Review of “The Last Lincolns” by Charles Lachman

This book tells the story of Lincoln’s family and descendants after his death.

It is not a happy story. It starts with the reluctance of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to discipline their children. Their youngest, Tad, never even had to go to school until he was fourteen and still could not read at the age of twelve. (Thereafter, Mary started teaching him so he could start classes.) The oldest, and only son to survive into old age, Robert, was a distant, cold, priggish person who, however, prospered in part because of his name.

The bulk of the book tells about the life of Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination of her husband. In spite of presenting a plethora of examples of very bad behavior on Mary’s part, the author is quite an advocate for her, claiming she was misunderstood, badly treated, and unjustly depicted as insane. I would suggest that the author read his own book however, because one definitely gets the impression the charges were not unfounded.

Robert Lincoln is the one who had his mother committed, afraid that she was a danger to herself if left unsupervised. Robert’s wife, also named Mary, could not stand her mother-in-law, refused to go to her funeral, and even moved Robert’s body out of the family tomb after his death so they could be buried apart from the rest of the Lincoln family. They had three children. The youngest, Abraham Lincoln II, looked remarkably like Tad Lincoln, and also shared his fate, both of the boys dying in their late teens. (They were also the only two children who favored Abraham Lincoln rather than Mary Todd Lincoln in temperament and looks.)

Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865 (Library of Congress)

Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865 (Library of Congress)

As a bachelor, Robert had been known in the press as “The Prince of Rails,” a joke referring both to his father, the Rail Splitter, and to the Prince of Wales, the popular playboy son of Queen Victoria. This sense of Robert as “heir apparent” helped him attain important political positions. Robert served as Secretary of War and also as Minister to Great Britain. He was often proposed as a candidate for the presidency. He did not acquit himself well in the positions he served, according to this author, having picked up his mother’s tendency to engage in spiteful vendettas. He does have the unique distinction of having been the only person in history to have been at the bedside of three assassinated presidents – Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, which earned him the sobriquet of the Presidential Angel of Death.

The two surviving daughters of Robert and Mary Lincoln had children, but none of these great-grandchildren managed to reproduce. The last descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985.

After President Lincoln’s death, the family was marked by “scandal and a sense of entitlement…” and became “a symbol for dishonor and decadence in the upper class.” It’s not only a sad story because of what became of the family, but also because of the description of the effects on the nation. The country knew what it had lost (as is often the case, after it was too late), and yearned for another man of Lincoln’s character, putting its last best hope, fruitlessly, in his genetic descendants.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Union Square Press, 2008

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