Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: The Last Lincolns

Could anyone have predicted in 1865 that a family headed by so towering a giant of history could end in such dissipation and moral turpitude 120 years later? After reading The Last Lincolns by Charles Lachman we are more convinced that the great progenitor was one of kind whose mold was broken at birth.

The Book

The book is highly readable, deftly handling the multiple chronologies which each life represents. We detected only a couple of editorial errors both of which occurred near the end of the book – log was misspelled as “lob” and Warren Beckwith’s ages at the time of an interview and death seem to have been transposed. Otherwise the formatting and organization of the story were well conceived and executed. The book is indexed and footnoted as one would expect from a serious history. It also has the obligatory photos whose oversight would have been a heavy demerit.

The author is actually a professional documentary producer rather than being an establishment academic historian, a background which we believe rendered a more accessible book.

The chief benefit of the book is that it presents a comprehensive historical narrative of the direct Lincoln descendants in one compact volume ideal for the lay reader or more serious researchers wanting an overview of the family before departing on more specialized research.

One prick of a reviewer, James D. Fairbanks, professor of political science at the time of his review at University of Houston-Downtown, complained about nearly everything including the allegation that the book provided little analysis of various subjects on his mind, to which we reply he might wish to write his own book and use his own mind to create his own analysis. And if he is too dimwitted for that exercise, we present our own below.

The Lessons

For obvious reasons – at least to those with a cursory knowledge of the Lincoln family – Mary and Robert loom largest in the story, and perhaps quite fittingly as Robert clearly took after his mother rather than his illustrious father. In fact, one would have trouble pairing father and son since the latter’s temperament and philosophy seem so at variance with the former’s.

But two peas in a pod do not a happy pairing make. Mary and her son were two scorpions trapped in a bottle with Mary earning one fabulous victory while Robert prevailed in the end. Mary said in one of her letters that Robert’s departure for school in the East was a relief for the family because he had a rather perverse  domineering personality with which he took pleasure in taunting his younger brothers. His personality did not blend with the sweeter, more playful dispositions of the rest of the family.

If Mary could be pretentious, Robert could be pretentious, imperious, and condescending. He demanded deference and obedience. He continuously guarded his privacy and secrecy, shunning publicity, and above all bad publicity. His mother’s clothing scandal mortified him and was perhaps the opening salvo in his quest to institutionalize her.

When his mother’s erratic and batty behavior escalated in the aftermath of Tad’s death in 1871, Robert assembled a crack team of lawyers, legal experts, medical doctors, judge, jury, and defense lawyer to guarantee an open and shut case against his mother. ( See Mary Lincoln's Finest Hour )

After reluctantly releasing her to her sister under a storm of adverse publicity, he used deceitful and uncorroborated stories to enlist his Aunt Elizabeth’s help in re-incarcerating her. He even stooped to lying against his mother to prevail in his battle against her. Although he plausibly argued in defense of preserving her inheritance to care for her in old age, his real animus was the embarrassment she caused him as he was scaling the elite heights of plutocratic enrichment among his socially prominent acquaintances.

Mary prevailed in the war of wits against her son and his cabal of conspirators, but the two did not speak for years, with Mary calling her son a “monster of mankind” and signing her last letter to him as Mrs. A. Lincoln.

On paper Robert’s life is illustrious. He opened a thriving law practice, served as Secretary of War, Ambassador to England, President of the Pullman Company, retiring as its Chairman of the Board. He perennially made the short list of possible presidential candidates but shunned such considerations like the plague.

Much of his power and success owed to his name and connections, a fact which he was not afraid to leverage when needed. One of his stalwart supporters was Supreme Court justice David Davis, appointed by his father, who served as a surrogate father after Lincoln’s death. On many occasions, Robert would reach out to him for advice and string pulling.

While Secretary of War, in 1881 Congress had authorized 25,000 dollars for an exploration to the Arctic. Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, slated for the mission, was disturbed that the monies were not forthcoming, whereupon he visited Robert to seek release of funds. The lieutenant was mildly impudent in his demands that the Secretary of War release funds which Congress had expressly allocated for the expedition, a brazen act of insubordination in Robert’s eyes which would carry very dire consequences. Robert had opposed the mission because he did not deem it germane to national defense or fighting Indians and dug in his heels against the exploration.

