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Name:  Roscoe Conkling

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Born:  October 30, 1829
Died:  April 18, 1888
 
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Roscoe Conkling was a U.S. representative and senator from New York. He was born in Albany, New York, to Eliza Cockburn Conkling and Alfred Conkling, a congressman, federal judge, and diplomat. Little is known about his childhood, but in 1842 Conkling was sent to an academy in New York City, where he lived with his elder brother, Frederick. The next year, he returned to his family in Utica, and attended a local academy. His father was a leader of New York's Whig party, and hosted political notables, including former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, in the family home. In 1846, young Conkling decided against college, to his father's dismay, and began studying law at a Utica firm. In early 1850, he passed the bar, and in April, the 21 year old was appointed district attorney for Oneida County by Governor Hamilton Fish, a friend of his father.

In 1854, Conkling helped organize the Republican party in New York. In June of the next year, he married Julia Seymour, the younger sister of the former (and future) governor of New York, Horatio Seymour (who opposed the marriage). In March 1858, Conkling won the Utica mayoral election as a Republican, but in November 1858 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving 1859-1863 and 1865-1867. In Congress, he sided with the Radical Republicans, strongly supporting their Reconstruction policies during and after the Civil War, and with the advocates of the gold standard against inflationary paper currency ("greenbacks"). He was not, however, a particularly effective legislator, and is not identified with any specific law or cause.

In 1867, Conkling was elected by the New York legislature to the U.S. Senate. In the 1870s, he became one of the most visible supporters of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877). The president gave him control of New York's patronage, which allowed the senator to build a personal political machine in the state. Conkling declined the president's offer of the chief justiceship to run unsuccessfully as Grant's surrogate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876. Adamantly opposed to civil service reform, the surly, quarrelsome senator delivered an intemperate, much-publicized speech in 1879 in which he attacked the reformers' masculinity be referring to them as, among other things, "man-milliners" (i.e., men who make and sell women's clothing).

One of the many targets of Conkling's wrath, James Garfield, aptly summarized the New Yorker as being "a great fighter, inspired more by his hates than his loves." Over the years, the senator alienated himself from other key Republicans, including fellow senator James Blaine and President Rutherford Hayes. In his private life, Conkling's relationship with his wife became distant and formal, and he refused to speak to his daughter (and only child) after she wed a man of whom he disapproved. Further undermining his already failing marriage was his affair in the 1870s with Kate Chase Sprague, the wife of Senator William Sprague and the daughter of Chief Justice Salmon Chase, which became fully public when Kate Sprague sued for divorce in 1881. Conkling ended the affair rather than suffer further embarrassment and political damage.

When Hayes defeated Conkling for the Republican nomination in 1876, the New York senator sulked while other former candidates, such as Blaine, rallied to the party banner. During the electoral college controversy following the presidential election, Conkling suggested publicly that the Democratic nominee, Samuel Tilden, had won Louisiana and Florida. Once in office, President Hayes named William Evarts, a Conkling rival in New York, as secretary of state. The administration also initiated an investigation of corruption in the New York Customhouse, which was run by Conkling's patronage appointees. It was nothing less than an attack on the senator's power base, culminating in the removal of Conkling protégé Chester Arthur from the position of collector of the port.

In 1880, Conkling orchestrated the third-term movement for Grant, but the former president lost the nomination to compromise candidate James Garfield. Although Arthur had not heeded Conkling's advise to reject the vice-presidential nomination, he did manage to convince his political mentor to grudgingly campaign for the Republican ticket, but only after Garfield made assurances of respecting the senator's patronage requests. As president, Garfield angered Conkling when he appointed Blaine as secretary of state and denied a similar top post to one of the senator's minions. The final straw came when Garfield named a leading opponent of the senator, William Robertson, as collector of the Port of New York. In a fit of rage, Conkling and New York's junior senator, Thomas Platt, resigned from the Senate in May 1881, expecting that the New York legislature, in a symbolic show of solidarity, would reelect them. They did not.

An embittered Conkling retired from politics, even rejecting a later offer by President Arthur of a Supreme Court justiceship, and resumed his law practice in New York City. In March 1888, Conkling died from illnesses brought on by exposure during a late-season blizzard.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; David Jordon, Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate.

 

 


 

 
 

 

     
 

 
     
 

 
     
 

 

 

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