I decided to read Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson for the simple reason that I was curious what it would have been like to be the son of the “Great Emancipator.” Mr. Emerson did not let me down. The reader is presented with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his only surviving son and a wonderful and detailed narrative history of the Lincoln family from the 1840s through the 1920s. Emerson has written what I would describe as a “comfortable” book where the reader is invited into the mindset of Robert Lincoln. We see the many crises that “young” Lincoln suffered, the politics of the period, the expansion of the American economy and his role in it, in addition to his personal issues relating to both of his parents. We learn that Abraham Lincoln was an overindulgent parent in spite of the fact that Robert was mostly raised by his mother Mary since his father spent a great deal of time traveling the judicial circuit before pursuing a political career. The material that is presented on Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, the death of their children, and the political background is written in an engaging style and is concisely presented though many of the details are not new.
What are new are the details of Robert’s relationship with his mother. Emerson drawing in part on his previous work on Mary Todd Lincoln provides an intricate description of his mother’s mental health following the assassination of his father. The emotional collapse, debts, and wrenching familial details eventually forced Robert to have his mother committed. From 1865-1875 his mother’s mental state dominated a significant amount of time and Robert grew mortified by his mother’s behavior. Robert was deeply concerned about his family’s historical legacy throughout his life so dealing with a mother who was probably bipolar was a challenge. Robert went so far as having his mother followed by Pinkerton detectives as she continued to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, furniture, and spiritualists. Eventually Robert consulted his father’s friends for advice and all agreed she should be institutionalized. The reader is witness to this entire episode which focuses in part on the state of mental health treatment in the United States at the time. After a short stay, under pressure from Mary and fearing publicity Robert approves of his mother’s release and he comes to terms in dealing with his her sickness as best he can.
Robert Lincoln emerges as a remarkable man. One can hardly imagine what it must have been like to bury two brothers, a father and mother, and witness three presidential assassinations. In addition, Robert Lincoln was not a well man who probably suffered from Bright’s Disease in addition to experiencing repeated bouts of depression. Despite these obstacles Robert Lincoln became an exceptional corporate lawyer, a wise business man who amassed a fortune, ambassador to England, was appointed Secretary of War, served as the CEO of The Pullman Palace Car Company, among his many achievements to the point that he was seriously thought of as a presidential candidate in the 1880s. Emerson takes the reader through all of these aspects of Robert’s life and pulls no punches in evaluating his subject. The key dichotomy is how the son differed from his father and Emerson concludes that despite the son’s anti-labor (Pullman Strike) and pro-business stances he was not that different in outlook from his father.
A key theme that is followed throughout the book is Robert Lincoln’s concern for his father’s place in history. Robert refused to allow historians, except for John G. Nicolay and John Hay, his father’s former secretaries during the Civil War access to presidential papers and other documents until twenty one years after his death. He reasoned that there was too much information that could impact people in a negative way that were still alive. There was nothing too small for Robert Lincoln to become involved with if it related to his father. Whether it was the creation of monuments, paintings, museums and documents Robert was the prime decision maker. Robert Lincoln lived a remarkable life that Jason Emerson captures very nicely. I am certain this book will become the standard treatment of its subject for years to come and though it may be an esoteric subject for some, it is lively and well worth the time to read.