Share This Article
Library of Congress
Secretary of War Robert Lincoln was the only member of Garfield’s cabinet retained by Chester A. Arthur following Garfield’s assassination.

In these days of perpetual presidential politics and incessant candidate speculations, certain names leaven party zealots, politicos and pundits to the heights of anticipation and possibility. Such presidential conjecture has occurred for years. Hardly has one presidential cycle ended when bets on the next begin. Some political aficionados have even begun to speculate on 2008, with the names Hillary Rodham Clinton, Colin Powell and Rudy Giuliani at the forefront, depending on who gains the White House this year. But even today’s political all-stars pale against the most sought-after noncandidate of the late 19th century, a century when politics was as revered and discussed as sports are today.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four sons. He was 17 and a student at Phillips Exeter Academy preparing for Harvard when his father entered the White House in 1861. Robert joined the Union Army in 1864 and was made a captain and assistant adjutant general of volunteers on the staff of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Between his enlistment in summer 1864 and his active duty in February 1865, Robert spent a few lackluster weeks at Harvard Law School. He served with Grant until the end of the war.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, Robert moved to Chicago and resumed his law studies. In 1868, he married Mary Harlan, daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan. He was admitted to the Illinois bar and began practicing law. In 1872, Lincoln formed a partnership with Edward Swift Isham.

The firm of Isham and Lincoln was a highly successful law practice, working cases that ranged from local issues up to the U.S. Supreme Court. They represented some of the most important businesses and men in America such as the Pullman Company and Chicago civic leader, land speculator and millionaire Walter L. Newberry. By the mid-1870s, Robert was well respected in the Chicago legal and business communities. Of course, even without his innate legal and business acumen and ability, Robert Lincoln was always identified, even encumbered, by the prestige of his surname.

Robert’s first experience in holding political office was as South Chicago town board supervisor from 1876 to 1877. In later years, his tenure was described as solid and impressive, rescuing the community from bankruptcy. Also in 1876, Robert supported the third-term boom for Ulysses S. Grant’s nomination and was elected as a delegate to the Illinois State Republican convention. He declined being made a state delegate to the national Republican convention, but was chosen in a statewide election that November to be a presidential elector. After the Grant bid failed, Robert actively campaigned across Illinois for the Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. His activism was rewarded with an offer to become assistant secretary of state. Lincoln, after giving it several days of consideration, replied to Hayes that ‘with great regret,’ he was forced to decline the offer ‘by the necessity of dedicating myself to my profession for at least some years yet to come.’

Since Hayes had pledged to serve only one term in office, in 1880 the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield who went on to win the election. Given Lincoln’s strong and active support of Republican causes in Illinois, President Garfield tapped Robert to be secretary of war in the new administration and, apparently feeling his personal affairs permitted it, Lincoln accepted. Robert’s entrance onto the national stage was met by a mixture of admiration and scorn in the press. The editors who loved his father championed Robert’s reputation as an honest and able lawyer and evinced confidence that, although untested, he would be an able administrator. The anti-Lincolnites railed that he was too inexperienced and was appointed merely for being his father’s son. Whatever the reason, Robert was an able secretary of war, admired by his colleagues and the public — although he admitted that his term faced no great crises. One indicator of Robert’s worth in the presidential cabinet is that he was the only member retained by Chester A. Arthur after Garfield’s assassination.

His service as secretary of war may have increased the attractiveness of Robert’s name for other political offices. In 1882, after Illinois Senator David Davis announced he would not seek another term, speculation began immediately in the state as to who would replace him. Rumors arose of a Lincoln candidacy to be launched formed with the support of the Arthur administration, Davis and Illinois’ other U.S. senator, John A. Logan. Lincoln consistently said that he had no plans to leave the cabinet. Former Illinois Republican Governor Shelby M. Cullom was eventually elected.

The record of Chester A. Arthur, like any president, is open to interpretation for strengths and weaknesses. One thing is certain, however: A majority of the Republican Party did not want him to be the nominee in 1884. Arthur’s strongest opponent, and the eventual Republican nominee, was former speaker of the House, U.S. senator and secretary of state, James G. Blaine. For the first time, however, the name of Robert Lincoln seriously entered the presidential fray.

