Credentials presented: Oct. 10, 1881
Referred to committee: Dec. 8, 1881
Committee report: Dec. 12, 1881
Senate vote: Dec. 13, 1881
Result: Retained seats
Republican party infighting, halted temporarily for the 1880 presidential election, surfaced almost immediately when the victorious James A. Garfield in March 1881 seized control of patronage appointments from political machine bosses. The president's actions particularly incensed Roscoe Conkling (Republican-NY) who, having supported Ulysses S. Grant against Garfield in the Republican convention, saw a bitter enemy appointed as collector of the Port of New York. In fury, Conkling and his New York colleague Thomas C. Platt (Republican) decided to protest Garfield's disregard for the time-honored patronage system of "senatorial courtesy" by resigning from the Senate on May 16, 1881. Conkling convinced Platt that the New York legislature would support their gesture and rebuke Garfield by immediately returning them to the Senate. The once mighty Conkling, however, had misread the temper of his own state assembly, which deadlocked on the vote until the fifty-sixth ballot. Much to the embarrassment of Conkling and Platt, the legislature in July 1881 finally chose two Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Elbridge G. Lapham to fill Conkling's seat and Warner Miller for Platt's.
Statement of the Case
The fierce New York struggle moved to the Senate when the Conkling forces in the legislature submitted a memorial protesting the seating of Elbridge Lapham and Warner Miller during a special session on October 11, 1881. Despite a list of five specific charges against them, the Senate permitted the two to take their oaths of office without delay. Ten days later, the complainants submitted a second protest, charging procedural infractions in the election process and personal corruption by Lapham and Miller.
At the start of the regular session on December 8, 1881, the Senate referred the petitions to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Response of the Senate
Four days later, on December 12, Benjamin H. Hill (Democrat-GA), who had been a bitter antagonist of Conkling's, presented a brief oral report in which the committee upheld the validity of the New York election. Hill explained that none of the three procedural charges, relating to the date of the election and questions regarding the quorum, had sufficient merit to invalidate the balloting. Since no evidence supported the charges of bribery and corruption, the committee also dismissed the request for an investigation of Lapham and Miller.
Without debate, the Senate on December 13, 1881, discharged the committee from further consideration of the matter.
Roscoe Conkling retired from public life and practiced law in New York City until his death in 1888. Thomas Platt returned to the Senate in 1897 and served until 1909. He died in 1910.
Elbridge Lapham served until the conclusion of his term in 1885. He died in 1890. Thomas Platt managed to prevent Warner Miller from being reelected to the Senate in 1886, but Miller remained active in state politics. He died in 1918.
Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.