Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Charles Anderson Dana (18191897)
[The New York Sun, 18 April, 1888.]
THE MOST picturesque, striking, and original figure of American politics disappears in the death of Roscoe Conkling. Alike powerful and graceful in person, he towered above the masses of men in the elasticity of his talents and the peculiarities and resources of his mental constitution as much as he did in form and bearing. Yet his career cannot be called a great success, and he was not a great man.
But he was an object of love and admiration to an extraordinary circle of friends, including not alone those who shared his opinions, but many who were utterly opposed to them. He was by nature a zealous partisan, and it was his inclination to doubt the good sense and the disinterestedness of those who were on the other side; but nevertheless, the strongest instinct of his nature was friendship, and his attachments stood the test of every trial except such as trenched upon his own personality. This he guarded with the swift jealousy of most intense selfhood, and no one could in any way impinge upon it and remain his friend. Then, his resentments were more lasting and more unchangeable than his friendships. This, in our judgment, was the great weakness of the man. Who can say that in his inmost heart Conkling did not deplore it? At any rate, the candid observer who sums up his history, must deplore it for him. And the recording angel, as he wrote it down, dropped a tear upon the word and blotted it out forever.
For a long period Mr. Conkling was a great political power in New York and in the country. This was during the culmination of General Grant. Originally Conkling was not friendly to Grant, and when the latter appointed his first Cabinet, the Senators condemnation was unreserved and stinging. This attitude was maintained during nearly the whole of Grants first year in the Presidency. At that time Senator Fenton stood near the President and dispensed the political bounty of the Administration. This Conkling could not endure, and when Congress met in December, 1869, he was full of war. But it soon got abroad that Fenton was a candidate for the Presidency. This settled the difficulty and brought the rival Senator into intimate relations with the President. This position he ever afterward maintained, and it formed the most successful, and to himself the most satisfactory portion of his life. When Grant was finally defeated at Chicago in 1880, and all hopes of his restoration to the White House were obliterated, the Senator soon abandoned the field of his renown, and went back to the disappointments and struggles of private life.
As we have said, friendship was the greatest positive force in Mr. Conklings character, and there never was any hesitation or any meanness in his bestowal of it. In this respect he was the most democratic of men. He was just as warmly devoted to persons holding low places in the social scale as to the great and powerful, and he was just as scrupulous in his observation of all the duties of a friend toward the one kind of people as toward the other. There was nothing snobbish about him. He would go as far and exert himself as greatly to serve a poor man who was his friend as to serve one who was rich and mighty. This disposition he carried into politics. He had very little esteem for office-giving as a political method; but if a friend of his wanted a place, he would get it for him if he could. But no important politician in New York ever had fewer men appointed on the ground that they were his friends or supporters. His intense and lofty pride could not thus debase itself.
It is esteemed a high thing that with all the power he wielded, and the opportunities opened to him under a President the least scrupulous ever known in our history as regards jobbery and corruption, Mr. Conkling never pocketed a copper of indecent and dishonorable gain in the course of his public life. It is a high thing, indeed, and his bitterest enemies cannot diminish the lustre of the fact. The practice of public robbery was universal. Thievery was rampant everywhere in the precincts of the Administration. The Secretary of the Navy plundered millions. The Secretary of War sold public places and put the swag in his pocket. The Secretary of the Interior was forced by universal indignation to resign his ill-used office. The private secretaries of the President dealt in whiskey that defrauded the revenue. The vast gambling scheme of Black Friday had its fulcrum within the portals of the White House, and counted the Presidents own family among its conspirators. It was a period of shameless, ineffable, unblushing villany pervading the highest circles of public power. And while all Republican statesmen, leaders, and journalists knew it, condoned it, defended it even, the best they could, Mr. Conkling was the special spokesman, advocate, and orator of the Administration which was the creator of a situation so unprecedented and revolting. But while he thus lived and moved in the midst of corruption, he was not touched by it himself. The protector of brigands and scoundrels before the tribunal of public opinion, he had no personal part in their crimes and no share in their spoils. As the poet went through hell without a smutch upon his garments, so the proud Senator, bent chiefly upon the endurance of the Republican party, came out of that epoch of public dishonesty as honest and as stainless as he entered it.
In the records of the higher statesmanship it cannot be said that there is very much to the credit of Mr. Conklings account. As a parliamentary champion he had perhaps no superior; but others appear to have originated and perfected the measures to which in either House of Congress he gave the support of his potent logic, fertile illustration, aggressive repartee, and scathing sarcasm. We do not now recall a single one of the great and momentous acts of Congress which were passed in his time, of which he can certainly be pronounced the author. Yet his activity was prodigious, and it was a strange freak of his complicated character to bring before the House or Senate, through others, propositions which he thought essential. His hand could often be recognized in motions and resolutions offered on all sides of the chamber, and often by members with whom he was not known to be familiar.
The courage of Mr. Conkling, moral as well as personal, was of a heroic strain. After his mind was made up, he feared no odds, and he asked no favor. He dared to stand out against his own party, and he, a Republican, had the nerve to confront and defy the utmost power of a Republican Administration. There was something magnanimous, too, in the way he bore misfortune. After the death of a distinguished man, with whom he had been very intimate, it was ascertained that his estate, instead of being wealthy, was bankrupt Mr. Conkling was an endorser of his notes for a large sum of money, and saying calmly, He would, have done as much for me, he set himself to the laborious task of earning the means to pay off the debt. He paid it in no long time, and we dont believe that any man ever heard him murmur at the necessity.
In social life Mr. Conkling endeared himself to his intimates, not only by the qualities which we have endeavored to describe and indicate, but by the richness of his conversation, and the wit and humorsometimes rather ponderouswith which it was seasoned, and by the stores of knowledge which he revealed. His reading had been extensive, especially in English literature, and his memory was surprisingly tenacious. Many of the most impressive passages of oratory and of literature he could repeat by heart. He was fond of social discussion on all sorts of questions, and liked no one the less who courteously disagreed with him.
As a lawyer, we suppose that his great ability was in cross-examination and with juries. The exigencies and the discursive usage of political life prevented that arduous, persevering application to pure law which is necessary to make a great jurist; but his intellectual powers were so vigorous and so accurate that he made up the deficiencies of training and habit, and no one can doubt that, if he had given himself to the law alone, he would have gained a position of the very highest distinction. As it was, the most eminent counsel always knew that he had a formidable antagonist when Mr. Conkling was against him; and every court listened to his arguments, not merely with respect, but with instruction.
We shall be told, of course, that the supreme fault of this extraordinary mind was imperfection of judgment; and when we consider how largely his actions were controlled by pride and passion, and especially by resentment, we must admit that the criticism is not wholly without foundation. There was also in his manner too much that might justify the belief that often he was posing for effect, like an actor on the stage: and we shall not dispute that so at times it may have been. But there are so few men who are entirely free from imperfection, and so many who inherit from their ancestors characteristics which ought to be disapproved, that we may well overlook them when they are combined with noble and admirable gifts. And after all has been said, even those whom he opposed most strenuously, and scorned or resisted most unrelentingly, may remember that we all are human, while they let fall a tear and breathe a prayer to heaven as the bier of Roscoe Conkling passes on its way to the grave.