A Chicago Editor's Analysis of Lincoln As A Father
Newspaper commentary on the life and character of Robert T. Lincoln
I apologize for the long gap between posts—all my research and writing energy has been going into other projects. Trying to get back into the swing of things by randomly picking a topic from my notes and doing a brief write-up on it.
A while ago, I found an interesting set of articles on Robert T. Lincoln, published when he was suggested as a candidate for the presidency in the early 1880s, while serving as Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Arthur. I cannot seem to find the name of the publication right now—it may have been one of the Bloomington, IL papers, or in a trade publication. In any event, the two articles were published together, with the second one titled, “From Another Standpoint.”
The first standpoint was that of William H. Busbey. By the 1880s, Busbey was well-known as the editor of Chicago’s Inter Ocean, but by that point, he’d “been in continuous newspaper service [since] 1865,” working for all kinds of prominent publications. (His brother, fellow newspaper man Hamilton Busbey, has been suggested as the ghostwriter of Behind the Scenes).
Busbey must have been personally familiar with Robert Lincoln and his associates, but some of his more personal assessments probably relied quite a bit on gossip and speculation. Still, they are interesting enough to share, with their analysis of Lincoln as a father, the nature of greatness and leadership, and Robert’s character.
The opening lines indicate why I think Busbey was relying on the “conventional wisdom” about the Lincolns that circulated in IL at that time, a mix of the “Springfield tradition” of gossip and the polished talking points of post-war Chicago Republicans. As the Inter Ocean was a Republican paper with a sophisticated national audience, Busbey leaned into the latter, describing the young Robert as a “modest, blameless youth” who grew up in “the quiet, unpretentious home of the quaint, genial country lawyer, whose greatness had been hardly guessed at, even by the keenest-eyed of his neighbors.”
Starting in the 1880s, Lincoln was often presented to the public as a simple, kindly fellow from a bygone era. The political culture was rapidly transforming, and while the details are beyond the scope of this post, there is a discernible awkwardness in using him to bolster the case for Robert’s candidacy (something Robert himself had no interest in pursuing.) The image of the ideal Republican president had changed since the 1860s, at least in the national press. It was now something more like a socially prominent business executive with a professional manner and good reputation. Busbey next assured readers that “nothing in the circumstances or influences that surrounded the boy's life was at all unusual,” and that “he grew up as other village lads grow up.” Few details were given about the nature of Springfield life in the 1840s and 1850s: “He attended school or joined in boyish sports, and was neither a leader nor a laggard in either.”
But then it got more interesting, with Busbey stating that Robert was “something of a puzzle” to his father, a man who, despite his “gravity and intensity of purpose,” had a “nervous and mercurial” personality.
“…the rapidity with which he made the change from grave to gay under all circumstances, was not only one of the great elements of his power, but one of the noblest features of the character which some have sought to condemn because they could not understand it.”
While Lincoln’s moodiness made him flexible and versatile—at least that is what I take Busbey’s point to be—Robert was not so quick to adapt himself to new situations, displaying “a stubbornness” that his father “could not fathom.” Busbey suggested that this was a narcissism of small differences dynamic. Lincoln wasn’t easily swayed from his own judgments, but he endeavored to conceal this “beneath the constant play of humor,” whereas in Robert, the stubbornness was “phlegmatic, almost stolid.”
In other words, Robert sometimes seemed cold and aloof. It was a complaint often made about him throughout his adult life. But it was also one sometimes made about Lincoln by those who knew him intimately enough to see through the charming facade. In both cases, it was probably accurate, but it wasn’t a character flaw so much as the way they were wired. Still, Robert did seem to stand out as the least expressive member of the Lincoln family, but while he wasn’t an attention seeker, he was frequently perceived as arrogant. Busbey’s next paragraph was interesting (emphases added):
“[Robert] was not demonstrative. He had no right to be. There was nothing demonstrative about the Lincoln family. It lived its daily life without any emotional display. There were no sentimental pyrotechnics in that household which grew with the father's growth, from the deputy survivorship of a pioneer county to the Presidency of the United States. The grave, busy, kindly man came home to think and rest. The home was an incident of his life, not the theatre of his action. There he was kindly but not attentive. The boy grew up almost without his father's knowledge. He saw and wondered. His father's modesty was tempered in him by a sturdy immobility, which the keen-witted parent was at a loss to understand. The boy seemed dull, yet he never failed to have his own ideas of those wonderful events of which his father was the almost unconscious center.”
