Facts of Reconstruction, The



The Garfield Administration, as I have said, started out under most favorable auspices. Mr. Conkling took an active part in the Senate as a champion and spokesman of the administration. He seemed to have taken it for granted, that,—although his bitter enemy, Mr. Blaine, was Secretary of State,—his own influence with the administration would be potential. In conversation with his personal friends he insisted that this was a part of the agreement that had been entered into at the famous Mentor Conference, about which so much had been said and published. If it were true that Mr. Conkling's control of the Federal patronage in New York in the event of Republican success was a part of that agreement, it transpired that Mr. Blaine had sufficient influence with the President to bring about its repudiation.

It is a fact well known that the President was anxious to avoid a break with Senator Conkling. Judge W.H. Robertson, who was a candidate for the Collectorship of the port of New York was strongly supported by Mr. Blaine. Judge Robertson had been one of the influential leaders of the Blaine movement in New York. It was he who had disregarded the action of the State Convention in instructing the delegates to cast the vote of the State as a unit for General Grant. In bolting the action of the State Convention Judge Robertson carried about nineteen other delegates with him over to Mr. Blaine. Therefore Mr. Blaine insisted upon the appointment of Judge Robertson to the Collectorship of the port at New York. Senator Conkling would not consent under any circumstances to this appointment. Mr. Blaine, it appears, succeeded in convincing the President that, but for Judge Robertson's action, his, Garfield's, nomination would have been impossible and that consequently it would be base ingratitude not to appoint Robertson to the position for which he was an applicant. Mr. Blaine contended that the administration would not only be guilty of ingratitude should it refuse to appoint his candidate, but that it would thereby allow itself to be the medium through which this man was to be punished for his action in making the existence of the administration possible.

"Can you, Mr. President, afford to do such a thing as this?" asked Mr. Blaine.

To which the President gave a negative answer. Perhaps it did not occur to Mr. Blaine at that time that, while the action of Judge Robertson may have made the nomination of Mr. Garfield possible, the subsequent action of Senator Conkling made his election possible. But, notwithstanding this, the President decided that Judge Robertson should have the office for which he was an applicant.

As previously stated, however, the President was anxious to avoid a break with Senator Conkling. To get the Senator to consent to the appointment of Judge Robertson was the task the President had before him. With that end in view the President invited Mr. Conkling to a private conference, at which he expressed a willingness to allow the New York Senator to name every important Federal officer in New York except the Collector of the Port, if he would consent to the appointment of Judge Robertson to that office. But the only concession Senator Conkling was willing to make was to give his consent to the appointment of Judge Robertson to any position in the foreign service. This was not satisfactory, hence the conference was a failure. The President was thus placed in a very disagreeable dilemma, being thus forced, very much against his inclination, to take a decided stand in a very unpleasant controversy. He was thus forced to choose between Mr. Blaine, his own Secretary of State, on one side, and Senator Conkling on the other. To one he felt that he was indebted for his nomination. To the other he believed that his election was largely due. It was asserted by some who were in a position to know that, if the President had taken sides with Mr. Conkling, Mr. Blaine would have immediately tendered his resignation, and thus would have severed his official connection with the administration. While no intimation of this was made known to the President, yet he no doubt believed, in consequence of the deep and intense interest Mr. Blaine had shown in the matter, that such action on his part, in the event of an adverse decision, was more than probable. When the President saw that there was no escape,—that he was obliged to take a decided stand one way or the other,—he decided to sustain the contention of his Secretary of State. Consequently, after the fruitless conference between the President and Senator Conkling, the name of Judge Robertson for Collector of the port at New York, was sent to the Senate. Senator Conkling, joined by his colleague, Senator Platt, at first made an effort to have the nomination rejected, but the other Republican Senators were not willing to place themselves in open opposition to the administration. When the fact was developed that the nomination would be confirmed, Senators Conkling and Platt immediately tendered their resignations.

