The Trickster of Mentor, Part II

Issue 28 by David Kennedy

Image from Everett Historical on Shutterstock. 1880 Republican campaign portraits of Presidential candidate James Garfield and his running mate, Chester A. Arthur. - Illustration

The mood was sour that night in Conkling’s suite at the Grand Pacific Hotel. Conkling had spent the day rallying his men for Grant, loping the aisles of the Glass Palace with furious strides to keep the delegates in line. He had observed with some satisfaction that Platt had placed his arm about the shoulders of Benjamin Harrison of the Indiana delegation, and noted with some irritation Arthur was smoking a cigar with the dregs of the New York delegation, who were already entirely committed to Grant. How wise he had been to take the reins from Arthur! Now Arthur had arrayed himself upon the largest divan in Conkling’s suite, a glass of claret in one hand and another cigar in the other, while Platt sat opposite him, dozing in an overstuffed armchair. An assortment of equally ineffective hangers-on talked and smoked, and Conkling had nearly despaired of any accomplishment until a note arrived for him. He opened the note, which was blank, but he smelled her perfume. He left the suite without anyone noticing.

He was admitted to Kate’s room to find her pacing the floor.

“Well?” Kate demanded.

“Well, what?” Conkling replied crossly.

“Has your delegation come to its senses?”

“Our delegation is consulting amongst itself.”

Kate stopped pacing and placed her hands upon her hips, the flirtatious tip of her nose high in the air. It was only Conkling’s austere self-possession and complete mastery of his own physique that restrained him upon such occasions.

“I should hardly be surprised, then, that you have suffered twenty-eight ballots without success.”

“What else should we do?”

“You have no shortage of options,” Kate scolded. “The chief task of any floor manager would be to peel off votes from other delegations. Have you spoken with Sherman’s supporters? Windom’s? Edmunds’s? Washburne’s? Once you dislodge some of these men from their commitment, others will follow.”

“Overtures have been made,” Conkling assured her. “But we are burdened by the allegation that a third presidential term would be Caesarism.”

“But you perfectly answered that objection in your speech!” Kate complained. “The war between the states was unprecedented. Should not the General who won that war also be regarded as unprecedented? But more than that, it is the cause we stand for — we are the stalwarts of the Republican party, who preserved the Union against slavery.”

“You shall find, madam, no firmer opponent of the Half-Breeds than I.” Conkling threw out his chest when he intoned these words, and strode closer to Kate, but she could not be dissuaded. “Blaine, Sherman, and Garfield all are acolytes of a weak, watered-down Republicanism that should rightly be defeated, but I shall not let that happen!”

“My father helped build this party. You cannot let it fail with Blaine; he is tarred by petty scandals.” Kate paused. “Have you heard from General Grant?”

“We have not.” Conkling could not meet her gaze.

“There is another way,” she said, “to stand united with Grant but avoid the charge of Caesarism. If Grant could not carry the convention, the convention might nominate the man most loyal to Grant, and the stalwart cause would survive with another man carrying the torch.”

Conkling was silent for several moments. Any man would have been surprised to see the Senator from New York without a clever word, but Kate possessed this unique power over Conkling.

“I cannot permit my name to be suggested,” he said.

“You do not need to suggest your name,” Kate whispered. “You need only suggest that when your country calls upon you, that you shall do your duty.”

“I will not join in advising General Grant’s withdrawal,” Conkling said quietly. “I am for Grant first and last, and I have no second choice.”

“Of course you cannot be seen to abandon General Grant,” Kate remonstrated, “but if the Convention were to turn to you as the man to carry Grant’s legacy, shall you refuse them?”

“I could not be nominated in any event, for if I were to receive every other vote in the Convention, my own would still be lacking, and that I would not give. I am here to support General Grant to the end. Any man who would forsake him under such conditions does not deserve to be elected.”

Kate said nothing, but observed Conkling closely. She had known him long enough, and well enough, to perceive that he was not telling her the entire truth. A softening in his eyes as he returned her gaze was all the witness her heart required to recognize that he was motivated by the firmest principles of honor not only to Grant, but to her. For there was no doubt that among the questions raised by a presidential campaign by Conkling would be the nature of his relationship with her, with all the attendant aspersions upon her character that the press and the Democrats could summon. Thus it was not merely loyalty that stayed his ambition, but the most profound and perfect chivalry.

