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Roscoe Conkling was for many years in the late nineteenth century the most powerful politician in the most powerful state in the Union, New York. Conkling served in both the U.S. House (1859–63 and 1865–67) and the U.S. Senate (1867–81). During his years in Congress, he became an influential Republican leader. Conkling was a close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant and an avowed enemy of other prominent Republicans of the day, namely, James G. Blaine, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield. Conkling twice turned down nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, including a confirmed nomination in 1882. In the Senate, he fought ferociously for the continuation of political patronage—the system whereby elected officials appoint individuals to positions in the civil service and other areas of governments—and against the civil service reform efforts that would have ended it. His political machine in New York State was, according to his principal biographer, "one of the wonders of the age." Conkling himself, it might be said, was one of the wonders of the age—the Gilded Age, that is, the late-nineteenth-century era following the Civil War when business and moneymaking were the foremost concerns in the United States.
Conkling was born October 30, 1829, in Albany, New York. After attending Mount Washington Collegiate Institute, in New York City, he moved to Utica, New York, where he studied law with a local firm. He was admitted to the bar in 1850 and was immediately appointed district attorney of Albany. In subsequent years, and while still in his twenties, Conkling made a reputation for himself as an orator and aspiring politician at the Whig party's county and state conventions. In 1855, he married Julia Seymour—sister of Horatio Seymour, who was elected governor of New York in 1853 and 1863.
In 1858, Conkling was elected both mayor of Utica and representative to the U.S. Congress. He won the latter office as a Republican and served three terms. He became a Free-Soil Republican, strongly opposing the introduction of slavery into the territories and new states of the U.S. West. After the Civil War was over in 1865, Conkling served on the Committee of Reconstruction, and on the Committee of Fifteen, where he helped draft the Fourteenth Amendment.
At about the same time, one of the principal rivalries of Conkling's political career began to heat up. In 1866, while skirmishing over issues of Reconstruction in the House, fellow Republican Blaine, of Maine, in a famous speech before Congress, criticized Conkling's "haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut"—words that became associated with Conkling for the rest of his career. Blaine became Speaker of the House from 1869 to 1875. Conkling never forgave him, and when Blaine ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 and 1880, Conkling helped frustrate his candidacies. The rivalry between these two politicians was a defining feature of Republican politics in the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1866, Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York, winning a seat he would hold through two reelections, until his resignation in 1881. These were the years of Conkling's greatest political ascendancy, when he became the most powerful politician in New York. Most notoriously, Conkling gained control over appointments to the New York Custom House, the large administrative body that oversaw business at the nation's most important commercial hub. The Custom House's payroll was the plum of the patronage system, and Conkling appointed dozens of people to it. These people, in turn, became political allies, able to use their time and energy to aid the politician who gave them their jobs.
Conkling's power was solidified when Grant entered the office of president in 1869, a post he held to 1877. Conkling and Grant became strong political allies, and in 1873, Grant offered Conkling the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court, after Salmon P. Chase's death. Conkling refused the offer, believing his talents to be suited more to the role of politician than to that of judge.
In 1877 Conkling made important contributions to the electoral commission bill that resolved the contested election between presidential candidates Samuel J. Tilden, a Democrat, and Hayes, a Republican. He also became a strong opponent of Hayes, who sought to end patronage by separating civil service officials from party control. Conkling asserted that a senator had the right to control the federal administration in his own state, and he opposed the idea that the president should make such appointments. In 1879, Hayes ousted many of Conkling's friends in the New York patronage system. However, in 1880, Conkling won reelection to the Senate, and his friend Thomas C. Platt was elected as a fellow U.S. senator from New York.
In the events surrounding the presidential election of 1880, Conkling became the leader of a group of Republicans known as the Stalwarts, who were fervent supporters of Grant. Opposed to the Stalwarts was the Half-Breed faction of the Republican Party, which favored Blaine. At the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1880, Conkling made a desperate bid for the nomination of Grant as the presidential candidate. He failed, and his political machine quickly crumbled, though he did succeed in blocking the nomination of Blaine. Garfield and
Chester A. Arthur, an ally of Conkling's, became the Republican nominees, and Conkling reluctantly supported them during the election. Conkling provided crucial campaign support to Garfield and believed that he would be rewarded for his help, but those hopes were dashed when Garfield nominated Conkling's enemy Blaine as Secretary of State. Conkling opposed the Garfield administration after it assumed office, again over the issue of the right to control jobs in the New York Custom House. When he failed to prevent the confirmation of Garfield's appointees, Conkling resigned his Senate seat in disgust, on May 16, 1881, and persuaded Platt to join him. Conkling's defeat was an important gain for the presidency at a time when congressional powers were stronger than ever before or since.
Strangely enough, when the psychotic Charles Julius Guiteau assassinated President Garfield on July 2, 1881, he claimed to be a Stalwart who sought to remove Garfield and make way for Vice President Arthur. Much of the public outrage over Garfield's assassination was vented on Conkling, and, though Guiteau was only remotely associated with Conkling, many considered the assassin to be one of Conkling's followers.
After failing in an attempt to induce the New York Legislature to reelect him as senator after his resignation, Conkling retired from politics and began a successful and lucrative corporate law practice in New York City. He proved to be a highly effective trial lawyer. His clients included the financier Jay Gould and other notorious figures of the Gilded Age. On February 24, 1882, President Arthur, who had become Garfield's vice president through Conkling's help, attempted to repay his political debt when he nominated Conkling to take the seat of U.S. Supreme Court justice Ward Hunt, who was retiring. Conkling turned the nomination down, even after it had been confirmed by the Senate. Conkling was later upset that Arthur—whom Conkling sneeringly called His Accidency—had not decided to run a Stalwart-dominated administration. Indeed, in 1883, Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Act, also called the Civil Service Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 1101 et seq.), which was the first comprehensive act of Congress toward civil service reform, further dismantling the system whereby Conkling and others had amassed tremendous political power.
On December 19, 1882, Conkling appeared before the Court as a lawyer in San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific R.R., 116 U.S. 138, 6 S. Ct. 317, 29 L. Ed. 589 (1885). Arguing on behalf of the railroad, Conkling sought to persuade the Court that a county tax violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads, " … nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Previously, in the Slaughter-House cases 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873), the Court had restricted application of the Due Process Clause to freed African Americans. Conkling, of course, had been involved in framing the Fourteenth Amendment, and now he argued that the clause was originally intended to protect corporations as well as persons. The Court did not make a decision regarding Conkling's claims, declaring the case moot after the railroad honored some of its tax requirements to the county.
In the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad 118 U.S. 394, 6 S. Ct. 1132, 30 L. Ed. 118, the Court agreed with Conkling's claims that the term person as used in the Equal Protection Clause applies to corporations as well as natural persons. Conkling's arguments therefore influenced the later development of the doctrine of substantive due process, which the Court used repeatedly to strike down state and federal regulation of business from the 1890s to the 1930s.
On April 18, 1888, Conkling died at age fifty-nine, in New York City, of complications surrounding a brain abscess. Despite his political stature, Conkling had sponsored relatively little significant legislation during his career. Though he did help create the Fourteenth Amendment, he played a fairly peripheral role in Reconstruction legislation. He was a politician motivated principally by personal rivalries rather than by ideas. He remains most well-known for his tremendous New York political machine and for his spirited political maneuvers that helped define the political atmosphere during the post–Civil War era in the United States.
Jordan, David M. 1971. Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.