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The life of Robert Todd Lincoln


Robert Todd Lincoln, the first child of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, was born in 1843 in Springfield, Ill., and named for his maternal grandfather. He studied law, became a lawyer, and later served as Secretary of War under Presidents James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.

He was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four children to survive into adulthood and have children. He had three younger brothers, Edward Baker Lincoln (1846-50) who died at four years, probably from tuberculosis; William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln (1850-62) who died of a fever at 12 years; and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-71) who died of heart failure at 18 years.

Before Robert Todd Lincoln was born, his father had already become a well-known member of the Whig political party and served four terms in the Illinois State Legislature. By 1861, when Abraham Lincoln became America’s 16th president, Robert Todd Lincoln, at 18 years, was largely on his own.

As we researched the life of this man, the elder son of one of America’s favorite and greatest presidents, we discovered three notable vignettes:

First, during the Civil War (1861-65), much to the embarrassment of the president, Mary Todd Lincoln prevented Robert Lincoln from joining the Union Army until shortly before the war’s conclusion. Because two of their young sons had already died, she felt that was as much a loss as she could bear. Even though the president contended their sons were no dearer to them than the sons of other people are to their mothers, it wasn’t until January 1865 that the First Lady yielded and President Lincoln wrote Ulysses S. Grant asking if Robert could be placed on his staff.

Second, Robert Lincoln was either present or nearby when three presidential assassinations occurred:

On the night of his father’s death, Robert, because of fatigue, had declined his parent’s invitation to accompany them to Ford’s Theatre. He was in the White House that evening but he was not present at his father’s assassination. Once he learned his father had been shot, however, he rushed to be at his father’s deathbed in the Petersen House.

At President James A. Garfield’s invitation, Robert Lincoln, who was serving as Garfield’s Secretary of War at the time, was at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881, where President Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau. Robert Lincoln was an eyewitness to the event.

Robert Lincoln was also at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, at President William McKinley’s invitation, when McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz on Sept. 6, 1901. However, he was not an eyewitness to that shooting.

Acknowledging the frequency of these coincidences Robert Lincoln is said to have declined later presidential invitations with the comment, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

Third, in 1868, Robert Todd Lincoln married Mary Harlan, the daughter of U.S. Senator James Harlan of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. During the 1880’s, Robert, Mary and their three children often left the hot city life and “summered” at Mary’s family’s cooler Mt. Pleasant home that her father built in 1854 and lived in until his death in 1899.

In 1907, eight years after Sen. Harlan’s death, Mary Harlan Lincoln donated his home to Iowa Wesleyan College to house artifacts from Sen. Harlan’s family, her “Lincoln” family, and from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Robert Todd Lincoln died in 1926 at 83 years. His last descendant, grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985.

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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