Robert Todd Lincoln

I went to see the movie, Lincoln, today. Great movie. Go see this movie. Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones both do an incredible job as Lincoln and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, respectively.  The cast is outstanding, and the history lesson is one which we all should become familiar with. Lincoln had no easy task as a President during a long, bloody Civil War. History describes him as a uniter, but the road to re-unification of the country was not at all paved in gold for this man. We must not forget that he too gave his life for the country he believed the United States should be. What a man of conviction!

Something caught my attention in the movie, and it had nothing to do with the political aspect of the plot. I became fascinated by the portrayal of Lincoln as a loving and attentive father to his youngest son, “Tad,” while showing more of a “tough love” parenting approach with his oldest, Robert (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

I had never thought about Abraham Lincoln as a father. I guess I had always just thought of him as one of our country’s “fathers,” never even bothering to look into his personal life.  Until today. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln had four sons with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln? Four boys.

Unfortunately, only one, Robert, lived to adulthood. The other three, Eddie, Willie, and Tad all died under the age of 18. (Tad was 18 when he died of heart failure). How devastating for poor Mrs. Lincoln. She lost her four year old son, Eddie, first, then 11-year old Willie, then her husband to a gunshot wound to the head, and her baby, Tad. No wonder the woman was committed to a psychiatric hospital later in life. I cannot imagine the pain of her losses.

Being the curious creature that I am, I decided that I needed to know more about Robert and the Lincoln legacy. Are there any descendants living today?

Turns out, Robert was a Harvard Law School drop-out. His parents, especially his mother, did not want him dropping out of school to fight in the War, but he defied them and did it anyway. Luckily, he entered the war towards the end, in early 1865, and was positioned as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s inner staff where he would not see much action.

When you see the movie, you will see how Spielberg interprets the relationship between Abraham and Robert. I found this part of the movie very moving.

Robert went on to earn his law degree from the Old University of Chicago, which later became Northwestern’s law school. He lived in Chicago with his mother and younger brother, Tad, for a few years. He did marry in 1868, and had two daughters and a son.

What I found to be the most interesting about Robert was that he actually had a career in public service as well. From 1881-1885, Robert Lincoln was Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Arthur. In 1887, he helped a man by the name of Oscar Dudley establish the Illinois Industrial Training School for Boys. Robert also served as the U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom under President Harrison from 1889-1893, entering private life as a lawyer upon his return to the States.

I have also read that Robert Lincoln was an amateur astronomer and created an observatory at his home in Manchester, Vermont.

Robert’s last public appearance was at the dedication ceremony for his father’s memorial in 1922. He died in his sleep in 1926 at the age of 82, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert’s Father

Now, one of my big questions before writing this post was whether there are any living Lincoln descendants. The answer is no.

One of Robert’s daughters had two children, the other daughter had one son. Neither of Robert Lincoln’s grandchildren had children. His grandson, “Bud” Beckwith died in 1985. Therefore, the Abraham Lincoln bloodline died in 1985 as well.

I find it fascinating that we can know so much about the personal lives of such public American heros. It is a shame that there is no one living today who is a direct descendant of the great Abraham Lincoln. All we have is the historical memory of a man and his likeness on a movie screen. If only we could have been so lucky to have been live witnesses to these famous men of the past.

If I could meet Robert Lincoln, I’d love to ask him about his father. Historians and dead politicians have painted the man as we know him, but what would his son say? Children have such a special relationship with their parents, and oftentimes are able to see the true colors of the person who raises them, moreso than anyone else. I’d love to hear more about Abraham at home.

So, go see the movie. Read more history. Ask questions and decide for yourself. What kind of father was Abraham Lincoln?

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