“A Certain Fatality”: Robert Todd Lincoln and Presidential Assassinations

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Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, felt cursed. One of his brothers, Edward, died as a boy in Springfield, Illinois long before their father became president. A second brother, William, died in the White House on February 20, 1862. The death of “Willie” made the Civil War’s dark days that much darker for the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln’s last brother, Thomas, whom their father had called “Tad,” died at age 18 in 1871. In the years after his father’s death, Robert Lincoln also watched his mother, Mary, descend into financial hardship and manic depression. At one point, he committed her to an asylum. His mother died at age 63 in 1882.

Sadly, Robert Lincoln was very familiar with death. However, it was not the deaths of his brothers or his mother for which he is most famous or for which he believed himself to be cursed. Rather, it was his close connection to three presidential assassinations in just 36 years.

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated.  Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father's sided when he died.  (Library of Congress)

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated. Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father’s side when he died. (Library of Congress)

President and Mrs. Lincoln invited their son, then Capt. Robert T. Lincoln of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Our American Cousin on the night of April 14, 1865. The younger Lincoln declined, telling his father that he planned to retire early that night. Several different people claimed to have been the one to inform him of John Wilkes Booth’s attack on his father at the theater, and Lincoln himself remembered only that numerous people came to him that night with the awful news. He immediately left for the Petersen house, where his father, unconscious but alive, had been taken after Booth shot him. Future Secretary of State John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries and a lifelong friend of Robert’s, wrote that, “After a natural outburst of grief, young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.” Robert was there at 7:22 a.m. on April 15 when President Lincoln died.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, many Republicans tried to talk Robert Lincoln into running for political office. Lincoln always declined, partially due to lack of interest but also because he knew his greatest appeal to the Republican Party was not his ability but his surname. In early 1881, however, he relented and agreed to serve as Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield.

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War.  He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War. He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. (Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was scheduled to leave for a trip to New England. While some cabinet members and their wives were scheduled to go on the trip, Lincoln was unable to depart until the following day. He went to Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station that morning to meet the President and let him know that the Lincolns would be along on July 3. He was about forty feet away and walking toward President Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine when Charles Guiteau approached from behind and shot Garfield twice. By Lincoln’s own recollection, “I think I reached him in fifteen seconds.” Secretary Lincoln immediately sent for Dr. D.W. Bliss, then ordered four companies of soldiers to immediately come to the train depot for security. When Garfield was moved back to the White House, Lincoln made sure that “all intruders were out of the grounds and a strong military guard on duty there and another at the jail to prevent lynching and a reserve between.” As historian Jason Emerson notes, Lincoln’s decisive actions after the attack on Garfield were reminiscent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s on the night Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. However, the memory of his father’s murder sixteen years before haunted him. “My god,” he said to a New York Times reporter the day after the shooting. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, eighty days after being shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States and traveled to Elberon, New Jersey, where Garfield died, to escort his predecessor’s body back to the capital. After Garfield’s late September funeral and once Congress convened in December 1881, Arthur kept only one cabinet officer appointed by Garfield: Robert Todd Lincoln, who served as Secretary of War until the end of the Arthur presidency.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

After finishing his time as Secretary of War, Lincoln returned to private legal practice, then served as U.S. Minister to the Court of Saint James (the United Kingdom) under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889-1893. While living in England, Lincoln’s son, Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack,” died of a post-surgery infection at just 16 years old.

After returning from England, Robert Lincoln became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln was elevated to the company’s presidency. In 1901, the Lincolns vacationed all summer in New Jersey. As they traveled back to Chicago in early September, they decided to make a stop in Buffalo, New York to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair intended to promote trade and friendship between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The Lincolns’ train pulled into the Buffalo train station on the evening of Friday, September 6. A Pullman employee was waiting and immediately handed Lincoln a telegram that read: “President McKinley was shot down by an anarchist in Buffalo this afternoon. He was hit twice in the abdomen. Condition serious.”

Lincoln immediately went to the home of John G. Milburn, president of the Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was resting after a seemingly successful surgery to repair internal damage caused by Leon Czolgosz’s bullets. Lincoln spent a few minutes with the President and was convinced that McKinley would be fine. Lincoln saw the President again two days later and still believed he was improving, saying, “My visit has given me great encouragement” for McKinley’s recovery. He and his family left Buffalo for Chicago having enjoyed a visit to the Exposition and glad that McKinley was on the mend.

A week later, McKinley was dead of infection. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had visited the wounded president at the same time as Robert Lincoln the previous week and then departed for a trip to the Adirondacks. Roosevelt hurried back to Buffalo and was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901. Shortly afterwards, Lincoln sent President Roosevelt a letter that read in part, “I do not congratulate you, for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as an enviable garment.”

