The New International Encyclopædia/Conkling, Roscoe

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The New International Encyclopædia
Conkling, Roscoe
Edition of 1905. See also Roscoe Conkling on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CONKLING, Roscoe (1829-88). An American politician. He was born at Albany, and after receiving an academic education, at the age of 17 began the study of law in the office of Spencer and Kernan at Utica. His first identification with politics was in 1848, when he won some reputation as a campaign speaker by making a number of speeches in behalf of Taylor and Fillmore. In 1850 he was admitted to the bar, and in the same year became district attorney of Albany 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 the State for Gen. 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 the State for Frémont and Dayton, the Republican nominees, in 1856. In 1858 he was elected Mayor of Utica, and in the same year was chosen a Representative in Congress, serving throughout the period of the Civil War, except in the Thirty-eighth Congress (1863-65), during which interval he acted as a Judge-Advocate of the War Department. He was again a member of Congress in 1865-67. In his career in the House of Representatives, Conkling won national distinction as a debater and orator. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Lincoln administration in its conduct of the war, but vigorously opposed the passage of the Legal Tender Act in 1862. He was a member of the Committee of Ways and Means, and the Special Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, delivering one of the strongest speeches in support of the Fourteenth Amendment. His renown as an orator and prominence in the legislative councils of the Republican Party secured him in 1867, at the age of thirty-eight, an election to the United States Senate to succeed Judge Ira Harris. Conkling's career in the Senate was brilliant, but, like all the rest of his political life, erratic and marked by strong personal likes and dislikes, by which, rather than by the welfare of the nation or of his party, he was frequently controlled. Through the eight years of 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. 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, and of the act for the resumption of specie payments, in the same year. In the Republican National Convention at Cincinnati in 1876, Conkling first appeared as a Presidential candidate, receiving 93 votes. He was one of the framers of the bill creating the Electoral Commission to decide the disputed election of 1876, but, when its judgment was announced, declined to vote for its affirmation. Himself an opponent of civil-service reform, Conkling was entirely out of sympathy with the reform element in the Republican Party. The first break with the administration occurred in April, 1877, when the Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman, appointed a commission to investigate the affairs of the 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; Gen. 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. How much of his advocacy was due to his regard for Grant, and how much to his hostility to the other leading two candidates, Sherman, with whom he had come into conflict during Hayes's administration, and Blaine, whose bitter political and personal enemy he had been for twenty-four years, can never be known. The convention, by a combination of the Blaine and Sherman interests, nominated James A. Garfield. Conkling and the fatuous ‘306’ remained faithful to Grant to the last, and were allowed to name the candidate for Vice-President. The result emphasized Conkling's hostility toward Blaine, and eventually led to the former's quarrel with Garfield and consequent retirement from political life. 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 at New York William H. Robertson, an anti-Conkling man. 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 States. Conkling and his colleague, Thomas C. Platt, immediately resigned their seats in the Senate, and appealed to the New York Legislature to justify their course by reëlecting them. After an exciting canvass, Conkling and Platt were defeated, and Warner Miller and E. G. Lapham were chosen in their stead. The remainder of his life Conkling spent in the practice of law in New York City. In 1882 he was nominated by his friend, President Arthur, to succeed Ward Hunt as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, but he declined. Consult: Life and Letters, edited by A. R. Conkling (New York, 1889).