Episode 3.3: “Willie was his favorite, right?”

Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.

Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created Q & Abe – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.

In this episode, we’re investigating a visitor question about Lincoln’s relationship with his four sons, including Willie. While we’re looking around, we run into mischief in the telegraph office, our innate need to be loved, and a new reflection on Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert. Come along with us!

In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify Stitcher Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)

Episode 3.3 “Willie was his favorite, right?” Transcript

Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.   

Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.  

  JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.  

  CH: I’m Callie Hawkins  

  JC: And I’m Joan Cummins  

 JC: This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us  

  CH: Let’s take that half hour now.   

  CH: For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Willie was his favorite, right?”  

  JC: On tours of the Cottage, we always mention Lincoln’s third son Willie, as Willie’s death in February of 1862 was a part of why the Lincolns moved out to the Cottage for the first time that summer. When I talk about Willie, I often get questions like “How did he die?” – probably typhoid fever – and “Where is he buried?” – in the family plot in Springfield – but one day I was talking about Willie on the veranda of the Cottage, and had a visitor turn to me with this question, which I didn’t have a quick answer for. I heard later from my colleague that she’d gotten the same question before, as well.   

  CH: To start trying to find out, we checked in with Alan Manning, a lawyer and author of the book Father Lincoln: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Kids. Was Willie Lincoln his father’s favorite child?   

  Alan Manning:  So, that is often reported. There is nothing from Lincoln’s own hand that says that. Nor is there anything that anybody else recorded saying that he said that. And that’s really not surprising, in a way, because I think most parents would probably agree that if one of their other children found out that their parents favored a sibling, it would cause a lot of hurt. That being said, again, Lincoln’s contemporaries are the ones who had suggested that Willie was his favorite, and that was largely based, I think, on their observations of how Lincoln and Willie interacted. Of all of Lincoln’s sons, Willie was really the most like Lincoln. He was very intelligent, very studious, had a fantastic memory. Enjoyed poetry, a lot of people don’t know this but Lincoln actually liked poetry, actually wrote some poetry – and Willie was that way. And Willie also had a very down to earth nature to him, kind of like Lincoln. Actually, dressed kind of sloppily, as, as did Lincoln.  And that really, I think, made people think that that’s why he was his favorite, because he was most like him.    

  JC: One great example of a contemporary description of Willie actually comes to us from Elizabeth Keckly. She was a friend of Mrs. Lincoln’s, and in her autobiography she quoted this remembrance by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis:  
“His self-possession – aplomb as the French call it – was extraordinary... He was so bravely and beautifully himself... A wild-flower transplanted from the prairie to the hothouse, he retained his prairie habits, unalterably pure and simple, til he died. His leading trait seemed to be a fearless and kindly frankness, willing that everything should be as different as it please, but resting unmoved in his own conscious single-heartedness. With his bright face, and his apt greetings and replies, he was remembered certainly as the one least likely to be death’s first mark.”   

  CH: Keckly saved this description of Willie because it was among Mrs. Lincoln’s favorites – the First Lady pasted it by hand into a beloved scrapbook to remember her son. Elizabeth Keckly herself said Willie had brown hair and a delicate constitution, and used to curl up into a chair to read. She also says he was Mary’s favorite, rather than Abraham’s.   

  JC: As Alan said, parents generally feel like it would hurt their children’s feelings to express that they had a favorite, which makes a lot of sense to me. But, how might that actually play out? We went to talk with Dr. Michael Mintz, a psychologist in the Child Development Program in Children’s National Hospital, to find out: how does differential treatment like that affect kids?   

