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1 Introduction In 1888, Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, was in serious danger of becoming president of the United States. This is not idle speculation, for “danger” is exactly what Robert Lincoln considered it to be. “I have seen too much of the wear and tear of official life to ever have a desire to reenter it,” he told a reporter in 1887, two years after finishing his term as secretary of war. “The Presidential office is but a gilded prison. The care and worry outweigh, to my mind, the honor which surrounds the position.”1 Yet, he was the ideal candidate. At that time, the forty-five-yearold Lincoln was a prominent Chicago attorney, an active Republican, former supervisor of the town of South Chicago, and former secretary of war under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. And Robert was a Lincoln. In fact, just four years earlier, Lincoln nearly became the Republican vice presidential nominee, second on the ticket to James G. Blaine. Lincoln thought the speculation about him was nonsense, but when it became evident he was going to be nominated that time, he immediately telegraphed the Republican convention and forbade his name to be presented. As Robert wrote to an admirer in May 1884, “I have discouraged all use of my name and have no other wish than that the convention will calmly select a man who will unite all our people and enable us to take advantage of the present situation of our opponents. I hope that no such responsibility will be thrust upon me.”2 By 1888, Lincoln had four more years of age, political activism, and legal experience to add to his already impressive résumé. More important, the Republican Party had no clear front-runner for its presidential nomination. Blaine stated that he, as a failed candidate, would not run again. The rest of the party was broken among regional factions. Lincoln became the “dark horse” possibility over whom Republicans salivated and Americans adulated. introduction 2 In the end, Lincoln’s reluctance and political inactivity allowed him to escape nomination and a most probable election. Yet, Lincoln’s own worth, in addition to further experience as President Benjamin Harrison’s minister to Great Britain and as president of the multi-million-dollar Pullman Company, coupled with his illustrious name, would have his party continue to seek his ascendancy to his father’s old office three more times during his life. As the Chicago Tribune stated in 1890, “There is one quiet man, not now much talked of, whom all the Presidential aspirants want to keep their eyes on, and that man is Robert T. Lincoln. His name in connection with the Presidential nomination . . . is like a motion to adjourn—it is always in order.”3 Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four children, all sons, and the only son to live to maturity. Robert graduated from Harvard College, served on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff during the last months of the Civil War, and afterward undertook the practice of law in Chicago. He became one of the most prominent attorneys in the city during the late nineteenth century. He accepted prestigious civil service positions in the U.S. government and became a captain of industry as the leader of the Pullman Palace Car Company. He was a family man, a businessman, and a philanthropist ; he was a self-made man who died a multimillionaire. Robert T. Lincoln (he never used his middle name, only his middle initial) also was the preserver, protector, and defender of his father’s ever-growing reputation, as well as the owner of his father’s letters and personal artifacts. In this capacity, which Robert never flaunted, he was besieged by historians, collectors, museums, historical societies, politicians, and the general public, all seeking souvenirs, access, and contact with the surviving link to the Great Emancipator. Robert’s attitudes toward the papers and artifacts always remained consistent—he never gave full access to anyone. His relationship with his father’s legacy, however, was more complex. He revered his father’s memory and agreed with the hagiographical style of biography prevalent at the time, but he was publicly reticent and strove not to insert himself into his father’s apotheosis. As Robert aged, his patience thinned, and he eventually became a more outspoken advocate for the purity of his father’s memory. The son of...


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Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Lincoln, Robert Todd, 1843-1926.
  • Children of presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ambassadors -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1933.
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