Index to DKE "Stories of the Week"



Alpha / Harvard


Robert Todd Lincoln as a student at Harvard

Robert Todd Lincoln,

a Deke at Harvard. 

Only one fraternity can say five of its brothers have been, or are, President of the United States – Deke.  And only one Deke has been able to say his father lived in the White House while he lived in the Deke House – Robert Todd Lincoln.  


In reality, there was no Deke House on campus in the fall of 1860 when Lincoln matriculated at Harvard.  But DKE’s Alpha chapter pledged Lincoln soon after his father pledged to do all he could to unify the United States when he assumed office March 4, 1861.


The oldest son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s four sons, Robert was born in Springfield, Illinois, on April 1, 1843. He was named for his grandfather – Mary Todd Lincoln’s father, Robert Todd – and he was the only one of the First Couple’s children to live to adulthood.  


Because Robert grew into young adulthood at a time when his father was in the height of his pre-presidential political and law career, the two were not close.  Unlike the warm bond enjoyed by his younger brothers, Robert’s relationship with his father was formal. He later wrote a would-be biographer that “During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches. In 1859 when I was 16 and when he was beginning to devote himself more to practice in his own neighborhood, and when I would have both the inclination and the means of gratifying my desire to become better acquainted with the history of his struggles, I went to New Hampshire to school and afterward to Harvard College, and he became President. Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible. I scarcely even had 10 minutes quiet talk with him during his presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business.”


When Robert was only three years old, the future president said “Bob is short and low and, I expect, always will be.”  Like the Todd’s, his mother’s family, he was of a stocky build and never had the long-boned features of the Lincolns.


In February 1850 when Robert was seven years old, his younger brother Edward, who was three, died of diphtheria.  Robert and Eddie had been close, and the loss of his brother when Robert was only seven had a profound effect on him.  Another brother, Willie, was born in 1850 – 11 months after the death of Eddie.  The age difference with Willie prevented him and Robert from being close as youngsters.  Robert’s youngest brother, Tad, was born in 1853, named for the president’s father, Thomas Lincoln, who died two years before in 1851.


By the time Robert was 16, his father was a prominent attorney and already a national political figure based on his reputation in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Family finances were good enough to send Robert to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.  His father was the Republican nominee for President when Robert was accepted at Harvard College to join the Class of 1864.  


When Robert arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1860, the student body was predominantly Republican and his father was the Republican candidate for President. After his father won the election, a November 16 New York Times article noted that Robert had “within the past week, grown vastly in popularity with his fellow students and the townspeople generally.”


At Harvard, Robert studied the standard curriculum of his time as there were no college “majors” then, taking classes in botany, chemistry, composition, declamations, elocution, forensics, Greek, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, political economy, religion, rhetoric, and themes. He pledged DKE, and Deke lore includes a story that Robert wrote his father for permission to join the fraternity and that his father sent his agreement back to Harvard in a letter.  It appears, however, that DKE does not have this letter.  


During the turmoil of the Civil War, Robert stayed mostly at Harvard.  President Lincoln, absorbed by

Rather than a DKE pin, Dekes in Harvard's Alpha chapter received 

medallions.  Pictured above is the front and back side of the 

medallion belonging to an Alpha Deke in Harvard's Class of 1908.

the heavy demands of his position, did not visit his son at Harvard; instead, Robert saw his family during school vacations in Washington and other locations. His mother visited him in Boston.


In 1862, Robert was called to Washington, to the bedside of his younger brother Willie, who later died in the White House. For three years, Robert lived on campus in buildings which still serve as dormitories. He spent his sophomore and junior years in Room 22 of Stoughton Hall. Robert participated in Hasty Pudding Club theatricals which were performed on the top floor of Stoughton. He served the club as vice president during the first term of his senior year. A photograph of Robert with other club members now hangs in his office at Hildene, his summer home in Vermont


Robert was graduated with the Class of 1864 but as he noted in a July 18 letter, “The President will not be at Commencement.” His mother was present on July 20 for the festivities, which included the principal address given by Edward Everett, who shared the podium with President Lincoln at Gettysburg the previous year. In his Class Book of 1864, Robert observed, “My life in College has been very pleasant and has had no interruptions. I have studied enough to satisfy myself without being a ‘dig.’”


After a vacation, Robert returned to campus in September to attend Harvard Law School. The school was not highly regarded at the time, and it is not known if its perceived shortcomings affected Robert’s decision to drop out. During his brief stay, Robert argued moot court cases with students like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Civil War veteran and future U.S. Supreme Court justice. 


Robert left law school after his first semester and joined the staff of General Ulysses Grant as a captain. On January 19, 1865, President Lincoln wrote to Grant, asking him to find a safe staff appointment for Robert: “My son, now in his twenty-second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, not yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long, are better entitled, and better qualified to hold.”