  Michael Mintz:  There’s definitely some research out there about this, and my understanding of it is that the surprise to, sort of, lots of people is that it can negative impacts not just on the, the less preferred child, the unpreferred child but there can be negative impacts even on the favored child. I think the more obvious is that the less preferred child, the unpreferred child, often has feelings of resentment or even, to go deeper, feelings of being unloved and unwanted, and so there’s lots of research that shows that unfavored children have higher risks of anxiety, and higher risks of depression, and higher risks of many other sort of negative outcomes associated with psychological well-being. So, in addition to kind of the obvious, which I think to me what stands out most is low self-esteem, right? Problems with mental health in general, anxiety, depression, poor outcomes in terms of academic, educational success, future employment success and also relationally, low self-esteem and really any type of mental health issue can cause problems in terms of forming loving and, ah, lasting relationships later in life. Like I said, what could be surprising is that even the favored child could have negative – that there could be negative impacts for the favored child in terms of both kind of psychological well-being and these other kinds of ways of assessing psychological health. So one, they might feel feelings of guilt about being the favored child, they might be aware of the impact that their parents favoritism had on their siblings, they might feel added pressure by being the favored child, a sense that, because they are as special as their parents tell them they are, as special as their parents treat them, that they are under some type of obligation to do better, to perform better, to be better, to have better academic performance, to, you know, go to college and thrive and be the doctor or lawyer or whatever it is the parents expect them to be. If you are perfect in your parents eyes, than you have to do things that, that are perfect. You have to behave perfectly, you have to thrive, right? So fulfilling parents expectations, I guess. And it’s a lot of pressure. And it’s especially a lot of pressure when you notice that your siblings don’t have that pressure, and I think there can be even like an interaction there, of the guilt, right? You feel guilty that you’re having these positive experiences – supposedly positive experiences – in your relationship with your parents, and therefore there’s this, this expectation to fulfill those, to fulfill the parents belief that you are perfect.  

  CH: Most parents, my own included, would disavow that they have a favorite. I was curious – is that a thing? Is it even true that parents don’t have favorites?  

  MM:  First of all, it’s very normal. That’s  psychologists like to start conversations this way, right? “First of all it’s totally normal to have a favorite child and that’s okay.” And I believe that, right? I have three kids and I can tell you, they’re young, and so they’re super cute, so on any given day, one of them might be my favorite. Also, they’re young and so they have tantrums and all that, so they can find their way on to my less favorite list. But I think that it’s okay to have a favorite child, I imagine as my kids get older, I might have feelings like that. At this point they’re so young, and so cute, and so different and we share so many things, that even when my children are struggling with things, or there are problems that come up in our relationships or with behaviors, I find ways to actually, like, feel connected to them through that, and so I think the point is – as a parent, it’s okay to have the feelings, it’s okay to feel like a child is favorite. And our goal is to, to avoid, hopefully, avoid letting them believe that there are real, sustained differences in the way that we feel about them or the way that we treat them. I think where that gets really challenging is when we talk about the difference between equal and equitable, right? If a child has special needs, if a child – and when I say special needs, I mean both kind of developmentally, in terms of potential disability, but also special needs from a more, like, emotional or psychological perspective, right? A child who is less able to regulate their emotions, right? It is – we can treat all of our children equally. But in some ways, to treat them equitably, one child might need a little extra help and one child might need a little less help, right? And so I think the goal is to find a balance between equal and equitable because being purely, kind of, equal to all your children isn’t quite fair because different children have different needs…  

  JC: Lincoln had four sons, Robert, Eddie, Willie, and Tad, and it’s easy to imagine them having all kinds of different needs among them. He has a reputation as something of a playful parent. Beyond not picking a favorite out loud, we asked Alan to tell us more about Lincoln’s parenting style. What was he like?   

  AM:  I think that most fathers try to maybe take what they learned from – or, how their fathers were and repeat the things that they think their fathers did well and maybe avoid the things they think their fathers didn’t do well. And I think Lincoln tried to do that. You know, he – in a lot of ways I think he had a difficult relationship with his father and he really tried to have a lot of separation, almost to the point where, you know, some people might think that he didn’t treat his own father well after he became an adult. It is safe to say that Lincoln was a very lax disciplinarian. You might even say he was a non-disciplinarian.  

