Conkling & Arthur, November 1873

“It is a most generous offer, Senator, although Grant writes like a schoolboy,” Platt laid the letter from Grant upon a desk in Conkling’s suite at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  While Platt was a mousy, jittery, shifty, fellow, Arthur was a large and placid man, in white trousers and a beaver hat, with magnificently manicured burnside whiskers. Arthur had recently become the Collector of Customs, upon Conkling’s directive.

“It is indeed.”  Senator Conkling stood erect, gazing out the window, deep in thought, his left thumb hooked into the pocket of his side-trousers, his right foot slightly advanced. After a suitable interval he abruptly turned away from the window, reached his desk with a few long strides, and brandished the letter. “For upon this missive the hopes of our entire nation may rest. What Solon shall lead our grand tribunal?  What Lycurgus?  Here is an invitation, blessed by divine providence.  What Caesar Augustus shall claim it?”

“It’s you, isn’t it?” asked Arthur.  “Is that not why we are here?”

Platt chuckled.

“What say you, gentleman?” Conkling demanded. “Shall I accept?”

“Of course you accept,” said Arthur. “It is the position of Chief Justice.  What man would not accept it?”

“There are other considerations at play,” Conkling said, returning to the window to gaze out upon New York, fixing his palms upon the corners of the frame, and posing his mighty shoulders in grand resoluteness. “Where will the Chief Justiceship take me?”

Arthur thought a few moments, but Platt had no hesitation.

“To the grave.”

Conkling nodded slowly.  “Yes, to the grave.  And not anywhere else.  Where did it take Marshall, Taney, and Chase?  To the grave, gentlemen.”

Arthur cocked his head and vast side-whiskers.  “I am not sure about that. Chase might have been President.  Davis may still be President.”

Conkling snorted.  “Lincoln was a man of great wisdom,” he said.  “For men such as Chase, the Court is a prison. One is confined on all sides by the work, by one’s colleagues, in suffocating isolation.  Meanwhile, the Senate floor stands open to me, at all hours, to speak directly to the people.”

“And so he cannot accept,” Platt turned to Arthur.

“If I were to accept,” Conkling said, now folding his arms and nodding his great red head in deep satisfaction. “I would be forever gnawing at my chains.”

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Harlan & Douglass, September 1872

Douglass, who prided himself on instantly taking the measure of a man, was surprised that Harlan’s grip was not that of a burly man of Kentucky, but seemed rather the hold of a man of New York or Boston — deliberate, but lacking in strength or firmness. Douglass tried to cast an inconspicuous glance at Harlan’s hand, and saw instantly that both hands had been badly burned, and mottled and withered. Harlan followed Douglass’s momentary glance.

“You fought for the Union, then?” Douglass asked.

“Yes,” said Harlan.

“We owe you a deep debt,” Douglass said. “As Lincoln said, ‘I hope to have God on my side — ’”

“ ‘— but I must have Kentucky!’” Harlan and Douglass finished the sentence together, and toasted one another with Blaine’s wine.

“General Harlan was the law partner of Solicitor General Bristow,” Blaine explained to Douglass. “And a great friend of his, besides.”

Here Blaine left the two men, to attend to his duties as host, and the men took their places at Blaine’s table.

“Mr. Bristow is a fine man,” Douglass nodded. “You and Bristow must be the only Republicans in the state.”

“No other party would have me,” Harlan grumbled.

“We are deeply impressed by Mr. Bristow’s prosecutions under the Klan Acts,” said Douglass. “No United States Attorney in the country enforced the law as ably as he did.”

“He is a very good fellow!” said Harlan, who knew he would be supplying similar testimonials with great frequency over the next few days. “It is my most solemn hope that a second Grant Administration will see a newly strengthened enforcement effort to drive out the Ku-Klux.”

“I hope that Grant will not abandon us.”

“Abandon you?” Harlan exclaimed. “You need not fear abandonment.”

“Shouldn’t I?” Douglass shook his head, and Harlan could sense the well-worn gears of a practiced oration beginning to move. “The Negro has been abandoned at every juncture — abandoned at the declaration of independence, abandoned at the crafting of the Constitution, abandoned until Lincoln. Slavery abandoned me. Do you know how, General Harlan?”

“I do not.” Harlan thought that he might, but it was some relief that the conversation had moved beyond the subject of Bristow’s glorious merits.

“I was born in Maryland, in the state of slavery,” Douglass said. “I suppose you owned slaves, in Kentucky?”

“A long time ago,” said Harlan, discomfited.