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Searching for the real Robert Todd Lincoln.

As we celebrate the Lincoln bicentennial, the Great Emancipator—and by extension everyone around him—continues to intrigue us. Countless studies have focused on Abraham Lincoln’s generals, his staff and also his family ties. How is it then that the accomplishments of his eldest son Robert, an American success story in his own right, have long been disregarded by historians?

The only Lincoln child to live to adulthood, Robert Todd donned a Union uniform and was present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender as well as his father’s deathbed. Shouldering responsibility for his family at age 21, he went on to become a multimillionaire and a prominent civil servant. He also assumed the guardianship of the martyred president’s legacy, zealously protecting his father’s reputation throughout the remainder of his life. Yet today his ill-fated younger brothers Willie and Tad are referenced far more charitably by authors.

Abraham Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon once accused Robert of being “more Todd than Lincoln,” and that assessment may hold a clue to the surviving son’s less than stellar image today. He has been characterized as cold, aloof and aristocratic—nothing like his father, and sometimes seemingly indifferent or even hostile to his father’s memory. Some have accused Robert of suppressing and sometimes destroying his family papers. Others have summarily condemned him for consigning his mother to a mental institution. But such allegations have on the whole been made without consideration of Robert’s successful career, and usually outside of the historical context.

“Bob” Lincoln’s life spanned what is arguably the most innovative and dynamic era in American history. He witnessed firsthand the transformation of the United States from a rural agrarian society to a modern industrial nation. Born in 1843 at a rustic tavern without indoor plumbing or electricity in Springfield, Ill., he died 82 years later inside the opulent Georgian Revival mansion he had built for his family on 500 acres in Manchester, Vt. He followed in his father’s footsteps in that he studied the law, yet he built on a legal career to establish his fortune during America’s Gilded Age, a time of unbridled optimism following Reconstruction, when capitalists ranged the land looking for new opportunities.

While he was growing up, Robert’s relationship with his father was admittedly distant. He later wrote, “During my childhood & early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches.” One historian went so far as to call Mary a “single mother,” and she and Robert indeed became incredibly close. One could argue that Mary was closer to Robert than she was to her own husband during those early years. The eldest son spent five years of his youth in New England, where he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard College. Then came his father’s presidency and the war. He matured into a quiet, private man who seemed somewhat shy.

As the war ground on, Robert argued with his parents that he should abandon his studies for the battlefield. His mother was adamant that her eldest child should be kept safe, saying, “We have lost one son [Willie, who died in 1862], and his loss is as much as I can bear, without being called to make another sacrifice.” Some accounts point out that he was also under public pressure to join the Union Army—and it seems likely that criticism by reporters during this early period as well as much later, when he was dealing with his mother’s erratic behavior, may well have contributed to his negative view of the press.

Robert graduated in 1864 and began studying at Harvard Law School. But in early 1865 the president secured him a position as a captain on Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff. In that relatively safe assignment the young man witnessed the war’s final battles.

After his father’s assassination, the 21-year-old Robert moved with Mary and Tad to Chicago, where he resumed his studies and was admitted to the bar. By 1872 he had partnered with Edward Swift Isham to form what was destined to become one of the city’s most prestigious law firms. It probably didn’t hurt the fledgling practice’s prospects that Bob had married Mary Harlan, daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan. Isham and Lincoln undertook cases ranging from local issues up to the U.S. Supreme Court, representing some of the nation’s most prominent businesses and individuals. Their clients included the likes of the Pullman Palace Car Company— among the nation’s largest manufacturers at the turn of the century—and Commonwealth Edison, in addition to millionaires Marshall Field and Walter L. Newberry.

After serving as Pullman’s special counsel, Robert T. Lincoln (he never used his middle name, only his middle initial) became its president in 1901. In 1911 he was named chairman of the board. By the beginning of the 20th century, he was regarded as a captain of American industry, ranking among notables such as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller.

Robert also took an interest in politics, actively supporting Republican causes in Illinois. After James A. Garfield was elected president in 1880, he appointed Lincoln as his secretary of war. Bob reportedly handled his duties well, though his entrance onto the national stage was not met with universal approval. Editors who had loved his father championed the son’s reputation as an honest, capable administrator. But anti-Lincolnites claimed he had only been appointed because he was his father’s son. Tellingly, he was the only member of Garfield’s cabinet retained by Chester A. Arthur after Garfield was assassinated.

