This piece relies upon the recorded words of Senators Conkling and Lamar, substantially condensed and edited, in Congressional Record, Vol. 9, at 2142-44 (June 18, 1879). My depiction of their thoughts and reactions is imagined, but relies upon the general characters of the two men, described in David M. Jordan, Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate (Cornell 1971), and James B. Murphy, L.Q.C. Lamar: Pragmatic Patriot (Louisiana State Univ. Press 1973). The description of Kate’s “fainting” incident is set forth, among other places, in John Oller, 'American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal', at 180-81 (Da Capo Press 2014). Kate later denied that she ever came close to fainting; in this piece, I suggest that Kate made a show of fainting to extricate Conkling from a difficult situation. The phrase “demonstrative gallantry” is borrowed from Bret Harte, “The Idyl of Red Gulch” (1869).
The distinguished members of the Senate were by now regretting their heartfelt devotion to the business of the people. The session had extended itself well into May, long past the days when the cherry blossoms that so adorn our national capital had bloomed and fallen, and as June wore on the heat became oppressive, then nearly unbearable. Yet the Democratic Party, having assumed the majority in the congressional elections the prior November, had proven incapable of effectively conducting the people’s business. Accordingly, it fell to the leading lights of the Republican Party, prime amongst them the improbable and acrimonious duo of Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine, to protect the nation from the recently rebellious rascals of the Confederacy.
Conkling’s orations on the floor of the Senate, extended even in the leanest of days, now imposed themselves upon his colleagues more excessively, as it was plain that Conkling was often speaking to an audience of one — the incomparable Kate Chase Sprague, who attended upon the debates of the Senate every day, carrying a pink parasol and the most fashionable bonnet of the season. Kate would listen attentively to every speaker, to be sure, but any time Conkling took the floor — and he made especial efforts to do so now that she was in attendance — she sat with fixed attention, her chin set upon her hand, her eyelashes aflutter. Conkling had repaid the adulation by insisting that Kate attend the wedding of his daughter in Utica; when Mrs. Conkling very sensibly insisted that her husband’s notorious lover be excised from the guest list, Conkling had refused to attend. The scandal of the relations between the Senator and the daughter of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, both inconveniently married to other people, had lately interposed itself upon the business of the Senate. Earlier in the session Conkling had introduced legislation that would exempt from property taxes the estate of any child of a Chief Justice; it was instantly clear that the only property affected was Edgewood and the child was Kate.
The subject today, however, and the subject that had required the extended consideration of the Senate, was the appropriation of funds for the benefit of the Army. That provision for the common defense ought to be made was abundantly obvious; yet the Democratic majority had insisted upon conditions to the appropriation that were, in the view of the minority party, superfluous and offensive. The debate had worn on and on, now late into the evening. Barely half the Senators remained in the chamber; many members of that house had departed in pairs, one vote in favor and one vote against. In contrast to the emptying floor of the Senate, the gallery was filled with observers of every partisan hue, and among them Kate. Today she wore black, with threads of gold, a bonnet of black lace with a double tiara of roses, creamy pink alternating with purplish red. Her champion was now in full oratorical flight.
“The night before last,” Conkling proclaimed with a great sigh, “more than the ordinary hour of adjournment having been reached, the Senator from Virginia, a Democrat, rose and moved to take up the Army appropriations bill. No Senator on the Republican side objected. We then took up the bill yesterday morning, and countless amendments were offered, principally by the Democratic side. No Senator on the Republican side objected. Finally, at the close of business yesterday, I indicated that I myself had some amendments to offer, but the Senator from Kentucky, another Democrat, rose and complained that in his State of Kentucky, reeking with disloyalty, Army troops were stationed at the polls — most wholesomely, in my opinion.”
There were excited utterances among the Democratic Senators at this characterization, but Conkling proceeded.
“This morning our consideration of the bill was disrupted yet again, by an appeal from the Senator from Mississippi, that we consider his bill relating to levees upon that vast river.” Conkling shook his head in disdain, prompting Kate to fan herself with greater force. “I regret that I did not refuse that appeal, for it has resulted in a monstrous and offensive proceeding that has annoyed us since.”
A sharp creak from the Democratic side of the floor signaled that Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, the Senator from Mississippi who was the subject of such contumelies, was now bolt upright at his desk, his eyes seething. Several of the Senators looked at one another anxiously, for Lamar was the picture of a cavalier out of the novels of Dumas, by way of New Orleans, with his long black hair, a brigadier’s moustache, and a Southern colonel’s goatee.
“For even after we had spent a considerable amount of time this morning hearing about the levees of the Mississippi,” Conkling now glared directly at Lamar, in derogation of the decorum of the Senate, not to mention the majesty of that mighty river, “we were compelled to listen to more political speeches from the Democrat of Kentucky, speeches more fit to regale the voters of that state than the members of this body, concerning the stationing of soldiers at the polls. We have had, as a consequence, very little opportunity to debate the very bill that commands our presence here, the Army appropriations bill. Why, the Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. Carpenter, a man in very poor health who has demanded so little of this chamber’s attention this session, was deprived of the opportunity to make comments regarded the Army appropriations bill.
