Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926)

Figure 1.--There are no know images of Robert as a baby or littkle boy. The Lincoln's earky in their marriage had to watch the pennies. This photograph shows Robert as a teenager, sometime before 1860.

Robert was the Lincoln's oldest son. Born into a tragic family, he was the only one of the four Lincoln boys to survive to adulthood. He was not a particularly lovable man a trait that dates from childhood. He was never as close to his father as his other siblings. He was a young adult when the Lincolns arrived in Washington, much older than his two younger brothers who proceeded to raise havoc. He served briefly in the Civil War and studied law at Harvard University. He became a figure in the Republican Party where the Lincoln was an icon. He received a number of important appointments. He served as Secretary of War and Ambassador to Great Britain in Republican administrations. It later life, problems developed between Robert and his mother. He had her briefly committed to an asylum. This cause disagreements within the family. Robert at the end of his life decided to be buried as a veteran in Arlington Cemetery, apart from his parents and brothers.


The Lincoln's first child was Robert Todd Lincoln. He was born August 1, 1843. Robert who was named in honor of Mary Todd's father. Robert was born in Springfield, Illinois at the Globe Tavern. His father at the time was still a struggling young lawyer. The Lincolns moved into the Globe Tavern after their marriage (1842). While the Globe Tavern served for Mary and Abraham, with a new baby they finally moved into a house, a small frame house at 214 S. Fourth Street which they purchased from Dr. Charles Dresser who was the Episcopal minister that presided over their marriage. It was here that the Lincolns would raise Robert and his brothers before leaving for Washington (1861). This would prove to be the only home the couple ever owned. I know less about Robert's childhood then that of the younger boys. Lincoln was certainly not as close to Robert as the other boys. I think this was in part because of Robert's personality. One Lincoln scholar suggests that Robert was more of a Todd than a Lincoln. It was not particularly unusual in the 19th century for father's not to have affectionate relationships with their sons. [Daniel Herbert Donald, C-Span interview] Robert and Eddie lived in Washington and Lexington a short time while their father served in Congress. Reports suggest that Robert was unruly and spoiled. The children were apparently part of the reason that Mary got on poorly with the other residents of the boarding house where they stayed. [Baker, p. 138.] Robert seems to have enjoyed puppet shows and band music in the parks.


I have no information on the clothes Robert wore as a boy. The Lincolns were not yet prosperous when Robert was born. The photographs at the time were still Daguerreotypes and still quite expensive. I know of no photographs showing Robert as a boy. Presumably he wore dresses as a young boy. Thus we have no information about how Robert was dressed. It is likely that his mother sewed his clothes as a younger boy. Unlike his older brothers there were presumably no expensive suits purchased from expensive eastern shops. It is likely that he wore ling trousers as soon as he was breached. Of course as Lincoln's law practice prospered, there was money available for fashionable clothing. As an older boy photographs were taken. He appears to have always worn long trouser suits.


Robert began school in Springfield at a private academy. Academy was a term used by many private schools at the time. I'm unsure as to what kind of public schools were operating in Springfield at the time. We do not know if the Lincolns chose this academy over a public or if a public school was even available to them. We know almost nothing about the academy other than it was run by an individual named Esterbrook. The Lincolns enrolled Robert in the Illinois State University which was also located at Springfield (1853). The names of schools at the time was highly variable. His school was hardly a university, but it sounded impressive. Robert himself was only about 10 years old. The school was a kind of secondary school, although it accepted children younger than those handled by modern secondary schools. The school had four instructors which was presumably an improvement over the Academy he first attended. Even so the Illinois State University does not seem to have had a rigorous program. Robert later wrote, "We did just what pleased us, study consuming only a very small portion of our time." By the time Robert finished his studies there, Lincoln's prospering law firm had changed the horizons of the family. The Lincoln's wanted and could afford a quality education for their boys. Robert wrote later that he set his eyes on Harvard, but failed the entrance examination (1859). In fact we do not know who made the decision, but it was more likely his parents. [Baker, p. 122.] For his mother who liked having the children at home, this was a difficult decision. Clearly Robert's academic preparations were inadequate. It was thus decided that Robert needed further preparation. The Lincoln's enrolled Robert at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire on September 15, 1859. The Phillips Exeter Academy is one of the most prestigious preparatory school in the United States. (The term preparatory school has a different meaning in America than Britain. An American prep school is a secondary school rather like a British public school.) Robert apparently did well there. His father working for the Republican nomination visited him during early 1860 on the trip east in which he made the notable Cooper Union speech. [Sandburg, ML, p. 75.] After only a year at the school, Robert managed to gain entrance to Harvard. Of course the prominence of his farther may have been a factor, but we have no evidence to prove this. As a result, Robert did not live at the White House, but was away at school during most of the Lincoln presidency. He of course came home during school vacations. Robert does not appear to have been an outstanding student. Despite his problems gaining entry, he did reasonably well. He graduated 32nd out of the 99 students in the class of 1864. He then followed his father's career and enrolled in Harvard Law School.

