"Imperious man ... He battled for a nation's life ... for the rights of slaves, the dignity of labor and the liberty of all. He was an orator-earnest, logical, intense and picturesque. He filled the stage ... he satisfied the eye ... The audience was his. He had that indefinable thing called presence."
The Presence was Roscoe Conkling eulogized in Robert Ingersoll's memorial address before the New York State Legislature. Born in Albany on October 30, 1829, Roscoe Conkling was the youngest son of Alfred and Eliza Cockburn Conkling. After attending the Mount Washington Collegiate Institute in New York City and the Auburn Academy, he studied law with the Utica firm of Spencer and Kernan. Admitted to the bar in 1850 he progressed in his career exhibiting extraordinary skill in the examination of witnesses and the presentation of arguments before juries. His appointment as district attorney of Oneida County gave him a varied experience. He formed a partnership with Thomas Walker in Utica.
Conkling married Julia, a sister of Horatio Seymour, a leading Democrat. He helped to organize the Republican party in 1854 and became Utica's mayor in 1858. His administration was known for efficiency and economy.
Elected a representative to Congress in 1858 Conkling was a prominent political figure for the next 30 years. As leader of the Republicans then in control of the country, he had great influence in determining policies for the nation. The national election of 1860 made Abraham Lincoln President. Conkling supported Lincoln's administration in the conduct of the Civil War, advised General Grant and opposed the Northerners, called Copperheads, who sympathized with the South.
Although he usually won his political contests, Mr. Conkling lost to Mr. Kernan in the Congressional election in 1862. Two years later the tables were turned; Conkling won.
The ambitious gentleman from New York held the high office of United States Senator from 1867-1881. He assisted in framing the reconstruction policy after the war and was chiefly responsible for the Electoral Commission Compromise of 1876 which brought the country through troubled times and may have prevented a second civil war.
His personality was such that he seemed to consider those whose views were different from his as enemies of mankind. No feud in history or literature was more relentless than the fight within the Republicar Party between the Stalwarts led by Mr. Conkling and the Half Breeds by Mr. James Blaine. Wily politicians, they had battled before in House and Senate. In a speech Mr. Blaine referred to Mr. Conkling's "grandiloquent swell, his majestic super-eminent, over-powering turkey gobbler strut" and cast unjustified doubt upon his integrity, the "most unkindest cut of all."
Insulted, Conkling retaliated. His strategy was to engineer the re-nomination of President Grant for a third term in 188C thus thwarting Blaine's own presidential aspirations. He failed in his first objective -but succeeded in the second. A dark horse, James Garfield, emerged as a compromise candidate and won. His assassination was attributed to the Stalwart-Half Breed hatred which Mr. Conkling had abetted.
Although Roscoe Conkling dominated House and Senate for almost two decades, he left practically no legacy of constructive achievement. He is remembered rather as a bitter partisan who fought civil service reform. Although he did not use public service for private gain, in an era when graft and corruption were all too common, he did work closely with the worst spoilsmen in his party.
Senators Conkling and Thomas Platt resigned in a dispute with President Garfield over patronage. Seeking vindication through re-election, both lost. When President Grant offered Conkling the post of Chief Justice of the United States, he refused stating that he would be "forever gnawing at his chains." He also declined the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James and appointment to the United States Supreme Court. He preferred to remain in the Senate where he could castigate his opponents in vitriolic terms.
Demanding as the duties of his positions ,were, Conkling did not neglect his profession. In important cases he invariably found Mr. Kernan his adversary. If a plaintiff retained one of the most able lawyers available, the defendant had little choice but to engage the other. Whenever the two attorneys brought a case to trial, spectators crowded the courtroom to witness the robust Republican and the decorous Democrat in action! In his History of Oneida County Mr. Cookinham reminds us that Conkling once declared he would rather stand up before a jury and look the 12 men in the eye than to do any other thing in the, world.
He had weathered stormy scenes in political life, braved many tempests in his ascent to power but in the great blizzard of 1888 he was "like the chaff which the wind drives away." He died of pneumonia in New York City on April 18, 1888.
Called the "spread eagle orator of the day" he could "soar to the heights on the wings of words." "His success," writes Mr. Cookinham, "was due not so much to what he said as to the way he said it." Roscoe Conkling is remembered by the image his name evokes: the "finest torso in public life" topped by a handsome, red-bearded head. This made him a striking figure on political platform and courtroom floor.