Thursday, July 26, 2007

Abraham Lincoln's Son

He was only 21 when his father was assassinated. It could not have been easy being Abraham Lincoln’s son, but for the next 61 years, nobody let him forget it.

Robert Todd Lincoln was born on August 1, 1843 in the Globe Tavern in Springfield, Illinois. He was Abraham and Mary’s first child. His other three brothers died before they became men, but he lived to be an old man.

Though his father had never been to college, Robert took the entrance exam for Harvard University. He failed. His parents sent him to a prep school in Exeter, New Hampshire. The next year, he was accepted into Harvard, where he graduated four years later, in the top third of his class.

He also got a taste of the Civil War. Though his mother objected to him enlisting, she allowed him to serve on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, beginning in February 1865. Robert was present when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Robert hurried to the White House to tell his father what he had witnessed. He had breakfast with him the day he was killed.

After the assassination, Robert moved to Chicago with his mother and brother. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1867 and became a successful attorney. The following year, he married Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of an Iowa politician. They had three children: Mary, Abraham (who they called Jack), and Jessie.

In 1871, Robert lost his last surviving brother. The following years were not easy. He watched from afar as his mother descended further into mental illness. He read the newspapers, consulted doctors, and sought the advice of family friends. By 1875, he felt he had to do something. Sometimes something is too much, other times it is not enough. He tried to reconcile with her before she died.

In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes tried to appoint Abraham Lincoln’s son as his Assistant Secretary of State. In 1881 President James Garfield made Abraham Lincoln’s son his Secretary of War. By 1884 they wanted to make Abraham Lincoln’s son president, they tried again in 1888, but he wouldn’t have it. Abraham Lincoln’s son had no desire to live in the White House again—a place he called “a gilded prison.” In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Abraham Lincoln’s son minister to England.

When he returned from England, Robert Todd Lincoln threw himself into business. When his friend George Pullman died, he accepted a role in the Pullman Palace Car Company as temporary president. From 1901 to 1911, Robert served as president of the company. He continued to work with the company until his retirement in 1922.

Though his father had been born in a log cabin, Robert began construction on a mansion in 1905. Known as Hildene, Robert’s summer home occupied 500 acres in Manchester, Vermont. He became a golfer and a dedicated amateur astronomer.

Robert Todd Lincoln never forgot who his father was. Though he guarded his privacy religiously, he was proud of his father’s legacy. He controlled his father’s presidential papers and allowed his father’s secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, to use them in their massive Lincoln biography. However, access was a rarity. Robert turned away scores of researchers. He left the papers to the Library of Congress, but his will kept them sealed for 21 years after his death.

Abraham Lincoln’s son died in his sleep 81 years ago today.

He is the only Lincoln not buried in the tomb in Springfield. His wife declared that he was “a man in his own right.” Robert Todd Lincoln is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

It could not have been easy being Abraham Lincoln's son.


Kevin said...

Very interesting post Sam. I was wondering if you could recommend a biography of Robert Todd. You made a few points about his guardedness in reference to his father's personal papers, but I am wondering if there isn't a bigger story here. Has anyone researched/written about how Robert Todd remembered his father?

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Samuel P. Wheeler said...

Hi Kevin,

RTL is a fascinating character. The standard bio remains _Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right_ by John S. Goff. It is a traditional cradle-to-grave story. Of course, RTL factors into Lincoln bios and more specialized studies. For a look at his role in his mother's insanity trial, I highly recommend _The Insanity File_ by Mark Neely.

There has been a bit done on how RTL remembered his father. RTL is famous for quarreling with his father's biographers--namely, William Herndon and Ward Hill Lamon. RTL endorsed the bio written by Nicolay and Hay, and allowed them to use his father's papers; however, in return, they allowed RTL read the proofs and excise "unflattering" material (no Ann Rutledge here, for instance). Some scholars have called Nicolay and Hay "court historians."

However, I recently came across a slim volume edited by Paul M. Angle called _A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Letters Edited by His Son_. It is a fascinating collection of letters RTL wrote in response to folks who wrote him with inquries about his father. RTL had no objection to talking about his father's public policies and actions, but he did not like the intrusions into his father's personal life.


Dawood Mamedoff said...

I think he was the most successful president in the history of US. And that's not just my opnion, look what famous peers said on Abraham Lincoln: