Today is Father’s Day, a special time to reflect on our own relationship with our father, but also a good time to examine an unusual and famous relationship: the unique bond that President Lincoln had with his youngest son, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, did not have a simple family life. His wife was difficult and high-strung, some say even mentally ill to some extent. Lincoln’s oldest son was not close with his father. A younger son, who was most similar to Lincoln, had died at the age of 11 in 1862, a tragic blow for the family, and especially for the President. Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, was therefore the recipient of Lincoln’s overwhelming and unconditional love.
Lincoln allowed this privileged boy all sorts of freedoms many would say were inappropriate at best and destructive at worst. Tad, who was approaching his 12th year in 1865, was allowed to run wild. He once hitched up two goats to a dining room chair and then led this makeshift stagecoach through the East Room of the White House. At age 11 Tad still could not read- which did not seem to worry the President. “There’s time enough yet,” he said, “for him to learn his letters and get pokey,” Lincoln said when confronted with the fact of his son’s illiteracy.
Lincoln allowed Tad to sleep with him in his bed, and expressed his love in numerous other ways, including giving him frequent gifts. One note, which is in the Shapell Manuscript Foundation collection, testifies to the request of “a map or two” for Tad from General Delafield to be given to Tad. In another instance of Lincoln’s gift-giving, the President asked a correspondent to “Let Tad have the wagon, if you can spare it,” as rebel troops were about to invade Washington in July, 1864.
Many believe that the greatest day in the lives of both Lincoln and Tad was the day they toured together the smoldering ruins of Richmond on April 4th, 1865, which happened to also be Tad’s 12th birthday. