Column: Journey to Hildene

Commentary by Jonathan Matthes

In Manchester, Vermont, in front of a mansion called Hildene, a series of bricks are embedded in the lawn. They form a square that matches the exact dimensions of the log cabin that Abraham Lincoln was born in. That log cabin, back in Kentucky, didn’t even have a door. Extremely humble beginnings for a future president.

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln

The mansion is a different story.

It belonged to Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd. Imagine, the father born in a log cabin without a door, and the son dies in a mansion he owned in Vermont. If that was all to know about Robert Todd Lincoln it would be interesting enough.

But there is so much more.

Dignified and very private, Robert could’ve run for president many times, but never really wanted to. He’d seen it’s insides and wanted no part of what he called the “guilded prison”.

Robert was also connected with the first three presidential assassinations. The day his father was killed, Robert had breakfast with him. He had been at Appomattox to see the end of the Civil War and told his dad about it. He was invited to accompany his dad to Ford’s Theater, but Robert, too tired, declined.

Robert was standing 40 feet from James Garfield when he was shot and even rushed to his side and called in soldiers to disperse the crowd.

Then he arrived at the same train station in Buffalo, mere hours after William McKinley was shot.

Robert did not let these brushes with death define him. In his career he was a lawyer, a minister to England and a secretary of war. He earned a fortune as president of the Pullman Car Company and eventually became the chairman of the board.

And after 82 years, he died at Hildene. A far, far cry from a doorless cabin in Kentucky.

Special Thanks to:
Samuel Wheeler, historian for the state of Illinois
Seth Bongartz, Laine Dunham and Paula Maynard from Hildene, The Lincoln Family Home