Roscoe Conkling, US Senate & Congress

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Roscoe Conkling

Birthdate: (58)
Birthplace: Albany, Albany County, New York, United States
Death: April 18, 1888 (58)
New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Alfred Conkling, US Congress and Eliza Conkling
Husband of Julia Catherine Conkling
Father of Joseph John Conkling and Bessie Oakman
Brother of Margaret Cockburn Steele; Frederick A. Conkling, US Congress; Eliza T. Coxe and Aurelian Conkling

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About Roscoe Conkling, US Senate & Congress

Roscoe Conkling was a politician from New York who served both as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. He was the leader of the Republican Party in New York and the last person to refuse a U.S. Supreme Court appointment after he had already been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Early life

Conkling was born in 1829 in Albany, New York to Alfred Conkling, a U.S. Representative and federal judge and his wife Eliza Cockburn. At 17, Roscoe began the study of law in the offices of Spencer and Kernan in Utica, New York. He married Julia Catherine Seymour, sister of the Democratic politician and Governor of New York Horatio Seymour. His first political endeavor came in 1848, when he made campaign speeches in behalf of Taylor and Fillmore. He was admitted to the bar in 1850, and in the same year became district attorney of Oneida County by appointment of Governor Fish.

In 1852 he returned to Utica, where in the next few years he established a reputation as a lawyer of ability. Up to 1852, in which year he stumped New York State for General Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate for the presidency, Conkling was identified with the Whig Party, but in the movement that resulted in the organization of the Republican Party he took an active part, and his work, both as a political manager and an orator, contributed largely toward carrying New York in 1856 for Frémont and Dayton, the Republican nominees.

Elected office holder

Conkling was elected Mayor of Utica in 1858, and then elected as a Republican to the 36th and 37th United States Congresses, holding office from March 4, 1859, to March 4, 1863. He was Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the District of Columbia (37th Congress). He refused to follow the financial policy of his party in 1862, and delivered a notable speech against the passage of the Legal Tender Act, which made a certain class of treasury notes receivable for all public and private debts. In this opposition he was joined by his brother, Frederick Augustus Conkling, at that time also a Republican member of Congress. That year he was defeated for re-election by Democrat Francis Kernan.

From 1863 to 1865, he acted as a judge advocate of the War Department, investigating alleged frauds in the recruiting service in western New York. In 1864, two years after his defeat by Kernan, Conkling defeated Kernan for re-election, and served in the 39th and 40th United States Congresses from March 4, 1865, to March 4, 1867. As a congressman, he served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Conkling had been re-elected to the 41st United States Congress in November 1866, but did not take his seat, instead entering the U.S. Senate.

Conkling was elected in January 1867 a U.S. Senator from New York, and re-elected in 1873 and 1879, served from March 4, 1867 to May 16, 1881. Through the eight years of President Grant's administration, he stood out as the spokesman of the President and one of the principal leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate. In 1873, Grant urged him to accept an appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court, but Conkling declined. Conkling was active in framing and pushing through Congress the reconstruction legislation, and was instrumental in the passage of the second Civil Rights Act, in 1875, and of the act for the resumption of specie payments, in the same year. He was Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Revision of the Laws of the United States (40th - 43rd Congresses), of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce (44th, 45th and 47th Congresses), of the U.S. Senate Committee on Engrossed Bills (46th and 47th Congresses).

Conkling was entirely out of sympathy with the reform element in the Republican Party. His first break with the Hayes administration occurred in April 1877 when the Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman appointed a commission to investigate the affairs of the New York Custom House. The investigation brought to light extensive irregularities in the service, showing in particular that the federal office holders in New York constituted a large army of political workers, and that their positions were secured by and dependent upon their faithful service in behalf of the men holding the principal government offices in the city.

President Hayes decided upon the removal of Chester A. Arthur, the Collector, General George H. Sharpe, the Surveyor, and A.B. Cornell, the Naval Officer of the Port, and in October 1877, sent nominations of their successors to the Senate. Senator Conkling defended the displaced officials, and, through his influence in the Senate, secured the rejection of the new nominations. He succeeded in blocking all the efforts of President Hayes and Secretary Sherman until January 1879, when, a new lot of nominations having been made, they were confirmed in spite of Conkling's continued opposition.

Early in 1880, Senator Conkling became the leader of the movement for the nomination of General Grant for a third term in the Presidency. He had a strong regard for Grant, and was hostile to the other two leading Republican candidates, Sherman, with whom he had come into conflict during Hayes' administration, and James G. Blaine, whose bitter political and personal enemy he had been for 24 years. The convention, by a combination of the Blaine and Sherman interests, nominated James A. Garfield. Conkling and the other faithful Grant Stalwarts were allowed to name the candidate for vice presidency, Chester A. Arthur.

Immediately after Garfield's inauguration, Conkling presented to the President a list of men whom he desired to have appointed to the federal offices in New York. Garfield's appointment of Blaine as Secretary of State, and of Windom as Secretary of the Treasury, instead of Levi P. Morton, whose appointment Conkling had urged, angered Conkling and made him unwilling to agree to any sort of compromise with Garfield on the New York appointments. Without consulting him, the President nominated for Collector of the Port of New York William H. Robertson, the leader of the opposing Half-Breed faction. Roberston's nomination was confirmed by the Senate, in spite of the opposition of Conkling, who claimed the right of Senators to control federal patronage in their home states.

