The Lordly Roscoe Conkling

by Scott S. Greenberger

Despite his promising start as a young man, by his early fifties Chester A. Arthur was known as the crooked crony of New York machine boss Roscoe Conkling. For years Arthur had been perceived as unfit to govern, not only by critics and the vast majority of his fellow citizens but by his own conscience. As President James A. Garfield struggled for his life, Arthur knew better than his detractors that he failed to meet the high standard a president must uphold.

And yet, from the moment President Arthur took office, he proved to be not just honest but brave, going up against the very forces that had controlled him for decades. He surprised everyone–and gained many enemies—when he swept house and took on corruption, civil rights for blacks, and issues of land for Native Americans.

The Unexpected President is a beautifully written biography offering the dramatic, untold story of a virtually forgotten American president. It is the tale of a machine politician and man-about-town in Gilded Age New York who stumbled into the highest office in the land, only to rediscover his better self when his nation needed him. Read an excerpt from The Unexpected President below.

The Lordly Roscoe Conkling

Roscoe Conkling and Chester Arthur both were born in October 1829. Like Arthur, Conkling grew up in upstate New York under the stern gaze of a formidable father. Both men were careful dressers. But while Arthur’s backslapping bonhomie greased his rise through the Republican ranks, Conkling was a politician who didn’t care much for people. Unlike Arthur, always ready with a joke or an amusing anecdote, Conkling had no sense of humor, and was easily offended. He cringed when somebody laid a hand on his shoulder or grasped his arm. He always folded a bill into quarters, lengthwise first, before pocketing it. He did not borrow or lend books, and loathed tobacco smoke, cigar ashes, and men who spat.

Conkling’s political education began early. His father, Alfred Conkling, served a term in the US Congress in the early 1820s, and when his youngest son was born he was a federal judge and a leader of New York’s Whigs. Former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, US Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson, and political boss Thurlow Weed were frequent visitors to the judge’s home in Auburn, New York, at the edge of Owasco Lake.

Roscoe was handsome, confident, and athletic. When he was 10, a horse kicked him and broke his jaw, but the incident didn’t diminish his love of horses or his good looks. On the afternoon of the incident, he sneaked out of his bedroom to make and fly a kite. He loved to box, and was “very athletic, vigorous in his movements, and easily superior to all others in the games and sports of childhood,” according to a classmate. He was “as large and massive in his mind as he was in his frame, and accomplished in his studies precisely what he did in his social life—a mastery and command which his companions yielded to him as his due.”

When he was 13, Roscoe’s father sent him to the Mount Washington Collegiate Institute in New York City, where he studied under the guardianship of his oldest brother Frederick, a 30-year-old wholesale dry goods salesman who was also a talented political speaker. The brothers took oratory lessons together. They pored over a textbook called The Art of Speaking and honed their skills by delivering speeches to each other. After a year, Roscoe returned home to attend Auburn Academy. Judge Conkling was a graduate of Union College—Arthur’s alma mater—and he expected his son to follow in his footsteps. But after three years at the academy, Roscoe decided to skip college and become a lawyer. In 1846, he joined the Utica law offices of Joshua Spencer and Francis Kernan. Striding through the courthouse, he looked “like a tall, blond young lady” with a “tall, silk hat, a frock coat with a velvet collar; his cheek was as fresh as a rose, and he had long red ringlets clustered about his neck.”

At 20, Conkling was admitted to the bar. He tried his first case in Utica before a familiar judge—his own father. He won it. The fledgling lawyer liked to bully witnesses, and to make jurors weep. He was fastidious—he always wrapped his legal books in paper before he set them on the lawyer’s table, to prevent other attorneys from knowing which authorities he planned to cite—and carried himself with an air of superiority that did not endear him to his colleagues. Once he had finished arguing a case, he flipped open a newspaper to signal his confidence in a favorable verdict. When his opponent rose to address the jury, he remarked, “Are you going to sum up this case?” Even against more experienced or erudite opponents, “his arrows were never entangled in the quiver, but were quickly drawn, and driven to the mark.”

The young lawyer was a voracious reader. He was fond of poetry, especially Byron, and he loved Shakespeare and Milton, Hobbes and Locke. He had a prodigious memory, and could recall much of what he had read verbatim. Spencer, one of the two partners in the firm, was an active Whig, and one day a fellow party member came to his office to request a speaker. “Send us someone who can assert himself, for there’s a big bully among the Democrats who breaks up our meetings,” the man told Spencer. “I shall send Mr. Conkling,” the attorney replied. “I think he will make himself heard.” It was Conkling’s first political speech.

Conkling’s seemingly effortless oratory required extensive preparation. First, he gathered all the pertinent facts. Then he wrote or dictated the speech, tapping his vast store of quotations. Then he rewrote it—and rewrote it again. He rehearsed by walking through the countryside, reciting the speech at the top of his lungs, or by spending hours delivering it in front of a mirror. On the morning of the speech, he recited it to members of his household while he dressed for breakfast.

In his earliest speeches, Conkling paced nervously as he spoke. But he soon trained himself to stand straight and still, with one foot thrust forward and his head thrown back. He let his carefully pronounced vowels do the work, never shouting or stamping his foot, bending down or pounding his fist. During a speech he tended to concentrate his gaze on two or three listeners, but sometimes he turned to different parts of the house so he could bow to a friend—or scowl at an enemy. Occasionally he referred to notes he had jotted down on the back of an envelope, but this was a ruse to give the audience the impression that he was speaking extemporaneously. In fact, he always had his speech memorized—even when it was two or three hours long.

