Robert Todd Lincoln: The Reluctant Heir

by Daniel Pearson

A main thesis of David Herbert Donald's 1995 biography, Lincoln, is that Abraham Lincoln was a man who was controlled by circumstances rather than one who shaped his own destiny. According to Donald, Lincoln was swept along by the extraordinary events that swirled around the nation in the mid 19th century. Many scholars and historians have disagreed with this premise, but concede that many aspects of Lincoln's career were at least in part due to the confluence of his ascendancy in politics at a time of great political and societal change.

This thesis, however, could be very easily and successfully applied to the life and career of Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Born in 1843, Robert was destined to live his life in the shadow of his father's legacy. It was a role he appreciated, but one that he neither welcomed nor encouraged. And perhaps more importantly, it was a legacy he did not use to further his own ambitions.

Robert Lincoln did not have the close relationship with his father that his younger siblings enjoyed. Abraham and Mary Lincoln saw to it that Robert received a formal education, studying at the college preparatory department of Illinois State University at Springfield. In 1859, Robert was sent off to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, to study for his entrance exams for Harvard University. Admitted to Harvard in the fall of 1860, Robert spent most of the war years in school. Graduating in 1864, he briefly attended the Harvard Law School before being appointed to a short stint in the U.S. Army on General Ulysses S. Grant's staff. As a cumulative result of these responsibilities, Robert spent precious little time with his family, and had little personal knowledge of his father's duties and actions as president.

After the death of his father and the ensuing emotional breakdown of his mother, Robert was thrust into the capacity of the head of his family. With the help of his father's close friend, David Davis, Robert saw to the arrangements for his father's burial and the transition of his family back to private life. Davis, who served as executor for Abraham Lincoln's estate, remained a close personal friend of, and a sort of surrogate father to Robert.

In the role of the provider, Robert did an admirable job. After vacating the White House, he took his mother and younger brother Tad and settled in Chicago. In 1867 he was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in Illinois. The following year he married Mary Harlan, the daughter of Senator James Harlan of Iowa, and established his own household.

While he was active in politics and the business community, Robert never sought to make any political gain through his famous name and heritage. Being the sole surviving son of the great emancipator, any political office could have been his for the taking. He did accept the responsibilities of Secretary of War from 1881-1885 under Presidents Garfield and Arthur, and as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain under Benjamin Harrison from 1889-1893. Twice, in 1884 and again in 1888, there was strong support to make him the Republican candidate for President. The Republican Party found tremendous appeal in the notion of having another Lincoln in the White House. But Robert rebuffed all attempts to place him in the presidency, calling it "a gilded prison."

After returning from his duties as ambassador to the Court of St. James, Lincoln turned his attention to the world of business. He served as president of the Pullman Palace Car Company from 1901-1911. He amassed a sizable fortune, which allowed him to build an elaborate summer home in Manchester, Vermont. He and wife Mary had three children. His only son, Abraham "Jack" Lincoln II, died in London during Robert's service as U.S. ambassador.

From the very day of his father's assassination, Robert Lincoln took an intense personal interest in how his father was portrayed in art, history, and literature. His open hostility toward the works of William Henry Herndon and Ward Hill Lamon are well documented. He carefully controlled the "official" biography of Lincoln written by John G. Nicolay and John Hay. To aid them in their task, Lincoln gave the two biographers exclusive use of his father's private papers. In return he was allowed the privilege to read galley proofs of the book with complete control to censor anything he found the least bit objectionable.

While always willing to offer advice or answer direct and appropriate queries about his father, Robert Lincoln had very little to say publicly on family matters.1 No doubt this was partly due to his general abhorrence of public life. Intensely private, he avoided public situations whenever possible. Notable exceptions to this policy include his appearance at the celebration banquet in Springfield on February 12, 1909, the centennial of Lincoln's birth, and the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1922. However, his appearance at both events was accompanied by an agreement that he would not be called upon to give any remarks.

