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Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln

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Robert Todd Lincoln was an American lawyer and secretary of war best known as the first-born son of President Abraham Lincoln.

Who Was Robert Todd Lincoln?

Robert Todd Lincoln was the first-born son of President Abraham Lincoln, and the only one of Lincoln’s four children to live to adulthood. Following his father’s assassination, Lincoln worked as a lawyer, secretary of war and minister to Great Britain. He died on July 26, 1926, in Manchester, Vermont.

Early Life

Robert Todd Lincoln was the first-born son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. Born on August 1, 1843, in Springfield, Illinois, he was the only one of the Lincoln's four children to live to adulthood. Siblings Edward, Willie and Thomas passed away due to illnesses.

Though his younger brothers enjoyed a warm relationship with their father, Robert’s experience was the opposite. Later in life he wrote, "During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches. In 1859, when I was 16 ... I went to New Hampshire to school and afterward to Harvard College, and he became president. Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible. I scarcely even had 10 minutes quiet talk with him during his presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business."

After completing his undergraduate studies in 1864, Robert entered Harvard Law School. The following year, he interrupted his studies to briefly serve as a captain in General Ulysses S. Grant's army. Robert entered the Union army late in the Civil War, a move much criticized by both his father’s political foes and his allies. Many blamed his mother, who some say pushed to keep him in school as long as possible, thus decreasing his likelihood of facing combat.

President Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, after being shot by secessionist John Wilkes Booth. The next month, Robert Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and lived with her for two years. During this time he took law classes at the University of Chicago and passed the bar to become a lawyer.

In a strange coincidence shortly before President Lincoln’s assassination, Robert was saved from a serious potential train platform injury by Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth.


Robert Lincoln was a charter member of the Chicago Bar Association and opened his own law firm. He gained clients in the railroad and corporate sectors, and by the 1870s had established himself as a successful lawyer.

President Rutherford B. Hayes offered Lincoln the position of assistant secretary of state in 1877, but Lincoln rejected it. Nevertheless, he remained close to politics and acted as a delegate to the Republican Convention in 1880.

In 1881 President James Garfield approached him to be his secretary of war; Lincoln accepted, and served until 1885. During this time he supported Indian lands by recommending legislation to cease white Americans’ intrusion. He also suggested the separation between the Weather Bureau and the Army, urged a pay increase for soldiers to reduce the risk of desertion, and recommended liberal appropriations to states to support the launch of volunteer militia organizations.

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Representative Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico, speaks during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, June 29, 2020. The hearing is titled "U.S. Park Police Attack on Peaceful Protesters at Lafayette Square Park." Photographer: Bonnie Cash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Deb Haaland

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 09: John Major attends the annual Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph on Whitehall on November 9, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. People across the UK gather to pay tribute to service personnel who have died in the two World Wars and subsequent conflicts, with this year taking on added significance as it is the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

John Major

In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison assigned Lincoln as minister to Great Britain, the most prestigious foreign appointment in the State Department. During his tenure, Lincoln faced no international crises or scandals. He remained in this, his last government position, until 1893.

Over the decades the Republican Party repeatedly brought up Lincoln’s name as a potential candidate for president or vice president, pushing him to run in 1884, 1888, 1892 and 1912. However, the boy who often felt lost in his father’s shadow had no interest in following in his father’s presidential footsteps. Robert Lincoln’s close friend, Nicholas Murray Butler, wrote that younger Lincoln often said he was just known as Abraham Lincoln's son and would say, "No one wanted me for secretary of war, they wanted Abraham Lincoln's son. No one wanted me for minister to England, they wanted Abraham Lincoln's son. No one wanted me for president of the Pullman Company, they wanted Abraham Lincoln's son.”

Lincoln returned to law in 1893, acting as general counsel at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. When owner George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln filled in as the acting president. His role transformed into a permanent one in 1901. He resigned in 1911, citing health concerns. Lincoln remained involved as the chairman of the board, a position he held until 1922.

That same year, Lincoln made his last public appearance when he honored his father’s memory during the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Personal Life

A newspaper dubbed Lincoln the “Prince of Rails” because his father had campaigned as "The Railsplitter." Lincoln did not like the nickname, nor did he enjoy being in the public eye. He strove to make his own name regardless of his father’s fame.

Lincoln married Mary Harlan in 1868, a union that produced three children: Mary (born on October 15, 1869), Abraham "Jack" (born on August 14, 1873) and Jessie (born on November 6, 1875). While Lincoln was serving as minister to Great Britain, his only son died at age 16 due to blood poisoning after a surgical infection.

Ten years after the death of his father, in 1875 Lincoln had his mother committed to a mental institution for her eccentric behavior, upon the advice of physicians. A Chicago court held an insanity trial and declared her insane. Many believed his mother never had recovered from the loss of her husband and three sons. His mother resented her forcible commitment and worked with her lawyer and a friend to leak a story to a Chicago newspaper casting doubt on her insanity proclamation. With negative publicity mounting, a Chicago court overturned the past ruling and declared her sane. A strained mother-son relationship existed thereafter.

Lincoln believed he brought bad luck, a conclusion made after his connection to three shootings: He was at his father’s bedside when he died from a gunshot wound; he was present at the Washington, D.C. railroad station when President Garfield was shot; and he was at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition when President William McKinley was shot. He later refused to attend presidential functions.


Though Lincoln lived in Chicago for most of his adult life, he died on July 26, 1926, at Hildene, his Manchester, Vermont, summer retreat. His physician stated that Lincoln had died from a "cerebral hemorrhage induced by arteriosclerosis." Unlike the rest of his immediate family, who were buried in the family plot in Illinois, Lincoln was buried in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. His wife decided his burial site, writing that she felt her husband "was a personage, made his own history, independently (underlined 5 times) of his great father, and should have his own place 'in the sun.'"

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