Figure 2.--This drawing set in the White House shows the Lincolns with their sons, Robert and Tad, presumably after Willie's tragic death in 1862. As he is not in uniform, it looks to have been done in 1863 or 64.

White House Years (1861-65)

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, Robert's British counterpart, the Prince of Wales, happened to be touring the United States. The Prince was the son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the future Edward VII. As is the case today, Americans were fascinated by royalty. Some press wag christened the name "Prince Rails" for Robert. By this time in America, presidential candidates liked to identify with the common man. Of course Lincoln's background could not have been more common. President Lincoln took advantage of this and campaigned as "The Rail splitter." (As a youth Lincoln had hated the back-breaking labor on the farm and tasks like splitting rails, but it made great campaign fodder. Thus, the nickname "Prince of Rails" seemed very appropriate for the President's son. Robert had none of the common touch that made his father such an appealing figure in American history. Robert along with many cabinet members and other officials was scandalized with how he allowed his younger brothers, Tad and Willie to behave in the White House-- antics that were well chronicled in the press. Actually there are reports of Robert and Eddie being unruly themselves [Baker, p. 120.]. Presumably Robert no longer remembered.

Military Service (1865)

Robert enrolled in Harvard Law School, but did not stay long. We are not positive why. Perhaps he did not do well in his studies. Perhaps he wanted to participate in the War. After only a few months he left Harvard and joined his family in the White House. We do know that he did not want to be known as a shirker. He had appealed to his father to allow him to enlist. This put the President in a difficult position. As commander in chief leading a war in which hundreds of thousands had died, it seemed unfair that Robert did not join up. The political sensitivities, however, do not appear to have been paramount to Lincoln. What was important was Mrs. Lincoln's delicate mental condition. Having lost two children, most recently Willie in 1862, the President did not think she could survive the loss of a third son. Finally, Lincoln gave his approval, but not before writing to General Grant. Robert was commissioned a captain and assigned to Grant's staff. Grant saw to it that he was kept out of action. His primary duty was to escort visiting dignitaries. As a a member of Grant's staff, he was allowed to observe Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Father's Assassination (April 1865)

Robert was in Washington on April 14. He had breakfast with the family. He and his father discussed the War. The President invited him to accompany his wife and he to Ford's Theater. Robert declined the invitation. He could have also gone with his little brother Tad. He was tired after riding in a covered wagon for a long time. He remained at the White House, where he went to bed early. He was thus in the White House when he learned that his father had been shot. He immediately rushed to his father's side. He was with his father when he passed away at 7:22 AM (April 15). Afterwards he returned to the White House and attempted to console his mother and Tad.


The Lincolns remained in the White House for a few weeks. The family finally departed Washington by train to return home to Illinois (May 1865). They brought the bodies of the President and Willie with them for burial in Springfield. They family settled in Chicago. Here Robert would live for 46 years. Fr a few years he lived with his mother and Tad until spring of 1867. While in Chicago he prepared for a law career. Having left Harvard Law School, he studied at the University of Chicago. Robert was admitted to the Illinois Bar (February 25, 1867.) Serious problems with his mother began when in an effort to obtain money she authorized a public auction of her clothes. Of course Robert who was planning a law career and entering thigh social circles was mortified to read in the newspaper that his mother was auctioning off her clothes. His mother described him as coming at her like a maniac. [Sandburg, ML, pp. 131-132.]

Marriage (1868)

Robert in 1868 married Mary Eunice Harlan. She was the daughter of a Republican senator from Iowa and future cabinet secretary. She had attended the Iowa Wesleyan College. At the time it was still quite unusual for women to attend college. We are not entirely sure how Robert's wife Mary Eunice got on with his mother. One biographer describes warm letters that his mother wrote to his wife from Europe. [Sadburg, ML, p. 135.]

Figure 3.--This photograph shows Robert's three children about 1885. Note that Abraham wears a rather adult-looking jacket.