I don’t know how Busbey could have known any of this, but he seems to be making the point that from an early age, Robert made up his own mind, despite not appearing especially perceptive or curious. I suppose the puzzle was the source of his confidence. Later on, Busbey indicates that Robert “distrusted himself,” but he might have meant this in relation to a different kind of judgement:
The father's highest aspiration for the son was that he should be well educated. He had felt himself handicapped in the race of life by the lack of what is ordinarily termed preparation. He was quite unconscious of that broader and nobler preparation which solitude, and toil, and enforced knowledge of the great common heart had given him. To his latest hour he bewailed the lack of literary training. Like all men whom nature and events have made truly great, he had a strange reverence for the culture that comes from books. Almost before the pursuit of fame had summoned him to national renown, Abraham Lincoln had begun the preparation of his son for a position which he himself never hoped to occupy. He was determined that the best training which the first schools of the land could give should be bestowed upon the son whose nature he only half comprehended. When, therefore, the events of 1860 brought the father into a prominence as little anticipated by himself as by the rest of the world, we find his son Robert already a student at Phillips' Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. During the first year of his father's first term he entered Harvard University and passed his college course in that most embarrassing of all roles—the son of the President. The restraint imposed upon him by his relations to a man whose name was in the mouths of all was very great. His natural reserve amounted almost to timidity. He did not distrust others, but himself. His very anxiety to do credit to his father's name greatly retarded his progress. He was naturally studious, little given to display, but devoted to careful, plodding work. In the latter years of the course he came to the higher studies ripe for their comprehension and enjoyment, and showed to much better advantage than in the technical work of the preceding years. He graduated in 1864, and yielding most unwillingly to the importunate advice and pleading solicitation of his father, he entered the Harvard Law School. The country was then in the throes of a fierce Presidential contest, superimposed upon the mighty struggle with rebellion. It was sorely against his will that the young man had been kept at college. Every murmur of defeat, during the long and terrible struggle, had come to his ears as a voice of reproach, and only the father's constant entreaty had kept him from the field of battle. For a few weeks his filial reverence and the duty which he owed to that father who was the nation's head kept him at the law school. Then he could endure it no longer, and breaking away from the paternal constraint, he sped to Washington, entered the army, and in a short time was assigned to duty upon the staff of General Grant as captain and aide-de-camp. His army life was as unpretentious as that which had gone before. No man who served upon the personal staff of Grant had any sinecure. The fact that he was the President's son made no difference in his duties or responsibilities; nor did he desire that it should. With quiet, unassuming diligence he took up the duties of his position, shirking nothing of labor, hardship or exposure; asking nothing for himself but a soldier's duty. During this period of character-formation the young man grew rapidly. He had the advantages of personal contact with the greatest minds of the day and the tutorship of tremendous events.
At the close of the war, after his father's death, he decided promptly in favor of beginning life in earnest and for himself. The nation stood ready to bestow upon him the emoluments and favor which his father had not lived to enjoy. He had but to remain in the army to obtain promotion and advancement. The country would have made a pet of him. Almost everybody expected him to do this. Many sought to attach themselves to him in order to share the favor they knew he might enjoy. . Those who held to this belief had little knowledge of the man. He resigned his commission in the army and went with his widowed mother to Chicago, where he entered upon the study of the law. He put aside the fact that he was the son of Abraham Lincoln and became simply Robert T. Lincoln, a student fitting himself for his life-work. Judge David Davis had always been a warm friend of the family, and acting upon his advice the young man placed himself under the instruction of Samuel W. Fuller, of the law firm of Scammon, McCagg & Fuller. The propriety of this move was recognized by all of President Lincoln's old friends, and when young Mr. Lincoln was admitted to the bar in 1867, great interest was manifested in his career. Mr. J. Young Scammon, at that time very wealthy and of great influence not only in Chicago but throughout the state, turned over his large practice, to his son and Robert T. Lincoln, the young men starting in business under the firm name of Scammon & Lincoln.