In protest, Conkling resigned with his fellow Senator Thomas C. Platt, confident that he would be re-elected by the New York legislature (at the time, senators were chosen by their states' legislatures). However, he was defeated in the resulting special election after an almost two-month long struggle between the opposing factions of the Republican Party.

Afterwards he resumed the practice of law in New York City. He declined to accept a nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1882. He died after falling ill from walking in a blizzard in New York City. He was buried at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Utica. A statue of him stands in Madison Square Park in New York City. Roscoe, New York, is named for him.

Actions in Congress and the Senate

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Lincoln administration and its conduct of the American Civil War.

He defended a proposal ordering the construction of a transcontinental telegraph to the Pacific Ocean.

He opposed the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sanford.

He opposed the generalship of George B. McClellan.

He helped draft the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

He was a Radical Republican favoring equal rights for ex-slaves and reduced rights for ex-Confederates. He was active in framing and pushing through Congress the Reconstruction legislation, and was instrumental in the passage of the second Civil Rights Act in 1875.

In the Republican National Convention at Cincinnati in 1876, Conkling first appeared as a presidential candidate, initially receiving 93 votes. His votes would later be thrown behind Rutherford B. Hayes in order to prevent the ascension of James G. Blaine.

He was one of the framers of the bill creating the Electoral Commission to decide the disputed election of 1876.

He championed the broad interpretation of the ex post facto clause in the Constitution (See Stogner v. California)

After resigning from the Senate in 1881, he became a lawyer. As one of the original drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment, he claimed in a case which reached the Supreme Court, San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394 (1886), that the phrase "nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" meant the drafters wanted corporations to be included, because they used the word "person" and cited his personal diary from the period. Howard Jay Graham, a Stanford University historian considered the pre-eminent scholar on the Fourteenth Amendment, named this case the "conspiracy theory" and concluded that Conkling probably perjured himself for the benefit of his railroad friends.

Relationship with Chester Arthur

Conkling, a machine Republican, led the Stalwart (pro-Grant) faction of the GOP, in opposition to the "Half-Breeds" led by James G. Blaine. Conkling served as a mentor to Chester A. Arthur, beginning in the late 1860s. Arthur received from Conkling a tax commission post (along with a salary of $10,000), and was later appointed Collector of the Port of New York. However, in 1878 Conkling lost a key battle against Rutherford B. Hayes’s civil service reform. Hayes bypassed any vote on Arthur’s removal from office by simply promoting Edwin Merritt from Surveyor of the Port of New York to Collector, thus superseding Arthur. Conkling and Arthur were so intimately associated that it was feared, after President James A. Garfield was assassinated, that the killing had been done at Conkling's behest in order to install Arthur as president. Arthur later offered Conkling an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it was thought the gesture was merely "complimentary", that Conkling was too partisan to make a good Justice, and that Arthur was paying back his patron with the honor of nomination, even though it was expected Conkling would refuse. However, Conkling had a great reputation as a trial lawyer, and he had once before (in 1873) been offered the chief justiceship by President Ulysses S. Grant. At that time Conkling had rejected the offer. He accepted this offer from Arthur, was voted into the position by the U.S. Senate, and then declined to take office.

In fact, Arthur's and Conkling's relationship was destroyed by the former's accession to the presidency. The Stalwarts faction that Conkling led was opposed to civil service reform, instead advocating the old patronage system of political appointments. Conkling was not consulted by Garfield (a member of the rival Republican faction, the Half-Breeds) about the appointment of William H. Robertson as Collector of the Port of New York, causing Conkling to protest by resigning from Congress. Then, Conkling tried to force the Republican majority of the New York State Legislature to re-elect him, affirming his status as the New Yorker Republican leader, but was blocked successfully by the Half-Breed faction, and Conkling's congressional career ended. When Arthur became president upon Garfield's death, Conkling attempted to sway his protégé into changing the appointment. Arthur, who would become an avid champion of civil service reform, refused. The two men never repaired the breach. Without Conkling's leadership, his Stalwart faction dissolved. However, upon Arthur's death in 1886, Conkling attended the funeral and showed deep sorrow according to onlookers.

Personal life

Conkling had a reputation as a womanizer and philanderer, and was accused of having an affair with the married Kate Chase Sprague, daughter of Salmon P. Chase and wife of William Sprague IV. According to a well-known story, buttressed by contemporaneous press reports, Mr. Sprague confronted the philandering couple at the Spragues' Rhode Island summer home and pursued Conkling with a shotgun.

Conkling's stature as a powerful politician (and the interests of others in currying favor with him) led to many babies being named for him. These include Roscoe Conkling ("Fatty") Arbuckle, Roscoe Conkling Patterson, and Roscoe Conkling McCulloch.

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Roscoe Conkling, US Senate & Congress's Timeline

October 30, 1829
Albany, Albany County, New York, United States
April 18, 1888
Age 58
New York, New York, United States