They did not talk of politics for the remainder of the evening.

Tuesday morning dawned, hot and quarrelsome. Arthur and Platt had arrived at the Glass Palace first, bleary-eyed from cordials and cigars, and sought out the delegates whom they had bribed the night before to determine whether they would remain true to their honor, their imperfect memories complicating the task. The Blaine men arrived similarly depleted in vigor and funds. In considerably better cheer were the delegates for Sherman, Windom, Edwards, and Washburne, for they had made many new friends the night before who bought them drinks, victuals, and entertainment, all for the price of a little talk. Cheeriest among them was Garfield, not because he had partaken to excess, for Garfield never did so, but because the very intensity of the politicking presaged a convention that could not decide on either Grant or Blaine, which allowed for a variety of attractive possibilities.

“Have you thought about what we discussed last night?” Now there was a voice in Garfield’s ear, and he turned to behold General Benjamin Harrison of the Indiana delegation.

“I discussed many things with many men last night,” Garfield protested innocently.

Harrison frowned.

“I ought remind you, General,” said Harrison, “that it was the decision of the Indiana delegation to break with Blaine and switch to Hayes that decided the ’seventy-six convention.”

“Was it?” said Garfield innocently. “I was not there.”

“Good heavens, man! Were you ill?”

“Not at all,” Garfield replied loftily. “I had been invited to give the commencement address at Williams College, and whatever Williams asks of its sons, its sons must provide.”

Harrison frowned again. “I regret that it is merely your country that is asking, and not Williams College, but there is some talk of putting your name forward if the convention cannot decide upon a nominee.”

“My name must not be used,” said Garfield, with a show of nobility. “The next ballot shall reveal Sherman’s strength.”

Garfield proved correct, but only up to a point. The twenty-ninth roll call of the states began, with Grant and Blaine running as strong as ever — until Massachusetts.

“The State of Massachusetts casts its votes for Senator Sherman!”

There was an initial frisson of excitement in the hall, but it soon dissipated; not only did New York continue to insist upon a roll call of its individual delegates so that the hated name of Blaine might never escape the lips of Conkling, Arthur, or Platt, but also few other delegates followed the lead of the State of Massachusetts, that state being of course a certain one for the Republican cause no matter who the nominee might be. At the end of the twenty-ninth ballot, Sherman had merely one hundred and sixteen delegates, still far behind Grant and Blaine. Grant held steady at a little above three hundred, still not enough to obtain a majority of the seven hundred and fifty-six delegates, and that persistent Pennsylvanian kept voting for Garfield.

The chairman called the roll for the thirtieth ballot, then the thirty-first, then the thirty-second, then the thirty-third. Massachusetts had switched to Sherman on the twenty-ninth ballot, and nine Wisconsin delegates abandoned Grant for Washburne on the thirty-third ballot, but to little effect. By the thirty-second ballot, Blaine had slipped to two hundred and seventy, but the effect was a squandering of his delegates among several candidates rather than a consolidation. Grant remained persistently ahead, coming in first in every one of the thirty-three ballots, but always well below a majority. By this point Grant’s men had nearly exhausted their store of threats, not to mention their ready money. Conkling sat with his arms folded tightly over his chest, not daring to meet Kate’s glance in the observer section, for Kate had offered extensive advice on how delegates might be won over, and Conkling had not listened. Now he glared and waited, for sooner or later there would be a break, and then he, Conkling, would rise to his feet and, with the perfect force of undeniable oratory, finally swing the convention to Grant. Arthur sat nervously by Conkling’s side, for there was no escaping the conclusion that if this convention failed to go Grant’s way, as it had failed in ’seventy-six, he would be held to blame. Platt, meanwhile, had fallen asleep.

The stalemate was by now quite unbearable, and the delegates became anxious that the inability to select a nominee might reflect poorly upon them as a political party. Driven by vexation, Harrison crossed the hall to consult with the Wisconsin delegation. Upon the thirty-fourth ballot, perhaps principally out of boredom, Wisconsin switched its votes from Washburne to Garfield. There was a sudden eruption of applause and shouting.

Garfield promptly got to his feet.

“I challenge the correctness of the announcement,” he cried, but the din only grew louder. “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name. Such consent I have not given — ”

“The gentleman from Ohio is not stating a question of order,” thundered the chairman. “He will resume his seat.”

