Robert T. Lincoln: Witness to Assassinations

elderly bob

Robert Todd Lincoln, when he was sixty, vowed never again to meet a President of the United States.

When Robert Lincoln was nearly sixty, he vowed never again to meet a President of the United States.  He was a prominent man with an iconic name. Meeting and greeting Presidents was a given. But he let it be known that he would decline all presidential invitations. He believed he was a jinx.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

young robert

Young Bob Lincoln, about the time of his father’s assassination. He was only twenty-one.

Robert Todd Lincoln was twenty-one years old when John Wilkes Booth killed his father at Ford’s Theater. Awaiting his discharge from the Army, Robert had been on leave in Washington.  That very morning, he had discussed his future plans with Abraham Lincoln, saying he wanted to attend Harvard’s Law School.  His father agreed.

An artist rendering of the scene at Lincoln’s death. Robert is fourth from the right, his hands covering his face, weeping on Senator Sumner’s shoulder.

Later that night, Robert was urgently summoned to the Peterson House, across from the theater, where his father lay dying and his distraught mother was hysterical. As he watched Abraham Lincoln breathe his last, Robert Lincoln was now man of the family. He would have to make the decisions for Mary Lincoln and his thirteen year old brother Tad.

He was the family escort for the President’s coffin on the long, somber ride back to Springfield, Illinois.  Then he returned to Washington to help his family pick up the pieces of their life.

The Assassination of James Garfield

Fifteen years later, Robert Lincoln had become an established attorney. He had foregone law school, and instead read law with a Chicago firm, still an acceptable form of legal education.  He passed the Illinois Bar and opened a practice. He had earned a solid reputation as a competent and diligent corporation lawyer.

The election of 1880 saw the Republican Party imploding during a fierce and tumultuous electoral process and election.  A “dark horse”candidate, James A. Garfield of Ohio had been declared the winner. His first task was to assemble a cabinet designed to heal the fractures within the party. All factions  needed to be included. All regions of the country needed to be included. It was a thankless and daunting task. The only nominee who easily sailed through the confirmation process was Robert T. Lincoln of Illinois, now Secretary of War.

Robert Todd Lincoln, prominent Illinois attorney, about the time he was named Secretary of War in President James Garfield’s cabinet.

The introverted Robert Lincoln had always kept a low political profile, reluctant to make speeches or public appearances. He shunned the spotlight as much as his parents enjoyed it. But his name still had magic, and he was undoubtedly a capable attorney in his own right. He was acceptable to all the contentious party factions. Believing it his duty, he accepted the position.

Lincoln and Garfield had never met prior to the inauguration, but, as expected, they began to develop a cordial working relationship. Four months later, a schismatic cabinet had determined to work together as best they could for the sake of their country – and their political party. Partly in an effort to create better unity within, they planned to accompany Garfield on a trip to New England for the Fourth of July holidays.  Robert Lincoln planned to go, but at the last minute, other pressing needs arose, and he was forced to bow out.

An artist rendering of the assassination of President James Garfield. Robert Lincoln had just left the premises.

As a courtesy to the President, Lincoln went to the railroad station to tender his regrets to Garfield  personally. Only minutes after he departed, two shots were fired by the insane Charles Julius Guiteau. Robert Lincoln had barely returned to his office when a White House aide informed him of the horrific deed, and urged him to dispatch soldiers to surround the executive mansion to protect the fatally wounded president.

Ten weeks later, the second president to be assassinated died. Once again, Robert Lincoln rode a funeral train.

The Assassination of William McKinley

Twenty years would pass, and Robert Lincoln had become a personage in his own right. He had not only served as Secretary of War, but had been appointed Minister to Great Britain. Back in private life, he became president of the Pullman Railroad Car Company. By his late fifties, he was a prominent citizen; someone who would be more than welcome in Presidential circles.

As such, he was specifically invited by President William McKinley to meet him at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in September, 1901, when Leon Czolgosz, a political anarchist, pumped bullets into the President.  Once again, a President would die from an assassin’s bullet. It is undetermined exactly where Robert Lincoln was at the time of the assassination, but he was definitely on the premises, invited and expected by McKinley.

Bearing witness to three presidential assassinations – or at least being in the arena – took a toll on Robert Lincoln. He had inherited a superstitious streak from both his parents, and believed that he might be fatally bad luck. He had vowed never again to meet a President.

The Lincoln Memorial

That vow was kept for the next twenty years. But in 1922, Robert Lincoln was obliged to break that vow, and would meet both President Warren G. Harding and former President (and current Chief Justice) William Howard Taft. There was no avoiding the situation.

Eighty-year-old Robert Todd Lincoln (right) broke his vow never to meet another President. He was the Guest of Honor at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial – an invitation he couldn’t refuse.

An exquisite temple dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln was being dedicated in Washington, DC, and eighty-year-old Robert Todd Lincoln, the sixteenth president’s only remaining son, was the guest of honor – an honor he could not refuse. It was also an occasion where the President of the United States was on hand to dedicate the Lincoln Memorial – an honor he could not refuse either. Interestingly enough, President Harding was born the very year that Lincoln died, and would die himself within the year.

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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.
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