In December 1883, a New York Times article titled ‘Lincoln and the Presidency’ said that Judge S. Newton Pettis, the man who had swung Pennsylvania to Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 nominating convention, was ‘feeling the pulse of leading Ohio politicians’ for a Robert Lincoln nomination. ‘He says that Arthur has no chance; that Grant is utterly out of the question, and that Blaine has acknowledged to his friends that he cannot be the nominee on the grounds that he cannot carry New York.’ The Times itself in June 1884, just days before the convention, called for a candidate ‘worthy of and sure to receive [the convention’s] united vote,’ and named Lincoln as one such man.

The mass of public opinion was in favor of a Lincoln candidacy. Another article in The New York Times on June 4, 1884, found that ‘barbers, cardrivers and conductors, policemen, small tradesmen of all kinds, who vote the Republican ticket are almost unanimous in the desire to see Mr. Lincoln secure the nomination.’ The article continued: ‘Precisely what characteristic of Mr. Lincoln appeals most forcibly to the sympathy of the common people it is difficult to discover by talking with them. They seem to have a general admiration for the man, coupled with a veneration for the name which he bears, and the two feelings united point to him as the natural and proper candidate for the Republican Party.’

Letters between politicos and aficionados at this time show that while Lincoln was not a universal choice, he could prevail as a dark horse candidate. As Republican Party operative A. Cowles wrote to Horace White, editor of the New York Evening Post, on May 7, 1884: ‘People all along the line…are seriously considering the idea that both Mr. Blaine and Mr. Arthur will be unable to carry New York State and that it is necessary to find the ‘Dark Horse’ and that right off. I have it in Chicago, Cleveland and New York. I think they will run to Bob Lincoln.’

Many politicians did not want Robert to become the nominee, thinking he had not earned it. O.H. Rothacker, editor of Opinion: A Weekly Literary and Political Paper in Denver, Colo., wrote to Illinois Senator Logan, himself a presidential aspirant, on May 20, 1884, that he would be at the nominating convention in Chicago and that he and his friends ‘will work steadily to…prevent any d___d Lincoln imbecility.’ Former vice president of the United States, Schuyler Colfax, wrote to former Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby on May 21, 1884: ‘a month or two ago, I thought Robert Lincoln had the best chance [to be the dark horse candidate]. But, as his spontaneous nomination all over the country for V.P. has so materially weakened…

Logan’s chances for the Pres. nomination, his managers are striking back, and will evidently do so even more at the Conv.’ What this’striking back’ was is uncertain, but it is possible that Robert’s foes planned to broach the subject of Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial and Robert’s part in committing her to a sanitarium in 1875.
Library of Congress
Warren G. Harding (left), president from 1921 to 1923, chats with Robert Lincoln. Although talk of a Lincoln candidacy had all but vanished after 1912, Robert remained active in politics until his death in 1926.

As exciting as a Lincoln presidential candidacy would be, even Robert’s admirers recognized he might be too young and inexperienced for the White House. This may be why Lincoln was, in some newspapers, found to be a strong choice for the vice presidential nomination. On April 16, 1884, a story in the Chicago Tribune stated how ‘On every hand Robert Lincoln is endorsed for vice president.’ Carl Schurz, former secretary of the interior, wrote to Logan on February 29, 1884, that, ‘To judge from what I see and hear, and from the expressions of sentiment which float through the press, there is in the Republican ranks an almost unanimous voice in favor of nominating Lincoln for the Vice-Presidency.’

Lincoln was not pleased about all this talk of him as a candidate. ‘I am so sincerely not a candidate that in answer to your inquiry I can only say that I have no ‘working friend’ at Chicago,’ Robert wrote to an admirer in May 1884. ‘I have discouraged all use of my name and have no other wish than that the convention will calmly select a man who will unite all our people and enable us to take advantage of the present situation of our opponents. I hope that no such responsibility will be thrust upon me.’ The April 17, 1884, editions of both the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times printed a letter from Robert to his friend Leonard Swett that declared, ‘I am not a candidate for either President or Vice President, and therefore do not wish any clubs formed for me.’

The reaction of the Tribune to Lincoln’s statement is interesting in that it broaches a problem that faced Lincoln his entire life. The paper stated that Lincoln’s determination not to be a candidate was ‘expressed very resolutely, but at the same time his candidacy is for the convention to determine rather than for personal decision….Acquiescence would be a duty which he should perform and which the people would endorse.’