Garfield resumed his place, with apparent reluctance, but his demonstrative humility had the desired effect. For is it not the true patriot who abhors glory, who labors selflessly in the service of another? The delegates had now cast thirty-four ballots, more than any other convention in the history of the Republic. And not one of the men nominated, not Grant, nor Blaine, nor Sherman, nor Washburne, nor Windom, nor Edmunds, had demonstrated the grace to stand aside for the good of the Party, or for the good of the Nation! But here was a man who could not suffer the thought that his own ambition might stand in the way of the common good! And the moment was precisely timed; as Wisconsin came nearly at the end of the roll call of states, there was an interval before the next vote which permitted reflection.

After thirty-five votes, Grant remained ahead with three hundred and twelve; Blaine was falling at two hundred and seventy-five, Sherman fell slightly at one hundred and seven, and now there were seventeen votes for Garfield. The Blaine men drew a deep breath, reckoned their candidate’s faults clearly, and waited to see what would happen. For Blaine and Garfield were not enemies, certainly not in the way Blaine and Conkling hated each other. Following consultation with the Blaine men, Harrison huddled with his delegation.

And with that, the tide began to turn. On the thirty-fifth ballot, several of the Blaine men and a larger number of the Sherman delegates switched to Garfield. Grant remained far ahead, over three hundred, but Garfield now had fifty votes. Conkling leapt to his feet, for the moment had arrived: with Blaine and Sherman collapsed, he needed only to peel off a few dozen men to seize the nomination for Grant.

“Keep steady, boys!” Conkling cried out, racing through the hall. “Grant is going to win on this ballot!”

In the midst of this tumult, Garfield held out his hand and would not parley with the men who implored him upon all sides. Instead, he bowed his head and prayed.

And so it was, at the end of the thirty-sixth ballot, that Garfield had the majority — three hundred and ninety-nine votes against Grant’s three hundred and six. The chairman banged his gavel wildly, for the longest convention finally had a nominee. Soon the delegates began to sing, as General James A. Garfield of the Union army saluted the convention proudly:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on!

Conkling sat, purple with rage, his head in his hands. The song was an insult, the convention a desecration, the candidate an abhorrence.

Arthur slumped in his chair, head also in his hands, but not with rage. A fathomless well of despair had opened up within him. He had failed again. There had been talk of Platt being appointed by the New York legislature to serve alongside Conkling in the Senate, but there had never been such talk for Arthur. He was ill-suited to the Senate, incompetent at politics, incapable of paying his debts. There was nothing worth having now. He hid his face in his hands, and enormous tears rolled through his burnside whiskers.

Conkling could not hide, for propriety demanded that the manager for the losing candidate move that the nomination be made unanimous.

“Three hundred and six,” Conkling scowled, loudly enough that Arthur could hear.

Without acknowledging Arthur, Conkling strode heavily to the podium, and coughed slightly. Arthur looked up. There was appreciative applause from the Grant delegates, but no small amount of jeers from those supporters of Blaine who had betrayed him for Garfield.

“I congratulate the Republican Party of the United States upon the good nature and the well-tempered rivalry which has distinguished this animated contest,” said Conkling, his voice as if delivering a eulogy.

“Louder!” came a call, then laughter.

“Speak up, Senator!”

“I hereby move to make the nomination unanimous,” Conkling choked, and he was, fortuitously, drowned out by cheering. He stormed bitterly from the podium. Arthur saw him retreat through a rear door and thought it best not to follow.

He slumped aimlessly in his place as the chairman gaveled for nominations for Vice- President. The deadlock for the Presidential nomination having broken, the delegates returned to their disputatious jawboning. Arthur dared not raise his face, lest anyone witness his abject humiliation and despair, but he could hear the Ohio men entreating another member of the New York delegation, Congressman Levi Morton.

“Would you accept, sir?” came the voice of an Ohio man.

“Certainly not!” Morton scoffed. “I would never be elected to anything ever again.”

“We cannot win without New York, and Senator Conkling must be satisfied.”

“Then ask him!”

“The Senator . . . feels the position of Vice-President would be beneath him.”

“And that is why you ask me?” Morton was insulted by the very suggestion.

“Who else, then?”

Anybody else.”