He finally relented and sent the team on its way. A resupply boat was sent in the following year but was impeded by ice from reaching its destitnation while a follow up ship was sunk. Perhaps the example George Bush relied upon for his handling of Hurricane Katrina and its victims, Lincoln initially refused to send another search and rescue party declaring that Greely's party were probably all dead. When shamed into relenting, he sent a naval crew to seek for survivors of which there were 7 of the original 25 who were themselves within 3-4 days of dying. The Lieutenant later declared that the men who died did so because of Robert’s cold indifference, recalling remarks his mother had made about him in his youth.

This same contempt for suffering would rear its ugly head years later during the Pullman strikes where Lincoln assumed general counsel to aid the embattled owner, George Pullman, whose utter disdain for his workers was frightful. Lincoln managed to suppress a subpoena for Pullman to appear before Congress, using yet again his powerful connections in high places.

Robert married the daughter Mary of Iowa Senator James Harlan. Mary Harlan’s life provides even sketchier information than Robert’s as she shared with him an aversion for publicity. Lachman speculates that she may have suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. She was frequently absent from public functions, absences for which the press dutifully excused.

In one salacious tidbit, Lachman reports a passing opaque reference which Mary Todd makes to Mary Harlan's drinking, something one would not expect from the religious Methodist tee totaling family. Unfortunately the allegation cannot be confirmed due to the foregoing noted scarcity of information. This exposure may have been the source of the enduring implaccability the Marys shared toward each other.

However, one story which can be confirmed is her hatred for Mary Todd. Her mother-in-law was an intrusive, overbearing, and difficult interference in the lives of son and daughter-in-law which Robert confessed in court as being a strain on their marriage. Indeed the couple was frequently apart for both familial and official reasons, but would often be activated by Mary Todd’s presence.

But this meddlesome interference and bitter hatred is ironic given Mary Harlan’s active role in demolishing the marriage of her youngest daughter Jesse to Warren Beckwith who, though from a respectable family, was anything but himself in the eyes of Jesse’s parents.

The two had eloped, suffered a troubled marriage due in large measure to the Lincoln’s opprobrium of it, and finally killed it when Mary Harlan took her daughter and children to Europe over Warren’s strong objections. He filed for divorce and never heard from them again. However, Jesse did not stop providing grist for the gossip mills, with adultery and financial dissipation a part of her free spirited personality.

Robert’s family was not immune to heartache, suffering the Lincoln curse of death in 1890 when his only son Abraham II “Jack” died from poisoning exacerbated by incompetent medical treatment while at Versailles. Of all the third and later generations, he seemed to posess in most abundance his grandfather's character and promise of success in his own right, just as had accrued to his father. Robert was crushed by the loss of his future law partner.

Later Lincolns exhibited the same dissipation as Jesse, with her son providing the closing act of the family in a rather publicized paternity suit against her son Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith starting in 1967. He had married a young West German student whom he discovered was pregnant. Because he underwent a prostatectomy in 1962, it was unlikely that he could sire a child.

Court depositions reveal that Beckwith was fond of watching other people in sexual acts which he hosted at his house. In addition, Beckwith hired a chauffeur with whom it is believed she conceived the child. Unfortunately, his wife refused court ordered blood tests, leaving questions of paternity unanswered with definitiveness.

One trait which runs common throughout the narrative is the Lincoln’s indifference if not hostility for their heritage. Much of the blame must be given to Robert who was ashamed of his parents in many ways. When a monument was erected at the Hodgenville, KY site where his father was born, Robert refused the visit the log cabin because of the poverty and indignity of the place.

He called his opulent mansion at Hildene his ancestral home in an effort to dissociate from his and his parents’ true beginnings. After his mother’s death, he did all he could to erase her memory from his life and that of his children.

The later Lincolns, especially the Beckwith children, displayed disdain for their great heritage. “Peggy” Beckwith stated that it was just Abraham’s luck to be related to her. When sought by reporters to provide insights into her famous ancestor, she either hid or made irreverent remarks wholly oblivious to historical fact. Both of them treated family heirlooms with contempt, allowing them to either be destroyed by time and the elements or discarding them wholesale.

Just as with the collapse of any Roman or American dynasty, the Lincoln family petered out with a whimper. As we related in our consideration of the insanity affair, we know that a massive biography is due in March which will rehabilitate Robert. Perhaps we shall revise our opinion of him, but for now, we do not think he is salvageable except to those who like bankster types.

Lachman tells a fine tale with considerable research to back up his findings. We will draw upon this resource in the future for more of The American Chronice.


The Last Lincolns, Charles Lachman

Copyright 2010-12 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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