Not many people remember Roscoe Conkling these days but from the late 1860s until his resignation from the Senate in 1881 he played a major role in US politics. At six feet three inches tall and of athletic build, Conkling was said to have cast his contemporaries into the shadows with his gaudy suits and haughty manner. Adding to his physical presence was a wide, frowning forehead over which hung a thick ‘Hyperion curl’ of his flaming red hair. He was referred to as ‘My Lord Roscoe’ by his contemporaries and while they may have had their tongues in their cheeks, not many had the courage to oppose him. Often described as obnoxious, he was also a brilliant orator with a remarkable memory who was considered one of the greatest legal minds of his generation. Aside from all this, Conkling was an enthusiastic lady’s man and notorious for his extra-marital affairs, most memorably with society hostess Kate Chase Sprague, whose husband chased him out of their house at the point of a shotgun.
One who did have the gall to challenge Conkling, early in their careers, was the equally charismatic member from Maine, James G Blaine, future Republican nominee for President, Speaker of the House and Secretary of State under three different Presidents. Referred to as the ‘Magnetic Man’ because of his deep ‘luminescent’ eyes and ability to draw people to him, Blaine, like Conkling had been an avid supporter of Lincoln and was seen as soon as he entered politics as a man for the future. In 1866, during a disagreement between them on the floor of the House, Blaine, with a flourish we just don’t see in politics these days referred to Conkling as having ‘haughty disdain [and that] his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, over-powering turkey-gobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and all members of the House that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him.’ Blaine’s invective triggered a life-long feud between these two ‘leviathans of the Republican Party’, as they were called by Provost General Fry, the unwitting cause of the argument in that day. This feud was to have an enormous impact, not only on both men but the politics of their time, where it created an uncompromising divisiveness – you were either ‘with or against’ the factions which evolved around them. This divisiveness, in turn, went on to have a significant influence on the future social fabric of American society, arguably up to the present day.
The differences between Conkling and Blaine went beyond their personal animosity – both held separate positions on the ideological spectrum of their party during the Restoration Period. Conkling, as a political ‘boss’ or leader of the ‘Stalwart’ faction, was against reconciliation with the South and opposed to civil service reform. At the time most senior civil service jobs were filled by a process of patronage and usually given to those who were loyal to the party. Blaine, as leader of the more liberal or ‘Half-breed’ faction, was in favour of reconciliation with the South and a keen proponent for reform of the civil service, where he wanted key positions to be given on merit. Looking back, it is easy to assume Conkling was the less progressive but if we dig deeper, we see a different picture. Working with President Grant, Conkling drafted and was a strong supporter of the Second Civil Rights Act of 1875, which sought to guarantee the rights of blacks to vote, as well as to ‘prohibit racial discrimination in public places and facilities.’ He was a staunch opposer of the ‘Black Codes’, which restricted the employment opportunities and movement of blacks. He helped write the 14th Amendment, which gave blacks citizenship. Ultimately, as a ‘Radical Republican’ Conkling was an advocate of the immediate and complete eradication of slavery and institutional racism without compromise. When Blaine spoke about reconciliation with the South, it was the White South he was referring to.
Blaine had achievements of his own. He too worked closely with President Grant and between them they produced what was known as the ‘Blaine Amendment’, a bill which proposed separation of Church and State, chiefly in the area of education. The bill argued that each state must be responsible for providing equal education for all children, regardless of creed or colour. Though passed overwhelmingly in the House, the Amendment narrowly failed to meet the two thirds requirement in the Senate and ultimately failed to pass into law. Its sentiment was strongly supported by many Republicans however, and individual states went on to adopt their own version, ensuring the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, did not get a grip on the US education system.
Blaine did much to end the isolationist position of the US, by working on tariff reform. This opened up international markets to the mass-produced goods of the rapidly developing powerhouse of US manufacturing, while at the same time raising America’s profile and standing on the world stage. Despite his moderate approach to the South, Blaine was in favour of black suffrage and had a voting record not dissimilar to Conkling, most notably during the Johnson administration and on early proposals on reconstruction. Both men voted to impeach Johnson.
Blaine was put forward at three separate Republican Conventions as a potential presidential candidate and each time was thwarted by Conkling, who made sure the Stalwarts voted in block against him. When Blaine did eventually manage to get himself nominated, in 1884, Conkling had left politics, his resignation having been engineered by Blaine and President James Garfield in 1881. They did this by appointing a leading Half-breed, William H Robertson as Collector to the Port of New York, without consulting Conkling. That he was the state’s sitting Senator as well as its recognized ‘boss’, meant the appointment was too big an insult for his ego to bear, something of which both Garfield and Blaine were well aware – Blaine is recorded as saying: ‘We cut his throat with a feather.’ The dramatic resignation was not followed by the anticipated reelection, as once again Conkling was outmaneuvered by the Half-breeds, this time in the New York legislature – the body responsible for the elections to the Senate at that time.
Conkling’s name was put forward at convention only once, in 1876. He received 93 votes but was stopped in turn by the Half-breeds. He later threw his votes behind Rutherford B Hayes to prevent Blaine getting the nomination. Blaine, as history knows, was narrowly beaten by Grover Cleveland in ’84 as he became the first Democrat to be elected president since the Civil War.
Had Conkling and Blaine been able to work together, or to at least leave each other alone, they might have achieved great things, including, most importantly, an acceleration of civil rights. With their unique charisma and leadership, they had a unique opportunity to produce legislation to deal with the mess left behind by the Civil War in a permanent way, at a time when it was still viable to do so. Americans might have been spared many years of the noxious and resilient horror of systemic racism, which has permeated and demeaned their country ever since. As it was, these leviathans allowed themselves be consumed by personal animus and dedicated much of their careers to the destruction of one another.
Their feud eventually ended with the assassination of President Garfield, an able and well-intentioned leader, who in his own right might have gone on to achieve great things. ‘I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts,’ his deranged assassin Charles Guiteau cried when he had fired the fatal shots. ‘Arthur will be president now.’ Chester Arthur, a Conkling ‘lackey’ who Garfield appointed as Vice President in an effort to appease the Stalwarts, did indeed go on to become President of the United States, where he at least implemented the civil service reforms planned by Garfield and Blaine. The Supreme Court ruled during his presidency, in 1883, that sections of the 1875 Second Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional, rendering it unenforceable. It would be 1957 before another civil rights bill was passed.
The Garfield Conspiracy by Owen Dwyer is published by Liberties Press on 7th September 2021.
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