In 1852, Conkling stumped for Whig presidential candidate Winfield Scott. But three years later, he married into one of the most prominent Democratic families in the state. Julie Catherine Seymour of Utica was two years older than Roscoe, and her brother Horatio had just completed a term as New York’s governor. Horatio, 19 years older than Roscoe, strongly opposed the marriage. Dignified and gracious, he clashed repeatedly with his cocksure brother-in-law.

When the Whigs split over slavery, Conkling joined the new Republican Party, and after a brief stint as mayor of Utica, he was elected to Congress in 1858. He immediately made an impression in Washington. At six foot three, with broad shoulders and “an erect carriage,” he was physically imposing. He wore a Van Dyke beard and had a prominent nose and bluish-gray eyes. But the physical feature that everybody remembered—and that caught the eye of cartoonists—was the little reddish-blond curl he twirled into the center of his pale forehead. Conkling welcomed the attention, and puffed up the hair on either side of his head to make the curl even more noticeable. Unlike most politicians, who wore Prince Albert frock coats, Conkling wore a more formal black cutaway coat. He usually complemented it with a light-colored vest and trousers, a vivid red or blue bow tie, and English gaiters buttoned over his freshly polished, pointed shoes. Conkling was an excellent poker player, and he always carried a pistol. Washington wags tittered that he wrote his personal letters in mauve ink, and had the handwriting of “an ultra-fashionable schoolgirl.”

Conkling attracted some loyal followers, but his imperious manner alienated many others. When he strutted to the House floor and prepared to speak, his chin lifted and his deep nostrils quivering and stretching into an expression of scorn, he could whip his opponents into a fury before he had uttered a single word. “He did not dress, or talk, or walk, or play, as other men did, and do,” one journalist observed. “There was something in his manner, there was something in his style, different from that of other men. He knew it and gloried in the fact.”

As an orator, Conkling had only one peer in the House: James Gillespie Blaine, a Republican representative from Maine. Conkling and Blaine were the same age, and they both aspired to be the leader of their party. But while Conkling was supercilious and aloof, the breezy and buoyant Blaine was known as the “Magnetic Man.” In conversations, Blaine came across as totally frank, even as he carefully weighed and filtered every word. “He is irresistible,” an admirer once said. “I defy anyone, Republican or Democrat, to be in his company half an hour and go away from him anything else than a personal friend.” Conkling and Blaine were “as jealous of each other as two women rivals in love.” A clash was inevitable.

It came in April 1866, during a debate over an army reorganization bill. After several days of rising tensions, Blaine accused Conkling of improperly receiving extra government pay for his work as a prosecutor in the court-martial of an army major. After a lengthy defense of his actions, Conkling concluded caustically that “if the member from Maine had the least idea how profoundly indifferent I am to his opinion upon the subject which he has been discussing, or upon any other subject personal to me, I think he would hardly take the trouble to rise here and express his opinion.”

Blaine responded with a diatribe that cemented the eternal enmity between the two men—and that reverberated for decades to come. “As to the gentleman’s cruel sarcasm, I hope he will not be too severe,” Blaine sneered. “The contempt of that large-minded gentleman is so wilting, his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and to all the men of the House, that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him.”

The House hissed, but Blaine’s insults hit home. Conkling did have a “turkey-gobbler strut,” and he never spoke to Blaine again—in fact, he never again acknowledged his presence. “That attack was without any provocation by me as against Mr. Blaine,” he told a fellow Republican member. “I shall never overlook it.”

Conkling’s feud with the more popular Blaine did not dim his star in Washington. On the contrary, he beat his rival to the US Senate, taking a seat in the upper chamber in 1867. As he had in the House, Conkling quickly attracted notice. “Tall, well proportioned, with his vest opening down to the waist and displaying his full chest and broad shoulders to the best advantage, his hair tossed back from his massive brow with studied carelessness, his white and slender hands set off by spotless linen, he looked every inch a Senator.” To summon a page in the Senate Chamber, Conkling clapped his hands above his head as if he were a Roman emperor, and transmitted his message to the terrified boy “as if he were conferring knighthood upon him; but woe to the boy who made a mistake in the delivery of the message.”

Then as now, there were perquisites to being a senior senator, and newcomers were expected to defer to longer-serving colleagues. But deference was not in Conkling’s nature and he refused to take orders from party leaders. Even in an institution in which the thirst for power was endemic, Conk- ling’s ambition stood out. He had only been in the Senate for several months when the Washington Chronicle observed “no new senator has ever made in so short a time such rapid strides to a commanding position in that body.”

Journalists weren’t the only ones to take note of New York’s dashing new senator: the ladies’ gallery was always packed when Conkling was scheduled to speak. While her husband was in Washington, Julia Conk- ling preferred to remain in Utica, devoting herself to gardening and charity work. Julia’s absence fueled widespread rumors of Roscoe’s relationships with other women. According to one story, the editor of a weekly paper in Washington was poised to publish a long article about Conkling’s romantic exploits. The senator heard about it, confronted the editor, and demanded to see the proofs. After he had read them, Conkling turned to the editor and calmly asked, “Do you intend to print this article?”

“I do,” the editor replied.

“Then I will kill you,” Conkling said.

The editor’s assistant “saw the fear of imminent death seizing the soul of my chief. There was in Mr. Conkling’s voice something so unspeakably fierce and cruel and in his savage gaze something so appalling that few men, I think, could have withstood him.” The editor ordered the proofs destroyed, and the story never appeared in print.


Excerpted from The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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