May 16, 1881
Brilliant and handsome, ambitious and arrogant, New York Republican Roscoe Conkling was one of the most compelling and colorful members of the late-19th-century Senate. Former senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who wrote a multi-volume history of the Senate, described him as “a veritable bird of paradise amidst a barnyard of drabber fowl. While his colleagues favored black,” Byrd wrote, “Conkling sported green trousers, scarlet coats, gold lace, striped shirts, and yellow shoes.”
Soon after his arrival in 1867, this flamboyant orator became one of the Senate’s principal Republican leaders. Conkling built a strong state political machine through his control over New York City’s patronage-rich customshouse. When an investigation uncovered a record of graft and corruption under customs collector and Conkling protege Chester Arthur, a bitter struggle split the Republican Party. This partisan disarray helped the Democrats, in the 1878 elections, gain control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 18 years.
When James Garfield won the 1880 Republican presidential nomination, he tried to placate Conkling and his faction of the party by selecting Chester Arthur as his running mate. Once Garfield took office, however, he shifted direction and nominated as the New York City customs collector a candidate who lacked Conkling’s endorsement. When the appointment reached the Senate Chamber, a colleague reported that Conkling “raged and roared like a bull for three mortal hours,” claiming a violation of “senatorial courtesy.” Garfield further baited the furious senator by boldly responding that he was the head of the government and not “the registering clerk of the United States Senate.” When it became clear that the president had the votes needed to confirm his nominee, Conkling took a gamble and persuaded his Senate colleague Thomas Platt to join him.
On May 16, 1881, both New York senators resigned their seats, confident that the state legislature would vindicate them with speedy reelection. In returning with this refreshed mandate, Conkling believed he would be able to humiliate his party’s president and control the Republican legislative agenda.
Unfortunately for Conkling and Platt, the state legislature took a dim view of this unorthodox scheme. As members deliberated throughout the summer, a deranged patronage seeker shot and mortally wounded President Garfield. When the legislature, in a wave of revulsion against Conkling’s tactic, selected two others to fill the Senate seats, Garfield murmured from his deathbed, “Thank God.” Thus ended Roscoe Conkling’s remarkable political career.