I started out just to do a little post about Robert Lincoln, the only surviving but mostly forgotten son of President Abraham Lincoln, but have ended up with an open can of interesting worms.
Despite Pullman’s victory against the workers and the union, “George Pullman attracted broad criticism and his workers wide sympathy. A federal panel appointed to investigate the strike sharply criticized the company’s paternalistic policies and refusal to arbitrate, advancing the idea of the need for unions and for increased government regulation in an age of large-scale industrialization.”
Robert Lincoln was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four children to survive into adulthood. Born on August 1, 1843, in a boarding house called the Globe Tavern in Springfield, Illinois, he lived to the ripe old age of 82, dying July 26, 1926 at the Georgian Revival mansion he had built in 1905, known as Hildene, in the village of Manchester in The Shires of Vermont.
Much criticized for not earlier entering the Union Army, Robert interrupted Harvard law school to serve briefly on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff in 1865. He and his parents battled over his desire to serve in the Army. Robert’s failure to serve led to criticism from even the President’s political allies. When Senator Ira Harris pressed Mary Lincoln on the question, in 1863, she replied: “Robert is making his preparations now to enter the Army; he is not a shirker – if fault there be it is mine, I have insisted that he should stay in college a little longer as I think an educated man can serve his country with more intelligent purpose than an ignoramous.
Robert Lincoln joined General Grant’s staff as a captain in early 1865 after his father wrote to the General. As an aide-de-camp to Grant, he was kept out of harm’s way and given the task of escorting visitors to various locations. He was present at Appomattox when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. Five days later, on the morning of April 14, 1865, Robert was at the White House having breakfast with his parents “and the closing scenes of Grant’s campaign were discussed with the deepest interest by father and son.” President Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth later that night.
In an odd twist of fate, in 1863 or ’64 Robert Lincoln came very close to being seriously injured by a train but was rescued by a stranger — Edwin Booth, brother to President Lincoln’s future assassin.
Robert Lincoln did not go to Ford’s Theater with his parents that night and instead stayed at the White House, visiting with his friend John Hay, the president’s private secretary.
When [Edwin M.] Stanton died in 1869, Robert Todd Lincoln wrote the Secretary of War’s son, Edwin L. Stanton, that “when I recall the kindness of your father to me, when my father was lying dead and I felt utterly desperate, hardly able to realize the truth, I am as little able to keep my eyes from filling with tears as he was then.”
Robert Lincoln was appointed Secretary of War by President James Garfield, continuing under President Chester Arthur after Garfield’s assassination in July 1881, serving from March 5, 1881 to March 5, 1885. High elected office held no interest for Robert Lincoln. In 1888 he said, “The presidential office is but a gilded cage. The care and worry outweigh to my mind, any honor…” His name would be brought up 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.”
His presence at the assassinations of both Garfield and President William McKinley made him self-conscious about “a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.”
As Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln “recommended legislation to prevent and punish white intrusion upon Indian lands, … that the Weather Bureau be separated from the Army, … an increase in pay for private soldiers as one way to discourage desertion; [and] proposed liberal appropriations to the states to support the formation of volunteer militia organizations.”
However, in 1894 Robert Lincoln found himself near the center of “[t]he most famous and farreaching labor conflict in a period of severe economic depression and social unrest” — the Pullman Strike, which began May 11, 1894, with a walkout by Pullman Palace Car Company factory workers after their wages were cut 25% and negotiations failed. The workers “appealed for support to the American Railway Union (ARU), which argued unsuccessfully for arbitration.”
It’s very useful to have the only living son of a beloved and assassinated former president for your lawyer in order to avoid contempt charges, as did George Pullman. Robert Lincoln earned his 1897 promotion to president of the Pullman Company.
He served as served chairman of the board from 1911 until his death in 1926.
Despite Pullman’s victory over workers in 1894, the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations convened hearings to look into labor accusations against the Pullman Company. On May 5, 1915 Robert Lincoln, then chairman of the Pullman Company, testified that “the Pullman Company, in employing 6,500 colored car porters, had been one of the greatest benefactors of the age and had secured to the negro race its greatest advance in honest labor.” The Commissioners questioned Robert Lincoln about the fact that Pullman employees were not paid a living wage and had to rely on tips. Asked, “Doesn’t your system amount to practically the same thing as that existing on the railroads of a part of the country before 1863, when the workmen were the property of the railroad companies — were owned in fee 3/4,” Robert Lincoln “showed some hesitation, and finally made answer simply by a chuckle.” He advocated keeping the system of low wages and reliance on tips by the workers because “it is an old custom and one to which the colored race are accustomed.” Despite his active role in the 1894 strike, Robert Lincoln claimed to have never heard “widespread criticism” of Pullman’s wage practices. Robert Lincoln “begged to be excused” when asked to explain “the underlying causes of unrest of the workers.” Others did, however, and the descriptions given were horrific.
His close friend in later years, Nicholas Murray Butler, recounted in his memoir that the president’s son never forgave himself for his absence [from Ford’s Theater]. As the youngest member of the presidential party, Robert would have sat at the back of the box, closest to the door. He reportedly told Butler that, had he been present, Booth would have had to deal with him before he could have shot the president.
It had to be tough to be Robert Lincoln.
I learned many interesting things by reading each of the articles linked to herein and recommend them to my readers.
See also Mary Surratt’s House