Roscoe Conkling

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Roscoe Conkling
Hon. Roscoe Conkling, N.Y.jpg
Former U.S. Senator from New York
From: March 4, 1867 – May 16, 1881
Predecessor Ira Harris
Successor Elbridge Lapham
Former U.S. Representative from New York's 21st Congressional District
From: March 4, 1865 – March 3, 1867
Predecessor Francis Kernan
Successor Alexander Bailey
Former U.S. Representative from New York's 20th Congressional District
From: March 4, 1859 – March 3, 1863
Predecessor Orsamus Matteson
Successor Ambrose Clark
Former Mayor of Utica, New York
From: 1858–1859
Predecessor Alrick Harris
Successor Charles Wilson
Party Whig (before 1854)
Republican (1854–1860s)
Unionist (1860s)
Republican (since 1860s)
Spouse(s) Julia Seymour

Roscoe Conkling (October 30, 1829 – April 18, 1888), also referred to as Lord Roscoe,[1] was a U.S. representative and senator from New York. He served as a bodyguard to Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (a fierce Radical Republican leader) and helped to organize the Compromise of 1877, which handed Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency.

A member of the Radical Republicans,[2] Conkling led the conservative[3] Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, which firmly supported maintaining the spoils system to secure the constitutional rights of blacks.[4] He opposed the Half-Breeds, the more moderate wing of the GOP which supported demands by some Jim Crow Democrats to install a bureaucratic civil service system.

He boxed and exercised regularly; such healthy physical condition was considered uncommon at the time.

U.S. House of Representatives

Conkling first successfully ran for the United States House of Representatives in the 1858 midterms, defeating Democrat P. Sheldon Root in New York's 22nd congressional district by fifteen percentage points.[5] He was easily re-elected to a second term in the subsequent 1860 elections.[6]

During the 1860 presidential election, Conkling supported the party nomination of William H. Seward.[1]

1862 midterm defeat, 1864 comeback

Conkling in the 1860s.

In the 1862 elections, Conkling ran under the banner of the Unionist Party and faced Democrat Francis Kernan, who very narrowly won the general election.[7] However, he successfully re-emerged in 1864, ousting Kernan.[8] In the latter race, he received the endorsement of President Abraham Lincoln, who stated:[1]

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.

—President Abraham Lincoln, 1864

During the American Civil War, Conkling strongly supported President Lincoln.[9][10] Following the war, he expressed support for confiscating land from the defeated Confederates to distribute among the newly freed slaves.

A fiscal conservative, Rep. Conkling opposed using paper money to finance war efforts, instead sharing the viewpoint common among Republicans during the time in supporting money backed by gold (known as "sound money").[1]

In his House years, Conkling became bitter political rivals with Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, who would later lead the Half-Breeds. Blaine on the House floor in 1866[1] mocked the "majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut" of Conkling,[11] who vowed to never speak with him again.[12]

U.S. Senate

Stalwart Republicans



Other members:

Related topics:

In the 1867 elections, Conkling ran for United States Senate, and was nominated over two intraparty opponents.[13] He proceeded to be elected by the New York legislature in a landslide over two Democrat opponents.[14]

During Reconstruction, Conkling helped push through major Radical Republican legislation under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, including the Civil Rights Act of 1875.[2] He also sponsored a military Reconstruction bill in 1867 and helped Frederick Douglass become the first black American to hold the post of Washington, D.C. Recorder of Deeds.[15] Douglass later named Conkling, Grant, Charles Sumner, and Benjamin Butler as protectors of freedmen.

Presidential bid, 1876

In the 1876 presidential election, Conkling sought the party nomination for the general election as an ally of the Grant Administration.[9] He unsuccessful, garnering the votes of only ninety-nine delegates in the Republican National Convention polling only 8.44 percent of the total vote.[16] The nomination instead went to Rutherford B. Hayes, who "reformers" bolstered.[9]

Blaine also sought the nomination and finished in second place with the support of 351 delegates.[16]

Leading the Stalwarts

A political boss who effectively utilized patronage, Conkling led the remnants of the Radical Republicans during the late 1870s which opposed civil service reform and supported:[17] carpetbag and black rule in the South, hard money, and high tariffs.


