Deke at Harvard.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
the turmoil of the Civil War, Robert stayed mostly at Harvard.
President Lincoln, absorbed by
than a DKE pin, Dekes in Harvard's Alpha chapter received
Pictured above is the front and back side of the
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.
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
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.’”
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.
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
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.
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
president’s conversation with his son was reported to have gone like
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.”
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.
lived in Chicago for the next 46 years, until 1911. He graduated
from the University of
early in his career in Chicago with the
Palace Car Company.
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
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
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.
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.
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
(right), with U.S. President William Howard Taft (left)
Justice of the Supreme Court Warren G. Harding, in
at the dedication of the
Memorial, May 30, 1922.
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
of the Board until 1922.
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
last major public appearance on behalf of his family was May 30, 1922
when he joined President
Todd Lincoln, pictured on the
of TIME magazine less than four
before his death at age 83.
Harding, Chief Justice William Howard Taft and more than 50,000 people
at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.
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