When the Republican national convention began voting for candidates on June 6, 1884, it took four ballots to nominate James Blaine for president. On all four ballots, Lincoln took votes: four on the first, four on the second, eight on the third and two on the fourth. Lincoln’s support for the top spot was small, but, true to popular sentiments, his name was prominent during the convention canvass for Blaine’s running mate. Had Lincoln wanted the spot and urged his friends and supporters to work for it, there is little doubt that he would have received it. Yet once he discovered his danger of actually being nominated, he immediately telegraphed the convention and forbade his friends to pre-sent his name. In the end, the second spot went to Illinois Senator Logan. The strength and endurance of Lincoln’s popular and convention support, however, showed that he could not expect to be let alone in future national political battles.

After Blaine and Logan lost the 1884 presidential election to New York Governor Grover Cleveland — the first Democrat to enter the White House since 1856 — the Republicans’ determination to create a winning ticket in 1888 was indefatigable. The majority of the party was for giving Blaine another go at Cleveland, but the Plumed Knight was adamant in his refusal, saying a defeated candidate could only be a burden to his party. Party leaders were determined to win, so (they reasoned), what were the most distinguished names in the party that could ensure victory? Lincoln and Grant. Party leaders had the idea of a ‘father’s son’ ticket made up of Robert T. Lincoln for president and Frederick D. Grant for vice president. The magic of the idea disappeared, however, when Grant was defeated for election as secretary of state for New York.

As in 1884, Lincoln had no interest in running for the White House. He had returned to Chicago and resumed his law practice after his stint as secretary of war. In March 1886, Lincoln wrote to John Hay, the editor of the New York Tribune and once Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, ‘God willing, I will never again be in the jaws of that damning hyena, the public at large.’ Once again, however, Lincoln’s objections to nomination went unheeded. As early as April 1886, the Atlanta Defiance was urging the nomination of ‘Bob’ Lincoln for either president or vice president, saying he would undoubtedly bring the southern black vote into the Republican column. When questioned by a reporter a few days later, Lincoln replied that he was ‘entirely’ out of public office. ‘I attend strictly to my private business and have no time, nor if I had time, any inclination, to discuss public matters.’

Indeed, in 1887, upon the death of Senator Logan, Lincoln’s name was prominently mentioned as a replacement in the U.S. Senate. Again, Lincoln said he was not a candidate and, as one newspaper reported, the ‘friendly feeling’ for Lincoln as senator would get no traction until he opened a campaign headquarters in the state capital, which he never did.

Unfortunately for Lincoln, it was his complete lack of political ambition in 1884 and his clear statements about his noncandidacy that especially endeared him to voters for the 1888 nomination. One letter to the editor of The New York Times on March 9, 1887 quoted Lincoln’s 1884 antinomination letter that was published in the Tribune and The Times, and said that in 1888 the Republican party needed a candidate ‘of the Lincoln stripe,’ one who ‘was not forcing his candidacy upon the people.’

In May 1887 the Toledo Blade took a poll of its readers asking first and second choice for the Republican presidential nomination and first choice for the vice presidential nomination. Robert Lincoln was ‘everywhere a good third’ in the presidential field but ‘may almost be said to have had no competitor in the field for the Vice Presidency.’

The boom for Bob Lincoln continued in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, as well as other newspapers, through the second half of 1887. The stories were all similar, calling him sensible and judicial, ‘the honored son of an honored sire,’ whose nomination would not only capture a large northern vote, but also an immense southern black vote. In July, the Tribune repeated its opinion of Lincoln’s 1884 noncandidacy letter by stating that, although Lincoln ‘has no taste for public life,’ the American people ‘are not accustomed to pay much attention to personal likes and dislikes in selecting a President.’

A reporter from the Chicago Tribune called on Robert Lincoln in August 1887, to ask him about his potential candidacy. It is one of the most revealing interviews with the naturally reticent Lincoln ever published in the 1880s. Lincoln told the reporter that he was not a candidate for vice president and would not accept such a nomination if offered. ‘To take any office at all would be a great sacrifice on my business interests here in Chicago; and the Vice Presidency is not an office of such importance that I could afford to think of such a thing.’

As for a presidential nomination in 1888, Robert was more circumspect. He explained to the Tribune‘s reporter: ‘The Presidential office is but a gilded prison. The care and worry outweigh, to my mind, the honor which surrounds the position.’ He added that all official life is ‘infinitely wearisome,’ and he had his fill of it as secretary of war. ‘I made up my mind at that time that when my official term was completed I should return to Chicago and end my days there in the practice of my profession.’ Lincoln was, however, a man of principle with a Victorian sense of duty. He repeatedly told the reporter that he was not a candidate for president, yet at the end of the interview he added the caveat, ‘Well then, I will say this: A duty might be imposed upon a man which he could not honorably avoid.’

