Roscoe Conkling was born in Albany on 30th October, 1829. After studying law he was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Utica. In 1850 he was appointed district attorney for Oneida County. Originally a member of the Whig Party, Conkling joined the Republican Party and in 1858 was elected to the House of Representatives.
Conkling became a prominent member of the Radical Republicans. This group was in favour the abolition of slavery and believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens. Conking also opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.
Conkling believed that it was very important for senators to have personal control over all federal appointments within state boundaries. This resulted in him clashing with President Rutherford B. Hayes to introduce civil-service reform.
In 1880 Conkling became head of what became known as the Stalwart faction, a group that favoured Ulysses S. Grant for a third term as president. After 36 ballots James Garfield defeated Grant, John Sherman and James G. Blaine for the nomination. To preserve party unity, Chester Arthur, another member of Conkling's group, became the vice-presidential candidate.
James Garfield defeated Winfield S. Hancock, the Democratic Party candidate by 4,449,053 votes to 4,442,030. Garfield attempted to select a Cabinet that would retain the unity of the Republican Party. However, Conkling was unhappy with some of Garfield's choices and refused to serve in his administration.
On 2nd July, 1881, James Garfield was waiting for a train in Washington with Robert Lincoln, his Secretary of War, when Charles J. Guiteau, shot him in the back. A supporter of Conkling, Guiteau, surrendered to the police with the words: "I am a Stalwart. Chester Arthur is now the president of the United States. After a four month struggle Garfield died on 19th September, 1881 and Chester Arthur became president.
Roscoe Conkling practiced law in New York City until his death on 18th April, 1888.