Robert and Mary had three children, two girls and a boy. We know very little about them at this time.
Mary (1869-1938): The oldest child was Mary who was born on October 15, 1869. Mary married Charles Isham in 1891. Charles was the son of Robert's law partner. They had one son, Lincoln Isham (1892-1971) who married Leah Alma Correa in 1919, but had no children. Mary herself lived until 1938,
Abraham (1873-90): Abraham was nicknamed "Jack". He was born on August 14, 1873. Abraham "Jack" Lincoln II died in 1890. At the time, his parents were in England where his father had been appointed American ambassador. Jack was only 16 years old when he died. He had stayed in America to continue his education. He died of blood poisoning.
Jessie (1875-1948): Robert's youngest child Jessie was born on November 6, 1875. Jessie Harlan Lincoln married Warren Beckwith in 1897. The couple had two children. Mary "Peggy" Beckwith (1898-1975) never married. She was the last of the Lincoln descendants to live in Hildene, her grandparents scenic Summer home in Vermont. Jessie's second child was Robert "Bud" Todd Lincoln Beckwith (1904-1985). Neither Mary or Robert had any children of their own. Robert's wife, Mary, was reportedly very shy and not very healthy. Jessie subsequently divorced her first husband and she subsequently married twice more. Jessie died in 1948.


Mary Todd had been deeply disturbed by the loss of her second son Eddie (1846). Eddie's death (1862) seems to have unhinged her. Her husband was driven nearly to despair and pleaded with her about her instability. Then the poor woman had to face the loss of her husband (1865) and a few years latter the loss of Tad after they returned from Europe (1871). Robert had to face many of the difficulties his father faced when he was alive. Lacking his father's patience and admittedly having to deal with an extremely erratic woman, Robert by 1875 become extremely frustrated over his mother's mental state. He decided that she would have to be institutionalized which resulted in an insanity hearing. As a result, his mother was committed to a sanitarium for a short time. Robert testified against his mother at the hearing. Mrs. Lincoln was unstable, but she was sane enough to realize that being declared incompetent was a shameful action. She was thus furious with Robert's and accused him of trying to get her money. Of course Robert's action was in part designed to prevent her from spending herself into poverty. Their relationship even before this had been strained. She never forgave her son for committing her.


After gaining acceptance to the Illinois Bar, Robert built a successful and rewarding law practice. How good a lawyer he was, I am not sure. Having the name Lincoln was of course an enormous asset. He became involved in Republican Party politics, although he never ran for public office. Having a Lincoln in your administration proved alluring to several presidents. President Rutherford B. Hayes' offered him an appointment as Assistant Secretary of State (1877), but Robert declined. I am not sure why. President James Garfield offered him a cabinet post, the Secretary of War (1881). This time he accepted and served until 1885. President Benjamin Harrison appointed him ambassador to England (1889). He served there for 4 years until Democratic President Grover Cleveland was elected. There was some discussion among Republican politicians of Robert as a possible presidential candidate. The name recognition factor was enormous. Robert never pursued the post and the fact that he never ran for lesser offices limited his political career. Robert did pursue a business career. One of the titans of industry, George Pullman, died in 1897. Robert became the acting president of the Pullman Company. The company at the time was one of the important American corporations of the day. Robert was appointed the permanent president of Pullman in 1901 and served there until 1911 when he resigned and was named chairman of the company's board of directors. He served as chairman until 1922.

Hildene and Washington

Robert had lived most of his adult life in Chicago. He purchased several hundred acres of property in Manchester, Vermont (1902) There he built a country mansion which he called called Hildene. He saw it as a summer home. It was a beautiful woodland site which included gardens and grassy areas. Robert especially enjoyed golf and amateur astronomy while at Hildene. Robert finally broke away from Chicago when he brought a three story brick mansion in Washington, D.C. (1911). He then divided his time between Hildene and Washington. He would spend the Spring and Summer and Hilddene and then travel to Washington on a private Pullman car named "Advance." He would then stay in Washington for the Fall and Winter.

Lincoln Memorial

One of the most honored sites in America is the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Robert spoke at the dedication ceremonies for the Lincoln Memorial (1922). President Warren G. Harding and Chief Justice William Howard Taft also spoke at the ceremony.


Robert and his wife as was there custom in the Spring used their private Pullman car to travel to Hilene (On May 11, 1926). It was at Hilene that Robert at the age of 82 suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in his sleep (July 25, 1926). At the time, it was not understood why Robert was not buried with his family at Springfield. Rather he was interned at Arlington National Cemetery. Apparently his wife Mary decided that he had a life of importance apart from that of his illustrious father and thus deserved a burial site of his own. [Swick and McCreary]


Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (W.W. Norton: New York, 1987), 429p. >br>

Donald, Daniel Herbert. C-Span interview

Goff, John S. "Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right."

Randall, Ruth Painter. Lincoln's Sons.

Sanburg, Carl. Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (Harcourt Brace: New York, 1960), 357p.

Swick, Gerald D. and Donna D. McCreary. Lincoln Lore (Summer, 1998).


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Created: June 25, 1999
Spell checked: 9:03 PM 11/17/2012
Last changed: 9:03 PM 11/17/2012