Robert Todd Lincoln

Meet Robert Todd Lincoln, The Estranged Son Of The 16th President Who Had His Mother Committed

Published November 13, 2019
Updated November 18, 2019
Published November 13, 2019
Updated November 18, 2019

After his father was assassinated, Robert Todd Lincoln kept an insanity file on his mother that he later used to have her committed to an asylum.

The legacy of President Abraham Lincoln is one that has inspired boundless national admiration and pride. Yet behind the triumphs of the man who held a deeply wounded nation together in spite of the chaos of war and the horrors of slavery, was a personal life filled with tumult.

While many may know that the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, struggled with her mental health, few are likely aware of the details about the life of their son Robert Todd Lincoln whose own life ultimately took some eerie turns in the wake of his father’s assassination.

Robert Todd Lincoln In The Shadow Of His Father

Robert Todd Lincoln Young And Seated

Wikimedia CommonsRobert Todd Lincoln was named for his maternal grandfather, Robert Todd.

Robert Todd Lincoln was born the oldest of four Lincoln sons in Springfield, Illinois in 1843 at a time when his father was already becoming a prominent state legislator.

The majority of Robert’s memories of his father during his formative years were said to be of him packing his saddlebags to travel across Illinois to attend to various political endeavors. While the two never had the abiding bond that Abraham shared with his sons Tad and Willie, Robert reportedly felt a deep admiration for his father. He is said to have openly wept at his deathbed.

“During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home,” Robert Todd told a biographer. “Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible. I scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business.”

Lincoln And Family Around Table

Wikimedia CommonsRobert Todd Lincoln, depicted third from right, was the oldest of Lincoln’s sons and the most estranged.

By the time Abraham Lincoln entered the office of the Presidency in 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln was already living independently of his parents. He had developed the nickname “Prince of Rails” in homage to his father’s 1860 “Railsplitter” Campaign, a nickname he allegedly loathed.

In 1859, Robert Lincoln made an attempt at the Harvard College entrance exam but ultimately failed 15 of the 16 subjects. As a temporary salve to being denied enrollment, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in the hopes of further preparing for college acceptance.

Robert Todd’s time at the Academy proved useful as in his second attempt at the Harvard entrance exam he passed with ease. However, his tenure at Harvard found him more preoccupied with socializing than with his studies. In Jason Emerson’s biography of Robert Lincoln entitled Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln Emerson writes:

“While highly intelligent and well-read, Robert at Harvard was not a bookworm…as he wrote during his senior year, ‘I have studied enough to satisfy myself without being a dig.’ In fact, while Robert did not ignore his studies, he seems to have spent more time participating in school-sponsored extracurricular activities as well as chumming around with his friends.”

It is possible that riding on the coattails of his father’s political reputation was enough to allow Robert to coast while doing the bare minimum. No matter the case, it is clear that he was well-liked but possibly nothing more or less. Per Welsh historian and author Jan Morris: “Having failed 15 out of 16 subjects in the Harvard entrance exam, [Robert] got in at last and emerged an unsympathetic bore.”

Robert Todd Lincoln’s Unimpressive Military Career

After graduating in 1864, Robert decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and practice law.

He entered Harvard Law school but quickly dropped out in order to join the Union Army in the waning moments of the Civil War. Thanks to his mother’s near-constant worrying, Robert was able to avoid combat service for the vast majority of the war. While this eased Mary Todd Lincoln’s anxiety, it only served to embarrass President Lincoln who felt that his son should receive no special treatment simply for being the child of the President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln

Wikimedia CommonsAbraham Lincoln, as seen two months before his assassination.

When faced with his wife’s argument about why their son should not serve, Lincoln simply said: “Our son is not more dear to us than the sons of other people are to their mothers.”

It was a stirring reminder that so many who were lost did not have the privilege to opt-out of the fight and Mary Todd yielded.

Robert was placed into the employ of none other than General Ulysses S. Grant as an assistant adjutant. This role made it nearly impossible for the younger Lincoln to see any combat. While Robert was present for General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, his military career was short in tenure and on glory.

A Series Of Brushes With Death

Robert Todd Lincoln Seated

Wikimedia CommonsRobert Todd Lincoln’s military career was less than heroic as he spent most of his time enlisted out of combat.

An odd and rather chilling coincidence preceding President Lincoln’s assassination took place sometime in either 1863 or 1864. Robert Todd Lincoln was saved from near-certain death by none other than Edwin Booth, the brother of the very man who would take the life of Abraham Lincoln in the wake of the Civil War.