By the sickness of his partner the bulk of this business fell to Mr. Lincoln, and he handled it in a manner and with an ease that excited the admiration of older lawyers. It was at this stage of his life that he especially developed that even-tempered industry and trusty self-reliance that have served him so well in each succeeding epoch of his career. When the firm dissolved Mr. Lincoln for a time practiced alone, and had at the time of the great fire a good business outside of that which came to him through Mr. Scammon. The watchfulness and encouragement of friends who were determined to see Abe Lincoln's son do his best, accomplished much; his own sturdy, self-reliant manhood did still more. He was yet within the radius of the halo surrounding a great name, and was judged, and often misjudged, by standards not at all to his liking. He realized not a little of that popular tyranny which demands that a great man's son shall be the absolute counterpart of the father. This he could not be, and had no desire to be ; yet it cost a great deal of exertion to enable him to break away from this popular demand and be himself— live his own life, and make his own place.
In order to do this, he went abroad in 1872, and after spending some time in Europe returned to Chicago and settled down to business on his merits. No man ever made a more determined effort to avoid the use of a name as capital than did he, and no lawyer ever worked more conscientiously along the slow way to sure success. In these years unremitting labor and this oversensitiveness in the matter of avoiding notoriety began to tell on his personalty. He acquired a reputation for unresponsive phlegm and suspicious squeamishness in all that concerned himself, that was scarcely-warranted. His figure took on during this time a sort of droop about the shoulders like that which characterizes the figure of General Grant, and is said to be indicative of patient persistence. His disinclination to appear in public, and his reticence when he did so, as to all that concerned himself, threw about him the very air of mystery from which he had sought to escape. He wished to avoid the exceptional, and to stand on the common level. He was not at all inclined to listen to schemes of any sort for his advancement, but gave himself up to the work of "hoeing his own row." After he had won his place in the firm of Isham & Lincoln, and his ability had been fairly acknowledged, he became less sensitive on the question of the public. He made his first political speech at the great Blaine meeting at the battle-ground, in Indiana, in 1876. He spoke not more than five minutes, and with the tremor of a novice, but he succeeded even in that time in impressing himself upon an audience, restive of anything that delayed the expected effort of the white-plumed knight whom Ingersoll had lauded beyond any man's ability to justify.
In 1876 he was elected to his first office. The Board of the South Town, Chicago, managing affairs in the interest of a ring, had excited the indignation of the business men, and an effort was made to compel the commissioners or trustees to change their policy. The business men of the city attended a meeting of the board in force, secured the resignation of the Supervisor who held the purse strings, and elected Mr. Lincoln in his stead. Mr. Lincoln accepted, and at once began that fight against the ring, which redeemed the South Town. He not only looked after the business, but he pushed the cases at issue through the local courts; fought them all the way up to the Supreme Court, and finally won them there. He kept up the struggle long after the people had lost interest in it; his pluck, pertinacity and legal ability all attracting marked attention, and showing more clearly than anything else had done, the real character of the man. Some of those who had counted him only a soft complacent man of society awoke to the fact that they had failed rightly to take his measure. He was still sensitive when it came to doing anything susceptible of being considered a bid for notoriety, but at the same time he had a stubborn courage in doing what seemed to him right. For example—when the question of nominating General Grant came up in Chicago in 1880, he did not attend the first meetings of those who favored the movement lest his warm feeling toward the old Commander might be mistaken for a motive of coarser quality. Seeing that his silence was misunderstood, he appeared at the first considerable formal gathering of Grant's friends, and when elected presiding officer defined his position in a crisp little speech which could not be misunderstood. Throughout the canvass he kept in the background, working earnestly, insisting that older men should go to the front, and protesting against any movement that should make him prominent as a figurehead. He became conspicuous in spite of himself, however; and was made a delegate to the State Convention ; then to the National Convention, and finally, one of the electors. He came out of that fierce convention-fight with the respect of his opponents, and with something like enthusiasm in his behalf prevailing among his partisan associates.
When President Garfield appointed him Secretary of War, Mr. Lincoln took his place in the office at Washington without parade and without a sign of exultation. On that first morning in office he was simply Lawyer Lincoln, of Chicago; unabashed, unobtrusive, seeming to lack some element of self-assertion, and yet asserting himself in a way to leave impressions of sharp individuality on the hundreds who called to offer congratulations. He was not breezily exhilarated like Blaine, nor anxiously hospitable like Kirkwood, nor stolidly reserved like Windom, but stood at his desk with the old Granlike droop of the shoulders, and an under current of sullenness showing now and then over the too ready assumption that Garfield had chosen a name rather than a man, and tempering his finely-shaded cordiality.
