“White House Kids” Series – Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, by his own accord, imagined his life to be filled with sorrow and heartbreak. The eldest of the four sons born to Mary Todd Lincoln and President Abraham Lincoln, Robert was the only one to survive to adulthood and die of old age. Robert would be in direct connection with three separate Presidential assassinations in his life: his father, President Lincoln of course, who was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865; the assassination of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on a Washington, D.C. train station platform on July 2, 1881 when Lincoln was serving as President Garfield’s Secretary of War; and the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901 at the Pan-American Exhibition where Lincoln just happened to be visiting with his family. Lincoln would say to a New York Times reporter after the shooting of President Garfield, “My god, how many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

Robert Todd Lincoln as a young man in 1865.

From his birth, Robert Lincoln lived in the shadow of his father’s political career. Born in Springfield, Illinois in August of 1843, the successful and devoted Whig politician Abraham Lincoln had already served in the Illinois House of Representatives for almost a decade. According to biographies written on Robert before his death, he recalls that his earliest memories are of his father leaving home, packing his saddlebags and waving “goodbye” from a distance. This unyielding desire of his father to serve his nation resulted in “any great intimacy between us [becoming] impossible”. In 1846 Robert became an older brother to Edward “Eddy” Baker Lincoln, who was named after a very dear friend of Abraham’s, Edward Dickinson Baker. Robert and Eddy were the pride and joy of Mary and Abraham, who exchanged nearly constant letters between one another while the latter was serving a term in the House of Representatives for Illinois’ seventh district. Despite the tepid relationship Robert perceived to have with his father, it is clear from these letters how deeply Abraham loved his sons; in a letter between him and Mary, he writes “Don’t let the blessed fellows forget father”, expressing his desire to be with his sons but acknowledging the duty to his nation as paramount. Eddy died a month before his fourth birthday in 1850 of chronic consumption. The Lincoln family was devastated by his passing, especially his mother Mary. The Lincoln’s would have two more sons after Eddy: William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln who died in the White House aged twelve from typhoid fever in 1862 and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, the youngest of the quartet, who would die at eighteen in 1871 from an illness.

The Lincoln family, excluding deceased Eddy.

As a young man, Robert’s association with his father followed him like a specter; as the relationship between father and son was strained due to Robert’s view he was second fiddle to Abraham’s political career, the constant recognition of being “Mr. Lincoln’s son” aggravated Robert. In 1859, Robert took the Harvard entrance exam, and failed fifteen of the sixteen subjects the university required students to be proficient in. Much to his chagrin, Robert entered remedial classes at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire to prepare to take the entrance exam a second time. Robert succeeded in passing in 1860, though his biographers and historians alike both note that his time at Harvard was spent socializing rather than studying. Though Robert disdained being “Mr. Lincoln’s son”, there is mounting evidence that he used this familial connection to maneuver through his four collegiate years doing the bare minimum. Welsh historian Jan Morris wrote that Robert emerged from Harvard “an unsympathetic bore”.

Despite his assurances he would not end slavery, the South viewed Lincoln as a threat to their way of life – a life built on the backs of slaves. South Carolina wasted almost no time in following through with their threats of secession, issuing the order on December 20, 1860. They were followed by eleven other states within a year. Lincoln did not want a war, but was determined to repair the splintered union of states. With unending duties barraging him every waking moment, there was hardly any time for family. Lincoln did try to spend time with his sons, but as Willie and Tad were much younger and lived in the White House while Robert lived on his own, father and son very seldom had a chance to be together. Robert would write later he “scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with [his father] during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business”. Robert entered Harvard Law School in 1864, but very quickly dropped out in order to join the Union Army; he would not get this chance however, as his mother Mary used every ounce of her standing as First Lady to prevent him from joining. President Lincoln disagreed with her actions, saying “Our son is not more dear to us than the sons of other people are to their mothers”. However, he did relent to the formidable Mary and wrote directly to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, asking if Robert could serve as a member of his staff (eliminating the risk he would perish or even be involved in direct combat). General Grant accepted, and granted Robert a secretarial position. He was present at General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. 

General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, artist’s rendition. 

On the evening of April 14th, 1865, First Lady Mary and President Abraham Lincoln invited their eldest son to see a production of the raucous popular play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Just returned to Washington, the young Mr. Lincoln declined and planned to retire early that evening. History is uncertain as to which individual actually informed Robert of his father’s condition after Booth shot him – regardless, Robert rushed to Petersen House where his mortally wounded father had been taken. It is said that Robert wept openly by his father’s side. President Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 AM. 

Robert, Mary, and Tad all moved to Chicago after the President’s death where Robert earned his license to practice law in 1867. He married Mary Harlan the following year and they had three children together. Robert was pestered by Washington big wigs since the time his father died, all suggesting rather forwardly he run for political office. Shrewdly, Robert refused on the grounds knowing that his name, rather than his aptitude for the position, is what they were after. Eventually, he did serve as Secretary of War to President Garfield and to President Arthur after Garfield’s assassination. Later in life he worked as the chief legal counsel for the Pullman Palace Car Company, later ascending to president when founder George Pullman died in 1897. Unfortunately, Robert and Mary became estranged until just before her death in 1882. Mary suffered from mental problems and depression for her entire life. After having her husband and three of her sons die, concluding with Tad in 1871, she was broken. Robert arranged to have his mother committed to an asylum in Illinois where she could recover. Mary did not want to be hospitalized, and actually managed to escape the sanatorium. She sued her son and was deemed competent enough to not be institutionalized.

Robert Todd Lincoln as a grown man, circa 1880s.

Robert’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922 at the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. President Warren G. Harding invited Lincoln as his honored guest. Robert died on July 26, 1926 just a few days before his 83rd birthday. The “son of Mr. Lincoln” was much more: he was a thoughtful and successful individual who managed to cement his own name in history while also honoring the Lincoln family name.

Right to left: Former President William Howard Taft, then serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, President Warren G. Harding, and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, May 1922.

Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

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