Robert was clearly a quintessential Victorian-era gentleman who believed in the tenets of manly honor, duty and privacy. He would accept a call to public duty when it did not impinge upon his ability to provide for his family and if he could not honorably decline. When he was 69, having retired from Pullman due to ill health, he responded to a bid to send him to the White House with this telling comment: “A man ought not to shirk public duties, but equally he ought not to undertake them if he knows he has become unfit to do them.”

After his stint as secretary of war, Lincoln seemed increasingly loath to endure public scrutiny. In March 1886, for example, he wrote to New York Tribune editor John Hay, who had served as his father’s private secretary, “God willing, I will never again be in the jaws of that damning hyena, the public at large.”

Given his talents and heritage, however, Robert would find it difficult to stay out of the public eye. In all, Lincoln would be nominated for president five times by the Republican Party, but each time he declined to run. “The Presidential office is but a gilded prison,” he wrote in 1887. “The care and worry outweigh, to my mind, the honor which surrounds the position.” He did, however, accept an appointment as Benjamin Harrison’s minister to Britain from 1889 to 1893.

Robert’s sour reputation has many likely causes. One was his role in committing Mary Lincoln to a sanitarium in 1875. The historical evidence proves that she indeed suffered from severe mental illness, and that Robert, as the head of the family, did what he deemed necessary to keep his mother safe from herself and others. He apparently believed that if he failed it would bring dishonor upon himself and his family, as well as his father’s memory. He once wrote that he would do what he must to care for her “even if necessary against her will.”

Given Mary Lincoln’s vagaries and the fact that she made a public spectacle of herself on occasion, public opinion at the time generally supported Robert’s actions. Accusations that he overstepped his role have come from later historians. The biggest blow to his reputation came from historian Jean Baker’s 1987 book Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, which defended Mary Lincoln as a perfectly sane woman who was the victim of a male chauvinist society and a cold-hearted, rapacious villain of a son who bribed a judge and jury to shut her away so he could steal her money.

Another reason for Robert’s bad reputation was his deep reluctance to talk to reporters or historians, whom he had come to see as inveterate liars. His attitude resulted in resentment as well as negative coverage. But Robert’s attitude toward the press was also part of his Victorian sensibilities. He didn’t believe private family matters were meant for public consumption. In his private life, however, according to those who knew him best, he was anything but aloof. Kind and loving, he was full of fun, told wonderful jokes and was said to be as good a raconteur as his father. He was also generous, contributing to dozens of charities and assisting Todd relatives with loans, gifts and job recommendations.

A third contribution to his ill repute was the way in which he handled his father’s legacy. In addition to his business, civic and family activities (Robert and Mary had three children), he also saw himself as the preserver, protector and defender of his father’s ever-growing reputation, as well as the owner of Abraham’s letters and personal artifacts. In that capacity, he was continually besieged by historians, collectors, museums, historical societies, politicians and the general public. Robert’s attitude remained consistent: He rarely gave access to any one, which of course gained him many enemies in the publishing world.

An intensely private man, Robert Lincoln didn’t believe that his parents’ personal lives should be made public. We do know that he burned some of his parents’ personal letters, especially a number of his mother’s letters written during the “period of her mental derangement,” as he called it. The eldest Lincoln son was neither ignorant of his father’s historical importance nor averse to sharing his family history with posterity, but he did insist on choosing what parts of his family life would be preserved. Robert occasionally lent some of his father’s papers to museums for special exhibits, but mostly he kept them securely locked away in his home.

Prior to his death in July 1926, Robert bequeathed all of his father’s documents to the American people, to be held in trust by the Library of Congress. But he stipulated they would be sealed from public view until 21 years after his death—a move that further frustrated the historians. Robert’s rationale: Some individuals mentioned in the papers were still living, and it wouldn’t be proper to expose them to public scrutiny—again a reflection of his Victorian values.

Many people believe that final stipulation was actually a way for Robert to thwart one man in particular, former senator and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Albert J. Beveridge, who had been pestering him for years. Beveridge was writing a critical biography of President Lincoln when he died in 1927. Once the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln was finally opened to the public in July 1947, historians had a field day.

The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth may or may not help to resurrect his son’s reputation. Robert himself, writing to a friend, indicated he felt that he had always lived in his father’s shadow: “No one wanted me for Secretary of War, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son….No one wanted me for president of the Pullman Company, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son.”

A public-spirited though private man, Robert Todd Lincoln managed to avoid the “gilded prison” of the White House. But an impartial analysis of his contributions to America’s Gilded Age would likely have given him a giant’s place in the nation’s history—had he not been his father’s son.


Author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln and the forthcoming Lincoln the Inventor, Jason Emerson is working on a biography of Robert T. Lincoln.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here