Abraham Lincoln had four sons but only his oldest, Robert, reached adulthood. Robert was born on Aug. 1, 1843, in Springfield, Illinois. His younger brothers had a warm relationship with their father, but Robert did not.
Later in his life he wrote that during his childhood, his father was almost constantly away attending court or making political speeches. When Robert was 16, he went to New Hampshire to attend a private school and afterward he attended Harvard College.
While Robert was attending Harvard, his father became president. Robert would reflect that he had scarcely any quiet time with his father during his presidency because of constant devotion to work.
After completing undergraduate studies in 1864, Robert entered Harvard Law School, but after one year he left to briefly serve as captain in the Union Army. After his father’s death he moved with his mother and brother Tad to Chicago, where he finished law school at the University of Chicago.
He gained clients in the railroad and corporate sectors and became an established, successful lawyer. President James Garfield appointed him Secretary of War from 1881 until 1885, and President Benjamin Harrison assigned Robert to be minister to Great Britain, which he accepted and served until 1893. He then became president of the Pullman Palace Car Co. of Chicago.
Like his father, Robert was well acquainted with death. His brother Eddie was born in 1846 but died at the age of 3 from tuberculosis. His second sibling Willie was born in 1850, but died in the White House from typhoid fever. His third brother, Tad, was born in 1853. Tad had a cleft lip and palate, which caused him speech problems throughout his life. After the assassination, Mary, Robert and Tad moved to Chicago. Mary and Tad moved to Germany in 1868 and later to England. After three years abroad, they moved back to Chicago. In July 1871, Tad died at the age of 18 from tuberculosis.
During his life Robert also witnessed political violence. He was not only present when his father died, but also saw the assassination of James Garfield and was nearby when William McKinley was shot. He said, “My God, how many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”
Robert Lincoln got married and had three children, two girls and one boy. The only grandson of Abraham Lincoln passed away at the age of 16 due to a blood infection from surgery. Robert Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, at his summer retreat in Manchester, Vermont, at the age of 82.
Despite his many successes, Robert Lincoln would remark to his friend Nicholas Murray Butler, “No one wanted me for secretary of war, or minister to England, they wanted Abraham Lincoln’s son.”
Robert was not interred in Springfield in the family tomb. At his wife’s request, he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery to reflect a career independent of his famous father.
Ken Kime is the vice president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania. Visit http://www.LincolnFellowship.org for more information.
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