September 26, 2019 History
Roscoe Conkling is Having a Birthday. Who?

In the southeast corner of Madison Square Park is a fine over-life-size bronze statue by distinguished artist John Quincy Adams Ward. In our busy days, we probably all have gone by it dozens of times without noticing its of Roscoe Conkling, a famous New York politician, and his statue marks a historic spot.

On Monday, September 30th we celebrate Conkling’s birthday and thought it a good time to inspire all bootcamp enthusiasts with his story. On March 12th, 1888, a porter picked Conklin up from the spot where his statue is today — he had collapsed in the snow after a remarkable journey through New York City’s worst blizzard.

The weather had been unseasonably warm that winter, and as March came flowers were already blooming and fair weather was predicted, but forecasting clearly wasn’t any better in 1888 than it is now. On the morning of March 12th, Roscoe left his trendy residence in the Hoffman House at 25th and Broadway to head down to his Wall Street office.

By midday a snow storm was blanketing the city.  Realizing that there would be no business done that day, he and William Sulzer, a young lawyer in an adjacent office, agreed to walk up to Broadway and get a cab to take them uptown. They hailed a handsome, but the driver wanted $50 to take them uptown. This was an astronomical amount in 1888 (about $1,800 in today’s currency).  Understandably, Conkling refused to  pay, and they started up Broadway on foot. When they had gone a few blocks to the Astor House, a fashionable hotel at Vesey Street, the lawyer decided to stay the night.  Conkling, however, was not to be defeated by a little snow.

Panache and Perhaps Overconfidence

No wonder he thought he could overcome downed telegraph poles and monumental snowdrifts.  He thought of himself as protean.  He exercised, had an athletic figure in an era of portly public men, and was said to have  “haughty distain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut!” His personal charisma was reported to be irresistible to women. One of his senate colleagues said of him, “While his fellow senators favored black, Roscoe was a virtual bird of paradise – he sported green trousers, scarlet coats, striped shirts and yellow shoes.”

As he wound his way uptown (remember this it is three miles from Wall Street to 25th Street), he faced growing darkness and blinding snow. That’s a workout!  Reaching Union Square he collapsed, but he continued on the last eleven blocks to home, only to fall unconscious on the spot where his statue stands today. Carried back to Hoffman House across the park, he seemed to recover at first, laughing off the ordeal he had endured.  Then, his health took a turn, and a few weeks later, he died from mastoiditis and pneumonia.

His Political Importance

Conkling served as a member of both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and his active government role made him both the undisputed leader of the Republican party in New York State as well as a power-broker who controlled federal patronage. Offered a seat on the Supreme Court, he turned it down after he was confirmed, the only person to do so.  Probably his greatest legacy is his work in crafting the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

The Fourteenth Amendment  was the second of the three Reconstruction Amendments. Arguably one of the most consequential constitutional amendments to this day, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws. It was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The Fifteenth Amendment, the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments,  prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “racecolor, or previous condition of servitude.”

News of Conkling’s death was first page news in The New York Times. The tributes paid by the leading politicians of the day, the attendance at his funeral at Trinity Chapel (St. Sava), and his fine statue in the park are all testaments to the giant Conkling was in his day. Happy Birthday, Roscoe, and thanks for your inspiration in law and life.

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