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Roscoe Conkling


WHEN, some years since, the Representative of the twenty first Congressional District of New York was declared, by a majority of his peers, to have been guilty of corruption, and to be unworthy of a seat with them, the Republican voters of that district, one of the most intelligent and refined in the state, looked about them for a man of integrity and purity of character who should fully represent their sentiments in the national legislature. Such a man they found speedily; a young man but little more than thirty years of age, but of highly cultivated intellect, staunch integrity, an eminent advocate, and at that time mayor of Utica, the chief city of the district. They elected him ; and, young as he was, he speedily made his mark, in three Congresses of remarkable ability, taking a position with the foremost, in the fervor of his patriot-ism, the clearness of his perceptions, the soundness of his judgment, and his eloquence as a debater, and at the close of his six years' service in the House of Representatives, though re-elected from his district, he was transferred by the Legislature of his native State, to a seat in the United States Senate, previously occupied by one of the most eminent jurists of New York.

ROSCOE CONKLING (for it is he of whom we speak), was born at Albany, New York, October 30, 1829; he was a younger son of Hon Alfred Conklin, a member of the XVIIth Congress, and subsequently judge of the United States District Court, for the Northern District of New York, for twenty-seven years, and in 1852-5, United States minister to Mexico; he received a very thorough academic education in the Albany academy, and in 1846, removed to Utica, where he studied and practiced law, and when but twenty-one years of age, was appointed district attorney for Oneida county. In 1858, he was elected mayor of Utica, by a heavy majority. During the autumn of the same year, he was nominated for Congress from the twenty-first district, to succeed O. B. Matteson.  He was carried in by a large majority, and though the youngest member of the House, attained speedily to a very prominent position in that body, as a fearless, eloquent, and accomplished debater. He was re-elected in 1860, and still added to his reputation.

He was chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia, and on a Bankrupt Law. In 1862, New York was so far faithless to her principles as to elect a Democratic Administration, Horatio Seymour, Mr. Conkling's brother-in-law, being chosen governor; and a professed war Democrat, but real Copperhead, elected to Congress from the twenty-first district to the XXXVIIIth Congress. But the people of that district were dissatisfied, and, in 1861, they re-elected Mr. Conkling by a heavier majority than ever before. During the two years that he was out of Congress, Mr. Conkling was requested by the attorney-general to aid in the prosecution of some gross frauds which had been committed in that district, in regard to the enlistments and bounties to soldiers. He entered upon the work with his usual ardor and zeal, and succeeded in unearthing a most astounding system of frauds. By this act, he rendered a great service to the nation, for which he received the thanks of the War Department, but he bad incurred the hostility of the "Ring," which determined thenceforward to crush him. The opportunity did not occur until the summer of 1866, when, as he was nominated again for Congress, a man of large wealth, previously a Republican, determined to run in opposition to him, and to defeat him, if it could be accomplished by money. Mr. Conkling at once announced his intention to canvass the district in person, and did so, speaking in every village and town of the county, and was reelected by an increased majority. The Republican Legislature which met in January, 1867, elected Mr. Conkling United States Senator for six years, from March 4, 1867, to succeed Hon. Ira Harris.

A single passage from one of Mr. Conkling's speeches, will serve to show his earnestness, the intensity of his convictions, and the ability with which he presents them. The occasion was this; Tennessee had been restored to the Union, and her loyal Representatives and one Senator sworn in. The other Senator, Judge Patterson, a son-in-law of President Johnson, was, it was thought, from the fact of his having, though a Union man, held office under the rebel government, unable to take the test oath prescribed for all Senators and Representatives, and the Senate had passed a joint resolution to omit in his case, from the test oath, these words: " That I have neither sought nor accepted, nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatever, under any authority, or pretended authority, in hostility to the United States." This resolution was immediately sent to the House of Representatives for their consideration. Messrs. May nard and Taylor of Tennessee advocated it, and Mr. Stokes, also of Tennessee, and Mr. Conkling of New York, opposed it. The closing passage of Mr. Conkling's speech was as follows:

We are asked to drive a plough-share over the very foundation of our position; to break down and destroy the bulwark by which we may secure the results of a great war and a great history, by which we may preserve from defilement this place, where alone in our organism the people never lose their supremacy, except by the recreancy of their Representatives; a bulwark without which we may not save our Government from disintegration and disgrace. If we do this act, it will be a precedent which will carry fatality in its train. From Jefferson Davis, to the meanest tool of despotism and treason, every rebel may come here, and we shall have no reason to assign against his admission, except the arbitrary reason of numbers. 

I move, sir, that the joint resolution be laid on the table." It was laid on the table, by a vote of eighty-eight to thirty-one; and the same day, Judge Patterson, having discovered that he could take the test oath, was sworn in by the Vice-President, and the joint resolution laid over forever.

Sudden and rapid promotion to the highest places in the people's gift has before now turned the heads of many otherwise estimable men, and if Mr. Conkling has failed to fulfill in all respects the promise of his earlier years in Congress, as very many of his former friends believe, it is doubtless due in part to his rapid promotion, in part to the grateful but not always healthful influence of the profuse flattery he has received, and to the overweening sense of his own gifts, talents and power, which have been thus bred in him. Mr. Conkling is a man of remarkably fine appearance, and a great favorite of the ladies; he is a man of scholarly tastes and of considerable eloquence; but since he has been in the Senate, he has lost that modesty which so well became him, and by his imperious and dictatorial manner, and his fierce invective against men who, to say the least, were in all respects his peers, he has lost influence in the nation, and has recalled the traditions of the old days when the slave holder's whip cracked ominously in the Senate against all who failed to do its behests. It grieves us to say such things of a man of so much real ability as Mr. Conkling; and we cannot but hope that in the coming years he may see that the power which is founded on love and respect is infinitely greater than that which is reared on force and brutality, and may be led to unite, as he certainly does not now, the suaviter in modo to the fortiter in re.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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