Mr. Lincoln married Miss Mary Harlan (daughter of Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Interior) in 1868, and when they returned to Washington in 1881 both were received with marked cordiality by old acquaintances and friends. Mr. Lincoln's career since that time has brought out plainly his leading traits of character, but there are still comparatively few people who know him well. He is better educated than nine tenths of the men in public life. He has been a great reader—has been, in fact, a genuine student of literature, and has fully justified his father's wish that the son might be prepared to serve the nation in any position he might be called upon to fill. He is something of a musician, and yet few people know it. He is not only a mere student of the printed page, but is a student also in that larger sense of knowing how to get at the bottom of things he undertakes to fathom. This has been made evident to army officers and others who have come into official contact with him.
Most men in public life now know that Mr. Lincoln's character is transparent and wholly without guile. A great many have reason to know that he is absolutely sincere, bold in promoting what he conceives to be right, and a little reckless as to who is hit in the carrying out of a good purpose. Not a few have learned that he has inherited the strong common sense and good judgment of his father with not a little of his father's tact, and of that sagacity so perspicacious that it seemed almost prophetic…
Now for the second piece:
The world loved Abraham Lincoln. His life was a miracle we never weary of studying. Its elements seemed so contradictory, and yet were so harmonious. His early life promised so little, while his late-blossoming manhood showed so much. How the forest and the flat-boat, the cross-road's store and the country bar could have produced a man so gentle and yet so strong—so full of tact, yet of unflinching courage—so great in himself, and yet such a lover of greatness in others — passes all ordinary comprehension. The more we consider the marvelous riddle of his life, the less we are able to guess its secret. Outwardly, he was seen and known of all ; inwardly, none came nigh [to him?] Only this we know, that whatever task was laid upon him, found him ready to perform it—not only well, but, as the world came to see after it was over, better than any other could have done it. We know that he stood among giants and envied none of them; that when he turned his eyes upon himself he was filled not with exultation at what he had achieved, but with sorrow for his own deficiencies. The power which was a marvel to the world, was a much greater marvel to himself. His early lack of opportunity so weighed upon him that humility became the most notable feature of his mind. To [differ?] from others whose knowledge and experience gave him confidence in their judgment, was so irksome a task that only the most imperious necessity could force him to its performance.
What the son of any great man will become is always a curious study. What the son of such a man would be like, the most profound philosopher might well be anxious to know. The world always expects of a great man's son even more than his father accomplished, and makes its demand for achievement not at the end of his life, but at the beginning. Yet it is rarely, indeed, that a great father has a son great in the same directions. Philip of Macedon, it is true, made his son a greater soldier than himself. The younger Pitt overtopped his father on the same lines of action, and the elder Mill trained up a son whose fame has almost hidden his father's renown.
In these cases, however, the father not only gave inherited powers, but shaped with careful hand the development of the son's genius. With Mr. Lincoln it was entirely different. He so distrusted himself that he hardly sought to bias his son's inclination. It never once occurred to him that his own life could be a model on which another's should be shaped. Good masters, good opportunities, learning, knowledge, ample preparation—these were the things he coveted for his heir. He even deprecated the tutelage of the great events which surrounded the son's young life. His constant fear was lest the hot blast of war should fuse too soon the elements of his manhood. He under-estimated in every respect the greatness of himself and of his time. Whatever the son received from the father, therefore, he took, as it were, at second hand. He inherited the name, more or less of the paternal nature, and an imperious demand that he should make himself worthy of both. It was a difficult position and a terrible requirement which the murdered father bequeathed to the son just entering manhood.
Few men standing where Robert Lincoln did in 1856 would have achieved anything worthy of note in life. A nation stood ready to do him honor for his father's sake. The glamor of a great name attended on his footsteps. A mighty people waited only an opportunity to divide their idolatry of the father and give a part to the son. It must have required a deal of manhood to enable him to turn his back upon the adulation that everywhere accosted him; still more to hide away from everything that tended to impress upon him that his father's fame was sufficient for him also. Very few who heard that he was to study for the bar believed that he would ever become a lawyer. It was supposed that his name would simply constitute a lure by which clients might be brought into the web of some strong practitioner, who would divide with him the profits of their plucking. This was the world's opinion—the world that prides itself upon its wisdom, and is, in truth, very rarely mistaken in its judgment. Yet, in this case, it was wide enough of the mark. The quiet young man showed no inclination for the work of the touter. On the contrary, he manifested a strong tendency to think for himself, and not only to think for himself, but likewise to do for himself.
