Thursday, March 10, 2011

Robert Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln's Biography

Like most American historians, I love reading about Abraham Lincoln. On a recent trip to the library I loaded my book bag with two volumes of Hay and Nicolay’s biography of Lincoln and the Hidden Lincoln, an edited volume of letters to and from William Herndon concerning his own biography of Lincoln. Hay, Herndon, and Nicolay all knew Lincoln quite well, but their works gave different views of their former friend and boss. Hay and Nicolay focused mostly on the 16th president’s political career portrayed a wiser man than Herndon’s more earthy personal account. Obviously they saw different versions of Lincoln. Nicolay and Hay saw him in the White House as the Chief Executive of the land during a time of war. Herndon, on the other hand, saw Lincoln as a lawyer relating directly to clients, building a practice, and participating in the gritty life of a frontier lawyer. But that was not all. A big factor in their alternative viewpoints was the attitude of Robert Todd Lincoln, the former president’s only surviving child.

For those who don’t know Robert Todd Lincoln led a distinguished career after his father’s assassination. He served as Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Arthur (1881-1885) where the younger Lincoln proved an able administrator who worked to increase pay and streamline the cooperation between the state militias and the war departments. For the most part, he practiced a restrained hand when dealing with the Native Americans. Later, under President Benjamin Harrison, he served as Minster to the Court of St. James (1889-1893), a fancy way of saying he was our ambassador to Great Britain. Later he remained a stalwart conservative Republican and admonished Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 for associating Abraham Lincoln to the Bull Moose New Nationalism program. Lincoln backed Taft in 1912.

Despite his admirable career, Robert Todd Lincoln could never escape his heritage. He seems to have thought that had he gone to Ford’s Theater on the fateful night of the assassination in April 1865 he might have prevented it. He comes across as a dour and overly serious man lacking any of his father’s famous sense of humor. This was never more so than the manner in which he treated his father’s papers. Robert kept them from all prying eyes, except for Hay and Nicolay whom he encouraged to provide what was in effect an authorized biography of his murdered father. He quashed Herndon’s efforts, even going so far as personally buying copies in bulk and destroying them in order to keep them out of the public hands. He pressured Charles Scribner’s Sons against issuing Herndon’s biography. Another publisher took on the task but made serious edits to the material in order to appease Lincoln. He truly believed that the Hay and Nicolay biography would be the final word and no other would be necessary. In this he was continuously frustrated. He used his influence to keep Lord Charnwood out of the Massachusetts Historical Society and steadfastly refused to allow Senator Albert Beveridge, among others access to the papers. When he finally donated the Lincoln papers to the Library of Congress in 1919 he stipulated that no one could see them without his authorization while he was alive and then no one could see them for another 21 years after his death.

Why was Robert Lincoln so secretive or protective? His biographer John Goff suggests that Robert was a thorough Victorian who saw nothing proper with any investigation of his father’s private life. Herndon, of course, exacerbated this by alleging that Abraham was not a legitimate son of Thomas Lincoln and other such personal comments that had nothing to do with his political life and presidency. For that reason, Robert wanted to scare off biographers. He also probably destroyed some Lincoln family papers. Several people ranging from his own grand daughter to friends recalled seeing him burning papers at the same time that the Lincoln papers were in the room. The Lincoln papers (which have been digitized and are available on the Library of Congress website) do not have many personal letters between the family among them. It is quite likely that Robert Todd Lincoln destroyed those papers he considered to personal and left behind only those dealing with Abraham’s professional life.

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