It took me a long time to read this book, but it was a really good book. It took awhile partly because as I would read about events or things the piqued my interest and I would put the book aside for a time and read about those—such as, Presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur (one of Robert’s good friends), B. Harrison, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Taft & Wilson. The section on the Pullman railway cars was also very interesting.
Even though this is primarily about Robert Todd Lincoln, it gives a fairly thorough treatment of Robert’s entire family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln. Robert, the first born of Abraham & Mary and the only one to live to adulthood, is a fascinating character. Not wanting to trade on the Lincoln name, Robert made his own was in the world, becoming a successful lawyer, Secretary of War & Minister to the Court of St. James. He was urged many times to run for president, and given his surname and the long string of Republican presidents from 1861-1912, he would have probably been elected; it’s fun to speculate on what might have happened, how our history would have been altered, if he had been elected president.
But, the real history is much more interesting! Consider these peculiarities: 1) Robert’s life was once saved by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of his father, Abraham; 2) Robert, entering military service late in the war, was present at the surrender at Appomattox & was the first person to give an eyewitness account of that event to his father; 3) on a real estate settlement trip to Michigan, a niece of John Wilkes Booth, when asked to serve Robert’s table, threaten to kill him; 4) his mother, whom he committed to an asylum, later threaten to kill him and kidnap Robert’s first born, Mamie. The connections to the Booth family are particularly interesting and would be scoffed at in a novel as being too far fetched, yet they’re true! 5) he was the last living witness of the surrender at Appomattox, and 6) Robert was present or nearby at the assassinations of his father, James Garfield and William McKinley—he’s also buried within sight of the grave of John F. Kennedy.
The author states “the truth is that had Robert Lincoln not been the son of Abraham Lincoln, his achievements today would be studied by schoolchildren along with other captains of industry such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Pullman.” The irony is that all his life he sought to remain in the shadows and downplayed his sonship with Abraham Lincoln—that shadow kept his out of the limelight and today most people know nothing about this remarkable man.
He was a kind, dedicated family man. He was as honest as ole Abe and inherited his father’s humor and loved to tell stories as much as his father. He was known as a great conversationalist and could talk for hours with his close confidants.
My estimate is that if he were elected president that he would have been a capable chief executive, but not an outstanding one. He was more of a William Howard Taft than a Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he had numerous disagreements.
As I read about Abraham Lincoln II, Robert’s son who died when he as sixteen I could not help but speculate over what might have been. “Jack,” as he was called, was a remarkable youth and, according to his contemporaries, had many of the same characteristics as his grandfather. If he had lived, entered politics, he may well have been the second Lincoln in the White House—perhaps in 1920 when Jack would have been 47. The country would have perhaps been spared the Harding administration and its scandals. How that would have changed history we’ll never know.