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901.  Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred.  (

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred. (Library of Congress)

Amazingly, Robert Todd Lincoln had very close ties to three presidential assassinations. While the rational mind scoffs at the idea of any human as “cursed,” the emotions lead us to wonder if such a thing might actually be possible. However, the popular old stories about Robert Lincoln being “present” at the three murders are certainly untrue. He was not with his father when Booth attacked on April 14, 1865, though he was at the Petersen house when the elder Lincoln died the next morning. He was across the room but walking toward the President when Charles Guiteau felled Garfield on July 2, 1881. Lincoln personally attended and spoke with Garfield while the President lay on the train station floor. Finally, he was just entering the city of Buffalo when McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901.

While Robert Lincoln was certainly not cursed, it is understandable that many people-including Lincoln himself-feared he may be. More likely, however, is that Lincoln’s last name and his positions in life put him in close proximity to presidents far more often than most people. Also, Lincoln lived a very long life in times of great social and political upheaval that often resulted in violence. The cataclysmic Civil War, passionate debates over patronage and civil service reform, fears of government growing so powerful that anarchy seemed a plausible alternative—all of these issues came to the fore during Lincoln’s life and resulted in murders of American presidents. That his name was Lincoln and he attained high office and business success made Lincoln far more likely to be near presidents than most people, and the upheavals of the era made attacks on presidents far more likely. In other words, it was something of a macabre numbers game.

That certainly and understandably did not ease Robert Lincoln’s mind, though the idea that after McKinley’s death Lincoln refused to ever go around presidents again is a myth. Supposedly he once scoffed at an invitation to an event at the White House by saying, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” While there is no direct evidence that Lincoln ever actually said this, it certainly seems like a thought that might have crossed his mind.

Robert Lincoln’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922, when he attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over that dedication. Harding, of course, died in office just fourteen months later. Since he was not assassinated, however, it does not appear that anyone tried very hard to attribute his death to having shared a platform with Robert Lincoln just over a year earlier.

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  At center is President Warren G. Harding.  (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At center is President Warren G. Harding. (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, just six days before his 83rd birthday. He was seemingly surrounded by death his entire life, yet persevered to carve out his own successes and legacy while also honoring his famous name. His was a long, extraordinary, and accomplished life, and he certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just his father’s son or the subject of silly myths about curses.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education

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Harry Garfield and the Spirit of Cooperation

In reading and learning about James Garfield, I have wondered what his attitude toward the concerns of laborers would have been as clashes between labor and capital increased in the late nineteenth century. Looking through his published diaries, one can only speculate about how his views about the relationship between labor and capital might have evolved. This article will attempt to look broadly at the interplay of business, labor, and social order, and how James Garfield and his son Harry responded to those concerns.

Certainly, James Garfield was aware of “labor” as a political cause. In 1873, he noted having “made a call on [former North Carolina Republican] Senator [John] Pool, who is organizing a national workingmen’s association…I think it means a new party, based on the labor question.”  With the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery there was talk in some quarters of the Republican Party that its purpose had come to an end. Garfield believed that economic issues were coming to the fore, and his comment above affirms that understanding.

James A. Garfield became very interested in economic issues during this many years in the House of Representatives.  He recognized that economic and labor issues were growing in importanct to the public and the Republican Party.  (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield became very interested in economic issues during his many years in the House of Representatives. He recognized that economic and labor issues were growing in importance to the public and the Republican Party. (Library of Congress)

When the Railroad Strike of July 1877 erupted into violence in the cities of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and elsewhere in the country, James Garfield saw the two sides of the labor-capital divide: “I have no doubt the RR men have been unjust and oppressive to their employees; but the form in which the contest presents itself leaves us no choice between suppressing the rioters, and the rule of the mob.” Like many of his contemporaries, who had already experienced the disruptions of the Civil War, Garfield saw social upheaval as something to be averted. Social disturbances were associated with the less educated, immigrants, and communist influence. It was a commonly held belief that capitalists had the right to control their businesses without interference from their workers.

In one more observation that may have echoes in today’s political debates, Garfield wrote, “Isn’t the strike the legitimate offspring of the paternal theory of government? If we raise up a generation of men to believe that the object of protection [a high tariff to protect American industries and jobs] is to give laborers better wages, don’t they feel when times are hard that they have a right to take good wages by force? Studentum est. [It must be studied.]”

The destruction of the Union Depot in Pittsburgh, Penn., July 21-22, 1877.  This event took place during the Railroad Stike of 1877, which began in Martinsburg, West Virginia and soon spread to other industrial cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and more.  (Harper's Weekly)

The destruction of the Union Depot in Pittsburgh, Penn., July 21-22, 1877. This event took place during the Railroad Stike of 1877, which began in Martinsburg, West Virginia and soon spread to other industrial cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and more. (Harper’s Weekly)

In the later 1880s and 1890s, would James Garfield have supported rights of capital and the use of military force against striking workers, or would he have favored the laboring masses, among whom he found himself in earlier chapters of his life? Would he have remained steadfast to an unregulated form of laissez faire capitalism, or would he have agreed to regulation of the market? Or was there some other model for solving the capital-labor issues of his day?