Standing now where the eyes of the world are likely very soon to turn upon him with keen, questioning scrutiny, it is fair to ask what has he done that shows him capable of doing greater things? His public life is bounded by the term which he has served as Secretary of War. It was supposed by many that in this place he would be only a figure-head; simply the son of his father—a name that would fill a niche in the cabinet. This was the first danger that threatened him. Should he escape this, there awaited him that sea of uncertainty which succeeded the death of his chief and the war of faction within his party. It would naturally be expected that he would, at least, fall a prey to ambition, and attempt to seize so favorable an opportunity for personal aggrandisement. Both of these perils he has not only avoided, but has apparently been unconsciousness of their existence. He asserted himself as the head of the war department, not by clamorous proclamation but by quiet performance of his duties. Shirking no responsibility, he has not been anxious to obtrude his personality. Although the youngest member of a cabinet, composed of peculiarly diverse and aggressive elements, he abated not a jot of the dignity of his position, yielded nothing of his right of private judgment, nor became in any manner the echo of another's will, yet avoiding all conflict apparently without effort. No man of ordinary parts could have done this. With Blaine and McVeagh in the foreground, and James and Windom watchfully posted in the rear, and the grand simple-hearted chieftain almost unconscious of the incompatibility that nothing could long repress, it was strange, indeed, that the inexperienced young lawyer, with only his father's great name to give weight to his opinion, should find it possible to serve without being either ignored by his associates or imbroiled in their conflicts. The test of power is not alone what is accomplished, but the apparent ease with which it is done.
In the exciting scenes which followed the assassination of President Garfield Mr. Lincoln sought neither to court nor avoid publicity. He performed his duties with quiet readiness; stood alone in the headless cabinet in his opinion as to the course they should pursue, and, despite the intensity of feeling generated by the events which followed, continued to discharge the duties of his place under the succeeding administration without an implication of disloyalty upon the part of any friend of either.
In the fierce conflict which has raged within his party, Mr. Lincoln has held himself entirely aloof from both factions. As an officer of the Government, he has quietly performed his duties; as a Republican, he has permitted no word to escape him which could, by any possibility, give offence to either of the hostile elements. He is, perhaps, the only Republican in the United States, of any prominence whatever, who can be said not to have manifested a bias towards one faction or the other. That this attitude is not the result of any lack of independence, or inclination and ability to have and to assert his own views, is well attested by his report upon the River and Harbor Bill, which awakened so much and such hitter hostility on the part of congressmen of his own party as well as of the opposition. Notwithstanding the clamor, Mr. Lincoln made no explanation, condescended to no controversy. He had performed his duty without fear or favor, and did not seek to shirk the responsibility of his action.
Despite the difference of preparation, of temperament, and surroundings, there is easily to be traced throughout his public life a distinct flavor of that rare tact which characterized his father, and enabled him to control a cabinet composed of the greatest chiefs of his party without awakening envy or entertaining distrust. Something, too, he has shown of his father's power to decide for himself when the necessity for decision comes—that power of regarding the opinion of others with respect, without in any manner abandoning his own—that capacity for attaching to himself, with quiet unobtrusiveness, friends and allies, without awakening the hostility of enemies. Whether these and other elements of his character will develop in the future, so as to constitute him the equal of the father as an administrator, it is impossible to say. Like the father, he has been a man of slow growth ; unlike him, he has not as yet developed any oratorical power worthy of note. What he has thus far accomplished is altogether good. He has lived a self-directed, manful life. He has exhibited- a sturdy, resolute will, and a tact so notable that none of his contemporaries can claim comparison with him in this respect. All these would seem to indicate that he is a man of self-control, of power, and of possibility worthy of the great name he wears.
As a Presidential candidate, he has four great elements of strength:
First—He is the son of a man the nation's debt of gratitude to whom is yet unpaid, and whose name is the synonym of all that is noble, generous, self-forgetful, grand.
Second—In an age when personal character is peculiarly liable to assault ; when every public man lives in the focus of the world's scrutiny ; when personal purity is mocked at; in the midst of every possible temptation to a life of meretricious display or unwholesome indulgence, he has lived a plain, clean, unassuming life, as void of glamor or display as that which his father led on the banks of the Sangamon, or in the beleagured capitol of the nation.
Third—At a time of unparalleled political bitterness there is, whether in his own party or among its opponents, hardly one of high or low degree who has for him anything but kindly wishes and profound respect.
If it should be written in the book of fate that he should succeed to the place his father once held, every element of his character gives assurance that he would be the president not of a faction, nor of a party, but the calm, self-poised head of a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”