Roscoe Conkling

Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888) represented the most unabashed sort of American political partisanship in the 1860s and 1870s. A leader of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party, he became a symbol of spoilsmanship in politics.

Roscoe Conkling was born on Oct. 30, 1829, in Albany, N.Y. He attended Mount Washington Collegiate Institute, read law, and became district attorney of Albany. He moved to Utica, where in 1858 he was Whig party mayor. He sat in the House of Representatives from 1859 to 1863 and 1865 to 1867. A staunch supporter of Thaddeus Stevens and the Radical Republicans, Conkling once defended the dying Stevens from physical attack and sat on the "Committee of 15," which drafted the Radical program of reconstruction.

In 1867 Conkling seized effective control of the New York State Republican organization and got himself elected to the Senate. A devoted follower of Ulysses S. Grant, Conkling was at home only in the rough-and-tumble world of "gilded age" politics. Grant offered to make him chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1873, and Chester Arthur offered him a seat on the Court a decade later. But he rejected both.

"I do not know how to belong to a party a little," Conkling said, and he was indeed the sort of partisan that has since vanished from the political scene. He was frank; he insisted loudly where others equivocated; he believed that party workers should receive benefits from winning elections, that is, jobs and other financial rewards; in return he demanded that they support the party as if it were a holy cause. He had a brilliant, quick mind in debate but saved his most scathing remarks for reformers who sought to eliminate political patronage through civil service reform which would distribute political appointments according to merit only.

Conkling battled President Hayes for control of the patronage in New York and hoped in 1880 to reelect Grant to the presidency. But the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield of Ohio. Conkling at once joined battle with President Garfield over patronage. In an attempt to rebuff him Conkling resigned his Senate seat: the idea was to be reelected in the face of Garfield's opposition, thus demonstrating his personal power in New York. But Garfield was killed in the meantime by a madman claiming to be a "Stalwart," and the shocked New York Legislature refused to follow Conkling's will. He effectively retired from politics, noting characteristically, "How can I speak into a grave? How can I battle with a shroud? Silence is a duty and a doom."

Conkling retired to a lucrative legal practice and to the fashionable New York City society that he adorned very well. A large, handsome man with a boxer's physique, he inspired nicknames such as the "Curled Darling of Utica" because of his affectation of gay, fashionably cut clothing. James G. Blaine matched Conkling's invective when he ridiculed Conkling's "haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut." Garfield incisively characterized Conkling as "a singular compound of a very brilliant man and an exceedingly petulant child." For all his arrogance and pomposity, however, Conkling clung to causes such as African American rights long after better-remembered contemporaries had abandoned them. And one ultimate conclusion about his spoilsmanship must be that he spoke frankly while others were hypocritical. He died in New York City on April 18, 1888.


Further Reading on Roscoe Conkling

A relative, Alfred R. Conkling, published the customary 19th-century biography upon the death of Conkling, The Life and Letters of Roscoe Conkling: Orator, Statesman, and Advocate (1889). David M. Jordon, Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate (1971), is a penetrating and detailed biography. An incisive portrayal of Conkling is contained in H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley (1969).