The Trickster of Mentor, Part I

The Trickster of Mentor, Part I

It was in a mood of intense irritation that Senator Roscoe Conkling arrived in Chicago. Chet Arthur had been sent out in advance, his bulk trundled into a railway carriage like an overstuffed suitcase along with Thomas Platt, but Conkling had little expectation that Arthur would perform any more competently than he had in ’seventy-six, when Hayes, that lamentable void, had been nominated. And the prize lay in reach now, as four years of Hayes had inspired deep nostalgia for four more years of Grant. The odor of corruption that had lingered about the Grant Administration — most unjustly, in Conkling’s view — had dissipated in the bracing air of Hayes’s sanctimoniousness, his ostentatious hymn-singing, his priggish wife’s abolition of alcohol. The public should have had its fill of Reform by now, and ought know that disapproving morality was no substitute for the wise and sophisticated attention to the nation’s affairs. And, with the stain of rebellion disappearing from the Democratic cloth, there was some danger that a weak nominee on the Republican side could lose, for the first time in six elections. There was surely no stronger General, no more beloved American, than Grant. But the lesson of ’seventy-six was that Chet could not be trusted to deliver the delegates to Grant.

“I shall not take any chances this time!” Conkling had muttered. “I shall go to the convention and clean out the Augean stables myself!”

Now he stood, imperiously, above the throng massed in the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building, that vast edifice of iron and brick known as the Glass Palace. The enormous windows captured so much of the sun that June morning that the hall was already beginning to bake like an oven. The hall was festooned with innumerable flags, covering the stage, the galleries, and the ceiling. The platform prepared for the splendiferous oratory of the convention was covered in flowers, while a vast portrait of George Washington hung behind it, forced to listen to every word. The similarity to Washington was considerable, much to Conkling’s irritation, for the artist had in his estimation failed to capture his own likeliness, in an enormous portrait behind him that he had decided to ignore, although he was pleased that the artist had comparably failed to depict Hayes as much more than a beard with eyes.

He hated being approached upon pleasantries, and it was still too early in the day to approach him upon business, so he stood alone as a stone in a stream, around whom the arriving currents of delegates, news reporters, and messengers diverted. But soon he sensed a figure emerging from the throng and arriving by his side: a woman, wearing a hat with a wide brim and a veil.

“I must impose upon your time and good will, Senator,” said Kate Chase Sprague. She did not lift her veil, for it was no one’s concern but her own that she was attending the convention, as the guest of Representative Richard Crowley from upstate New York, who took no small amusement that women ought to observe political contests.

“You may have both in abundance,” Conkling said, more softly than he was accustomed to speaking, for Kate was still the object of great tenderness, no matter what difficulties had attended their relations, and even the hardest heart is not immune from that sentiment that even the most unforgiving men know to be love.

“In that case,” Kate murmured, “you must know that Representative Crowley, being merely an observer and not a delegate, has not succeeded thus far in obtaining preferred seating. Might we perhaps be seated in a better location?”

“Do you want to be seated upon the platform?” Conkling roguishly replied.

Kate swatted Conkling lightly upon the arm with her fan.

“Of course not! But perhaps in section O. or P.? Or to the right of the platform, or D. upon the left? We are now seated where we can neither see nor hear.”

Conkling smiled, for it was quite like Kate to have stated her preferences so precisely.

“Have you written to Chet about it?” Conkling inquired, for his focus upon securing the necessary number of delegates required Arthur to handle less pressing matters, in particular who sat where.

“Without success.”

“Hardly surprising,” Conkling muttered.

“I know that you will be nominating General Grant,” Kate pressed, her adoration so flattering to his self-love, “and I should like to be able to see and hear you.”

Conkling turned and beheld, through the veil, the dim outline of her nose, which turned up so flirtatiously at the tip.

“It shall be so.”

He thought he saw behind the veil her hazel eyes shine at him, that uncommon gaze, that searching perception, but whether his perception derived from the abundant sunshine now suffusing the Glass Palace, or his deepest acquaintance with her physiognomy he was not certain.

It was consequently most inopportune that a gregarious gladhandler and, more irritatingly, a fellow who deemed himself of equal rank, broke Kate’s spell.

“Senator!” exclaimed James Garfield, who it seemed had appeared out of nowhere to arrive, most inconveniently, in front of Conkling. Garfield held out his hand.

“Senator,” Conkling nodded, extending no further salutation. The dratted man, cheerful to the point of stupidity, had intruded upon Conkling’s reverie, and Conkling was obliged to respond, for that spring Garfield had been elected to the Senate. But he would not offer his hand; he drew himself up to his full height and stared in response.