Lincoln continued voicing his opposition to nomination all the way up to the Republican convention in June 1888. Nevertheless, Lincoln once again took votes at the convention. The absence of Blaine and the lack of any other dominant candidate necessitated eight ballots to choose a nominee. Lincoln took votes on five: three on the first, two on the second, two on the third, one on the fourth and two on the seventh. Former U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison finally received the nomination as a compromise candidate.

Robert Lincoln was relieved at the end of the nominating season. He returned to Chicago and his law practice. His planned seclusion from public office ended quickly, however, when President-elect Harrison nominated him to be the U.S. minister to Great Britain, the most prestigious foreign appointment in the State Department. Lincoln performed his ambassadorial duties from 1889 to 1893 with honor and dignity. He faced no international crises, caused no scandals. His greatest crisis during the London years was the death of his only son, Abraham Lincoln II, nicknamed ‘Jack’ by the family, in 1890.

In the midst of his foreign appointment, in 1892, another presidential election cycle arrived. Lincoln continued to reject and suppress any notions of him as a candidate. Mary Alsop King Waddington, the wife of the French foreign minister in London, wrote to her sister on February 11, 1892, that during a dinner party ‘we all teased [Lincoln] about the presidential election (the papers say he is to be the next President)….He assured us there was no possible chance of it, and no one would be as a sorry as he himself if ever the thing came to pass.’

The Democrats were certain to nominate ex-president Cleveland for the 1892 nomination, but the Republicans were tepid about Harrison. They were afraid he could not prevail in another contest against Cleveland, after losing the popular vote in the previous election. Harper’s Weekly ran a column on ‘presidential speculations’ in January 1891 and declared Robert T. Lincoln as ‘the most promising Republican candidate.’ Two months later, Harper‘s again mentioned Lincoln’s candidacy, saying ‘if not in himself an object of party enthusiasm, his name is, and he is wholly free from any factional entanglement.’

An April 17, 1892 article in The Washington Post printed excerpts from several newspapers around the country that declared Lincoln ‘the only man in sight’ on the Republican ticket who could defeat Cleveland, because of his illustrious name, his ability to win the black southern vote and his impressive public record as secretary of war and ambassador to England.

But it was Harper’s Weekly that showed its saavy on May 21, 1892, when it concluded that President Harrison would surely be renominated, although Lincoln was ‘always’ the clearly defined dark horse who could unite a fractured delegation. ‘It is the irony of the Republican situation that there is a candidate upon whom the party could unite at once, and joyfully, but who declines the nomination.’

The Republicans renominated Harrison, who lost the 1892 election to Grover Cleveland. After the new administration replaced Robert in London, he returned to Chicago in 1893 and put his energies into his business interests and law practice. He became special counsel for the Pullman Company, and retained that position — which he held during the infamous Pullman strike of 1894 — until he was made president of Pullman in 1901.

Another election cycle, 1896, and another Robert Lincoln possibility. Again Lincoln worked to keep his name out of consideration. In a number of letters to an old family friend, William Lincoln Shearer, Robert continually refused to run. Shearer was a journalist and enthusiastic Republican Party worker who encouraged Lincoln to run in the 1896 election and asked if he could advance his candidacy. Lincoln replied that he wanted to live his remaining years as a private citizen. Later, Lincoln again rebuffed Shearer, saying ‘I cannot too strongly assure you that I have no thoughts in the direction you suggest & so far as I do anything, it will be to request any of my friends, who may be disposed to discuss me to turn their attention to some one else.’

Partially because of his repeated refusals to run, with each passing electoral cycle talk of his possible nomination diminished in the press. By 1896, newspaper articles about his candidacy were few. The New York Times reported on a former postmaster general espousing Lincoln as the strongest candidate possible. The Washington Post also mentioned Lincoln’s name as a possible candidate a few times, but acknowledged that he was ‘the only man who has declined the Republican nomination.’ An 1895 cartoon in Puck magazine called ‘The ‘press view’ at the candidate show’ depicted a dozen potential Republican nominees standing on podiums as members of the press examined them. Each candidate had a caption above his head. Lincoln’s read, ‘Bobby Todd Lincoln: There is a good deal in the name.’

