Why the president’s political legacy outlived his descendants.
The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American
By Charles Lachman
(Union Square Press, 484 pages, $24.95)
Abraham Lincoln’s last descendant died in 1985. But were Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith still alive, it’s unlikely he would have enjoyed the elaborate commemoration the 200th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth.
Beckwith was an ornery, reclusive, self-described “spoiled brat” who lived off a trust fund inherited from his tycoon grandfather, presidential son Robert Todd Lincoln, as author Charles Lachman describes in vivid and often morose detail in his new book, The Last Lincolns. The Lincolns Lachman portrays are nothing like our public-spirited, wise, forward-looking, strategically brilliant 16th president.
It’s unfair to judge an individual by the accomplishments of a forebear. Yet the Lincolns’ behavior would be depressing under almost any circumstances. The Last Lincolns follows the path of Beckwith and the other two Lincoln great-grandchildren, each of whom lived pampered, largely wasted lives, a striking departure from the president’s public service and martyrdom for his country.
The story actually begins in the chaotic waning days of Abraham Lincoln’s life. With the Civil War having just ended and the arduous work of Reconstruction ahead, the president and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln take in a Friday night show at Ford’s Theater.
That night the first presidential assassination in the nation’s history not only rocks the budding post-war calm setting over America after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Mary Todd Lincoln never gets over the horrific act of violence committed literally in front of her face.
Watching a spouse’s murder would be enough to send any sane person spiraling into depression. The widow Lincoln, however, could not find a way to forge an independent identity absent her husband. She wore black garb of mourning every day of the rest of her life until she passed away in 1882.
She fretted constantly over money, tainting the family legacy by trying to sell the president’s clothes and other belongings. After considerable haggling Congress granted Mrs. Lincoln a limited pension, but even that was not enough to ease her financial and emotional pain. She twice fled to Europe to escape what she considered harsh treatment by an American public that she said should have better appreciated her role in her husband’s accomplishments.
Tragedy was never far behind. Her 18-year-old son Tad died of what was likely tuberculosis in 1871 — the third Lincoln boy to pass prematurely. Mary Todd Lincoln had the misfortune of living in Frankfurt, Germany, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, forcing her return to the U.S. She was a Chicago resident when the great fire ravaged the city.
Through these ordeals Mary bickered constantly with son Robert. Relations between her and daughter-in-law Mary Harlan Lincoln quickly deteriorated. Things got so bad that Robert briefly had his mother institutionalized on insanity charges. She spent her lonely last days at her sister’s Springfield, Ill., home.
Robert Todd Lincoln could be considered a financial, and to an extent a political, success. He may have been the most prosperous presidential kin in American history. Robert had avoided combat in the Civil War while attending Harvard. After graduation the president wrangled him a low-level position on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, and he witnessed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
After Abraham Lincoln’s murder Robert moved to Chicago and built a lucrative law practice. He dabbled in politics, serving as secretary of war under Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur, and minister to Great Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.
Politics was never Robert’s passion, though. His stiff and pompous personality and almost manic desire for privacy meant the life of a glad-handling politician like his father was not to be.
Following his mother’s death and his second stint in government service, Robert became a top executive with the Pullman Palace Car Company, ultimately making a fortune. He earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, ruthless businessman because he used harsh tactics to help break the 1894 railroad workers strike of the company’s largely African-American workforce.
Robert lived long enough to see the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 and died at his family’s Vermont estate four years later, at age 83. It’s here that the Lincoln story takes a bad turn. Two of his three children lived to adulthood, daughters both. Neither Mamie nor the younger Jessie seemed particularly inclined toward education, public service, or much beyond their immediate gratification.
Jessie married three times and her son Robert would live the life of a 1960s hedonist, shacking up with women less than half his age. Sister Mary Lincoln “Peggy’ Beckwith became an eccentric recluse on the family estate in Vermont (called Hildene, which Peggy inherited following the death of her grandmother, Mary Harlan Lincoln). A first cousin, Lincoln Isham also lived off the family’s wealth, content as a Virginia gentleman farmer, strumming his guitar and writing musical ditties not good enough to be published.
Lachman’s book is gripping and accessible to the general public without being dumbed-down. The only problem with The Last Lincolns is its subtitle, “The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family.” Other than President Abraham, there was nothing particularly great about the Lincoln clan.
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