“Now, what is this Army bill?” Conkling went on. “Why, the Democratic majority has placed in the bill a provision that none of the money appropriated to the Army might be used to keep the peace at the polls. This is a contemptible juggle and subterfuge. It is a fraud. No political party ought to be allowed to take the Government by the throat and say to it, ‘Surrender to our terms, or the Government shall cease to exist!’ Yet that is what the Democratic party does here! Unless we agree to their terms, the Army shall languish, and starve.”
Kate felt her bosom rise.
“And what if we agree to the amendment, to prevent any money to go toward the stationing of troops at the polls? Why, next year we have elections in all of the States for members of Congress, and for the President! The polls shall be naked to the State troops, the rifle clubs, the white-leaguers, the night-riders, the demons who infest the Southern States, and shall be exposed to all the thugs, ruffians, and mobs. That is what this majority desires!”
Conkling strode forcefully to his desk, glanced upward at Kate, and sat down in cold fury.
“Mr. President!” Lamar exclaimed, taking the floor. “I have only to say that if I am not superior to attacks from such a source” — here he stared at Conkling — “I have lived in vain. I had no intention of delaying consideration of the bill, or depriving anyone of his right to debate it, and desire to say to the Senator from New York that I pronounce his statement a falsehood, which I repel with all the unmitigated contempt that I feel for the author of it!”
Howls from the gallery, for these were uncommonly strong assertions. Conkling demanded the floor and, under the circumstances, could not be denied it.
“If I understand the Senator from Mississippi aright,” Conkling hissed, “he intended to declare, and in plain and most unparliamentary language did in fact declare, that I had made an intentional misstatement.”
“I will state what I intended,” Lamar shouted from his desk, “so that there may be no mistake – ”
“Does the Senator from New York yield?” inquired the presiding officer.
“All that I wish to say — ” Lamar exclaimed.
“Does the Senator from New York yield?”
“I do not wish to engage in any communication with the Senator from Mississippi!” Conkling exclaimed. Lamar remained standing, and Kate half fancied that he reached to his waistcoat. Did he carry a pistol?
“I understood the Senator from Mississippi to state, in plain and unparliamentary language, that a statement of mine was a falsehood. This is not the place to measure with any man the capacity to violate decency, to violate the rules of the Senate, or to commit any of the improprieties of life, I have only to say that if the Senator from Mississippi did impute or intended to impute to me a falsehood, why, only the fact that we are in Senate would prevent me from denouncing him as a blackguard and a coward.”
These most intemperate comments elicited lusty Republican cheers both in the galleries and upon the floor. Blaine clapped wildly, knowing that Conkling would press the matter too far if given adequate encouragement, but Kate, being aware of the very same tendency, frantically sought to catch Conkling’s attention, for she observed Lamar leave his desk and approach the well of the Senate with a measured stride, one hand drawing closely to his side.
Conkling soaked in the approbation, and perceiving Kate’s alarmed expression, hastily brought his remarks to a close.
“I do not think I need to say anything else.” He departed the well of the Senate and avoided crossing paths with Lamar, whom the presiding officer had no choice but to recognize.
“I have only to say,” Lamar began slowly and deliberately once he reached the well of the Senate, “that the Senator from New York understood me correctly.”
There was a sudden hush upon the chamber. Conkling had, grudgingly to be sure, proffered Lamar an opportunity to attribute the entire fracas to a misunderstanding, but Lamar had rejected that offer.
“I did mean to say just precisely the words that I said,” Lamar went on, with steel in his eyes and in his voice, “and all that those words imported. I beg pardon of the Senate for the unparliamentary language. It was very harsh; it was very severe.”
Here Lamar paused, and reached toward his hip.
“It was something no good man would deserve.”
“And no brave man would bear.”
Now a deafening cavalcade of Democratic jeers rained down upon Conkling from the gallery. There were contrary exclamations from the Republican side, but Blaine’s was not among them; secretly, Blaine exulted that he had never seen Conkling’s wattles quite so red. Conkling foolishly stood in protest, his pink waistcoat a ready target. Kate speedily assessed the situation and, perceiving that she could not reach the Senate floor in nearly enough time before a pistol could be fired, availed herself of the only weapon at hand.
Kate stood, cried out, and, once the attention of the entire chamber was upon her, collapsed in a swoon. The effect was electric. The cries of jubilation from the Democratic side turned at once to shouts for a physician.
His demonstrative gallantry in full flower, Conkling leapt atop his desk to peer up into the gallery, and saw that Kate was secure in the arms of other observers, who were already locating their smelling-salts to revive that delicate maiden. Conkling sprang down from his desk, called for a vote, and ran from the chamber to attend to the damsel in distress.
Observing Conkling’s haughty withdrawal from the field, Lamar assumed an air of great satisfaction, for Conkling had given offense, Lamar had responded with a most strenuous objection and thrown down the gauntlet, and Conkling had retreated. A lesser man might have begrudged Conkling the subterfuge, but Lamar — why, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar was a Southern gentleman, and still believed in chivalry.