His own place in the sun

William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Robert Todd Lincoln
at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. 
Standing outside the Temple of Music concert hall at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in September 1901, the former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain must have noticed the sudden commotion coming from inside. Soon the news passed through the crowd: President William McKinley had been shot and seriously wounded by a would-be assassin. He died a few days later.

The moment must have brought back a torrent of terrible memories for the retired diplomat. Twenty years earlier, while serving as Secretary of War, he had been at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station in Washington with President James A. Garfield when another assassin had struck. Sixteen years before that, he had been hastily summoned from the White House to his dying father’s bedside in the Petersen House across the street from Washington DC’s Ford’s Theater in the wake of America’s first Presidential assassination.

That day in Buffalo was just another tragic turn in the life of Robert Todd Lincoln.

Born in Springfield on August 1, 1843, Robert Lincoln was the first of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Lincoln. He would be the only one to survive to adulthood. During his childhood, Robert was distant from his father, a one-term Congressman and attorney who rode the circuit of courthouse towns in central Illinois.

“During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches,” Robert wrote.

He attended a New Hampshire prep school and then Harvard College as his father ran for and won the Presidency.

“Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible,” he wrote. “I scarcely even had 10 minutes quiet talk with him during his presidency on account of his constant devotion to business.”

Young Robert Lincoln 
Just shy of his 18th birthday when Fort Sumter was fired upon, Robert might have been a prime candidate for service in the Union Army, but his studies prevented it. At the time, and in the decades after the war, many theorized that Mary Lincoln; having lost one son in Springfield and then another in Washington; had sought to keep Robert as far away from the carnage of Civil War battlefields as possible. Late in the war he was commissioned as a captain on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant and witnessed Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

But while the First Lady might have been able to protect him from death at the hands of Confederate bullets, it was intervention from another very ironic source which protected him from an accidental death far from the battlefield. While waiting to board a train in Jersey City, New Jersey, Robert slipped and fell into the gap between the platform and the train just as it started to move.

“My coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform,” he recalled in a letter more than 40 years after the incident. “Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me.”

The famed theater actor had unknowingly saved the life of the President’s son. This fact provides a stark contrast with Edwin Booth’s brother, John Wilkes, who went into history in a much different way.

Following his father’s murder in April 1865, Robert returned home to Illinois with his mother and completed law school at the University of Chicago. He had a successful career as a lawyer, mainly for railroads and other corporations, and helped found the Chicago Bar Association. In 1868 he married Mary Harlan and they had three children, Mary, Abraham and Jessie.

Success in the law and his famous name brought Lincoln much attention from political figures of the post-war era. He was offered an appointment as Assistant Secretary of State by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, but he turned it down.

Lincoln was at that time fighting a much more personal battle, as his mother’s behavior was becoming more and more erratic. At last he petitioned a court to have her institutionalized. “She has been of unsound mind since the death of Father,” he lamented. But the strong-willed Mary Lincoln would not go without a fight, in this case an aggressive letter-writing campaign to friendly newspaper reporters. The incident became such an embarrassment to Robert that he dropped the matter after a few months and sent his mother to live out her days in the care of her sister.

“You have tried your game of robbery long enough,” Mary wrote to her son shortly thereafter. She would pass away in 1882.

A delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1880, Lincoln was offered the Secretary of War appointment by Garfield the following year, and this time he accepted. It was this turn of fate which would put him at that train station along with other members of the Cabinet in June 1881 when Garfield was murdered.

Staying on to serve Garfield’s successor Chester A. Arthur, Lincoln served out his full term at the War Department. He worked to better protect Native American lands from further incursions by white settlers and encouraged federal aid to states to better organize their state militias, including the force we now know today as the Illinois National Guard. A U.S. Army expedition sent to explore the Arctic during this time discovered a body of water between Canada and Greenland which was named the Lincoln Sea in the Secretary’s honor.

With President Arthur in declining health, Lincoln was mentioned as a possible successor, but he declined, just as he would do on at least three more occasion in the future when the Republican Party offered him the chance to become the second son of a President to sit in the Oval Office.

The nation’s next Republican Chief Executive, Benjamin Harrison, named Lincoln ambassador to Great Britain in 1889, a post he held through Harrison’s entire four-year term in the White House. Sadly, the tragic legacy of Lincoln children dying young extended into another generation, as Robert Lincoln’s son, Abraham, died at the age of 16 while his father was serving in London.

With the end of Harrison’s presidency, Lincoln returned to his law practice and became general counsel of Chicago’s Pullman Palace Car Company, by then one of the nation’s leading railroad car manufacturers. He succeeded the company’s founder, George Pullman, as president of the company in 1897, a job he held at the time of his visit to Buffalo and for another decade thereafter. After McKinley’s death he declined all invitations to appear at presidential functions.

While he served with the Pullman Company, Robert’s daughter Jessie gave birth to his grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, her second child, in 1904. When Robert Beckwith, great-grandson of President Abraham Lincoln, died in 1985, he was the last direct descendant of the 16th President.

Robert Lincoln retired from Pullman in 1911 due to failing health, but held on as chairman of the company’s board of directors until 1922. It was in that year that he helped to honor his father by dedicating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Robert was sometimes called the “Prince of Rails,” a play on his father’s campaign nickname of the “Railsplitter.” It was a moniker he did not care for. No matter his success, Robert was always painfully aware of the shadow in which he lived.

“No one wanted me for secretary of war,” he said to his friend the historian Nicholas Murray Butler. “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.”

An Illinoisan for most of his life, Robert maintained a summer home in Vermont, and it was there that he died in 1926 of a stroke at the age of 82. Seeking to at last free him from the shadow of his father, his wife Mary decreed that he would not be buried with his parents and brothers in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, but would instead receive a plot in Arlington National Cemetery.

She declared that he had, “made his own history, independently of his great father, and should have his own place in the sun.”