By Joe Mathewson
He was an estimable, indeed extraordinary, citizen. Co-founder of an eminent Chicago law firm that lasted for more than a century, hugely successful business executive, secretary of war, minister to Britain, a leader in Chicago cultural life. But he was also the sole surviving son of Abraham Lincoln. So, even in Chicago, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926) is not well remembered for the remarkable life he led.
He graduated from Harvard during the Civil War and served as a captain on the staff of General Grant. After his father’s assassination, young Robert set out to make his own way. He moved to Chicago, where he had never lived, worked in a law firm and studied law at the original University of Chicago in the Loop. He passed the bar examination at age 24, in 1867. Opening his own office, he soon became busy with legal matters for insurance companies. [Scammon & Lincoln; the partnership dissolved in 1871. See J. Young Scammon, History of Chicago by Alfred Theodore Andreas]
From the beginning Lincoln contributed importantly to the vibrant young city, as a charter member of The Chicago Club [President, 1889-90], an early and longtime member of the Chicago Literary Club, an organizer of the Chicago Bar Association [founded 1874], vice president of the Chicago Historical Society, and elder and trustee of the Second Presbyterian Church. Fortunately unscathed in the Chicago Fire of 1871, he teamed up in the following year with a somewhat older lawyer, a native of Vermont named Edward Swift Isham, to establish a partnership that later became Isham, Lincoln and Beale. [Note: Isham's daughter, Ann Elizabeth, would die on the Titanic in 1912.]
According to biographer John S. Goff, “Robert Lincoln was an able practitioner who always did his full share of the work. Isham was more often concerned with the actual presentation of the case, but Lincoln usually did the preparation. . . he put in long hours at his desk.” They represented important businesses like Commonwealth Edison and Marshall Field’s department store. The firm carried several business disputes to the U. S. Supreme Court, mostly on behalf of Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., with mixed results. In perhaps their biggest Supreme Court case, decided in 1898, Isham and Lincoln, representing Pullman’s Palace Car Company, of Chicago, lost to a similar sleeping car company whose Pennsylvania plant Pullman had leased.
Lincoln served for four years as secretary of war under Presidents Garfield and Arthur and for four years as minister to Great Britain under President Harrison. Back in Chicago, he was special counsel to the Pullman company and then, at the death of founder George Pullman, became its president, leading the company to years of highly profitable operations. He discouraged public speculation that he might run for president or vice president, and refrained from capitalizing on his father’s reputation, refusing to be interviewed about him and declining to release a trunkful of his father’s letters and other personal materials.
The New York Times, reporting Lincoln’s death in 1926, paid him this compliment: “Although Mr. Lincoln played a great part in public life in his earlier years, he always was of a retiring disposition and shunned politics for a career in corporate law and business, where he could succeed on his own merits, and where, in fact, he built up a large fortune.”
Nevertheless, for all his achievements Lincoln could not eclipse his own heritage. The Times’s front-page headline read:
Lincoln’s Son Dies
In His Sleep at 82
And in Chicago, where he had been a leading citizen for decades,The Tribune (July 27, 1926) relegated the story to page six under this impersonal headline:
R. T. Lincoln Dies
And With Him
The Family Name
A lecturer at Northwestern's Medill School, Joe Mathewson is the author of The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict, to be published January 30, 2011 by the Northwestern University Press.
Recommended reading:Robert Todd Lincoln (Wikipedia)
Robert Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln Research Site)
Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926)(Abraham Lincoln's White House)
Robert Todd Lincoln (Arlington National Cemetery Website) Photo: Lincoln Family Tree