Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest of President Abraham Lincoln’s four sons and the only one to live to maturity. In contrast to his self-educated father, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard. After the Civil War, he became one of the most prominent lawyers in Chicago, and by virtue of his name became a factor in Republican politics. He served ably in the Cabinets of Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Later, he joined the Pullman Palace Car Co., where he rose to the position of president and ended up a multimillionaire.
Although the celebrity of his family name would weigh heavily on Lincoln as an adult, his early years were comfortable and relatively uneventful. According to author Jason Emerson, who has written extensively on the Lincoln family, Robert was “a companionable boy who told good stories and jokes, was a talented athlete, and [had] great respect for truth and law.” Unfortunately, Robert had a somewhat distant relationship with his father, in part because of the latter’s frequent absences on legal business and Robert’s residence at Harvard for most of the Civil War years.
Once Robert had graduated, in June 1864, he was expected to serve his country. With some embarrassment, President Lincoln asked whether Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, about to wrap up his campaign against Lee’s army, would make a place for Robert on his staff. Grant consented, and Robert served the final months of the war as an army captain. At Appomattox, he shook the hand of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Then came the defining event of Robert’s life - his father’s assassination in April 1865. If it was a tragedy for Robert, its magnitude was emphasized by his mother’s psychological collapse. Her remaining years would be haunted by the killing of her husband, and her son’s assumption of his role as man of the house. Later that year, Robert returned to Chicago with his mother and his brother, Tad, where Robert completed his law studies and married Mary Harlan, the daughter of a U.S. senator. Robert’s law practice flourished, and he became active in Republican politics. But his life became increasingly dominated by his mother’s erratic behavior.
Mary Lincoln’s wild spending had been a problem to her husband. In the years after 1871, her behavior became increasingly bizarre. She was afraid to be alone and threatened suicide. She was so fearful of losing her valuables that she carried them with her on the street. Robert felt it his duty to protect his mother from financial ruin, and in 1875, on the advice of friends, he took control of her finances and had her committed to a psychiatric hospital. The committal proceedings brought about a complete estrangement between Robert and his mother.
The next few years saw speculation regarding Robert and public office. In the early weeks of 1881, President-elect Garfield was looking for an Illinois man for his Cabinet, and settled on Robert for secretary of war. In “Giant in the Shadows,” Mr. Emerson writes, “While Robert Lincoln was given his Cabinet appointment because of necessary political considerations, there is no doubt he would not even have been considered if not for his parentage and his surname.”
Robert proved a diligent administrator, and was the one member of Garfield’s Cabinet who was kept on by President Arthur after Garfield’s assassination. But his tenure would be marred by controversy over an Arctic exploratory expedition, led by Adolphus Greely, which had departed in 1881 under Army sponsorship. When Greely failed to reach an agreed rendezvous in 1883, Secretary Lincoln sent a relief expedition, which itself became trapped in ice. Should he send a second rescue mission so late in the season?
Beset with conflicting advice, Robert vetoed a second rescue attempt. Alas, when the Greely party was eventually found in June 1884, only seven of its original 25 members were still alive. Greely blamed Lincoln for his failure to act more promptly.
Robert returned to practicing law in 1885, but served as U.S. minister to Britain for four years under President Benjamin Harrison. He then became general counsel of the Pullman company, and was named president after Pullman’s death in 1897. In the 14 years of Robert’s stewardship, the company prospered and its president became rich.
The company had survived one of the country’s most violent strikes in 1894, and Robert continued Pullman’s policy of union busting. There were racial issues as well. The Pullman company accommodated itself to “Jim Crow” laws implemented in the South, and Pullman cars were segregated. Black leaders sought in vain to enlist Robert’s support for change. Booker T. Washington wrote in 1904 that he considered Robert Lincoln largely to blame for the segregation of sleeping cars, adding that “if he would just stand up straight, there would be little trouble.”
Mr. Emerson writes that Robert Lincoln “believed in the superiority of educated management, the essential ignorance in administrative affairs of the lower-class wage workers, and the seditious and undemocratic influences of the meddling labor unions.”
It would be unrealistic to expect Abraham Lincoln’s son to reflect the full humanity of the Great Emancipator, but Robert appears to have been tone deaf in many areas of human relations. Far from being the “giant” of Mr. Emerson’s title, Robert comes through as extraordinary in his ordinariness.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).