Fueling the political career of Platt

Portrait of Tom Platt.

In New York state conventions since the early 1870s, fellow Republican Thomas C. "Tom" Platt consistently worked to ensure Conkling's control of GOP politics, marshalling "Southern Frontier" votes in favor of the senator.[18] With the help of Platt, Conkling managed to prevent intraparty rival Reuben E. Fenton from seizing state GOP leadership.

Platt was elected to the U.S. House in 1872 and re-elected in the 1874 midterms, though retired in 1876, when he attended the Republican National Convention that year for the first time.[18] Platt pushed through an ultimately unsuccessful movement to nominate for president Conkling himself, who appreciated the former's steadfast loyalty and handed Platt a position as Republican State Committee chairman.[18] He then became a party boss as well, and his gained experience in party management would fuel his later career.

Opposition towards Hayes

Rutherford Hayes by Huntington.jpg

President Hayes, who was a beneficiary of the Compromise of 1877 due to Conkling's efforts,[11] betrayed his past ties to Radical Republicanism by removing federal troops from the South and effectively enabling the rise of Jim Crow. Hayes also pursued civil service reform along with the Half-Breeds,[11][19] laying the groundwork for bitter conflicts with the Stalwarts.[20]

The Port of New York, a center for trade between the U.S. and other nations, had its collector post dubbed highly prestigious and prized.[20] Hayes tried to rebuke Conkling by nominating two non-Stalwarts to the position, though failed due to the New York senator's efforts to outmaneuver the president. Conkling then successfully ensured that the new Collector was a steadfast Stalwart and acolyte, Chester Arthur.[20] During Arthur's tenure as Collector of the Port of New York, thousands of jobs were handed out on the basis of only political affiliation without regard for qualifications and competence.[21] He was later fired by Hayes and Treasury Secretary John Sherman for ignoring corruption within the Customs House.

Hayes had also managed to oust a number of Conkling's allies from the patronage system in New York out of retaliation.[11] His decision to remove Arthur from Customs Collector was controversial in particular and was even criticized by Half-Breeds.[19]

Intraparty dispute, 1880

In the 1880 presidential election, the Stalwarts pushed former president Grant into seeking a third non-consecutive term.[15][17][22] They feuded with the Half-Breeds not over ideology and political positions pertaining to policies, rather control of patronage. Blaine, despite leading the Half-Breeds which pushed for some degree of civil service reform, was himself supportive of the spoils system[17] and only led the more moderate faction out of sheer disdain for Conkling.

Stalwarts, who feared a party nomination of Blaine, were determined to prevent the Maine senator from being picked by the party convention.[23] Amidst a deadlock between the rivaling factions, the Half-Breeds successfully nominated James A. Garfield of Ohio.

Conkling was asked by fellow Stalwart Levi P. Morton to join Garfield on the party ticket as the vice presidential pick, though declined; the post instead was given to Chester A. Arthur, a close ally of the New York senator.[23] During the campaign, Garfield made efforts to appease both sides of the GOP by vowing to meet the Conkling machine's demands, and won the general election over Winfield S. Hancock.

Conkling, Morton, and Arthur

Undated picture of Morton.

Among Garfield's assurances towards the Stalwarts during the 1880 campaign pertained to the Secretary of the Treasury which oversaw the New York customhouse that the Conkling machine's patronage was rooted in.[23] Morton chaired the campaign finance committee of Garfield under the pretense that the post would be given to him, only to be insisted by the president-elect in December of 1800 that the latter did not pledge any specific promises.[23]

Blaine, named to serve as United States Secretary of State, called Morton "unfit" to lead the treasury.[23] Conkling then traveled to Garfield's home town of Mentor, Ohio in lobbying for Morton to received the position, in addition to seeking the latter's exit from a Senate race he intended for ally Tom Platt to obtain.