Garfield’s arrival was sufficient diversion for Kate to tiptoe away quietly. Garfield might have perceived that there had been a woman to whom Conkling had been speaking, but would have assumed her to have been some imploring suffragette, the sort in whom Garfield took little interest, as the thought of women speaking in public tended to unsex them in Garfield’s mind.

“Good morning, then,” Garfield ventured, dropping his hand.

“I suppose.”

“I look forward to hearing your speech,” Garfield buoyantly continued, to Conkling’s deep irritation.

“Thank you.”

“Although I must tell you, I have been selected to nominate Senator Sherman. But may the best man win!”

“He shall.”

Garfield chuckled. “I hope you are right!”

“Grant shall be nominated upon the first ballot.” Conkling leaned back slightly as if to observe Garfield from a more Olympian height, but the effort was wasted, for Garfield, as ever, remained cheerful.

“That is for the convention to decide.”

“The question is not whether this convention will decide the nominee,” Conkling said with vexation, “but how it will do so. The party ought to nominate Grant on the first ballot, and emerge from the convention united in support.”

“Any man who wins the nomination shall have my support,” Garfield said, in the dulcet tones of a little boy in Sunday school.

The gaveling to order of the convention spared Conkling the necessity of any response. Garfield hastily excused himself, to which Conkling did not trouble himself to respond, and the men took their seats amidst their respective delegations. The Glass Palace was now nearly full to bursting with delegates, irrelevancies, hangers-on, the occasional intelligent observer such as Kate, and the vermin of the press. Pages and messengers scampered about the hall, but Conkling ignored them as he ignored the hawkers of what was called “Blaine lemonade,” which was probably lemon-water and gin. There was only one man left in the Republican Party who had served successfully as President, and only d___dest collection of fools could ignore that.

Conkling’s foul mood continued to enshroud him as the roll call finally commenced on the first Saturday in June, but it was no matter — the candidates would be Grant, Blaine, Sherman, and perhaps some irrelevancies, and this affair would be over soon. The chairman gaveled the convention to order; it was now after seven o’clock in the evening, the day having been substantially consumed by bickering over the platform. Instantly the hall became unbearably stifling and silent. The roll call of the thirty-eight states began. The first fourteen states all passed.


The Blaine men relished the anticipation, for they had decided not to nominate one of their own, but instead reserve that honor to another state, a state that had swung decisively toward the nominee in ’seventy-six.


Then Maryland and Massachusetts, and then —


“The state of Michigan shall present a nomination!”

To scattered huzzahs old James Joy approached the podium, a railroad man nearing his seventieth year. He appeared to take an eternity climbing the stairs to the platform, and required some assistance in finally ascending the podium.

“I shall not take long,” he mumbled, “for I know that you are impatient for the voting to begin. But the State of Michigan” — here he paused for effect or to simply collect his thoughts, it was impossible to be sure — “nominates that great Senator from the State of Maine, James S. Blaine!”

The effect of his pronouncement was not as Joy, nor any Blaine supporter, intended.

“G! G! You old fool!” came the shouts of dismay from the Blaine men and hilarity from the others. Conkling threw back his head and roared with laughter, for could there be any doubt as to inspiration for the error? Why, surely Joy had in mind, and quite likely feared, the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant.

Blaine! Blaine! James S. Blaine!” The New York delegation commenced a mocking chant. The chairman of the convention gaveled helplessly; the gathering being so consumed by ridicule.

There was more to Joy’s speech, but it could not be heard above the tumultuous jeering, emanating principally from the uncouth elements of the New York delegation, and futile remonstrances from the Blaine men.

The delegates were still laughing when Minnesota nominated William Windom. Conkling snorted and Arthur guffawed at the suggestion, for Windom had not the slightest chance of winning the nomination. Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Jersey all passed. Impatient, Conkling straightened his waistcoat, threw one hand through his hair so that his Hyperion curl fell dangling upon his forehead, sensed the blood pulse through his trapezius, his deltoids, his pectorals, his abdominals. He clenched one fist, then the other, slightly raised one leg, then the other.

“New York?”

“The State of New York shall present a nomination!” Conkling cried out. Arthur clapped him on the back as he strode to the front of the hall, with a nobility of purpose not seen since the days of the Roman Senate. Conkling ascended the podium without any assistance and presented himself with outstretched arms; then, as if caught by a flight of whimsy, shook his head contemptuously at the podium where Joy had so incompetently nominated Blaine, jumped down from the podium, and leapt upon one of the wooden tables used by the newspapermen. This display of vigor enthralled the assembled, who whooped and cried.

