Roscoe Conkling was born in Albany, New York, the son of a Whig politician and judge. Such prominent figures as John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren were visitors in the family home. Conkling studied law in Utica and was named the district attorney of Albany at age 21, through his father`s influence. He developed a reputation for oration and was viewed as a rising star in Whig politics.
In 1854, Roscoe Conkling was instrumental in the founding of the Republican Party in New York State. Four years later he was elected mayor of Utica, but resigned after being elected to the House of Representatives, where he served from 1859 to 1863 and later from 1865 to 1867. Conkling was a firm supporter of Abraham Lincoln and later would be aligned with the Radical Republicans. Some of his views, such as taking land from slaveowners to distribute among the former slaves, were regarded as extreme by others in his party.
In 1867, Roscoe Conkling was elected by the New York legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. He quickly became one of U.S. Grant`s most loyal supporters. With the president`s assistance, Conkling dominated patronage in his home state and opposed all efforts at civil service reform.
Roscoe Conkling was never a widely popular figure. His abrasive nature offended many, politician and voter alike. He dressed in brightly colored clothing, contrasting sharply with the standard black attire of his contemporaries. His reputation was badly tarnished by an affair with the wife of a Senate colleague (and daughter of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase), which became public knowledge.
In 1876, Roscoe Conkling aspired to the Republican nomination, the better to continue the cozy relationships of the Grant administration. Reform forces prevailed, however, in Rutherford B. Hayes` nomination. Conkling did not assist the party during the campaign and Hayes exacted revenge by investigating the New York Customhouse, seat of Conkling`s power; Chester A. Arthur, a Conkling loyalist, lost his job as chief collector of the port.
In 1880 Roscoe Conkling, as head of the Stalwart faction, attempted to engineer a third term for Grant. He was opposed by James G. Blaine, leader of the opposition Half-Breeds. A compromise choice was found in James A. Garfield, who alienated Conkling by ignoring his advice about appointments. In May 1881, Conkling resigned from the Senate in protest, assuming the New York legislature would return him to office; they did not. Later, he twice declined an appointment to the Supreme Court, preferring to practice law in New York City. In March 1888, Conkling was caught in a late season blizzard, became ill and died a few weeks later.
Roscoe Conkling was a man easy to dislike. His caustic remarks and strutting physicality managed to offend even his closest political allies. Nevertheless, Conkling may have been the most dedicated of the Radical Republicans; he never wavered in his support of African Americans. Even in his final years as a highly successful New York lawyer, he would put aside other matters to serve the needs of the poor and powerless.