CH: [laughs] 

AM: And you know, not to, not to get into pop psychology, but I think in some ways it could be traced back to his father again, who was a very strict disciplinarian. There’s many records of his father whipping him as discipline, and I think what might have happened was, as a result of that, he decided to, sort of, be a father on the complete opposite extreme. Almost not disciplining at all. And his kids were just famous for running amok. I mean, they would barge into Cabinet meetings Lincoln once took Robert over to the telegraph office to pick up some papers, and while Lincoln was having conversations with the people there, Tad was going around, dipping his fingers in ink wells and smearing ink all over the desks and walls and Lincoln just sort of said, “Okay Tad, it’s time to go,” and – and walked out. Just, he really kind of let him get away with murder. And I think that – you know, there is an endearing quality to that, I mean, parents need to discipline their kids, and maybe if there’s one area where I think it may be fair to criticize Lincoln a little bit is that he really was a very lax disciplinarian. And Mary may have made it up to some extent. But he wanted his kids to have a good time. He – in a way, he wanted his kids to have the childhood that he didn’t have.  

  Joan: I find this aspect of Lincoln really endearing, that he could be so fiercely disciplined in the pursuit of his own necessary work, but so flexible with his kids.   

  Callie: Most people are familiar with Lincoln as a president rather than a father, but of course while living in DC he was both at once.  How was he at balancing the two?  

  AM:  In a way the Lincoln fatherhood story, kind of boiled down to some basics, is the story of a man who had a busy career, partly as a lawyer, partly as a president, who enjoyed his career, was ambitious, but recognized that he had a family and he wanted to be a good father. And I think a lot of fathers today, in a way, have that same balance that they have to strike. The balance between their career and their role as a father. And Lincoln in a lot of ways can show us how, in a way, how to, how to achieve that. He wasn’t always successful, and none of us are, I think, but I think that one of the takeaways here is that it goes back to Lincoln’s ordinariness, that, you know, here is this man who is, who, who was very much like us in a lot of ways. The other thing that I would, I would add is that I think that in a way Lincoln was his best as a father when he mixed his fatherhood with his career. When he let his kids tag along with him to the office and see what they – see what he did. When he would talk to them about politics. When he would share some of the struggles that he was having as president, mainly with Robert. It gave his kids the opportunity to really see what he was doing and, you know, I think that a lot of working parents, fathers and mothers, sometimes we put a wall up between our careers and our home life. You know, we come home at the end of the day, and we’re tired and we don’t necessarily want to talk about work. And we also maybe assume that nobody’s interested in it anyway. 

  CH: [laughs] 

  AM: But what we have to remember is that for most of us, you know, work is a big part of our lives, our career is a big part of our lives, and there’s value and dignity in all work, and I think it’s important that our kids see that, and that they know what we do, and so I know after doing this research on Lincoln, I tried to be more open with my kids about sharing my career, my experiences at work with them, so that they know what I’m doing everyday 

  CH: Parents might recognize themselves in Lincoln here. Now that the circumstances of work and school have changed for so many, folks are facing the struggle of balancing family and a career in all kinds of new and different ways.   

  JC: That ping of recognition was part of what was immediately interesting to us about this question. Everybody feels like they have a sense of whether they were a parent’s favorite or not, and it feels like the answer really matters. I wanted to know more from Michael – why do people care about this?  