There being no doubt as to the name that Conkling would place into nomination, Conkling schemed to tease the delegates with a bit of doggerel. The roars in the Convention were perfectly deafening, but the great man confronted the masses, unfurled his mighty chest, shook his golden red curls and began:

And if asked what state he hails from

This our sole reply shall be

From near Appomattox Court-House

And its famous apple tree!

For ‘twas there to our Ulysses

That Lee gave up the fight

Now boys, to Grant for President

And God defend the right!

And with that the roaring and cheering unleashed themselves in the hall.

Conkling absorbed the waves of plaudits as God must have beheld his wondrous creation as the eve of the sixth day approached; but unlike God, Conkling did not need rest. He peered out over the crowd, some cheering, some gnashing their teeth, some even black, and his gaze came to rest upon the veil behind which he knew Kate’s eyes were upon him.

“I rise to propose a nomination,” Conkling shouted, “with which the country and the Republican party can grandly win. The election before us is to be the Austerlitz of American politics. It will decide, for many years, whether the country shall be Republican or Cossack!”

The comparison between the Cossacks and the Confederates was adroit and unmistakable, and the hall sounded with mighty cheers.

“New York is for Ulysses S. Grant!” Conkling proclaimed. “Never defeated — in peace or in war — his name is the most illustrious borne by living man.”

And with that, the first mention of Grant’s full name, the delegates again exploded, but Conkling silenced them in a moment with an upraised hand. Every man held his breath, as did one woman.

“His services attest to his greatness, and his country — nay, the world! — knows them by heart. He never enforced a policy against the will of the people, he never betrayed a cause or a friend, and the people will never desert or betray him.”

More applause, respectful now, and Conkling turned his fire upon his enemies.

“Assaults upon him have only seasoned and strengthened his hold upon the hearts of the public,” he intoned severely, to rising waves of righteous indignation. “Calumny’s ammunition has all been exploded! The powder has all been burned once — its force is spent! — and the name of Grant will glitter a bright and imperishable star in the diadem of the republic when those who have tried to tarnish that name have moldered in forgotten graves — and when their memories and their epitaphs have vanished utterly!

Now Conkling turned to the most vexing objection.

“The only argument, the only one that the wit of man or the stress of politics has devised, is one which would dumbfound Solomon, because he thought there was nothing new under the sun. Having tried Grant twice and found him faithful, we are told that we must not, even after an interval of years, trust him again.” Conkling paused. “Who dares — who dares — to put fetters on that free choice and judgment which is the birthright of the American people?”

The men whooped with glee and indignation, for cast in such terms the unmistakable force of the resistance to Grant would be to deprive freeborn citizens of their sacred and inalienable right to a leader of their choice.

“My countrymen! What stultification does such a policy involve?” Conkling threw his hands in the air in mock exasperation. The Blaine men were seething now. “Hit ‘em again!” came a call from the crowd. And so Conkling did.

“Is this an electioneering juggle?” More roars of equal parts laughter, acclaim, and ire. “Is it hypocrisy’s masquerade? There is no field of human activity in which sane men reject the competent — from the man who shoes your horse to the lawyer who tries your case, from the doctor who saves your life to the minister who saves your soul, what man do you reject because you have found his labors faithful and fit?” Conkling now spat to cleanse his lips of the bile that traitorous allegations of Caesarism occasioned. “Gentlemen! We have only to listen beyond the din, to look beyond the dust of this hour, to behold the Republican party marching on to certain and lasting victory, with its greatest General at its head!”

The convention erupted with a standing ovation. There were, however, those who sat with their arms crossed — Blaine’s men abhorred Conkling and his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut. Conkling remained to absorb the utter rapture of the crowd, then departed the platform to resume his place in the New York delegation, rising from time to time to meet Arthur’s orchestration of pleas for more applause.

At that point the Convention could have well seemed to be over. But there was the tiresome business of considering the choices of states other than New York. North Carolina passed, then —


At this the convention paused in its revelry, for the Grant supporters had nearly forgotten that there were likely other nominations, but the hearts of the Blaine men rose at the prospect of another candidate to deny Grant the nomination on the first ballot.

“The State of Ohio shall present a nomination!”

A mild commotion amongst the Ohio delegation produced the equally mild Garfield, who smoothed down his waistcoat and walked, unhurriedly, to the front of the hall. Conkling laughed out loud at the impertinence, and winked at Arthur, who shook his head.

“He shall offer Patroclus to lead men into battle in the place of General Ajax,” Conkling sneered.

Garfield faced the restive congregation.

“The State of Ohio nominates Senator John Sherman!” cried Garfield. The proclamation drew hearty applause from the Ohio delegation, generous exclamations from the Blaine supporters, and grudging acknowledgements from the legions for Grant, for whom expressions of opposition to another General would be beyond their best interests.