More than 1,500 Harvard students and alumni enlisted in military service: 1,311 with the Union forces and 257 with the Confederate. After peace came in 1865, alumni raised $370,000 – an enormous sum for the times – to memorialize the 136 Harvard men who died in the Union cause. Robert was one of the contributors to the building in 1866. 


The president and his son never closed the gap in their relationship.  In later years, Robert described the two as distant.  But on Friday, April 14, 1865, 142 years ago this week, Robert was at the White House.  He had breakfast with his father on that day, the day President Lincoln was later shot in Ford’s Theatre.  


The president’s conversation with his son was reported to have gone like this, “Well, my son, you have returned safely from the front. The war is now closed, and we soon will live in peace with the brave men that have been fighting against us. I trust that the era of good feeling has returned…and henceforth we shall live in peace. Now listen to me, Robert: you must lay aside your uniform, and return to college. I wish you to read law for three years, and at the end of that time I hope that we will be able to tell whether you will make a lawyer or not.”


That evening Robert was in his room at the White House when news that his father had been shot reached him.  He rushed to the Petersen House across 10th Street from the theater and spent the night at his father’s bedside, comforting his mother.  The end came at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Robert spent most of the next several weeks at the White House attempting to console his mother and younger brother, Tad.  Throughout the weeks that followed, Robert had to assume the lead role for the family in his father’s funeral - since his mother was devastated by the assassination. Presidential aide Edward Duffield Neil later wrote of Robert that “his manly bearing on that trying occasion made me feel that he was a worthy son of a worthy father.” After Lincoln's funeral, Robert, Mary and Tad boarded a train to Chicago.


Robert lived in Chicago for the next 46 years, until 1911.  He graduated from the University of

Robert Todd Lincoln in mid-life

Lincoln, early in his career in Chicago with the 

Pullman Palace Car Company.

Chicago Law School (not the same University of Chicago that exists today) and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1867.  In 1868, he married Mary Eunice Harlan and the couple had two daughters, Mary and Jesse, and one son, Abraham Lincoln II or “Jack” who died in London in 1890 at age 17.  


In 1887, Jack had the honor of unveiling the statue of his famous grandfather in Lincoln Park in Chicago that was made by the famous sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. A few months before the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, Robert’s home in Chicago was the scene of another sad Lincoln funeral.  His only remaining brother Tad had died at the age of 18, likely from tuberculosis.  Tad had recently returned to America from Europe where he had been touring with his mother. 


Robert was a successful corporate attorney during the rebuilding of Chicago in the years after the fire.  He went back to Washington in 1881 when President James Garfield asked him to serve as Secretary of War.  When Garfield was assassinated, Lincoln stayed on to the end of the term of President Chester Arthur.  He went back to Chicago for four years and then President Benjamin Harrison asked him to serve as the U.S. Minister to England, also known as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, from 1889 to 1893.  


Robert often was mentioned as a candidate for President or Vice President at the Republican National Conventions of 1884 to 1892, but he never sought nomination for either position.  For reasons that aren’t explained, at some point during his adult life he was made a member of Delta Chi Fraternity.  


By the time Robert was 55 years old he had become counsel to the Pullman Palace Car company. Pullman was then building the best railroad passenger cars, sleeper cars, and dining cars in the country.  Robert became acting president of the company in 1897 when George Pullman died.  And he was elected president in his own right in 1901.  


Lincoln with Harding and Taft

Lincoln (right), with U.S. President William Howard Taft (left) and 

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren G. Harding, in 

Washington at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, May 30, 1922.

Train travel being what it was at the turn of the 20th century, Robert was a wealthy man by 1902.  He purchased several hundred acres near Manchester, Vermont to build his dream summer estate called Hildene.  He retired as president of the Pullman Company in 1911 at age 69, but he remained as

Chairman of the Board until 1922.  


For the next decade, that included World War I, Robert’s professional life was full with being Chairman of the Board of the Pullman Company.  He divided his time between Washington, DC in the fall and winter months, visits to Chicago for business, and summers at Hildene in Vermont


His last major public appearance on behalf of his family was May 30, 1922 when he joined President

Lincoln on the cover to TIME magazine

Robert Todd Lincoln, pictured on the 

cover of TIME magazine less than four 

months before his death at age 83.

Warren Harding, Chief Justice William Howard Taft and more than 50,000 people at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.


Robert was at Hildene on July 25, 1926 when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the age of 83.  His wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, lived on until 1937.  They are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Hildene remained in the Lincoln family until 1975.  In 1984, President Lincoln’s last descendant, his great grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in New Hampshire on Christmas Day.  But before he died he made sure that many family artifacts from President Lincoln and his grandfather Robert Todd Lincoln were given to the Chicago Historical Society and the Illinois Historical Society.  Harvard Dekes received a two-sided engraved DKE medal instead of a DKE pin.  Robert’s DKE medallion is not part of the collection of either historical society.  




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