Upon the death of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton observed, “Now he belongs to the ages.” It is a statement that is just as true today as the day it was spoken. Americans remember the martyred president not only as the preserver of the Union but also as the man who liberated over four million slaves from bondage. As such, he is considered to be one of the greatest presidents ever. Ironically, these exploits overshadow the accomplishments of another great Lincoln. While he never served as president, this man was just as skilled as the former president was, and much like his illustrious forbearer, he was a devoted government servant. His career spanned two administrations, and by the time of his death, he had truly earned his own “place in the sun.” His name was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of our 16th president. This is the story of how he stepped out of the shadow of tragedy and rose to prominence in his own right.
Some would perhaps say that Robert Lincoln was born into politics. Just over four years after his birth in Springfield, Illinois in August 1843, he travelled to Washington, D.C. when his father was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In Washington the boy observed Lincoln engage in debates over the merits of the U.S.-Mexican War and slavery. Returning to Springfield in 1849, Robert spent the next decade listened to his father vocally oppose slavery’s westward expansion. He served as a guard during the famed 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates between Abraham and Stephen Douglas, and in 1860, while at Harvard, he campaigned for his father as a “Wide-Awake,” a group of Lincoln supporters. In February 1861 he was part of the entourage accompanying the new president to his inauguration. During the Civil War, he was one of the president’s confidants and listened to him vent his frustration over his commanders, like General George McClellan’s timidity in the summer and fall of 1862 and General George Meade’s refusal to pursue and destroy General Robert E. Lee’s army following the Battle of Gettysburg. Robert also served in the Union army during the war’s last days, even witnessing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. He developed a close friendship with Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. It was Stanton who comforted Robert in the dark hours of April 14-15, 1865 as Lincoln succumbed to the wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth. When his father breathed his last, Robert realized it was up to him to carry on in his father’s stead.
In the days immediately after Lincoln’s death, Robert was consumed with grief, but he determined to not let that grief deter him from planning for the future. Remembering his father’s advice the morning of his death, Robert decided to follow Abraham’s example and pursue a legal career. In late 1865 he settled in Chicago where he took law classes at the local university and clerked for one of the most prominent firms in the city. He passed the bar and was certified in late February 1867. Soon after he opened his own law office, specializing in insurance and real estate law. He undertook transactions on behalf of his mother Mary and his brother Tad as well as for his father’s friend and former Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. In late 1868 he even travelled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on behalf of the French vice consul to investigate a case of financial delinquency. He was considered “one of the most promising young men of the West,” and it was thought he would follow his father into Republican politics. Although he often corresponded with friends about national affairs, Robert had no burning ambition beyond that of local matters. After the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, Robert used his influence to secure new law books for the Chicago Law Institute and the city’s private libraries, and in 1874 he and other lawyers joined together to found the Chicago Bar Association. By 1876, however, Robert was ready to step foot on the national stage for the first time.
As Robert’s reputation grew, friends encouraged him to seek political office. In 1874 John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries, advised Robert to seek a diplomatic posting. After all, he had served as an American representative at a dinner hosted by sheriffs from London and Middlesex while visiting Britain in 1872. Robert declined the opportunity, but he continued to monitor Republican affairs. Following the economic Panic of 1873 and the scandals of President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, he watched as Democrats gained seats in Congress. He feared that Democratic policies, which had in part caused the Civil War and now threatened American businesses, would ultimately destroy the country. He saw it as his duty to help preserve Republican hegemony, so he vigorously campaigned for Rutherford B. Hayes during the 1876 election. He traversed the Midwest and lectured on fiscal responsibility as well as traditional Republican principles, like supporting African-Americans. He also fought against Democratic corruption in Chicago and helped reform the city as town supervisor. Four years later, in 1880, he reentered the political fray when he denounced the repudiation of the black vote by Democrats. He argued that just as “we gave freedom to the slave, we will give freedom to the ballot.” Although he originally supported a third term for Ulysses S. Grant, he eventually backed James Garfield and Chester Arthur. In response, newly elected Garfield appointed Robert as his Secretary of War, and despite his previous reluctance, Lincoln accepted the position. Little did he know the enormous responsibility he was about to shoulder.