William McKinley was subsequently nominated to the Republican ticket in 1896 and defeated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. The strong leadership of McKinley obviated Lincoln’s name in the 1900 election cycle. Likewise, the strong presence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, again made a Republican candidate search unnecessary in 1904. Roosevelt embraced William H. Taft for the Republican nomination in 1908, and again Lincoln had few worries of nomination. During these years Robert devoted himself to his family, his business interests and his father’s legacy. In 1911, he resigned as Pullman president and became chairman of the board.

After three presidential election cycles passed without his name attached, whispers of Robert Lincoln, age 69, on the ticket arose again in 1912. A split in the Republican Party due to a feud between Roosevelt and Taft left room for a dark horse candidate. Lincoln’s friend, George H. Thatcher, wrote to Robert suggesting him as a candidate. Lincoln replied that such a situation ‘cannot possibly come about’ due to his age and his poor health, which had forced his retirement from Pullman. ‘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.’

The renomination of President Taft by the Republican convention caused Roosevelt to break off and form the Bull Moose Party. The split allowed the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win the White House. Yet an interesting newspaper account, published 12 years after the election, contended that a failed movement to swing delegates to Robert Lincoln almost gave the Republican nomination to Roosevelt in 1912.

According to the story in the June 1, 1924, New York Times, written by Grosvenor B. Clarkson, the convention fight between Taft and Roosevelt for delegates was tightly drawn. Few people realized, however, that the 66 black delegates actually held the balance of power. Clarkson’s father, General James S. Clarkson, a Roosevelt supporter, conceived the idea to convince the black delegation to vote for Robert T. Lincoln after the leader of that delegation, Henry Lincoln Johnson, approached him asking for advice on how they should vote.

Clarkson wrote to Johnson that in commemoration of the semicentennial of the emancipation of the blacks, the delegation should vote for the Great Emancipator’s son. The letter said that the Republican Party had ‘betrayed Lincoln’s promises’ to the blacks, allowed political and civil rights for southern blacks to disappear and stopped appointing blacks to southern political offices. Clarkson stated that the delegation could use its votes to ‘arouse the Republican Party from its indifference to your rights,’ and ‘compel attention.’ He urged the delegation to vote for Lincoln for president and continue voting for him on successive ballots either until he was nominated or the convention agreed to recognize their rights. Of course Clarkson’s real intention was to prevent Taft from receiving the black vote.

The younger Clarkson took the letter to Roosevelt, who reportedly said, ‘This is an inspiration. Go to it as fast as you can.’ Clarkson then ran to the convention to deliver his father’s letter, but found all entrances blocked by Taft supporters. He could not gain entrance, and Johnson, hobbled by a previously broken leg, could not exit through the throng. The letter was never delivered. ‘Had it been,’ Clarkson told The Times, ‘I firmly believe it would have diverted enough negro votes to have swung the convention to Roosevelt.’ Instead, Taft was nominated that night with a margin of 21 votes. After 1912, Robert’s presidential potential all but vanished, to his pleasure. He died on July 26, 1926.

While Lincoln was never nominated for either the presidency or the vice presidency, there is little question about the outcome had he actively sought such an honor. Still, the question remains: Why did he never run? While Lincoln disdained public life, he was not apolitical. He was a staunch Republican, active in campaigning for other candidates, who accepted a call to duty when it did not impinge upon his ability to provide for his family and if he could not honorably decline. While he did well as Chicago’s town board supervisor, secretary of war and ambassador to Great Britain, he discouraged talk of his running for higher office, downright squelched it, denying any political ambitions. Perhaps Robert’s close friend, Nicholas Murray Butler, provided the answer when he wrote that Robert revered his father’s memory so much that he lived under its shadow. According to Butler, Robert often said that he was not Robert Lincoln but Abraham Lincoln’s son: ‘No one wanted me for Secretary of War, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son. No one wanted me for minister to England, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son. No one wanted me for president of the Pullman Company, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son.’ Had he attained the White House, Robert surely would have added that no one wanted him for president of the United States, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son. Perhaps he refused because he had seen firsthand what public office had done to his father. Whatever his reasons, Robert Todd Lincoln served his country honorably and well, while avoiding the gilded prison.

This article was written by Jason Emerson and originally published in the December 2004 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!