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Murder of a President | Clip

The Conkling Problem

Garfield knew he had to secure New York to win the presidency - but that meant negotiating with Roscoe Conkling and the Stalwarts. Avoiding any specific promises, Garfield met with Conkling's underlings to try and clinch their support.


Narrator: At the beginning of August, Garfield braced himself for a trip to New York. The real agenda was a quiet negotiation with Conkling in his offices at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Everyone knew what Conkling wanted in return: control of the New York Customs House.

Kenneth D. Ackerman, Writer: The New York Customs House was not only one of the most important financial institutions in the country; it was also one of the most important political institutions in the country. This was the period before the modern income tax, so the federal government was funded by tariffs, by import fees. And some 70% to 80% of all imports coming into America came in through the port of New York.

Candice Millard, Author, Destiny of the Republic: The New York Customs House accounted for one third of the country's entire revenue. Incredible amounts of money that are coming in and Conkling can use that to give out jobs and to win loyalty.

Narrator: As Garfield made his way east, he was wary. The Customs House was the source of Conkling's power, and he used that power to undermine the last two presidents. Somehow, Garfield had to avoid enabling such a dangerous rival.

Kenneth D. Ackerman, Writer: Garfield made the pilgrimage to New York, and Roscoe Conkling stood him up, which caused a major stir, since everyone kind of knew that he was the one who was making the demands.

Narrator: Garfield had no option but to deal with Conkling's underlings, led by Chester Arthur. However much he resented being snubbed, Garfield couldn't leave New York without some sort of agreement with the Stalwarts.

Chester Arthur (Adam LeFevre): Mr. Garfield, Senator Conkling is willing to support your campaign. But he wants certain assurances.

Kenneth D. Ackerman, Writer: What exactly happened in that hotel room is one of the great mysteries of the campaign. And what Conkling understood to come out of the meeting, having talked with several of the people who sat through the meeting, was that Garfield had promised him control of the New York Customs House. Garfield's understanding was that he had fudged it, that he had worded his answers in a way that were something less than promises.

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