  MM:  Oh, why do people care? Man… I mean, that gets into the question of like why do we want to be loved? Right? Like, we’re born – and maybe a developmental approach is a good approach for this answer, right? We’re born with this desire – like one of our most, like, innate and most important like impulses, as babies, is to connect socially and emotionally and be loved. I mean that’s why they are so cute. Like, if you look at babies like really objectively, sometimes they’re not even that cute, but we feel this draw to them emotionally and socially, and then all of a sudden at two months they start smiling, and at nine months they start waving and clapping – they do all these amazing things that are basically designed to elicit a social and emotional response from us, from their parents, from adults, so that it’s worth it to us to feed them or to carry them when we’re running from predators, right? Evolutionarily. And so they, they need to be lovable and that neediness is what kind of, in some ways, like, the parent-child relationship is, like, built on. And part of that experience is them, like, asserting independence and kind of like, feeling like they’re in control, while at the same time kind of like testing limits to see what type of boundaries they have and whether we still love them even after they do, you know, this – throw this horrible tantrum or, you know, hit, or do things wrong. So that’s just one example of many of these stages that take place, let’s say, starting at age two, and then there’s another one in preschool, and then they, you know, they’re kind of always going in and out of these phases that are basically there to like test whether we as parents are, you know, still there for them. That we’re still there to love them and support them despite what happened. And so they really – they need that from us, they need this reassurance. And I think that holds true in adulthood. Like, it carries through all the way to adulthood, right? Hopefully none of us – hopefully everyone feels loved by their parents. But I think, I guess long story short, I think we’re supposed to really need that love. I think where we really learn, where we really kind of understand how important it is, is when we see the absence of it, right? When we see the suffering, emotionally, psychologically, in terms of the, sort of, quality of life measures that I talked about earlier. When we see all the suffering that takes place from being neglected and unloved. That’s where you see how important it is. A few things that come to mind kind of, as kind of like psychological backbones that support this. One is the ACEs. You guys know the ACEs study? Adverse Childhood Experiences. So there’s these ten ACEs. Ten adverse experiences, where if you’ve had several of them, there’s so much research showing so many things that can go wrong psychologically, emotionally, quality of life, etc. And one of those is neglect: feeling neglected or unloved by a parent. And any – to me anything that’s in that study, any of those ACEs is just, just by being on that list, you know it’s a really important traumatic experience.  

  JC: Talking about adverse childhood experiences got us thinking about Tad, Willie’s best friend and younger brother, who was just eight years old when Willie died and was also suffering from the same sickness. What must it have been like for him, after that? How did this affect the landscape of their family?   

  AM:  Now I will say, after Willie died, at that point, Tad was their only son living with him in the White House. Robert was off to college at Harvard. So it was just Tad in the White House, and Tad and Lincoln really became kind of buddies. They spent a lot of time together. Lincoln would have him tag along on, when he would go places. And they really developed quite a close relationship during that time. And in fact, I devoted a whole chapter in my book to the day when, as the Civil War was coming to an end and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, had fallen to the Union forces, a very kind of famous story of Lincoln walking through the streets of Richmond, he actually brought Tad along on that trip. So he and Tad had a close relationship too.  

  MM:  Yeah. I mean, obviously it’s a horrifying experience for parents and for siblings. There can be a really wide range of impacts and there’s all sorts of other factors that, that relate, right? It’s very different to lose a sibling when you’re very young versus when you’re, let’s say, you know, a teenager. To me, what’s a really important factor and I kind of alluded to this earlier, is how the parents deal with it, right? And, another way of thinking about this is sort of similar to divorce. I think a lot of the research these days about divorce shows that children’s psychological well-being, that they are better off if the parents are divorced and have a pleasant, let’s say, relationship, for lack of a better word. If they, if parents have come to terms – or let’s say they even have a better than pleasant, if they have a good working relationship as co-parents but they’re divorced and live apart, their children are likely to have better outcomes from an emotional and psychological perspective than parents who stay together but are constantly fighting, right?  And similarly, those children of, let’s say, happily divorced parents, or, you know, amicably divorced parents – their children are likely to have better outcomes than unamicably divorced parents, parents who are divorced but are constantly fighting or are constantly pitting one, you know, one child against the other parent to kind of play games, right? And so I think you can kind of take a similar perspective when we’re thinking about, let’s say, the Lincolns.  One way to think about that is: well, how did Mary Todd and Abraham do? I mean, if they fell into a deep despair and depression, then that’s gonna have a significant impact on Tad’s well-being. Of note, a parent enduring depression, that’s on the list, on the ACEs list. Right? So right there, that’s another. And so, if Tad’s parents were grieving and doing so in a way that is supportive, and helping Tad kind of process the experiences, making sure Tad knows first of all that it’s not his fault, I think that’s something that we hear a lot when we talk about victims of abuse or really, or children of divorce also. First, step number one: make sure they know it’s not about them, because children – especially children of a certain age, and I guess I’m talking mostly about like elementary school kids, this feeling of, you know, humans are sort of, of a tendency to view the world as being related to themselves right? And so, we tend to assign causality to ourselves, and so children often come to the conclusion that it’s their fault, that it’s something they did, if I hadn’t done this, then my parents wouldn’t have gotten divorced, if I hadn’t gotten in trouble at school, if I had found a way to – to not make my parents fight. Which obviously it’s not the child’s job. So in this example, I would want Tad to know, first of all, that it’s not his fault, it’s nothing that he did. If I am – let’s say, as a parent who’s grieving – making sure they know that I’m grieving because I’m sad. I’m grieving because I’m sad that Will has died, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not – you know, that I’m not happy that Tad’s here and doing better. And providing opportunities to kind of share grief, right? So, if I were Abraham Lincoln in that situation, I would hopefully find the time to sit down with Will and talk about what I’m feeling and ask him about what he’s feeling and provide the opportunity to ask questions. So I guess my main point is: it really depends. It depends on how his family is dealing with the grief. And that can really impact kind of the long term impact or lack thereof.  

