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Historically Speaking: The ‘King’ of the Patronage System

By Tom Morrow

During the 19th century, Roscoe Conkling was one of the most powerful and controversial politicians in the history of the U.S. He was from New York, serving both as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate.

Born Oct. 30, 1829, Conkling was the leader of the “Stalwart” faction of the Republican Party, the first Republican senator from New York to be elected for three terms, and the last person to refuse a U.S. Supreme Court appointment after he already had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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He was a staunch supporter of President U.S. Grant and a leader supporting the Reconstruction program for the South after the Civil War, as well as the rights of former slaves. He was a key to getting Chester A. Arthur nominated as Vice President, which upon the death of President James Garfield, put Arthur in the White House. Conkling was a nemesis of President Rutherford B. Hayes, by tossing legislative roadblocks to thwart various nominations.

While in the House of Representatives, Congressman Conkling served as body-guard for the controversial Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a sharp-tongued, anti-slavery Congressman. He fully supported the Republican Civil War effort. Conkling, who never drank alcohol and detested tobacco, was known for being a body builder through regularly exercising and boxing.

Through the eight years of President Grant’s administration, he was an outspoken politician supporting the President and one of the principal leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate. In 1873, Grant urged him to accept an appointment as Chief Justice of the United States, but Conkling declined. Conkling was active in framing and pushing through Congress the reconstruction legislation, and was instrumental in the passage of the second Civil Rights Act of 1875, and of the act for the resumption of specie payments, in the same year.

As a New York U.S. Senator, Conkling controlled “patronage” (favoritism in handing out government jobs) at the New York Customs House. He maintained that it was “the right of Senators” to control federal patronage in their home states. Patronage was a way of giving political favors to those who gave support both financially and election organization.

Although Senator Conkling was supported by President Grant, Conkling did not like Grant’s Civil Service Commission reform initiative. Conkling continued to refuse Grant’s nomination of him as Chief Justice of the United States, believing his talents belonged in the Senate.

During the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, the fight for control over patronage led to a bitter conflict between Conkling and the President. Conkling publicly led opposition to Hayes’ attempt to administer Civil Service Reform at the New York Customs House. In 1880, Conkling was supporting Grant for third term as President, however Garfield was nominated and elected. Conkling’s continued conflict with President Garfield over New York Customs House patronage led to his resignation from the Senate in May 1881.

After Garfield’s assassination in 1881, Vice President Chester A. Arthur became President. When President Arthur offered his friend Conkling an associate justice seat on the Supreme Court, Conkling accepted the offer and was approved by the Senate. However, Conkling later changed his mind and refused to serve. He practiced law in New York until his death in 1888.

In protest, Conkling resigned with his fellow Senator Thomas C. Platt, confident that he would be re-elected by the New York legislature (at the time, senators were chosen by their states’ legislatures). However, he was defeated in the resulting special election after an almost two-month-long struggle between the opposing factions of the Republican Party.

Afterwards he resumed the practice of law in New York City. In 1882, Conkling again declined a nomination to the United States Supreme Court. He died April 18, 1888. While some argue, the outright practice of “patronage” pretty much ended in the mid-1950s.


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