This in my opinion was a grave blunder on their part, as subsequent events more than proved. They had before them the example of Senator Sumner, by which they should have profited. Senator Sumner was greatly humiliated, when, through the influence of the administration, he was supplanted by Senator Cameron as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on account of a misunderstanding with President Grant, growing out of the effort on the part of the administration to bring about the annexation of Santo Domingo, to which Senator Sumner was bitterly opposed. Yet he did not,—because he was thus, as he felt, unjustly humiliated,—resign his seat in the Senate. He realized that while he was commissioned to speak for his own State, his great power and immense influence were not confined solely to that particular State. He appreciated the fact that when he spoke and voted as a Senator, he did so, not merely as a Senator from the State of Massachusetts, but as a Senator of the United States. He belonged to no one State, but to the United States. He had,—on account of his great intellect, power, influence, and ability,—long since ceased to be the spokesman and representative of any particular State or section; he was a representative of his country—recognized as such throughout the civilized world. Knowing these things to be true Sumner did not feel that he should deprive the people of his valuable services simply because he was not in harmony with the administration upon some one matter, however important that matter might be. In this Senator Sumner was unquestionably right.

What, then, was true of Senator Sumner was equally true of Senators Conkling and Platt in their misunderstanding with President Garfield about the Collectorship of the port of New York.

Mr. Conkling was one of the greatest men our country had ever produced. He was a man of much influence and great power. He was not only an intellectual giant, but he was a man of commanding presence and attractive personality. As an orator he had few equals and no superiors. As in the case of Senator Sumner he spoke and voted as a Senator not merely for his State, but for his country; not for any particular section or locality, but for the United States. He was too great a man, and his services were too important and valuable for his country to be deprived of them merely on account of a misunderstanding between the President and himself about Federal patronage in New York. He and his colleague should have retained their seats in the Senate and trusted to the judgment of their fellow-citizens for a vindication of their course and action in that as in other matters. They not only made a mistake in resigning their seats in the Senate, but consummated it when they went before the Legislature of their State, which was then in session, and asked for a vindication through the medium of reëlection. This was subjecting their friends to a test to which they were not willing to submit. Their friends, both in the Legislature and out of it, were loyal to them, and this loyalty would have been demonstrated at the proper time and in the right way had the two Senators remained in a position which would have enabled their adherents to do so without serious injury to the party organization. But when these men were asked, as the price of their loyalty, to place the party organization in the State in open opposition to the National Administration for no other reason than a misunderstanding about Federal patronage in the city of New York, they did not think that the controversy was worth the price; hence the request was denied. The result was the defeat of Conkling and Platt, and the election of two Administration Republicans, Warner Miller and E.G. Lapham.

This foolhardy act of Conkling's had the unfortunate effect of eliminating him from public life, at least so far as an active participation in public affairs was concerned. But this was not true of Mr. Platt. He was determined to come to the front again, and in this he was successful. At the very next National Convention (1884) he turned up as one of the Blaine delegates from New York, and was one of the speakers that seconded Mr. Blaine's nomination. That was something Mr. Conkling never could have been induced to do. He was proud, haughty and dictatorial. He would never forget a friend, nor forgive an enemy. To his friends he was loyal and true. To his enemies he was bitter and unrelenting. For his friends he could not do too much. From his enemies he would ask no quarter and would give none. More than one man of national reputation has been made to feel his power, and suffer the consequences resulting from his ill-will and displeasure. But for the unfriendliness of Mr. Conkling, Mr. Blaine no doubt would have attained the acme of his ambition in reaching the Presidency of the United States. It was Mr. Blaine's misfortune to have made an enemy of the one man who, by a stroke of destiny, was so situated as to make it possible for him to prevent the realization of Mr. Blaine's life ambition. It was due more to Mr. Conkling than to any other one man that Mr. Blaine was defeated for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1876,—the year in which he could have been elected had he been nominated.

Mr. Conkling was too much of a party man to support the Democratic ticket under any circumstances, hence, in 1884, when Mr. Blaine was at length nominated for the Presidency, Mr. Conkling gave the ticket the benefit of his silence. That silence proved to be fatal. In consequence of Mr. Conkling's silence and apparent indifference in 1884, Mr. Blaine lost New York, the pivotal State, and was defeated by Mr. Cleveland for the Presidency. The falling off in the Republican vote in Mr. Conkling's home county alone caused the loss of the State and of the Presidency of the United States to the Republican party.

