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All in the Family

Jason Emerson's new biography of Robert Todd Lincoln captures a man of impressive achievement in his own right.

By From the May 2012 issue

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Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln
By Jason Emerson
(Southern Illinois University Press, 752 pages, $39.95)

Robert Todd Lincoln (he never used the Todd, Jason Emerson tells us), the oldest of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons and the only one to live to adulthood, was one of those Midwestern men of business who made Chicago the post-Civil War center of American commerce and industry—a city, wrote Andrew Ferguson in his splendid Land of Lincoln, that “grew with the Lincoln legend and was, in part, a creature of it,” a city leveled by fire and rebuilt, epitomizing the “entrepreneurial capitalism that came roaring out of the Civil War period and Lincoln came to symbolize.”

The Chicago connection is central to Emerson’s study, and interestingly enough, this magazine has strong Chicago ties as well. Andrew Ferguson, who made his bones as a journalist at The American Spectator, writes that his father worked as a lawyer in Chicago at the firm founded by Robert Todd Lincoln.

And hanging in the home library of Bob Tyrrell, the founder and editor of TAS, and himself a Chicago product, is a large picture of Abraham Lincoln, with a bronze plaque that reads: “Presented To P. D. Tyrrell, U.S.S.S. By Robert T. Lincoln April 14, 1887 For Loyalty And Service to his Father Abraham Lincoln.”

Captain P.D. Tyrrell of the U.S. Secret Service, head of its regional office in Chicago, was Bob Tyrrell’s great-great-grandfather; and his service to Robert Lincoln’s father, performed twelve years after the assassination of the president, was to prevent the theft of Abraham Lincoln’s body by a Chicago gang of body snatchers (they were also counterfeiters) from its burial place in Springfield, Illinois.

Grave robbing, Emerson tells us, a somewhat macabre form of kidnapping, was not uncommon at the time. In 1830, for instance, one sensational case occurred when “a fired gardener at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon tried to steal the first president’s skull, but ended up with the bones of a distant relative.”

In the end, the plot to snatch Lincoln’s body, discussed in some detail in one of the most readable sections of this highly readable book, was foiled by Captain Tyrrell. Tyrrell, Emerson tells us, was an immigrant, born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1835, who moved to America at age three. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and after a variety of jobs in law enforcement, made his way to Chicago, where he was named a police detective and “established himself as one of the department’s best men,” solving several of the department’s most difficult cases.

When the Chicago chief of police was appointed chief of the U.S. Secret Service in 1874, “he brought Tyrrell with him and made the Irishman head of the Chicago regional office. There, Tyrrell again distinguished himself as a top operative by shutting down and arresting numerous counterfeiters and gangs, operations large and small.”

P. D. Tyrrell, Emerson writes, “was one of the Service’s most outstanding operatives, and later in his career would be considered one of the most distinguished law enforcement officers in the country.”

The attempt to steal Lincoln’s body is worth a book in itself, and at least one has already been written. But for Emerson’s purpose, the whole episode also helps define the great responsibility to preserve and protect his father’s memory and legacy that Robert Lincoln charged himself with bearing throughout his life and career:

In September 1901, the final re-burial of Abraham Lincoln took place.…This was the seventeenth time the body was moved, and the sixth time it was exposed and viewed since 1865…. After thirty-six years of dealing with events concerning his father’s tomb—the history of which one newspaper called “a sort of burlesque”—Robert never again had to worry about it, Abraham Lincoln was finally and permanently at rest. The entire affair, however, was only one small piece of the Lincoln legacy—a legacy that would occupy, satisfy, and very often aggravate Robert his entire life.

His self-appointed role as guardian of the Lincoln legacy also involved making judgments on the various works about the president and his family increasingly pouring out of the printing presses. He especially despised the life of Lincoln written by William Herndon, who as a boy had known the future president and later became his law partner. Some students of Abraham Lincoln find Herndon indispensable for his depiction of the fast-disappearing world of the frontier that helped shape and define Lincoln. (Interestingly, Robert Lincoln was enthusiastic about the two-volume life of his father written by Ida Tarbell, the noted muckraker.)

Part of Robert Lincoln’s distaste for Herndon apparently grew out of what he considered “the negative depiction of Mary Lincoln.” According to Emerson, a significant amount of his time was spent discrediting books and articles published about his mother, as well as trying “to collect and destroy all of his mother’s letters written during what [he] called her ‘period of mental derangement,’ and also to attempt to block the publication of letters he could not destroy.”

Perhaps the heaviest part of Robert Lincoln’s burden as guardian of the family legacy was the continuous care and oversight of his mother, as she sank from instability into something very much like insanity, at one point requiring a formal commitment, which proved temporary, to an asylum. The extended scenes in which the relationship between mother and son are described are among the most painful in the book.

BUT MR. EMERSON'S biography is by no means an extended chronicle of heartbreak and suffering. True, it might seem there’s a string of bad luck running through the Robert Lincoln story—especially where presidents are involved. Although not at Ford Theater when his father was shot, he was nearby at the White House and one of the first to arrive at the theater.

In 1881, he was with President James A. Garfield, whom he served as Secretary of War, when Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau; and in 1901, he was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when Leon F. Czolgosz shot President William McKinley. Apparently this led Lincoln to a number of refusals to attend events where a sitting president might be present.

At times Mr. Emerson, who shows that in later life Robert Lincoln adhered to “a Victorian values system,” assumes a distinctly Victorian style himself. As a young man, he tells us, Robert Lincoln wasn’t above a certain amount of hell-raising: “As dutiful and affectionate [a son] as Robert was, it is not incorrect to reveal his great desire and ability for smoking cigars, drinking, and carousing, which only increased during his college years.”

During those years at Harvard, he was also eager to enlist, like so many of his fellow students, but was prevented from doing so by his mother, who was growing increasingly unstable. Finally, with the help of his father, he was able to join the personal staff of General Grant as a captain in time for the last few battles of the war, and was at Appomattox to witness General Lee’s surrender.

With the end of the war and the assassination, Lincoln brought his mother and younger brother to live in Chicago, where he finished his law degree and eventually helped to establish the prestigious firm where Andrew Ferguson’s father went to work a half-century later. It was in Chicago where he made his mark as a man of accomplishment in his own right, and where he became president of the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1897.

During those years he also served in prestigious posts in Republican administrations, among them Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. As his reputation grew—and of course because of the family name—Lincoln became increasingly talked of as a presidential or vice presidential possibility. But he’d have none of it. In 1884, he explicitly forbade his name to be placed in nomination as vice president at the Republican convention.

Four years later, he again had strong support at the Republican convention and, despite not attending, took a significant number of votes for the top job. “It seemed as certain then as it does now,” writes Emerson, “that had Robert Lincoln actively sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1888, he would have won it.” In the end, the nomination went to former Senator Benjamin Harrison, who, upon defeating Grover Cleveland and taking office, nominated Lincoln as America’s Minister to Great Britain.

In all, a distinguished career. As Emerson, very much his subject’s champion, puts it: “Robert T. Lincoln was an accomplished man, one of the exemplars of his generation, who, beyond being the son of Abraham Lincoln, should and must be recognized for his independent achievement. On top of all that, Robert’s life, from 1843 to 1926, spanned the most innovative, impressive, and dynamic era in American history.” With much of it, one might add, played out in Chicago, the most dynamic city of the era.

“Robert’s life is a fantastic journey through a rich period of American history,” writes Justin Emerson. And it is to his great credit as a biographer and historian that he so successfully brings Robert T. Lincoln out of history’s shadows and the times in which he lived back to vivid life.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).