RPJ’s New York: Chester A. Arthur and Roscoe Conkling
This is the latest in a series of non-legal articles on the city we work in and love.
On opposite ends of Madison Square Park, three blocks apart, stand two imposing bronze statues facing each other along the Park’s eastern pathway. The figures are of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, and his onetime friend and mentor Roscoe Conkling, a United States Senator who served from 1867 to 1881. Conkling, considered one of the founders of the Republican Party in New York and an acknowledged master of political patronage, was instrumental in advancing Arthur’s career, appointing him to the powerful post of Collector of the Port of New York. Arthur, who obtained the Republican Vice Presidential nomination in 1880 on the ticket headed by James Garfield, was widely identified as a key part of Conkling’s political operation.
After President Garfield was assassinated in 1881 and Arthur took office, many assumed that Conkling’s patronage machine would reign supreme. Arthur defied his old mentor, however, refusing to make the appointments Conkling requested and taking on the cause of civil service reform, which led to the signing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. The Act banned kickbacks and mandated that many governmental positions be awarded on the basis of merit. Explaining his apparent about-face, Arthur is supposed to have said, “For the vice presidency I was indebted to Mr. Conkling. But for the presidency of the United States, my debt is to the Almighty.”
Arthur, who was in ill health, did not receive the 1884 Republican nomination and retired after his abbreviated term. He died in 1886. Conkling survived him by two years, dying from pneumonia contracted while walking from his office on Wall Street to his home on 25th Street during the blizzard of 1888. Both men lived near Madison Square, and they were honored with statutes erected in the Park during the 1890’s. Their monuments are testaments to their achievements and the enduring nature of political rivalry.
Written by RPJ Partner Alice K. Jump, who practices in litigation and dispute resolution, employment, real estate and infrastructure law.