14. "How Many Hours of Sorrow I Have Passed in This Town"
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220 14 “How Many Hours of Sorrow I Have Passed in This Town” Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln entered into his new position with goodwill and high expectations from the public but a nagging anxiety and self-doubt from himself. Could he perform his job to his own high standards , standards influenced by his father’s legacy? Did he make the correct decision to accept the appointment, move his family to Washington, and leave his highly satisfying and lucrative law practice? These questions would be answered in due time, and in the end, his reputation would be that of an excellent administrator—a talent that would serve him well throughout the rest of his life. In fact, the responsibility of the secretary of war in the late nineteenth century was less about war and more about handling the routine administrations within the vast bureaucracy of the War Department. This included issues such as military appointments, promotions, and transfers; civilian employee examinations, appointments, transfers, and discharges; yearly department appropriations and publications; land surveys; improvements to bridges, harbors, rivers, and canals; government acquisition of land; and issues regarding Indian reservations and military campaigns. “On that first morning in office he was simply lawyer Lincoln, of Chicago; unabashed, unobtrusive, seeming to lack some element of self-assertion, and yet asserting himself in a way to leave impressions of sharp individuality on the hundreds who called to offer congratulations,” recalled one journalist.1 Robert’s first days and weeks on the job were filled with routine and mundane affairs. The first five letters in his letterpress books from his time in the cabinet were, in fact, requests for his autograph.2 The most immediate job he had to face, however, was to make civilian employee appointments. In a time before permanent civil-service employment, every new administration fired and hired chapter fourteen 221 thousands of new employees and therefore was deluged with seemingly endless requests for jobs. Robert received letters from strangers, colleagues, Republican Party faithful, personal friends, and family members. Being the son of a former president, he also received numerous requests and even demands for jobs from people who claimed to have assisted his father’s elections, administration , and military victories by their stint as soldiers and therefore found it proper—even necessary—that the son remunerate them. Robert dealt with these requests and appointments conscientiously but also politically. He was not averse to handing out spoils to family, friends, and party faithful; yet, he never removed, replaced, or overstepped an existing employee to make room for an inexperienced political appointment. Robert at this time received requests for favors and appointments from people such as former President Ulysses S. Grant, Senator David Davis, his friend and mentor Leonard Swett, his father-in-law, James Harlan, his law partner, Edward Isham, and his Aunt Elizabeth Edwards.3 The requests he received from Todd family members, in fact, made up such a large portion of his incoming mail that he had to begin refusing them. As he explained to his cousin: Shortly before I came here, but when I had been informed that I was to occupy my present place, I was urged by my cousin, Mrs. Ella Canfield, the widowed daughter of my mother’s brother, Levi Todd, who was in a temporary clerkship here, to get her a place in one of the departments here. I could not see my way to have her in the War Department, and, with a good deal of difficulty, I arranged to have her made a clerk in the State Department, where she now is.4 Her brother, Robert S. Todd, is a clerk in the Treasury (not through me) and is urging me to help him to promotion . Their young sister, now in Lexington, is also anxious to come here in government employment, but I was obliged to write that, both on her own account, and on my own, I felt compelled to withhold my assistance for such a purpose. During the presidency of Mr. Hayes, it came in my way to give some help by which another cousin, Miss Mattie Todd, of Cynthiana, Ky., (daughter of my uncle, George Todd) was made postmaster at that place, which office she still holds, and, I am told, administers well. Now, I am being pressed to urge a sister of my mother [Emily Helm] for another post office in [Elizabethtown] Kentucky. I have a great regard for her and want to do anything proper in my...


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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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