Within months of his arrival, Robert found himself in the midst of the greatest tragedy to befall the country since his father’s assassination. He arrived in Washington, D.C. on March 10, 1881 and was sworn into office by William Crook, ironically one of President Lincoln’s former bodyguards. During his first few months, the new Secretary performed mundane but necessary tasks like reviewing the military departments and evaluating military installations. Then came July 2, 1881. That morning Robert rode to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Depot to see President Garfield off on a trip to New England, but as he entered the station, two shots rang out. He rushed to the president’s side and saw Garfield bleeding from a wound in the back, just above the kidney. Much like Edwin Stanton in the hours after Lincoln’s assassination, Robert took immediate command of the situation. He sent for Garfield’s personal physician before directing the station’s telegraph operator to have the War Department send four companies of soldiers to the station. At the same time, he ordered the White House cleared of intruders and surrounded by heavily armed guards in preparation for the president’s return. Once Garfield was back at the White House, Robert began a routine of sending messages around the country and keeping the American public informed about Garfield’s health. Like others, he initially hoped for a speedy recovery, but as Garfield grew weaker, Robert found himself discussing presidential succession with his fellow cabinet members. His worst fears were realized when on September 19, 1881, eighty days after the shooting, James Garfield died. Sworn in immediately, Vice-President Arthur became President Chester Arthur.
In the days following Garfield’s death, Robert faced an uncertain future. He believed the new chief executive would request his resignation. Instead, Arthur asked him to stay on. Robert agreed — the only member of Garfield’s original cabinet to do so. Many speculated it was due to Arthur’s desire to have a Lincoln by his side, but Robert maintained it was because of his job performance so far. With his position secure, the Secretary turned his attention back to the War Department. He undertook a massive overhaul, transferring or firing incompetent officials, bringing new direction and discipline to the department. He further succeeded in reducing department expenditures, such as separating the Signal Service corps from the main army, which cut over one million dollars from the army’s budget. He took care to ensure his yearly budget reports reflected this success, and he took pride in the fact that they were submitted intelligently and in a timely fashion. As the years passed, he came to be viewed as one of President Arthur’s premier administrators. Secretary Lincoln did not confine himself solely to administrative tasks, however.
While he usually left the daily running of the army to General William T. Sherman, and later General Philip Sheridan, Robert occasionally found himself mediating disputes between the army and the government. One of the most critical was the discipline of African-Americans in the regular army. Over the previous few years, a number of black soldiers and black West Point cadets had been court-martialed, some dismissed from service. As the son of the Great Emancipator, Robert took a personal interest in these cases and studied them in great detail. As head of the army, he realized he had a duty to uphold military regulations, but he was determined to see black soldiers treated the same as white soldiers. In addition, Robert struggled to maintain civilian control over military affairs. He briefly skirmished with General Sheridan over control of the War Department, and in the end, he ensured the supremacy of the Secretary of War. He also proved resolute when he denied a petition to build a Catholic church at the new Presidio in San Francisco, California. He decreed that Congress had to sanction the use of federal property for nongovernmental use. Secretary Lincoln’s skilled handling of these and other crises added to his popular appeal, and it was said he was the “best Secretary of War” since before the Civil War.
Despite his desire to return to Chicago and practice law and business, Robert Lincoln’s success as Secretary of War led Republican leaders to offer him even higher political offices. In 1884 it was suggested he be the vice presidential candidate, and in early 1887 he was offered an appointment as U.S. Senator. His immediate refusal did not deter those Republicans who saw him as a man who could unite the party. As the 1888 election drew near, he was one of the top three choices for the presidential nomination, and he even gained votes at the Republican Convention. He was actually relieved when the convention nominated Benjamin Harrison instead, but within only a few months, he was shocked to hear that President Harrison had appointed him Minister to Great Britain. Ever the public servant, he accepted. While in Britain, he negotiated revisions to the U.S.-British extradition treaty and organized an International Monetary Conference to allow more use of silver in international transactions. He also helped end a standoff between the U.S. and Britain over the arrest of Canadian seal hunters as well as seeking to settle the boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. Robert returned to America in May 1893 and resigned from his life of service to his country. He later served as president of several companies, including the Pullman Palace Car Company, one of the country’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Over the years, various attempts were made to convince Robert to run for the nation’s highest office, but as he had done in 1884 and 1888, he turned down the offers. Despite never actively seeking to attain lofty governmental office, it is worth noting that Robert observed the aftermath of three presidential assassinations — his father’s in 1865, James Garfield’s in 1881 and William McKinley’s in 1901. He died in July 1926, and believing his life of government service warranted it, his wife had him buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where he now lies only steps from another assassinated president, John F. Kennedy.
By the time of his death, Robert Todd Lincoln had certainly earned his own place in the American story. He proved he was far more than just Abraham’s son. He loyally served his country as a politician and statesman. In those years of service, he guided the country through one of its darkest periods and helped shape national policy. Although he did not allow his father’s life to define his, there was no question who most profoundly affected his life and his actions. He carried the name of Lincoln, but he won the nation’s admiration through his own efforts. Truly, the deeds of the father should not eclipse the son. Thankfully, the Lincoln legacy of service and devotion to country did not end with a tragic death in 1865 — rather, it lived on in the life of another patriot — Robert Todd Lincoln.