  CH: This experience, compounded with living through the Civil War, was incredibly stressful for the whole Lincoln family, including Tad. We wanted to know from Michael, how might Tad’s feelings, and his response to that stress, be showing up differently than in the adults around him?   

  MM:  It’s a great question because I think the first thing everyone needs to know is that when children are depressed, they might not look depressed, right? An adult who is depressed typically, you know, seems sad, maybe a little bit down, can’t, you know, can’t kind of get up-regulated. Can’t, you know, enjoy things as much, doesn’t seem to smile as much, doesn’t laugh. Hard to get them out of the house sometimes, or if they’re severely depressed, out of bed. So that’s what depression looks like in most people’s minds. With kids sometimes it’s the opposite. sometimes it’s what we call externalizing behaviors. So, you have this emotional experience and adults tend to internalize, especially when we’re talking about feelings of sadness or grief. And children often externalize, which basically means acting out behaviors right? So, that could be things like behavioral problems in terms of, let’s say at school, having trouble sitting still, or acting out, or aggressive behaviors. At home you might see similar type things: talking back to parents, or big kind of explosive episodes, right?  Of discharging emotion, getting angry. But we’re also talking about anxiety, right? I mean, he’s got this war raging on around him. Added stress, his, his dad’s basically, like, you know, in charge of it, for lack of a better phrase. Which, you know, I don’t think any of us can really wrap our heads around what that might even feel like. And then throw on top of all of that this idea that he is now, he’s now sort of filling in, in some ways, I don’t know, filling in Will’s shoes, it’s his job to kind fill some role either in the home, or in the family, or, you know, in the country. And so we can kind of separate – they’re not fully separable – but the idea of, there’s the depression and grief feelings and then there’s the sort of the anxiety and what we would call more, sort of like upregulated issues, right? That it’s just a really stressful time and I’m sure he was having trouble remaining calm in some ways. So that can certainly kind of contribute to things like externalizing behaviors. We often see kids struggling with sleep and feeding routines, like eating sometimes, that they can’t – that they have a lack of appetite, and that could go with depression or anxiety. Lack of appetite, difficulty falling to sleep, you can imagine how if your brain is sort of trying to process the grief of your brother’s death, what’s going on with your parents, what’s going on with the war and the country, let alone sort of all of his kind own day to day life stuff, which I’m sure, you know, was not nothing either, that he’d have trouble falling asleep, and trouble kind of calming his body and his brain in a way that we’d hope a, um, you know, typical average kid can.   

  CH: This prediction from Michael makes a lot of sense given what we know about Tad’s behavior, which was at times a bit wild, from bursting into his dad’s office to letting his pet goat sleep in his bed. Or, the story from the telegraph office that Alan mentioned earlier. Perhaps some of Lincoln’s permissiveness came from an understanding of his son’s big feelings.   