Before the vice-presidential nomination could be made official, Arthur would have to advise Conkling of the selection. While it would be most opportune for Arthur to reach Conkling first with the unwelcome news, Arthur was all too aware that one of Conkling’s spies likely had already reached him with the news; indeed, that had long been Arthur’s role. What was worse was that Conkling apparently decided to make himself scarce, leaving Arthur to search for his old friend. As he waddled from one back room of the Exposition Building to another, through the air came the merry harmonies of the barbershop quartet the Convention had engaged to close the gathering. The tuneful gentlemen had completed a delightful rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” during which Arthur, beset by congratulations, was no closer to locating Conkling, then began “Old Shady,” an old Negro song of emancipation:

Oh yeah! Yeah! Darkies laugh with me,

For the white folks say Old Shady’s free,

So don’t you see that the Jubilee

Is coming, coming, hail, mighty day!

Oh! Master got scared, and so did his lady,

This child breaks for Uncle Aby,

Open the gates, out here’s Old Shady

A coming, coming, hail, mighty day —

Arthur found him pacing furiously across the floor of a back room of the Glass Palace that the newspapermen had abandoned. Amidst empty chairs and desks, Conkling gesticulated vigorously with half-uttered orations, talking to himself like a madman.

“Held the line! All of our men — three hundred and six — the bitter end!”

Arthur’s heavy, exhausted breathing disturbed Conkling’s mutterings.

“I have been hunting everywhere for you, Senator,” said Arthur. As he tried to catch his breath the song crept into the room from behind him.

Good-bye, Master Jeff — Good-bye Mister Stephens,

Excuse this n_____ for taking his leavings,

Expect pretty soon you’ll hear Uncle Abram’s

A coming, coming, hail, mighty day —

“Well, sir?” Conkling said, looking directly into Arthur’s eyes.

“The Ohio men have offered me the Vice Presidency.”

“Well, sir, you should drop it as you would a red-hot shoe from the forge!”

“I sought you to consult,” Arthur gripped a nearby chair for support and drew a deep breath. “Not —”

“What is there to consult about?” Conkling demanded. “The trickster of Mentor will be defeated before the country.”

“There is . . . something else to be said.”

Good-bye, hard work, with never any pay,

I’m going up North where the good folks say

That white wheat bread and a dollar a day

Are a coming, coming, hail, mighty day —

Oh! I’ve got a wife, and I ‘ve got a baby,

Living up yonder in upper Canaday;

Won’t they laugh when they see Old Shady

Coming, coming, hail, mighty day —

“What, sir?” Conkling was shouting by now. “You think of accepting?”

Arthur paused for a moment and looked down at his shoes. They were a fashionable brown, with black piping, and complemented his trousers nicely.

“The office of the Vice-President,” he stumbled, “is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining. In a calmer moment you will look at this differently.”

“If you wish for my favor and my respect,” snarled Conkling, “you will contemptuously decline it.”

“Senator Conkling,” said Arthur, summoning every ounce of pride in his corpulent frame, “I shall accept the nomination and I shall carry with me the majority of the delegation.”

Conkling spat and left the room. Arthur waited for a moment to be certain that he had gone, then tore off his necktie and collapsed heaving into a chair.

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 33-113 (Carroll & Graf Pubs. 2003); Donald Barr Chidsey, The Gentleman From New York: A Life of Roscoe Conkling, at 273-84, 338-39 (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 104-13 (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).

At the close of the convention, a gentlemen’s quartet took the stage to sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” and then, as an encore, “Old Shady.”  George Frederick Howe, Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics, at 109 (Dodd Mead 1935) (repub. 1957; 2d ed. 1966). The words to “Old Shady” are available at Gutenberg.org: “Old Shady,” in O.H. Oldroyd, The Good Old Songs We Used to Sing – ’61 to ’65 (1902). I have omitted the chorus for the sake of brevity, and rendered the lyrics in English, not in stereotyped dialect. There was supposedly one witness to the conversation between Conkling and Arthur:  William Hudson, a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Hudson provided his account of the conversation in William C. Hudson, Random Recollections of an Old Political Reporter 97-99 (Cupples & Leon Co. 1911). As Arthur biographer Zachary Karabell puts it, “there is no way of confirming [the] veracity” of Hudson’s account, “[b]ut it was juicily written and has been irresistible to biographers and chroniclers, including this one.” Zachary Karabell, Chester Alan Arthur, at 40-41 (Henry Holt & Co. 2004).

About the Author

David Kennedy

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