Recalling the incident that took place on the platform of a train station to the editor of The Century Magazine, Robert said:

“The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was, of course, a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn…I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”

Graphic Of Edwin Booth's Profile

Wikimedia CommonsEdwin Booth’s brother would assassinate Todd Lincoln’s father.

In a series of further eerie coincidences, Robert would find himself present at not one, but two presidential assassinations. First, he was a direct witness to the shooting of President James Garfield. The second was the shooting of President William McKinley. When Robert was later invited to a formal function during another President’s tenure, he said:

“No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

Robert Todd Lincoln was fortuitously absent from his father’s own murder, however. The Lincoln’s notorious outing to the Ford Theater took place a mere six days after the final moments of the war and Robert, understandably tired from the battlefront, decided to stay behind. He thus avoided the assassination of his father, the 16th President of the United States.

The Dissolution Of The Lincoln Family

After his father’s death, Robert moved to Chicago with his mother and brother Tad. He completed his law studies and was licensed to practice law in 1867.

Mary Harlan Lincoln Profile

Wikimedia CommonsMary Harlan was the daughter of Senator James Harlan when she married Robert Todd. Though they met in their late teens and early twenties, the couple couldn’t marry until after Robert Todd passed the bar following his father’s assassination.

Around this time, Robert Todd Lincoln married his long-time girlfriend, Mary Harlan, on Sept. 24, 1868. The two had three children together and spent their summers in the idyllic Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

But tragedy only continued to strike the Lincoln family. Young Tad passed away unexpectedly at the age of 18. With the shock of having now lost both her husband and son so suddenly, Mary Todd Lincoln was understandably beside herself.

With Robert in charge as the man of the house and concerned about his mother’s erratic behavior, he arranged to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital in Illinois.

The court proceedings took a dire toll on Mrs. Lincoln. She made attempts on her own life. Once committed, it did not take long for her to attempt to orchestrate an escape. With the help of her lawyers and some sensationalized letters to the Chicago Times, however, Robert Lincoln made sure that his mother stayed put.

Mary Todd Lincoln Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsIn 1977, a collection of documents penned by Robert Todd titled the MTL Insanity File (for Mary Todd Lincoln) were found which expounded upon his efforts to have his mother committed.

After Mary was deemed competent enough to leave the sanitorium to live with her sister in Springfield Illinois, she and Robert never fully reconciled.

Meanwhile, Robert’s professional career seemed to prosper easily enough. No doubt spurred onward by his good name, he was eventually able to secure a position in President James Garfield’s cabinet as his Secretary of War. This would be the closest that the son of Abraham Lincoln would ever get to the office of the Presidency himself.

Robert Todd At His Father's Memorial

Wikimedia CommonsRobert Todd Lincoln seen at his father’s memorial in 1922. He was 78 years old.

After pulling away completely from politics, Robert put his law degree to use and served as general counsel for George Pullman and his Pullman Palace Car Company, a company that made train-travel more comfortable for passengers by ensuring that trains were equipped with luxury sleeper cars instead of simply upright seats. Following George Pullman’s death, Lincoln was made President of the company, and eventually even Chairman of the Board, a role he held until 1922.

Robert Todd Lincoln’s final public appearance was also in 1922 when he attended the dedication ceremony for the newly completed Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. A weighty occasion for a man who very well may have felt that his father loomed large in his life, perhaps even more so in death.

Closeup On Robert Todd As An Old Man

Wikimedia CommonsRobert Todd named one of his sons for his father, Abraham Lincoln II, called Jack.

The life of Robert Todd Lincoln is undeniably marred by many tragic coincidences and circumstances. From the death of young siblings to the assassination of his father on a world stage, to the turmoil with his own mother, Robert’s path was decidedly uneasy.

Perhaps the expectations for the son of the Great Emancipator were too high. The only definitive truth that even the most learned historian among us can say is that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is an impossibly heavy burden to bear. Perhaps for this Robert Todd Lincoln can surely be forgiven for falling a bit short.


After this look at the prodigal son of the 16th President, check out more White House kids, including the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s rambunctious daughter, Alice Roosevelt. Then, explore the Great Emancipator’s brief life in these vintage photos.

Lauren Zmirich
Lauren is a student of all things comedy, history, television, film, and food. She has written for humor sites such as Points In Case, and The Belladonna. You can find her living in New York City where she works for HBO and spends time with her boyfriend, friends, and cat.