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320 20 “Minister Lincoln Was Quietness Personified” John Hay once wrote of his friend Robert Lincoln, “He is not a man to give way to misfortune, however sorely tried.”1 Robert had proven that statement correct time and again in his forty-six years, such as during the deaths of his brothers and father, his broken engagement to Mary Harlan, his mother’s commitment to an asylum, and the ups and downs of his personal investments. The death of his only son in March 1890, however, was unlike any ordeal Robert Lincoln had ever had to endure. Lincoln’s longtime friend and law partner, Edward Isham, feared the effect the boy’s death would have on his parents. “The whole family seemed to center around him,” Isham said, but Minister Lincoln, especially, was “devoted to the boy.”2 Reverend E. R. Donehoo, who crossed the Atlantic with the Lincolns in 1889, recalled that while Robert and Mary were clearly devoted to all three of their children, “it was plain to be seen that the hope of the parents was centered in Jack.”3 Robert’s law partner William G. Beale gave an interview indicating his hope that Minister Lincoln would resign and return to Chicago to be near friends in his bereavement, a statement that newspapers transmuted into a rumor that the minister planned to resign.4 Upon Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s friendly inquiry on the matter, Robert immediately denied the story via telegram, then explained further with a letter: “I have not myself spoken of [resignation] except to my wife when in our stunned feeling which needs no description to you it seems as though we must do something for relief and go away. It took but a moment for us to reflect that no mere change of place or occupation could mitigate our distress and that to yield to such an impulse would be useless and unwise and, for me, unmanly.”5 chapter twenty 321 Ironically, Lincoln had decided to resign before Jack died—possibly even before Jack became ill—so the family could return to America and be together while Jack finished his education in the United States. Robert had intended to leave London as soon as affairs would allow. Jack’s illness prevented the plan; Jack’s death changed it. Robert now had no reason to leave. In fact, he told Blaine he would rather stay and keep occupied. “The most important considerations are [now] obliterated and I am as contented personally here as I could be anywhere,” Lincoln wrote. “I do not forget that the important place I hold is not a personal vocation concerning only myself and my family and that if there were good reasons for my being asked to assume my present public duties they are not removed by what has come. . . . I therefore have no intention except to go on with the work before me.”6 Robert’s wife, Mary, perpetually sick and physically delicate, surprised the entire family by not completely breaking down after Jack’s death. “I would not have believed that any human could have stood the strain of months as she did with apparent cheerfulness, even when she had no hope,” Robert wrote.7 But Mary was too distraught to continue public functions, and she did not attend the Queen’s next drawing-room function in May.8 In early August, Mary fled the lugubrious London memories and took Mamie and Jessie on their annual summer pilgrimage to the Harlan home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa—more a place of sanctuary in 1890 than ever before.9 They stayed there for the next six months. Robert stayed in London, alone. Such a separation was not unusual for the Lincolns during their marriage—nor for many upper-class Victorianera couples where the husband was hard-working and successful—but clearly Mary was running away from her grief, while Robert needed to stay for his job. He began to reenter society in July, which Henry White thought would be good for him, but Robert’s grief was deep.10 “I would find life in London very agreeable but for the cloud that is in my house—it shadows everything,” Robert wrote not long after his son’s death.11 During their immediate grief, the Lincolns began planning for artistic likenesses to be made of Jack. The parents had had a death mask of their son created , which they intended to use as the basis for a sculpture...


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