The Tragedy of Tad Lincoln

When you think about it, Tad Lincoln’s short life was truly a tragic one.

Tad Lincoln:  The Early Years


Tad Lincoln spent one happy year in the White House. The next three were lonely ones.

Thomas Lincoln, nicknamed Tad from the start, was the fourth and last child born to Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

It did not bode well from the beginning.  It was a difficult birth, with hours of labor, requiring two doctors to attend.  Whether or not birthing difficulties were responsible, Tad was born with a cleft palate, something routinely repaired today.  It wasn’t fixable in 1853, so Tad had a serious speech defect, making him hard to understand.  He also showed symptoms of what today might be classified as some youthful dyslexia, coupled with attention deficit.  But Tad Lincoln had a sunny, mischievous temperament, and was clearly not retarded, so his lenient parents encouraged him to be a boy as long as possible.

By Tad’s earliest memory, his brother Robert, older by ten years, was away at prep school.  Little Eddie had died years earlier, and Willie, older by two-and-a-half-years, would become his best friend and boon companion.  Abraham Lincoln had established himself as a fairly prominent attorney when the younger boys were growing up.  Now in his middle forties, with more time on his hands, Lincoln was truly able to discover the joys of being a father to little boys.

Tad Lincoln: The White House Years

Tad and Dad

Abraham Lincoln became Tad’s best friend after Willie died. The President kept his youngest son with him as much as possible.

When the Lincolns moved into the White House, Tad was not quite eight.  Since they were the first “First Family” to have young children, the permissive Lincolns gave the boys the run of the place.  Mrs. Lincoln had become acquainted with Mrs. Horatio Taft, Washington matron with two sons exactly the same age as Willie and Tad, and four fellows became inseparable.  While staff members grumbled about the usual lack of discipline associated with little boys at play, President and Mrs. Lincoln were delighted.  And those innocent adventures were arguably Tad’s happiest memories.

A year later, eleven-year-old Willie died of typhoid fever, and Tad’s tragedy began.  Mary, in her excessive grief, could not bear reminders of her dead son and banished the Taft boys from the White House.  Tad not only lost his brother and best friend, but he would never see his beloved playmates again.  If he ever had “pals” later in his life, it went unrecorded.

It was also impossible for the inconsolable Mary to “mother” her also-grieving son, so Lincoln himself, the grieving father, stepped into the breach, and became Tad’s new best friend.  Lincoln kept the boy close by, allowing him the run of his office.  Congressmen, cabinet members and other officials would sometimes find Tad asleep on Lincoln’s sofa, or under his desk.  If Abraham Lincoln had been lenient before, he now became indulgent.

Tad Lincoln had just turned twelve when his father was assassinated.  In the turmoil that followed, little attention was paid to a boy who had just lost his father.  It was wartime.  Thousands of boys lost fathers.  Tad began to adjust to the situation, and announced that he was no longer a “special” boy, but an ordinary one, now that his father wasn’t President anymore.  He told his mother he would no longer need a nurse to help him dress; he would dress himself.  He began to grow up.

Tad Lincoln:  The Tragedy Continues

Robert Lincoln, at twenty-one, was now man of the family, making decisions far beyond his years and experience.  He “read law” with a prominent Chicago firm, and had little time to devote to a babyish and spoiled kid brother who nevertheless idolized him.

Tad at 18

Tad Lincoln, about the time he left for Europe with his mother. He would spend three years abroad.

Mary Lincoln’s pressing concern now was Tad’s education, which had been woefully neglected.  She knew it.  Tad was on an educational par with six-year-olds, and that wouldn’t do.  He required aggressive private tutoring.

Perhaps puberty began to kick in, but Tad’s childishness abated somewhat.  Forced to concentrate, he began to make slow progress.  Mary Lincoln’s decision to move to Europe a few years later was in part predicated on the progressive educational methods they espoused – particularly in Germany.

Tad was surrounded by more tutors – including special speech instructors.   By this time, he had grown very close to his emotionally fragile mother, who relied on him heavily for comfort and companionship.  If he wasn’t with his tutors, he was with his mother.  If he had any schoolmates or close friends of his own, it has never been discovered.

By 1871, Robert Lincoln, was twenty-seven, an established attorney, married, and a father.  “Uncle Tad” had become homesick and wanted to return.  The ten year age gap between Robert and Tad Lincoln was beginning to close.  Robert wanted to counsel his young brother about his future plans, and believed that “Mr. Thomas Lincoln” was old enough to be consulted on family matters.

Robert would hardly recognize him.  Tad had grown and was still growing.  He also had Lincoln’s homely features.  His speech impediment was still obvious, but now he spoke with a vague German accent from imitating his tutors.  And while he would never be a scholar, he had made enormous strides.

Robert was ready and eager to be the big brother, but there was no time.  Tad Lincoln had caught cold on the voyage, and the cold lingered and worsened.  He barely had the chance to reacquaint himself with the brother he hardly knew.  Propped up in a special chair so he could breathe easier from the pleurisy that had developed, he finally breathed his last.

He was just eighteen.

·        Sources:

Cl  Clinton, Catherine –  Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, 2009, Harper Collins

·         Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, 2008, Ballantine

·         Keckley, Elizabeth – Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, 1988 (reprint from 1868), Oxford University Press

·         Painter, Ruth Painter – Lincoln’s Sons, 1955, Little, Brown


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Tragedy of Tad Lincoln

  1. energywriter says:

    Another good story. Much of this I didn’t know. I wonder why some families just seem to go from one tragedy to another while others seem to go through life happy and carefree. sd

  2. tadssecret says:

    I don’t believe that he died at 18….Robert Lincoln was the only person to have attended the funeral and burial…a private matter….Mary Todd wasn’t the first person Robert had “hidden” away…his first victim was Tad after recently returning from Europe….Robert found him bad for the Lincoln image…I say he was sent to a little place called Woodstock in Hartfield, VA (home of the final Lincoln, Bob Beckwith)

  3. Joy Lynn Conwell says:

    The photograph identified as Tad Lincoln as last picture taken is actually William Aaron Harlan. Please see “The Case of Mistaken Identity” posted by the Lincoln Financial Foundation. Thank you for correcting the error.

  4. Excellent Article. I knew the story, but your brought him to life by presenting from Tad’s view. The constant tradegy, lack of attention and severe depression from Mary is very sad.

  5. Carli says:

    And Mary is always listed as ‘crazy’. I’d be crazy too if I lost that many children & a husband!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s