  JC: I’ve been sitting on another question: Is Willie remembered as the favorite because he’s the one who died? And I don’t mean: was he remembered by his parents as the favorite because he’s the one who died. What I mean is: do others, in looking at their family, believe that he was the best or the most perfect, or clearly their favorite kid because he’s the one who didn’t have time to make mistakes, right? It’s kind of something he has in common with his dad, or another thing he has in common with his dad: because Lincoln was assassinated, he didn’t have time to make a lot of second-term mistakes that might have changed the way Americans remember him. 

  CH: I think that’s a really interesting question, Joan, and one that I’m not sure that we’ll ever have an answer to. I do love the descriptions of how much Willie was, was like his dad in so many ways and maybe people have – I don’t know, maybe they’ve carried that over, as you say, from – that aspect over from his dad to him. 

  JC: Yeah that if Abraham Lincoln is someone you greatly admire, you would decide that your favorite of his children was the one who had the most in common with him. 

  CH: Yeah, who was most like him. That’s interesting. You know, one of the things that I think a lot about is Eddie, and the impact that Eddie‘s death must have had on the Lincoln family. Scholars suggest that when Eddie died, Lincoln, who was then a young lawyer, couldn’t really take much time off, and so he dove into his work. And Mary Lincoln was pregnant with Willie just a few weeks after Eddie‘s death. And to me, you know, that’s, that’s really one of the great tragedies, that the Lincoln children didn’t overlap with one another. That Eddie died before his younger brothers were born, and so the Lincolns never had a complete family portrait. After Willie’s death, Mrs. Lincoln once confided to her sister that Willie “comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he always had. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.” And I think a lot about the two brothers together – that’s how it should have been for their entire lives, and for their family. And, I can just imagine how their grief over Willie must have triggered memories of their beloved Eddie and maybe even plunged them back into the deepest parts of the early grief they felt for him. When Willie died, President Lincoln said something that has stuck with me for a long time. He said, “the blow overwhelmed me. It showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.” And I imagine that maybe some of that weakness was weariness at the reality that this worst possible thing that could happen to parents was happening to them for a second time. It’s just so incredibly sad. And it’s so sad that Eddie nor Willie nor Tad really had a chance to live out their lives in the way that Robert did.  

  JC: We haven’t talked much yet about Robert. He’s the Lincolns’ eldest son. He’s the one who survived –and actually the only one of the boys to survive to become a father himself. And if Willie’s often said to be the favorite, Robert’s often considered maybe the least favorite.   

  CH: Alan told us about how Robert’s answer to some questions in a moment of grief had a lasting effect on how others understood – and understand – his relationship with his dad.   

  AM:  A lot of the early work on Lincoln suggested that he and Robert did not have a good relationship. That there was some distance there between them. And that that arose out of the fact that when Robert was very young, back in Springfield when Lincoln was a lawyer, he was gone from home a lot. Some people argue he was an absentee father because he traveled around quite a bit for his work, and one of the things I address in my book is that that’s not actually correct. That they actually did have a close relationship and I documented a lot of the time they spent together as Robert was growing up. I have a whole chapter on just the story of Lincoln sending Robert off to college, going and visiting him, having long talks with him. One of the reasons that that story about the distance between them has –  came up, originally, was, really from Robert’s own words. There’s a famous line, a quote that Robert had shortly after Lincoln’s death where someone, a biographer, asked him some personal questions about his relationship with his father and he basically said: well, you know, at the time he became president, I went off to Harvard and I barely had ten minutes with him after that. Well, a lot of people take that statement at face value but, as I started to do my research, what I found was that that statement by Robert was false. That, in fact, we’re able to document many, many interactions between Robert and Lincoln during Lincoln’s presidency. Robert would come home from college for Christmas, for other holidays. Lincoln would take him out on – have him attend meetings with him. He actually sent Robert as a representative of the government to a couple of funerals for deceased members of Congress. And it sort of led to the question as to why would Robert say that? Why would Robert say that he – well, I only had ten minutes with my father. Well what I ended up finding was some additional correspondence that lead me to the conclusion that Robert basically said that a man’s public life is open for examination, but his private life is not. And I think that Robert simply didn’t want to talk to biographers about Lincoln’s private life. And so the best way to kind of fend them off was to say: I don’t have anything to tell you. I hardly ever saw the guy. And that kind of caused them to go away. But in fact, when you go back and really look at their interactions, they were quite numerous and really indicated a closeness that I think a lot of people have said wasn’t there – but it is there.   