Garfield had apologized to his fellow delegates that he had not prepared an address, for the business of the Convention had kept him from his writing-desk, and his intimate knowledge of the qualities of Senator Sherman had lulled him into a state of near complacency. Nor could a mere summary of the biography of Senator Sherman match Conkling’s fiery oratory. Garfield therefore deliberated for several moments upon reaching the stage, then, gazing thoughtfully at the newsman’s table upon which Conkling delivered his endorsement, departed the podium and clambered upon the same table. The delegates laughed; the Grant men at the pale effort to duplicate Conkling’s athletic display, the Blaine and Sherman men at the humble mockery of Conkling’s ostentatious leap.

“As I have witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this Convention,” Garfield began, “this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean tossed in tempest. But I remember that it is not the billows but the calm level of the sea from which all heights and depths are measured.”

The Glass Palace fell silent. Conkling scoffed at this weak and cowardly attack, while Arthur and Platt shook their heads.

“Gentlemen of the Convention,” Garfield went on, in a spirit of earnestness heretofore unknown to the gathering, “your present temper may not mark the healthful pulse of our people. When your enthusiasm has passed, we shall find below the storm and passion that calm level of public opinion from which the thoughts of a mighty people are to be measured.”

This appeal to the sober judgment of the nation struck a chord. Garfield went on in a like deliberate manner, to call to mind that sacred day in November, when Republican men, leaving their women and children at the fireside, would venture forth to perform their most solemn obligation.

“Not in Chicago, in the heat of June, but at the ballot-boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November, after the silence of deliberate judgment, will this question be settled. And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?”

A voice cried out, “We want Garfield!” Conkling turned abruptly, but the speaker was not to be found. There was now general murmuring and restiveness throughout the hall, as some delegates sought without success to determine the source of the exclamation.

“Bear with me for a moment,” Garfield pleaded. “Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear!”

“These were the words of Brutus,” Conkling muttered to Arthur, “before he stabbed Caesar in the back. What the d____ is this fellow up to?”

Arthur shook his head. But as Garfield spoke, the suspicions of the more perceptive delegates arrayed themselves into a distinct formation. Conkling gnashed his teeth, not out of fury at Garfield’s duplicity, but indignation that another man had deployed the subterfuge he kept as his side-arm.

Garfield went on at length in mild praise of Sherman’s virtues, but Conkling would not hear it — the speech was unmanly, an appeal to reticence, contemplation, inaction, a pastoral poem when a battle-cry was necessary, all calculated to raise Garfield’s stock at the expense of a man that he claimed to support. Conkling rose, shoving delegates out of the way, and ostentatiously departed the hall, taking care to pass by the press-tables arrayed in front of the platform.

“I am sea-sick from that speech!” Conkling snarled.

Garfield kept the commotion in sight, but acknowledged it not at all. He paused slightly so that the effect of Conkling’s tantrum would not be lost upon the delegates, and feigned to consult his notes, although he had long ago departed from any fidelity to his prepared remarks. The demonstration of his irritation having consumed all of Conkling’s energies, it fell to Kate to observe from her seat close to the platform that Garfield interrupted his display of placid humility in service of his fellow Senator with a faint smile.

Sources Note:

The principal events described in this story occurred as depicted, and I have relied upon the record of the 1880 Republican National Convention as the basis for the speeches, which I have revised, edited, and condensed. See Official Proceedings: Republican National Conventions 1868 – 1872 – 1876 – 1880 (Charles W. Johnson, pub., 1903). While the dialogue is largely imagined, it is consistent with the character of these historical figures, and Kate Chase Sprague was, unusually but unobtrusively, present at the convention. See Kenneth D. Ackerman, Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, at 33-92 (Carroll & Graf Pubs. 2003); Donald Barr Chidsey, The Gentleman From New York: A Life of Roscoe Conkling, at 273-84 (Yale Univ. Press 1935); 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 213 (Da Capo Press 2014); Thomas Collier Platt, The Autobiography of Thomas Collier Platt 104-11 (compiled and edited by Louis J. Lang) (R.W. Dodge & Co. 1910). Unfortunately, Garfield was so occupied at the 1880 Convention and thereafter that he did not keep up his diary: there are no entries between June 2, 1880, and July 23, 1880. See James A. Garfield, The Diary of James A. Garfield, Vol. IV: 1878-1881, at 426 (Mich. State Univ. Press 1981).

The characterization of Conkling as possessed by his “haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut,” comes from an often-quoted assessment of Conkling by James G. Blaine. The phrase “her adoration flattered his self-love” comes from William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882).

About the Author

David Kennedy

David J. Kennedy is a civil rights lawyer in New York City. Read more about his work at his website: The Gilded Cage.