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Robert Todd Lincoln (August 1, 1843 – July 26, 1926) was an American politician, lawyer, and businessman.
The first son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, he was born in Springfield, Illinois, and graduated from Harvard College before serving on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant as a captain in the Union Army in the closing days of the American Civil War.
After the war Lincoln married Mary Eunice Harlan, and they had three children together.
Following completion of law school in Chicago, he built a successful law practice, and became wealthy representing corporate clients. Active in Republican politics, and a tangible symbol of his father's legacy, Robert Lincoln was often spoken of as a possible candidate for office, including the presidency, but never took steps to mount a campaign.
The one office to which he was elected was town supervisor of South Chicago, which he held from 1876 to 1877; the town later became part of the city of Chicago.
Lincoln accepted appointments as secretary of war in the administration of James A. Garfield, continuing under Chester A. Arthur, and as United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom (with the role then titled as "minister") in the Benjamin Harrison administration. Lincoln served as general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and after founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became the company's president.
After retiring from this position in 1911, Lincoln served as chairman of the board until 1922.
In Lincoln's later years he resided at homes in Washington, D.C.
and Manchester, Vermont; the Manchester home, Hildene, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
In 1922, he took part in the dedication ceremonies for the Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln died at Hildene on July 26, 1926, six days before his 83rd birthday, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Family and early life
Robert Todd Lincoln was born in Springfield, Illinois, on August 1, 1843, to Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. He had three younger brothers, Edward, William, and Tad. By the time Lincoln was born, his father had become a well-known member of the Whig political party and had previously served as a member of the Illinois state legislature for four terms. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Robert Smith Todd.
When his father became president of the United States on the eve of the American Civil War, Lincoln was the only one of the president's three children to be largely on his own. He took the Harvard College entrance examination in 1859, but failed fifteen out of the sixteen subjects. He was then enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy to further prepare for attending college, and he graduated in 1860. Admitted to Harvard College, he graduated in 1864, and was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Alpha chapter). Welsh author Jan Morris wrote that Robert Lincoln "having failed fifteen out of sixteen subjects in the Harvard entrance examination, got in at last and emerged an unsympathetic bore."
After graduating from Harvard, Lincoln enrolled at Harvard Law School. When he initially expressed interest in the law school to his father, President Lincoln made reference to his own pleasant, but informal legal training by stating "If you do, you should learn more than I ever did, but you will never have so good a time." Robert Lincoln attended Harvard Law School from September 1864 to January 1865, and left in order to join the Union Army. In 1893, Harvard awarded Lincoln the honorary degree of LL.D.
Much to the embarrassment of the president, Mary Todd Lincoln prevented Robert Lincoln from joining the Army until shortly before the war's conclusion. "We have lost one son, and his loss is as much as I can bear, without being called upon to make another sacrifice," Mary Todd Lincoln insisted to President Lincoln. President Lincoln argued "our son is not more dear to us than the sons of other people are to their mothers." However, Mary Todd Lincoln persisted by stating that she could not "bear to have Robert exposed to danger." In January 1865, the First Lady yielded and President Lincoln wrote Ulysses S. Grant, asking if Robert could be placed on his staff.
On February 11, 1865, he was commissioned as an assistant adjutant with the rank of captain and served in the last weeks of the American Civil War as part of General Ulysses S. Grant's immediate staff, a position which sharply reduced the likelihood that he would be involved in actual combat. He was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered. He resigned his commission on June 12, 1865, and returned to civilian life.
Lincoln had a distant relationship with his father, in part because, during his formative years, Abraham Lincoln spent months on the judicial circuit. Their relationship was similar to the one Abraham Lincoln had with his own father. Lincoln recalled, "During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending court or making political speeches." Robert would later say his most vivid image of his father was of packing saddlebags to prepare for his travels through Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was proud of Robert and thought him bright, but also something of a competitor. An acquaintance purportedly said, "he guessed Bob would not do better than he had." The two lacked the strong bond Lincoln had with his other sons Willie and Tad, but Robert deeply admired his father and wept openly at his deathbed.
On the night of his father's death, Robert had turned down an invitation to accompany his parents to Ford's Theatre, citing fatigue after spending much of his recent time in a covered wagon at the battlefront.
On April 25, 1865, Robert Lincoln wrote President Andrew Johnson requesting that he and his family be allowed to stay for two and a half weeks because his mother had told him that "she can not possibly be ready to leave here." Lincoln also acknowledged that he was aware of the "great inconvenience" that Johnson had since becoming president of the United States only a short time earlier. Following his father's assassination, in April 1865 Robert moved with his mother and his brother Tad to Chicago. He attended law classes at the Old University of Chicago – now Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law – and studied law at the Chicago firm of Scammon, McCagg & Fuller. On January 1, 1866, Lincoln moved out of the apartment he shared with his mother and brother. He rented his own rooms in downtown Chicago to "begin to live with some degree of comfort" which he had not known when living with his family. Lincoln graduated from Northwestern University with an LL.B. in 1866 and became licensed as an attorney in Chicago on February 22, 1867. He was certified to practice law four days later on February 26, 1867.
On September 24, 1868, Lincoln married the former Mary Eunice Harlan (1846–1937), daughter of Senator James Harlan and Ann Eliza Peck of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. They had two daughters and one son.
In an era before air conditioning, Robert, Mary, and the children would often leave their hot city life behind for the cooler climate of Mt. Pleasant. During the 1880s the family would summer at the Harlan home. The Harlan-Lincoln home, built in 1876, still stands today. Donated by Mary Harlan Lincoln to Iowa Wesleyan College in 1907, it now serves as a museum containing a collection of artifacts from the Lincoln family and from Abraham Lincoln's presidency.
In 1871, tragedy beset the family again when Lincoln's only surviving brother, Tad, died at the age of 18, leaving his mother devastated with grief. Lincoln, who was already concerned about what he thought were his mother's "spend-thrift" ways and eccentric behavior, and fearing that she was a danger to herself, arranged to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875. With his mother in the hospital, he was left with control of her finances. On May 20, 1875, she arrived at Bellevue Place, a private, upscale sanitarium in the Fox River Valley.
Three months after being installed in Bellevue Place, Mary Lincoln engineered her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer, James B. Bradwell, and his wife, Myra Bradwell, who was not only her friend but also a feminist lawyer and fellow spiritualist. She also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times, known for its sensational journalism. Soon, the public embarrassments Robert had hoped to avoid were looming, and his character and motives were in question. The director of Bellevue, who at Mary's commitment trial had assured the jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, now in the face of potentially damaging publicity, declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister as she desired. The commitment proceedings and following events led to a profound estrangement between Lincoln and his mother, and they never fully reconciled.