One notable exception to Robert Lincoln's reluctance to offer public comment on his famous father was his appearance on October 7, 1896, at a ceremony commemorating the 38th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Galesburg, Illinois. On this occasion not only did Robert attend, but he delivered a short address. Fortunately, Lincoln's words were recorded, and were published by Charles T. White.2 Unfortunately, the publication was limited to 25 copies, so it has not enjoyed a wide circulation. Lincoln's remarks reveal an optimistic outlook on the future of the American nation. In it he predicts that the forces of good will prevail over evil, just as they had done during the crisis of the Civil War.

When Lincoln dealer Chuck Hand bought the pamphlet and ephemera holdings of Ralph G. Newman, he discovered a unique printing of Robert Lincoln's Galesburg address. Like Charles White's reprint, the manuscript is printed on one side of the paper. But that is where the similarity ends. White's reprint was issued in an 8-1/2 inch by 6-1/2 inch format, and only occupied 4 pages of text. Hand's copy is 10 inches by 6-7/8 inches, and is 9 pages in length, with wide margins. Further, the print size is considerably larger. To add to the uniqueness of this imprint, there is one handwritten text correction: on page seven, the work "and" is inserted into the text. Unfortunately, as this solitary correction is a single-syllable three-letter word, it is nearly impossible to detect any handwriting characteristics.

While there is no proof to support the theory, it has been speculated that this copy of the address was Robert Lincoln's original manuscript used in the delivery of the speech. Those familiar with Robert's handwriting know how difficult it is to decipher. It would be reasonable to assume that Lincoln would have taken the time and effort to have his remarks typeset, because it would be easier to read and/or refer to during delivery. Being uncomfortable with, and unaccustomed to, speaking in public, one may be led to believe that he would want to be as prepared as possible for the occasion. While these assumptions seem reasonable and would support the theory that this copy of Robert Lincoln's address was his actual reading copy, there simply is no provenance to conclusively state this is so. Ralph Newman was a personal friend to Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, Robert T. Lincoln's last surviving direct lineal heir, and could have acquired the manuscript directly from the Lincoln family. Newman also purchased several significant Lincoln collections over the years, a large part of which constituted the archive of material purchased by Chuck Hand. It is conceivable that the manuscript came from one of those collections. Unfortunately, unless new information can be obtained about the manuscript, we may never know whether it is Robert Lincoln's own reading copy.

Despite his reluctance to make public appearances and statements, Robert was keenly aware that he was under a certain amount of obligation to act as the sole surviving member of a very famous and widely admired family. Young people who expressed an interest in his father particularly touched him. By all appearances, he seemed anxious to please those who sought his assistance.

In February 1894, The Century Magazine printed an article by John G. Nicolay, titled "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address," which examined the various known versions of the famous oration. Included in the article was a line by line comparison of the different versions and facsimiles of the speech in Lincoln's hand. The De Vinne Press reprinted the article as a pamphlet.3 Robert thought so highly of the essay that he had copies specially bound in boards for presentation. One such copy was sent to a young lady from Hartford, Connecticut, by the name of Elizabeth Whittlelsey.

Miss Whittlelsey had apparently written Robert Lincoln in 1909, asking if he had an autograph of his father that she could have. Having none that he could spare, and yet wanting to offer something to his young correspondent, he sent her a presentation copy of Nicolay's Gettysburg Address article.4 No doubt owing to his notoriously poor handwriting, Lincoln had an employee or personal assistant inscribe the book for him. Miss. Whittlelsey must have treasured Robert Lincoln's autograph as well, as she preserved his letter to her by attaching the envelope inside the front board.

The book serves as a small reminder of a man who deprecated the spotlight that his heritage forced upon him, and yet recognized his obligation to foster a better understanding of his noble father.

1 Robert T. Lincoln's correspondence files in the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield reveal that he was willing to answer many queries about his famous father.
2 See Monaghan number 2514.
3 Monaghan 1151.
4 Like many of my treasured volumes, I obtain this book a number of years ago from the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago.

Copyright © 2000, Daniel E. Pearson