  JC: It’s kind of sad, right? He’s like: look, I don’t want you to ask me questions about my dad. Leave me alone.  

  AM: Well and-and I think that, at the time, I think, one might be able to understand why he felt that way. You know, after Lincoln’s death, a lot of stuff was coming out about Mary and her condition and things like that, and I think Robert just didn’t want all of that to be out in the open. With the hindsight of history, you know, we’re looking at this now 150 years or more later, in a way Robert had nothing to worry about. Because there really is a great story there. It’s a great story of fatherhood and it’s a story that needs to be told.  

  JC: Just like his presidency, there are some things Lincoln got right as a father and other things he might have wished he could do differently. Many parents worry about whether they’re doing just the right thing for their kids. Michael had some reassuring advice:   

  MM:  There’s one thing that I like that I use, I talk with – I say to parents. Especially parents who are fretting about like: oh god, how do I avoid letting this specific thing ruin my child’s psychological well-being in the long term? And it can be anything from like, you know, if the Lincolns were here saying how do we avoid letting Tad be messed up by this, how can I – right? And it’s something that I think my cousin asked her pediatrician, like when her kid was very young, and it was sort of like: Oh, you know, well I’m afraid of doing this cause I don’t want to mess him up and she’s like: that’s not how you’re gonna mess him up. You’re gonna mess your kid up in ways that you don’t even know about and that you can’t even control. Because the things that you’re thinking about and the things that you are trying to fix, are – just the fact you’re aware of them means like, okay, like, you’re like, you’re working on them right? And we are going to mess up our kids in so many different ways, in ways that we can’t control, and that’s okay, that’s part of being a parent, is like messing up your kids in a certain kind of way, right? 

  CH: When we asked Alan about Lincoln as a father, the very first thing he said was:   

  AM: Lincoln was a very ordinary father, and what I mean by that is that he did things that most fathers do. Felt things that most fathers feel, and made mistakes like most fathers make. And I think that’s really the great story here, this is part of the great story of Abraham Lincoln. That, when we think of Abraham Lincoln, we tend to picture this larger-than-life figure, of the Great Emancipator, the savior of the union, the great president, the American martyr. I think in a lot of ways we sort of picture him, our vision of him is the big marble statue in the Lincoln Memorial.  And when we do that, we can forget that there were parts of his life that were very ordinary, and Lincoln in his role as a father was one of those parts. And so he would help his kids with their homework, he read them bedtime stories, he rolled around with them on the floor, he gave them advice. And so, that, that sense of ordinariness in his life as a father is really a great part of Abraham Lincoln.  

  JC: At the Cottage, we always hope we can give people a sense of Lincoln as a father and a husband as well as a president. Living there gave him space and time not only to work on his sweeping ideas about emancipation, but also to come home at the end of the day and carry Tad upstairs to bed.   

  CH: It’s important to us to show Lincoln in all his humanity, because if you can see yourself in him as a parent, or a child, perhaps you can find his greatness relatable too. We want to encourage you to think about: What are the ordinary moments with your loved ones that you value? How can you show someone they’re your favorite today?   

  JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.    

  CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit us at lincolncottage.org.     

  JC: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for reminding us about one of our favorite sides of Lincoln.   

  CH: If you’ve enjoyed the episode yourself, please leave us a review or subscribe in your podcast app. You can also write to us with comments or questions at [email protected].     

  JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!    





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