania won 4,444,260, or 48.2% of the total vote.     (Note: Various sources give different numbers, but all agree that the difference between Garfield’s vote total and Hancock’s was less than 10,000 nationwide.  The numbers provided here are from the National Archives.)  Garfield won 19 states; Hancock won 19.  It was a class red-blue election – the Republicans won every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line except New Jersey.  The Democrats won all the states of the old Confederacy, the border states, and Nevada.  California’s electoral vote was split 5 to 1 in favor of the Democrats.  James Garfield won 214 electoral votes; Hancock won 155.

Garfield-Arthur “The Union and The Constitution Forever” Portrait Handkerchief and Hancock-English Campaign Ribbon, 1880. Photos courtesy of Cornell University Library.

       In 1880, the Republicans’ victory was accepted without challenge because of the size of the Electoral College majority.  If Democrats, in response to the contested election of 1876, had induced the states that they won that year – which included New York and Indiana (fifty electoral votes between them) – to change to the national popular vote plan, the aftermath of the voting might have been very different.  An outcome that was generally recognized as conclusive could easily become a prolonged political battle like that of 1876.

Voters from Mentor, Ohio (home of James A. Garfield’s farm) gathering at Town Hall on election day, November 2, 1880 . Photo courtesy of Lake County Historical Society.

       With a popular vote majority so slim, wouldn’t the Democrats have demanded a recount?  If Democrats could find a few thousand more votes in places where they were strong, they could claim victory.  New York and Indiana, the swing states of the 1880 election, would then fall to the Democrats under the national popular vote rule, even though both were won by the Garfield ticket.  With 185 electoral votes needed for victory, Hancock would then have 205 votes, and Garfield 164.  At some point, elections must be decided; presidents must be chosen.  In a country with tens of thousands of voting precincts, voting and counting errors are inevitable, even with the best systems in place.  No two counts will ever be the same, and in close elections claims of fraud are probably inevitable.  The national popular vote system seems to invite challenges and nationwide recounts in very close elections.  The Electoral College system was designed to translate narrow or sectional election victories into convincing governing mandates, and most of the time it has worked.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide