Jason Emerson is a journalist and an independent historian who has been researching and writing about the Lincoln family for nearly 20 years. He is a former National Park Service park ranger at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill. His previous books include “The Madness of Mary Lincoln,” “Lincoln the Inventor” and “The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters.” He discusses his newest book on Robert T. Lincoln, Abraham and Mary’s oldest and last-surviving son, today at the Library. Read more about it here.
Q. Tell us about your new book, “Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln” and how you came to be interested in him.
A. My book is a cradle-to-grave biography of Robert Lincoln — only the second ever done and the first since 1969 — that examines him not only as his father’s son but also as his own man. Robert was an amazing person with numerous accomplishments, and myriads faults and mistakes, during his 82 years of life. He is generally considered the most successful presidential son in American history (financially and as a private citizen) not including Adams and Bush who became presidents like their fathers.
Professionally and politically, Robert was a Chicago attorney (eventually one of the biggest in the city), supervisor of the town of South Chicago, secretary of war under Presidents Garfield and Arthur, minister to Great Britain, president or board member to numerous telephone, railroad, electricity and other companies, and, finally, president and chairman of the board for the Pullman Car Company. He was also the keeper and protector of his father’s papers and legacy for more than 60 years. He was a self-made man who died a multi-millionaire.
I became fascinated by Robert many years ago when I learned that the Republican Party tried five times to get him to run for president, but he had no interest in the White House and so demurred every time. I wrote an article about it, and as I did research for that article, I kept finding more and more unknown, unpublished information about Robert that really needed to be told. I prefer writing about aspects of history that have not been written about ad nauseum, and Robert, I discovered, was not only practically ignored in the annals of Lincoln scholarship, but the few things actually written about him were typically mistaken, misinterpreted or downright mendacious. So after numerous articles about aspects of his life I decided I should just write his life.
Q. Little has been published about Robert Lincoln. What has made him such a previously unknown historical figure?
A. Robert was an extremely private and reticent person, which was one reason. During his life, he almost always refused to insert himself into his father’s (or his mother’s) legacy, often by stating he really knew nothing interesting enough to tell. It turns out Robert had volumes of fascinating stories to tell (which he did in his personal correspondence to family and close friends), but his self-effacing refusals were his way of politely excusing himself from the spotlight.
Also, because Robert was at Harvard College during the Civil War, historians have assumed (incorrectly) that he was never in Washington and therefore knew nothing about his father’s administration — and therefore knew nothing of interest to their work. I actually discovered that Robert was not only in Washington constantly, but he was in fact his father’s confidant during some of the most trying times of the war.
I have never understood why Robert has been a persona non grata in Lincoln studies. As the oldest son, he was alive and aware of his parents private lives in Springfield moreso than anyone else; as a college student he was not only aware but could comprehend what his father suffered through the war; and as the only surviving son for the next 60-plus years, Robert knew everyone and everything relating to his father that writers and historians continuously searched for. During my research I found a literal treasure-trove of documents not only about Robert but about Abraham, Mary, Willie and Tad, the Civil War, the Lincoln papers, and on and on that no historian had ever used merely because they felt Robert too inconsequential to look into.
Q. Much of your research was done at the Library of Congress. What collections and/or items did you find most illuminating? What were the “previously undiscovered” materials you drew upon?
A. If you totaled up all my research time at the Library of Congress for this book I probably spent years there. I used dozens of collections in the Manuscript Division, looked through probably hundreds of old newspapers, consulted the legal law library, used the library’s general book collection and of course the prints and photographs division.
Every day I found something unknown or unpublished in Lincoln history. I found amazing items in the papers of every president after Abraham Lincoln during Robert’s life — they all wanted to be his friend, his mentor, his ally, to have that link to the Great Emancipator. And whenever they contributed to Lincoln’s legacy or memory, first they consulted Robert, so his hands are all over his father’s legacy. For example, Robert was intricately involved in the creation of The Lincoln Memorial for 20 years, and of course Robert donated his father’s papers to the Library of Congress.
The best thing I ever found was in Robert’s personal papers in the Library, which was only two folders at the time. I found a 15-page handwritten letter by Secretary of War Lincoln detailing day by day, even minute by minute, everything that happened from the moment President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau for the next seven days in the White House. Robert was only 40 feet away from Garfield during the shooting, and during the first week thereafter, Robert and Secretary of State James G. Blaine really ran the government. It was an amazing letter that I discovered had never been quoted, used or even referenced by any scholar. Ever. That was a great day.
Q. What is the story behind how you found Robert Lincoln’s papers? And how did you help the Library acquire them?
A. That is a long story that I tell in full in the last chapter of my book “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” But, succinctly, I was doing research at Robert’s Vermont house, Hildene, where I found two letters that made reference to Mary Todd Lincoln’s “lost insanity letters,” or the letters she wrote from inside the insane asylum in 1875 that have been missing for over 80 years. Those two letters led me on a quest that ended five months later when I found the children of Robert Lincoln’s private attorney. They had in their attic (unknown to them) for 40 years a steamer trunk filled with Lincoln family documents, among them Mary’s missing letters. Most of the rest of the letters related to Robert, his wife and children and his grandchildren, but there was also some about his father.
The owners of the trunk did not know what to do with it, or if it was even valuable or should simply be destroyed. I told them the papers were invaluable and should certainly be kept intact. They decided to donate them to a safe historical repository and had many offers and ideas. When they asked my opinion I told them the three most appropriate places they should consider: the Library of Congress, the Lincoln presidential Library in Springfield, and Hildene, Robert’s Vermont Home. The family wanted a place that would be the most accessible to the public and that would appreciate the trunk, and I gave them the best advice I could. In the end they chose the Library.
Q. You’ve been researching and writing about the Lincoln family for nearly 20 years. What’s your interest/fascination with them?
A. They are just a fascinating family. But also, as I mentioned previously, I prefer ignored, untouched, unknown history and both Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln have lives that have been really ignored, maligned and misunderstood. So it is not only interesting to me to research and write about them, but the research almost always yields amazing discoveries. And since so few writers do anything about Robert and Mary, I have found my niche. Finally, the more I research, the more unknown and unpublished information I keep finding that forces me to continue on researching and writing about them, because I can’t just find this great information and then do nothing with it!
Q. Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical collections, and what do you think the public should know about the importance of the Library’s mission to collect and preserve our historical and cultural heritage?
A. As Abraham Lincoln (and many others I’m sure) previously said, we can’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve been. The study of history guides us, teaches us and, hopefully, its understanding prevents us from continually making the same mistakes as a society. Preserving historical collections is simply invaluable. It’s such a weighty idea and so important to me I don’t know how else to describe it.
Without knowing the history of our country, our communities, our extraordinary individuals humanity would be at a loss, a dog chasing its tail continually repeating itself because it would never learn how to evolve and strive for greatness and change.
The mission of the Library to preserve our historical and cultural heritage is one of the keystones of our collective identity. Its importance is evident in the number of people that visit and utilize the library every day, in the number of new books and materials donated and acquired every day, in the sheer ubiquity of the Library’s importance to understanding all academic disciplines.
When the Library was burned during the war of 1812, one of the first things Thomas Jefferson did was to give the country his own personal library as a foundation to rebuild the national library. Anything that important and essential to Thomas Jefferson is something to which we should all pay attention.