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Roscoe Conkling

Updated on December 1, 2016

Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888) was an American lawyer and public official. He was born in Albany, N. Y., on October 30, 1829, the son of Alfred Conkling, a distinguished lawyer, judge, and author of several legal studies. Conkling attended school in New York City, studied law under his father, and in 1850 was admitted to the bar. Originally a Whig in politics, he soon became a staunch member of the Republican party. In 1858, Conkling was elected to Congress where he served (except for one term, 1863-1865) until his election to the Senate in 1867.

Tall, with a commanding appearance, he earned a reputation as a picturesque orator. As a member of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, he advocated a radical policy for Southern Reconstruction. Aided by President Grant's award for all the federal patronage in New York, Conkling became the undisputed boss of his state's political machine. He soon became involved in bitter power struggles within the Republican party, quarreling with James G. Elaine and eventually breaking with President Rutherford B. Hayes when the latter refused to recognize his claims to the control of all federal appointments in New York. In 1880, Conkling was a leader in the unsuccessful move to nominate Grant for a third term and was very disappointed when the nomination went to James A. Garfield. When Garfield followed Hayes policies regarding New York appointments, Conkling fought the confirmation of the President's appointees, and finally resigned his Senate seat in 1881 in protest.

It was clear by this time that Conkling's power had declined. His attempt to persuade the New York legislature to reelect him in vindication of his leadership failed. Returning to private life, he continued to practice law until his death in New York City on April 18, 1888.

In 1882 in an argument before the Supreme Court, he contended that the drafters of the 14th Amendment intended to protect corporations as well as Negroes, a theory for which little positive evidence has been discovered but one that has persisted in many accounts of post-Civil War politics.


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