How and why did Robert Lincoln decide to go to Harvard?

How and why did Robert Lincoln decide to go to Harvard?

Newly revealed letter gives the answer.

By Jason Emerson

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The earliest-known letter by Robert Lincoln has recently surfaced, and its contents answer the longstanding question of exactly how and why Robert ended up attending Harvard College in Massachusetts and exactly what role his parents played in the decision. The letter, written from Springfield in 1859 when Robert was 16 years old, shows that the oldest son of Abraham Lincoln was a typical teenager in that he didn’t care where he went to college as long as he could escape the “dullness” of Springfield, and that his parents were the ones deciding on where he would ultimately attend. The letter also offers up a previously unknown acquaintance of Robert’s, Louis James, who became a renowned Shakespearian actor as an adult.

The origin of Robert’s attendance at Harvard has always been somewhat of a mystery to scholars desirous of understanding Abraham Lincoln’s role as parent. Existing evidence has offered no explanation for the choice, so all scholars have had to offer was supposition that Robert chose Harvard because it was prestigious, all his friends and social peers were attending Ivy League schools in the East and he was following suit, and his parents wanted him to have the best education possible. In his early years, Robert did obtain the best education he could receive in Springfield. It began in 1849 with brief attendance at a Springfield day school. In 1850, he became a student at Abel Estabrook’s Springfield Academy, a private subscription-based school, and three years later, at age 11, he entered the preparatory department of Illinois State University. Robert spent six years at ISU — attending today’s equivalents of middle school and high school — and by the spring of 1859 he was considering college.

By March of that year, Robert was 16, the older brother to eight-year-old Willie and five-year-old Tad, his mother was a strong-willed educated woman raising the children, and his father was an attorney renowned throughout the Midwest who had only months before lost a U.S. Senate race to Stephen A. Douglas, but had, in the process, gained national attention as a rising Republican politician.

Robert’s story — in general and in regard to his education — has been one rarely investigated or told except as to how it related to his famous father. In the 1960s, historian John Goff wrote an article focused completely on Robert’s education, which he followed with a full biography, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right. I wrote a biography of Robert that was published in 2012 titled, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. Neither Goff nor I found any information on exactly why Robert chose to attend Harvard. The only written evidence was something Robert wrote in his college autobiography that he “became aware that I could never get an education in that way [at Illinois State University] and resolved to enter Harvard College” — and that has been the extent of any known explanations. A few years ago, I was contacted by a man who was a descendant of an old acquaintance of Robert Lincoln who had a letter from Robert and was curious to get my opinion of it as Robert’s biographer. After seeing and reading it, I was astounded by its contents and the meaning it adds to the Lincoln family story.

The letter reads:

Springfield, Ill

March 4th/59

Friend Louis

I am ashamed of not having written to you before but I have been so busy at school that I have had no time for any thing else. We have had a gay time this winter, the legislature having favoured [sic] us with an extremely long session, so long, indeed, that the republican members got tired of it and went home. What has been going on in “The Garden City”? If it has been as dull there all winter as it is here just now, you have been having a sorry time.. [sic] Father came home yesterday from Chicago and told me your father would probably send you to Harvard University next fall. They have been thinking of sending me somewhere but have not made up their minds yet[.]

It is a matter of indifference to me where I go so I can get away from this place.. [sic] Are you certain of going? What class do you wish to enter? There is a young man who graduated at Harvard and wants me to go there. He gave me a catalogue, which, if you would like to see it, I will send to you. Hoping to hear from you soon I remain

Yours truly

R.T. Lincoln

The envelope is addressed to Louis James, Care of Benjamin James, Esq., Chicago, Ills., with a postmark of Springfield, Ill.

Historically, everything in the letter checks out:

Louis Levitte James, born in Tremont, Ill., on Oct. 3, 1842 (only two months after Robert Lincoln), was the son of Benjamin Franklin James. Benjamin James was a lawyer who practiced in Tazewell County, Illinois, and was the publisher of the short-lived Tazewell Whig. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1841 (Abraham Lincoln was on the committee that examined him for admission) where he practiced in Tremont and participated in Whig politics. He moved his family to Chicago in the late 1850s and set up his law practice in that city. He was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln for Congress in the 1840s, Senate in the 1850s, and the presidency in 1860. He was appointed a U.S. patent examiner in Washington, D.C., during the war.

Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin James were definitely acquaintances and possibly friends. There are multiple letters between them in Lincoln’s collected papers. In a letter from Lincoln to James, dated August 31, 1860, Lincoln thanks James for his congratulations on receiving the Republican presidential nomination, and adds, “How time gallops along with us! Look at these great big boys of yours and mine, when it was but yesterday that we and their mothers were unmarried. Make my respects to Mrs. James and Louis.” Clearly, James knew Abraham Lincoln and their two boys became acquainted through their fathers.

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It is also verified that Abraham Lincoln was in Chicago in late February 1859 and returned to Springfield on March 3, just as Robert declares in the letter. Lincoln was in Chicago on legal business for his client Jonathan Haines. (This is likely the case of Ruggs v. Haines, in which Jonathan and Ansel Haines, inventors and manufacturers of the Illinois Harvester, hired Lincoln in 1856 to sue George H. Ruggs for patent infringement. Lincoln’s clients won at trial and on appeal.) While in town, Lincoln also gave a speech at the city’s Republican party headquarters to celebrate the party’s victory in the municipal elections. Lincoln wrote a letter (to Peter H. Watson) from Chicago on March 2 and a letter from Springfield (to Hayden Keeling) on March 3.