President Garfield did not live to witness the increasing economic tensions of the last quarter of the nineteenth century – but his sons did. Might there be any clues about how he saw the economics of the new industrial age in the careers of his sons? Such an approach is tenuous, certainly, but it might shed some “reflected” light.

Unlike his father, Harry Garfield was not a diligent student in his younger years. However, in time, he did improve, and like his father and brothers, he attended Williams College, in Massachusetts (in time becoming its president). He was involved in student government, football, and baseball. After Williams, he became a successful Cleveland lawyer, practicing jointly with his brother James R. for several years.

In 1903, Princeton president Woodrow Wilson invited Harry Garfield to join the faculty, to teach government and political science. Garfield was completely taken with Wilson’s personality and his plans for Princeton. According to Professor Robert Cuff, Garfield was so impressed with Wilson that he left the Republican Party for the Democrats. When Wilson, as president, took the United States into the Great War, he asked Harry Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration, which was tasked with insuring a steady supply of coal for military and civilian needs, and with conserving the use of oil.

Harry A. Garfield, eldest son of President and Mrs. James A. Garfield, had known President Woodrow Wilson since the latter was President of Princeton University and invited Garfield to teach there.  In the early days of World War I, President Wilson tapped Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration.  (Williams College)

Harry A. Garfield, eldest son of President and Mrs. James A. Garfield, had known Woodrow Wilson since the latter was President of Princeton University and invited Garfield to teach there. In the early days of U.S. involvement in World War I, President Wilson tapped Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration. (Williams College)

According to Cuff, Wilson and Garfield shared a commitment to liberal academic culture and to the belief in an organic, evolutionary process of social change. They both believed that “cultivated” men should promote the cause of civilization. They did not believe that social progress would be achieved by “starting over from scratch.” Harry Garfield’s way was to “remodel, renovate, improve rather than start with a new plan…”

And, like many of his contemporaries, Garfield subscribed to the Progressive idea of “efficiency.” He was greatly influenced by Charles Steinmetz’s “America and the New Epoch,” in which the author argued that solutions to modern problems could be found not in the Federal government, but in the efficiency, competence, and responsibility of corporate administration. Cooperation, not competition, would create a better world. “We… have come to a time when the old individualistic principle of competition must be set aside and we must boldly embark upon the new principle of cooperation and combination.”

When Garfield came to Washington in August 1917, to head the newly formed Fuel Administration, he had to deal with both the owners of coal mines and the United Mine Workers. He meant to deal justly with the owners and the workers. A case in point concerns the price of coal set by the federal government in the wake of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson made Harry A. Garfield head of the Federal Fuel Administration.  Garfield's dedication to Wilson's brand of progressivism led to President Garfield's son leaving the Republican party to become a Wilsonian Democrat.  (Library of Congress)

President Woodrow Wilson made Harry A. Garfield head of the Federal Fuel Administration. Garfield’s dedication to Wilson’s brand of progressivism led to President Garfield’s son leaving the Republican party to become a Wilsonian Democrat. (Library of Congress)

Just prior to the creation of the Fuel Administration, President Wilson imposed a price for coal that was lower than the price offered by the coal industry. This dissatisfied the mine owners, so Garfield adjusted the price of coal more to their liking. At the same time, he negotiated wage agreements with the United Mine Workers that would keep the mine operating. He invited representatives of the owners and of the miners to become part of the Fuel Administration, ushering in what Professor Cuff called “something of a golden age in the [coal] industry’s history.”

There were controversies, to be sure. Railroads used the availability of cars to force bidding wars among rival coal companies for the lowest transportation price. Garfield ordered periodic work stoppages to prevent supply from outstripping demand, and in 1918, he resisted a wage hike for miners. He ordered conservation measures that angered parts of the general public He caught a lot of heat for such measures.

What Garfield was aiming at was cooperative administration between government, industry, and labor that would serve society not only in times of war, but also in times of peace. In this effort, he was praised by the Coal Trade Journal, for a “steadfastness of purpose… that is reminiscent of his father’s resolute spirit.” For Harry Garfield, it was the community interest, not the interest group, whose needs mattered most.

Under Harry Garfield's leadership, the Fuel Administration ensured a steady supply of coal to support military operations as well as to produce energy for the American public.  (Wikepedia)

Under Harry Garfield’s leadership, the Fuel Administration ensured a steady supply of coal to support military operations as well as to produce energy for the American public. (Wikipedia)

Perhaps the old saying, “like father, like son,” applies. In a “time of peace,” James Garfield saw the injustices that the owners of railroad committed, but believed that strikes, and the violence that attended them, were not a solution to the disputes of the day. During the emergency of war in 1917-1918, Harry Garfield attempted to satisfy the concerns of capital, labor, and the general public by encouraging cooperation with the goal of maintaining social order.

The competition of “interests” in James Garfield’s America, and the need to seek justice and maintain order was no less a phenomenon in Harry Garfield’s America forty years later – and nearly a century since Harry Garfield’s work as Fuel Administrator, what has changed?

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger