Tad Lincoln and The Doll Jack

All kids need toys. 

Tad: A Child With Problems

Tad Lincoln, at around 3 or 4.

Tad was the Lincolns’ fourth and last child born after a grueling two-day labor. He was born with a cleft palate, a not-uncommon malformation in the mouth routinely corrected in infancy today, leaving nothing more incapacitating than perhaps a slight lisp. But in the 1850s, when Tad was born, there was little that could be done. His speech was seriously affected, and only those close to him could understand what he was saying.

He also seemed to have what today might be called some childhood dyslexia: difficulty in recognizing his letters, thus impeding his reading abilities. Then too, he was completely disinterested in making any effort in that direction.

The Lincoln parents, aware of Tad’s problems, were more permissive than they had been with his brothers, opting to keep him a baby/little boy as long as they could. In retrospect, they were not doing Tad any favors by leniency; when he truly needed to catch up, it was nearly impossible.

There were some casual observers of Tad-the-child who believed he might be a little mentally slow, but all indications (with the benefit of modern medical science) are that he definitely had a cleft palate, probably dyslexia, and possibly a little attention deficit. And maybe a little spoiled.

Tad Lincoln in the White House

Tad Lincoln in his Civil War “uniform”.

Seven-year-old Thomas (Tad) Lincoln became a White House resident in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War.

He and his ten-year-old brother Willie, along with their new local pals Bud and Holly Taft, were still too young to understand the horror of the situation, although they would learn quickly enough. But at first, the boys were thrilled by the excitement of it all.

Soldiers wearing a wide variety of uniforms were pouring into Washington from every state that remained in the Union. Marching bands played snappy tunes making it nearly impossible to keep little boys from marching along. With little room and/or time for solid preparation for the great influx of troops, even the hallways of the White House were used to bivouac the soldiers.

Tad loved wearing his uniform!

The kids were having a ball!

The Doll Jack

We have no documentation of what The Doll Jack looked like, save that he was a Zouave soldier doll, with the traditional red pantaloons, given to him by the Sanitary Commission. But his ability to entertain and amuse were as limitless as little boys’ imaginations. The Doll Jack wore his uniform proudly, marched through the mud and got dirty, banged on the drum, hoisted the flag, bunked, drilled and ate grub – the same as all the real soldiers in the real Army. He was shot and recovered, killed and revived, buried and disinterred, with countless limbs amputated and regenerated.

Naturally with all this soldiering – including punishment by shooting, hanging, or maybe both, Jack required a proper funeral. More than once according to Julia Taft, their playmates’ older sister and occasional babysitter, the children usually chose to bury (and disinter) The Doll Jack in the White House gardens, to the extreme consternation of Mr. John Watt, the Head Gardener. (It was Julia Taft who penned these reminiscences in a little volume nearly seventy years later.) Mr. Watt and Tad already had some issues, such as when Tad helped himself to all the strawberries Mr. W. had planned for a White House dinner.

It was actually a grouchy Mr. Watt who casually suggested that perhaps Jack required a presidential pardon. That was all that was needed for the children to run with the ball, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Lincoln the Humane

Tad and Willie Lincoln had easy access to their father’s office and ample occasion to see ordinary citizens patiently waiting to see the President and plead their desperate cases.

Tad and Dad

After Willie’s death, the President became Tad’s best buddy!

Tearful mothers and wives wept in their handkerchiefs, and distraught fathers twisted their handkerchiefs, hoping that the President might commute a sentence or even pardon a young soldier for whatever infraction might have caused his arrest. Abraham Lincoln was a kind man, who by his own admission, sought every extenuating circumstance he could to issue a pardon for a fellow who fell asleep at his post, or something similar.

The children were not oblivious. They saw dozens of grateful citizens tearfully blessing the President as they left his office.

Jack Gets in Trouble

If being shot several times (and recovering) and dying several times (and being buried and miraculously rejuvenated) wasn’t sufficient activity for imaginative little boys with a toy soldier, Jack had finally committed a serious infraction: one that warranted a court martial. While the misdeed has never been documented, the court martial likely concluded that The Doll Jack was to be hung. Or shot. Or maybe both.

Mr. Watt was right. The only thing that could save him was a Presidential pardon.

Perhaps drawing from his observations of real people begging for mercy for real people, a mournful Tad approached his father with his dilemma. The Doll Jack had been a bad soldier. He committed some kind of terrible crime. But he was so repentant, and wanted so much to be a good soldier, that surely he was deserving of another chance.

The indulgent (and possibly amused) Father Abraham duly heard Tad plead Jack’s case, and concluded that his malfeasance did not require hanging or shooting. Or maybe both.

With pen and paper, he carefully wrote: “The Doll Jack is pardoned by order of the President.” Underneath, he signed, “A. Lincoln.”


Baynes, Julia Taft – Tad Lincoln’s Father – Little, Brown & Co. 1931

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

Family: Thomas Lincoln (1853-1871)



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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