As to the contents of the letter of young Robert Lincoln to Louis James, there are many aspects of it that are fascinating and exciting to the study of the Lincoln family. First of all, this is the earliest known letter by Robert Lincoln to ever be seen. Prior to this letter, the earliest letter written by Robert was one to his mother on December 2, 1860, which he wrote from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. (Robert obviously wrote many letters as a teen in Springfield, but none of them have ever been publicly found. Robert did burn many of his letters as an adult in the typical Victorian house cleaning procedure, and it is known that Mary Lincoln burned many family papers in 1861 while preparing to go to Washington, so his teen letters were probably destroyed during such events.)

Another interesting aspect to the letter is the neatness of the handwriting. Robert’s handwriting as an adult is much more angular and tightly knit; it is also atrocious and difficult to read. Also, his adult signature was “Robert T. Lincoln” or “RTL” to friends, so his signature in the 1859 letter as “RT Lincoln” is rare and unusual. However, considering that he was 16 when this was written and in the midst of school, this makes sense that he would still be writing in a neat script and had not yet adopted his adult signature.

For me, as someone who spent nearly a decade researching and writing Robert’s life, the most exciting (and valuable) aspect to the letter is the viewing of Robert’s typical teen unhappiness in where he lives, and, most importantly, the information about Robert Lincoln’s college plans. The fact that Robert talks about how “dull” life is in Springfield and how he just wants to “get away from this place” shows that Robert was a normal teenager despite his father’s fame, and that the Lincoln family was a normal family.  Robert’s statement that his parents “have been thinking of sending me somewhere,” and that his father was talking to the elder James about Harvard, shows for the first time that the decision for Robert Lincoln to attend Harvard College was one that was driven by Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Also, Robert’s statement, “There is a young man here who graduated Harvard and wants me to go there,” is interesting because there was a clerk in the Lincoln & Herndon Law Office named Charles B. Brown who not only graduated from Harvard in 1856 but also wrote a letter of introduction for Robert to Brown’s former classmate William W. Burrage. When Robert went to Harvard in summer 1859 to take the exams, he visited with Burrage to get advice on how to proceed, he told a correspondent in 1909.[*]

Interestingly, other than this letter, no other letter to or from Louis James to Robert Lincoln is known to exist. It appears Louis never entered Harvard, but instead joined the Union army at the outset of the Civil War. “I served through the war and when it was over went to Louisville, where I got my first engagement … in 1864,” as he told one writer in 1902. James became a Shakespearean actor of some note (rated “second tier” by New York critics at the time). He toured with Lawrence Barrett’s acting company from 1877 to 1886. “With a commanding vocal and physical presence as well as ease of emotional range, James earned respect in the profession and faithful audiences on the road, even if he never attained Broadway stardom,” according to Felicia Hardison Londré in her book, The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930.

James’s first wife, Lillian Scanlon, died in 1876; he married his co-star Marie Wainwright in 1882, and divorced in 1889; he married Alphia Hendricks in December 1892. Hendricks (1868-1940) performed as Aphie James. She performed in vaudeville and on Broadway during her career. The couple trouped together in James’s own company and had a large summer house at Monmouth Beach, New Jersey.

Louis died unexpectedly in Montana while touring with his company in 1910. Alphie passed in 1940. Their remains are buried in the Hendricks family plot in Kansas City, Missouri. Alphie was the aunt of the father of the letter’s owner who made the correspondence available to me. He has since sold the letter to a private collector.

Robert Lincoln did attend Harvard College, but he did not enroll until 1860. When he took the entrance exams in 1859 he failed miserably and, upon receiving advice from Harvard President Dr. James Walker, undertook a year of preparatory work at Phillips Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire.

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Robert graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy not long after his father’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate on May 18, 1860. In early July, he again attempted the Harvard entrance exams and this time passed easily. “After the commencement in 1860, I was able to inform my father that I had succeeded in entering College without a condition, quite a change from the previous year,” Robert wrote in his college biography four years later. Abraham was pleased to brag about his son’s achievements. He wrote to his friend Anson G. Henry, “Our oldest boy ‘Bob’ has been away from us nearly a year at school. He will enter Harvard University this month. He promises well, considering we never controlled him much.” Robert Lincoln graduated Harvard in 1864, served briefly on General U.S. Grant’s staff during the final months of the Civil War, and ultimately became a lawyer in Chicago.


Jason Emerson is a journalist and historian.  He is the author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln.


[*] One of the many incorrect stories about Robert Lincoln’s life was that when he journeyed to Harvard College in 1859 is that he carried with him a letter of introduction from U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, presenting Robert as the son of his friend Abraham Lincoln, “with whom I have lately been canvassing the state of Illinois.” Though untrue, the story, related by Edward Everett Hale at the end of the nineteenth century, has been repeated by every historian since. Robert even told Hale—twice, in 1899—that his facts were incorrect, stating the second time, “I certainly never told the story to you, because I do not believe it to have any foundation whatever.” Robert thought it “quite impossible” that he carried a letter from Douglas, for, even though the elder Lincoln and Douglas had known each other well, “I do not think they were ever what can be called friends.” Robert also said he was “quite sure” that the relations of the two men after the 1858 senatorial campaign “were not such as to permit that my father should have asked of Senator Douglas a letter of introduction for me to anybody. More than that, Senator Douglas had been from early manhood away from the New England States, and I think it very unlikely that he had such relations as to authorize him to give a letter of introduction to anyone at Cambridge.”

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