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The Last Lincolns

Mar 07, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

This month, we celebrate an important event: The bicentennial birth of Abraham Lincoln, a man many of us consider the greatest American this country has ever produced.

We all know about the life of Lincoln. But have you ever wondered what happened to Lincoln's family after his assassination?

It took Mary Todd Lincoln six weeks before she found the physical and emotional strength to move out of the White House. She took a train to Chicago with her sons, Robert, twenty-two, and Tad, who was twelve years old and still could not button his shirt or tie his shoelaces. Mary wallowed in self-pity and engaged in an ill-conceived scheme to raise money by selling her White House wardrobe. The heap of scorn Mary endured from the national press forced her into foreign exile.

Mary and Tad lived in Germany before homesickness brought them back to the United States after four years abroad. When they returned to Chicago, imagine Robert Lincoln's surprise to hear his young brother speaking English with a Teutonic accent!

Three months later, Tad, now eighteen, was dead, of pleurisy.

Mary had already endured the deaths of two other sons and her husband's assassination but Tad's death seemed to unhinge her.

Four years later Robert Lincoln engineered his mother's arrest and forcible commitment to an insane asylum.

Once a loving and doting mother, Mary Lincoln took to calling her son that "monster of mankind."

Robert Lincoln served as Secretary of War, Minister to Great Britain, and president of the Pullman Company. But he was a dispirited man. He was ashamed of his father's log cabin roots and was actually mortified by his father's nickname, Honest Abe. He was also haunted by the fact that he was a presence in the immediate aftermath of three presidential assassinations: his father's, Garfield's and McKinley's.

Robert became one of the wealthiest men in America. In Manchester, Vermont, he built a vast estate, Hildene, which he curiously called his "ancestral home."

Robert and his wife, Mary Harlan (daughter of a U.S. Senator from Iowa) had three children: Mamie, Jessie, and a son, blessed at birth with perhaps the greatest name in American history, Abraham Lincoln II. He was called Jack. It was said his parents would not let him use his birth name until he had earned it. Jack was growing into an accomplished young man when he died from blood poisoning at age seventeen.

Jesse Lincoln's life was marked by scandals starting with her elopement with a baseball player and ending with her eventual disinheritance.

Jessie Lincoln had two children, Peggy and Robert. Peggy Beckwith was an eccentric recluse who lived out her days at Hildene. She allowed the once majestic home to become overrun with wild rabbits, dogs, raccoons, and mice. The place was a wreck when she died in 1975. She never married. One Lincoln historian described her as a "big fat girl who doesn't give a damn about Abraham Lincoln." During the 60's she made the dubious claim that Abraham Lincoln would have never supported the civil rights movement. Her brother, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith -- the last Lincoln -- liked to call himself a "spoiled brat." It was an apt description. He never seemed to have worked a day in his life.

In each succeeding generation, the misfortunes of Abraham Lincoln's direct descendants multiplied into a litany of alcoholism, squandered fortunes, and outright dissipation.

Abraham Lincoln has come to personify the notion that even the humblest born could grow up and become president. But scandal and a sense of entitlement marked the last Lincolns. In place of public service, ambition, and education -- the foundations of Abraham Lincoln's genius -- his descendants became a symbol for dishonor and decadence in the upper class, to the utter destruction of the House of Lincoln.

Charles Lachman's new book is The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family.