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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 88

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This is the grave of Roscoe Conkling.

Born in 1829 in Albany, New York, Roscoe Conkling became the prototypical politician of the Gilded Age. He was born into an elite political family. His father was in the House and was a federal judge and his mother was a cousin of British Lord Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn. He knew Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams as a child. He skipped college and went straight into the law and also became involved in Whig politics. He worked locally in Utica for the election of Winfield Scott in 1852 and John C. Frémont in 1856, switching easily from the Whigs to the Republicans by that time. He was elected mayor of Utica in 1858 and to Congress that fall. He served two terms, losing in 1862. He then worked for the War Department for two years before regaining his seat in the 1864 elections. In 1867, he was elected to the Senate.

As a senator he became a leading ally of Ulysses S. Grant. He also became a notorious purveyor of patronage politics, with all the corruption that involved. He was pretty good on Reconstruction issues and shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1875 through the Senate. Grant offered Conkling a position of the Supreme Court, but he refused, believing his powers more important in the Senate. He hated the reform element of the party that led to the Liberal Republican movement of 1872 and their alliance with the Democrats to run Horace Greeley (of all people, what a ridiculous nominee not that any living American knows anything about that) against Grant in 1872. Those Republican reformists were both anti-corruption and wanted the Republican Party to stop caring about black people. Conkling didn’t really like them for the latter reason, but it was his love of patronage that really made him hate them. When the Hayes Administration tried to clean up some of the grotesque corruption of the Gilded Age, Conkling turned on it. When Hayes tried to dump Chester Arthur, a close Conkling ally, from his position as collector of the New York Customs House, a massive source of patronage power, Conkling held up the replacement nominees for 2 years and it wasn’t until 1879 that new people were confirmed, over Conkling’s objections even then.

In 1880, Conkling fought for a third term for Grant and hated the other two possible nominees, James Blaine and John Sherman. When that was impossible, he was unhappy with James Garfield, who was a compromise candidate settled upon by the Blaine and Sherman factions to defeat the Grant faction. His good friend Chester Arthur was named VP, basically at Conkling’s choosing for losing the presidential slot. Garfield then sought to isolate Conkling, naming his enemies to many slots, including the New York patronage positions. Furious at being denied the “right” for senators to control patronage in their own states, he resigned from the Senate in 1882, sure he would be reinstated by the New York Senate. Whoops, didn’t happen. This was all part of a break between Conkling and Arthur over civil service reform, which Arthur supported to Conkling’s outrage. Arthur actually then nominated Conkling to the Supreme Court later that year. He was confirmed by the Senate and then decided he wouldn’t do it. So he went home to New York and practice law.

Conkling also loved him the ladies. He was married to utter scumbag 1868 Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour’s sister but carried on several affairs fairly openly, most notably with the daughter of Salmon Chase, causing her divorce. Supposedly her husband chased Conkling around their Rhode Island estate with a shotgun. He was pretty famous and many relatively famous people of the next generation were named after him. Supposedly, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of them but his father hated Conkling and named him that because he didn’t think the child was his and as Conkling was a known philanderer, it was a shot at Fatty’s mother. This sounds too pat a story of a comedian’s birth origins to be true, but who knows.

Unlike most wealthy Gilded Age men, Conkling was very into physical fitness and an aggressive masculinity that would later be picked up on by a new generation of men such as Theodore Roosevelt. This had its downside though. When the Great Blizzard of 1888 struck New York, Conkling was downtown. He tried to take a coach home but it got stuck in the snow. So Conkling, impatient and wanting to prove himself, decided he would walk home in the blizzard. He made it as far as Union Square. He collapsed, got pneumonia, and died a month later.

Roscoe Conkling is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, New York.

This post begins Graveapaoolza. In other words, I have such an enormous backlog of these things that I am going to do a grave a day over the next week in order to chip into this before I myself die and have like a thousand grave posts sadly unwritten.

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