Garfield attempted to maintain friendly ties by offering Morton a post as Navy secretaryship.[23] He initially accepted, though ended up declining upon the urging of Conkling and Arthur one night; Garfield would recollect:[23]

Morton broke down on my hands under the pressure of his N.Y. friends, who called him out of bed at 4 this morning to prevent his taking the Navy Dep't. . . . The N.Y. delegation are in a great row because I do not give the Treasury to that state.

—James A. Garfield, 1881

Post-political career

During the 1884 presidential election, there were speculations that Conkling would actively support the Republican Party ticket headed by rival Blaine and Stalwart John Logan.[24] He ultimately declined to stump for the pair as written in a letter addressed to a Plumed Knights secretary that read:

DEAR SIR: Noting yours and thanking you for the [unreadable] of an honorable membership of the political organization referred to. I must ask you to excuse me. I am quite out of politics and don't wish in any way to be drawn into the pending canvass.

—Conkling, 1884

He would argue the winning side in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, a unanimous 1886 Supreme Court case that granted equal protection to corporations. The case would later serve as a forerunner to Citizens United v. FEC.

Twice Conkling declined proposed appointments from Presidents Grant and Chester Arthur to the U.S. Supreme Court. Grant offered him the chief justice position when Salmon P. Chase died in 1873.[25]

Death and legacy

Conkling died as a result of the Great Blizzard of 1888, from which he caught a cold and died a month later in the Hoffman House apartments while surrounded by family.[26] In a previously written will, his property and estates were left to his wife Julia.[27] He is interred at Forest Hill Cemetery, located in Utica.[28]

A monument (whose design was selected by Conkling's widow) was built in his honor at his grave site in Utica.[29] Comprised of Quincy granite, it has two heavy unpolished bases, a die in the shape of a cube that contains his name on the east side, polished columns, in addition to a large cap. It stands around nine feet tall, and its weight is approximately twenty-five tons.[29]

Many people were named in his honor, including historical black leaders Roscoe Conkling Simmons and Roscoe Conkling Giles.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The Remarkable Roscoe: Friend and Nemesis of Presidents (Part I). National Park Service. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Roscoe Conkling Letters: An inventory of his letters at Syracuse University. Syracuse University. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  3. Stalwarts. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  4. Matthews, Dylan (June 20, 2016). Donald Trump and Chris Christie are reportedly planning to purge the civil service. Vox. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  5. NY District 20 Race - Nov 02, 1858. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  6. NY District 20 Race - Nov 06, 1860. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  7. NY District 21 Race - Nov 04, 1862. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  8. NY District 21 Race - Nov 08, 1864. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Roscoe Conkling. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  10. Roscoe Conkling. Britannica. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Conkling, Roscoe. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  12. Roscoe Conkling: Congressman and Political Boss (1829-1888). UCLA Social Sciences. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  13. NY US Senate - R Caucus Race - Jan 10, 1867. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  14. NY Us Senate Race - Jan 15, 1867. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  15. 15.0 15.1 CONKLING, ROSCOE (1829–1888). Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  16. 16.0 16.1 US President - R Convention Race - Jun 14, 1876. Our Campaigns. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Weisberger, Bernard A. James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Platt, Thomas Collier, 1833-1910. Social Networks and Archival Context. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  19. 19.0 19.1 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold. University of Central Florida. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Stalwarts, Half Breeds, and Political Assassination. National Park Service. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  21. Arthur, Chester A. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  22. Susner, Lisa Zevorich (July 2016). The Assassination of President Garfield. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 23.6 About the Vice President | Levi Parsons Morton, 22nd Vice President (1889-1893). United States Senate. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  24. August 17, 1884. ROSCOE CONKLING DECLINES. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  25. Robert Mitchell (February 27, 2022). The senator who said no to a seat on the Supreme Court — twice. The Washington Post. Retrieved on March 17, 2022.
  27. May 10, 1888. ROSCOE CONKLING'S WILL. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  28. July 17, 1888. BURYING ROSCOE CONKLING. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  29. 29.0 29.1 July 14, 1889. ROSCOE CONKLING'S MONUMENT. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2021.

Further reading

External links