1/23/13 - the most powerful man in the united states

In today's selection -- in 1880, arguably the most powerful man in the United States was Roscoe Conkling, the Senator from New York who was head of the pro-patronage "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party. Conkling had expected the newly-elected Garfield to yield to Conkling's preferences on cabinet members and other presidential appointments. However, when Garfield instead tried to name his own cabinet members, Conkling intervened, going so far as to have his minions pull one nominee from his sickbed in the middle of the night, forcing him to drink a bracing mixture of quinine and brandy until he agreed to withdraw his nomination: 

"[James] Garfield's agonizing situation [during the 1880 presidential nominating convention] was made far worse by the fact that he would be competing for the attention and sympathies of the rabidly partisan crowd with Roscoe Conkling, a senior sena­tor from New York and the undisputed leader of the Stalwarts. Conkling was not only a famously charismatic speaker, but argu­ably the most powerful person in the country. Ten years earlier, then President Grant had given Conkling, his most fiercely loyal supporter, control of the New York Customs House, which was the largest federal office in the United States and collected 70 per­cent of the country's customs revenue. Since then, Conkling had personally made each appointment to the customs house. Any man fortunate enough to receive one of the high-paying jobs had been expected to make generous contributions to the Republican Party of New York, and to show unwavering loyalty to Conkling. So powerful had Conkling become that he had cavalierly turned down Grant's offer to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court six years earlier. ...  

"The rivalry between the two factions [Stalwarts and Half-breeds] within the Republican Party had only deepened since the convention in Chicago nine months earlier. ... In August, in a desperate attempt at reconciliation, party bosses had arranged a meeting at the [Conkling-controlled] Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. Garfield had traveled all the way from [his home in] Mentor, [Ohio] for it, but Conkling, who lived in New York, had not even bothered to appear. 'Mr. Garfield will doubtless leave New York thoroughly impressed with the magna­nimity of our senior Senator,' a journalist sneered.

"Conkling, it was later discovered, was in another room in the same hotel while the meeting was being held. He did not miss the opportunity, however, to let Garfield know what was expected of him. Through his minions, Conkling laid out his expectations, which, not surprisingly, revolved around patronage -- its continua­tion and his control over it. Not hesitating to make the most auda­cious demands, he insisted that Garfield let him choose the next secretary of the treasury. Conkling would later claim that Garfield had agreed to everything, but Garfield said he offered nothing more than the assurance that he would try to include Stalwarts in his cabinet and, when appropriate, consult with Conkling. 'No trades, no shackles,' Garfield had written in his diary after the meeting, 'and as well fitted for defeat or victory as ever.'

"Since Garfield's election, Conkling had decided to take a more direct approach. If Garfield would not let him personally select the cabinet, he would dismantle it, one appointee at a time. In a letter he had written to Garfield just days before the inaugu­ration, Conkling had warned the president-elect that he would be wise to keep in mind who was really in charge. 'I need hardly add that your Administration cannot be more successful than I wish it to be,' he wrote. 'Nor can it be more satisfactory to you, to the country, and to the party than I will labor to make it.'

"Garfield saw the truth in this threat before his administra­tion even began. On March 1, Levi Morton, a Stalwart who had accepted his nomination as secretary of the navy, was pulled from his sickbed in the middle of the night, forced to drink a bracing mixture of quinine and brandy, and driven to Conkling's apartment -- known widely as 'the morgue' -- to answer for his betrayal. At four the next morning, exhausted and defeated, Morton wrote a letter to Garfield asking him to withdraw his nomination.

Two days later, on the morning of his inauguration, Garfield lost yet another cabinet member to Conkling. At 8:30 a.m., he learned that Senator William Allison, who, just the day before, had agreed to be his secretary of the treasury, had also changed his mind. 'Allison broke down on my hands and absolutely declined the Treasury,' Garfield wrote in his diary. Like Morton, Allison was clearly unwilling 'to face the opposition of certain forces.' "


Candice Millard


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President


Vintage & Anchor Books


Copyright 2011 by Candice Millard


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