“The Prince of Rails”: Robert Todd Lincoln

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved

Robert Todd Lincoln – “Bob” to his family and friends – was dubbed the “Prince of Rails” during his “Railsplitter” father’s 1860 campaign for president, after a visit to this country by England’s Prince of Wales. Robert was a prince who would never ascend to the throne.

He was the oldest of the four children – all boys – of Mary and Abraham and the only one to reach maturity. He lived a long life. Born in 1843, he died in 1926. In examining his life, it is difficult to know what was his toughest challenge – living in the shadow of his immortal father or living with his tempestuous ever-mourning mother after his father’s death. These challenges would be reflected in his career as lawyer and public servant, his contentious relationship with his mother, and the life he declined to have in politics.

Physically, Robert was more of a Todd than a Lincoln. When he was three, his father wrote that, “Bob is short and a little low and I expect, always will be.” He was also different in personality than either parent. “Shy and reticent, he lacked the personal magnetism of his father and the vivaciousness of his mother.”

Robert Todd Lincoln, “The Prince of Rails,” at age 17

The contrast between Robert’s and his father’s early years and education could not be greater. Although he was born in a room above a tavern, his family soon moved to a cottage and then their own home in 1844. He received his early education from a local academy and then Illinois State University, a preparatory school. After initially failing his entrance exams to Harvard, he enrolled at the well-known and respected Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. After a year at Exeter, he was accepted at Harvard – a member of the class of 1864. He ranked 32nd in his graduating class of 99. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School but would soon leave there to become a captain – with the help of his father – in the Union army, assigned to General Grant.

Robert was with Grant for Lee’s surrender and at his father’s bedside when Lincoln died. His mother was in another room, hysterical with grief. Robert represented the family at all of the funeral services in Washington and Springfield. His mother, in deep mourning, could attend none. She would stay in black for the rest of her life. Upon leaving the White House, Mary, Robert, and his brother Tad moved to Chicago – Springfield had “too many memories” for Mary. He completed his studies for the law at the University of Chicago, becoming a lawyer in February 1867. Tad would die in 1871, barely 18 years old, of pleurisy, adding to Mary’s sorrow. Robert and his mother, never close, went their separate ways.

Robert married Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of a friend of his father, in 1868. They would have three children – Mary in 1869, Abraham II, called “Jack,” in 1873, and Jessie in 1875. Mary Eunice was described as shy and often sickly. It is no surprise that she did not get along with her mother-in-law.

Most people did not get along well with Mary Todd Lincoln – before, during, and after her husband’s presidency. It has been written that in the midst of her hysterical mourning for their son, Willie, while in the White House, her husband showed her the roof of a nearby asylum and told her that unless she improved she would have to be committed. Robert gave her no such warning and surprised her in 1875 with a trial to determine her sanity. He believed she became insane with the death of her husband. With the “good ole boy” network, including her “defense” council, supporting Robert, Mary was judged insane and committed to an asylum. One of her biographers, Jean H. Baker, believes that Mary suffered from the personality disorder of narcissism. “Today,” she writes, “her behavior would be seen as annoying, improper, and unnatural but dangerous neither to herself or to society – and therefore not an instance of medical or legal insanity.” She would be in the asylum only long enough for her to regroup and force her way out – three months and three weeks.

Mary Todd Lincoln

We will never know what eventually drove Robert to take the drastic step he did with Mary’s commitment, with all the family embarrassment and estrangement it caused, but certainly the situation could have been handled much better. Robert always sought the advice of his father’s old friends, but this time they let him down. Perhaps they, having to put up with Mary longer than Robert, had finally had enough of the president’s widow. He and his mother remained estranged the rest of her life. She died in 1882.

Robert, the successful businessman

Robert would have a distinguished career in law and government service. He became a very successful attorney during the 1870s. He turned down President Hayes’s offer to be an assistant secretary of state in 1877, but then accepted President Garfield’s appointment as secretary of war in 1881, serving until 1885. President Harrison appointed him minister to England in 1889, where he served for four years. After serving as acting president for four years, Robert became the president of the Pullman Company in 1901 and its chairman of the board in 1902. The “Prince of Rails” had become the king of railroad cars. He continued in that position until 1922.

Robert Todd Lincoln, late in life

He had the career and life he desired, but not the life in politics at the highest level others sought for him beginning in 1884 with efforts to have him run for vice president. “I am so sincerely not a candidate,” he said at the time. In 1888, it was thought that a dream ticket of Lincoln for president and Frederick Grant (Ulysses’ son) could not lose. However, the dream dissipated quickly when Grant lost an election in New York and Robert refused to even consider seeking the nomination. He said, “The presidential office is but a gilded cage. The care and worry outweigh to my mind, any honor…” His name would be mentioned again for the highest office in every presidential cycle through 1912 when he was 69 years old, prompting him to say, “A man ought not to shirk public duties, but equally he ought not to take them if he knows he is unfit to do them.”

Robert had a distinguished life in law, business, and public service and accumulated much wealth, but he fell somewhat short of meeting his family challenges. He never escaped the shadow of his father, telling a friend that every position he held was because he was Lincoln’s son, and he let the family down with his treatment of his mother. His last public appearance was in 1922 at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.

Robert Lincoln (right) with Chief Justice William Howard Taft (left) and President Warren G. Harding (center) at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, May 30, 1922.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and not the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield. This was his wife’s decision after his death. She felt that he “was a personage, made his own history independently of his great father and should have his own place in the sun!” The Lincoln name died with Robert’s son, Jack, in 1890 and the Lincoln lineage died in 1985 with the death of Robert’s grandson, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith.