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Conkling’s Quest for Control

May 28, 2014

General Grant was elected President in 1868 and re-elected in 1872.  Historians remember him as a great Civil War hero and as an honest man who cared about the public interest.  Unfortunately for his memory, historians have also written disapprovingly of Grant’s two administrations.  They especially dislike his political friends, and perhaps the most disliked is Roscoe Conkling.

Conkling had tried to get the Republican nomination for himself in 1876, and he was extremely disappointed by the policies of Grant’s successor.  By 1880 there was only one thing to do: bring Grant back for a third term.  As political boss of New York state, Conkling hoped to deliver the entire delegation to Grant, but William H. Robertson led a revolt among the ranks.  He dared to vote for Conkling’s arch rival James G. Blaine.

Neither Grant nor Blaine would get the 1880 nomination.  After thirty-six ballots, the most of any Republican convention before or since, James A. Garfield emerged as the compromise candidate.  His vice-presidential running mate was Conkling’s personal friend Chester A. Arthur.  Arthur had been Collector of the Port of New York until he was removed by President Hayes in 1877.  If Arthur could be elected Vice President, Conkling would be vindicated.  To make his victory complete, Conkling would have to ensure Garfield gave Robertson no important appointments, at least not in the state of New York.  Surely, thought Conkling, Garfield would abide by the doctrine of Senatorial Courtesy.  Surely Garfield would consult Boss Conkling before making any appointments in New York.

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