The quarrel between Blaine and Conkling originated when both of them were members of the House of Representatives. In a controversy that took place between them on the floor of the House Mr. Blaine referred to Mr. Conkling as the member from New York with the "turkey gobbler strut." That remark made the two men enemies for life. That remark wounded Mr. Conkling's pride; and he could never be induced to forgive the one who had so hurt him.

As a United States Senator Conkling was both felt and feared. No Senator ever desired to get into a controversy with him, because he was not only a speaker of great power and eloquence, but as a debater he was cutting and scathing in his irony. Senator Lamar, of Mississippi, who as an eloquent orator compared favorably with the best on both sides of the Chamber, had the misfortune to get into a controversy on one occasion with the distinguished New York Senator. In repelling an accusation that the Senator from Mississippi had made against him, Mr. Conkling said: "If it were not that this is the United States Senate I would characterize the member from Mississippi as a coward and a prevaricator."

If those words had been uttered by any other Senator than Roscoe Conkling it is more than probable that he would have been severely reprimanded; no other Senator, however, cared to incur Conkling's displeasure by becoming the author of a resolution for that purpose.

Senator John J. Ingalls, of Kansas, was the only other Senator that ever came near holding a similar position; for, while he was by no means the equal of Conkling, he was both eloquent and sarcastic. For that reason Senators were not anxious to get into a controversy with him. On one occasion it seemed that he came near getting into a dispute with Senator Manderson, of Nebraska. While the Senator from Nebraska was delivering a speech, he made a remark to which the Senator from Kansas took exceptions. When the Kansas Senator arose,—flushed with anger, and laboring under intense excitement,—to correct what he declared in words that were more forcible than elegant, to be a misstatement of his position, the Senator from Nebraska did not hesitate for a moment to accept the correction, remarking by way of explanation and apology that he had not distinctly heard the remark the Senator from Kansas had made, and to which he was alluding when interrupted.

"Then," retorted the Senator from Kansas, "that is your misfortune."

"I admit," the Senator from Nebraska quickly replied, "that it is always a misfortune not to hear the Senator from Kansas."

The unfortunate controversy between President Garfield and Senator Conkling resulted in a national calamity. The bitterness that grew out of it had the effect of bringing a crank on the scene of action. Early in July, 1881,—when the President, in company with Mr. Blaine, was leaving Washington for his summer vacation,—this cowardly crank, who had waited at the railroad station for the arrival of the distinguished party, fired the fatal shot which a few months later terminated the earthly career of a President who was beloved by his countrymen without regard to party or section.

Whatever may have been the merits of this unfortunate controversy, it resulted in the political death of one and the physical death of the other; thus depriving the country of the valuable services of two of the greatest and most intellectual men that our country had ever produced.

When the President died I was at my home, Natchez, Mississippi, where a memorial meeting was held in honor of his memory, participated in by both races and both parties. I had the honor of being one of the speakers on that occasion. That part of my remarks which seemed to attract most attention and made the deepest impression was the declaration that it was my good fortune, as a member of the National House of Representatives, to sit within the sound of his eloquent voice on a certain memorable occasion when he declared that there could never be a permanent peace and union between the North and the South until the South would admit that, in the controversy that brought on the War the North was right and the South was wrong. Notwithstanding that declaration, in which he was unquestionably right, I ventured the opinion that, had he been spared to serve out the term for which he had been elected, those who had voted for him would have been proud of the fact that they had done so, while those who had voted against him would have had no occasion to regret that he had been elected.

Upon the death of President Garfield Vice-President Arthur,—who had been named for that office by Mr. Conkling,—became President; but he, too, soon incurred the displeasure of Mr. Conkling. Mr. Conkling had occasion to make a request of the President which the latter could not see his way clear to grant. For this Mr. Conkling never forgave him. The President tried hard afterwards to regain Mr. Conkling's friendship, but in vain. He even went so far, it is said, as to tender Mr. Conkling a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court; but the tender was contemptuously declined.

President Arthur aspired to succeed himself as President. As a whole he gave the country a splendid administration, for which he merited a renomination and election as his own successor. While there was a strong and well-organized effort to secure for him a renomination, the probabilities are that the attitude of Mr. Conkling towards him contributed largely to his defeat; although the ex-Senator took no active part in the contest. But, as in the case of Mr. Blaine, his silence, no doubt, was fatal to Mr. Arthur's renomination.

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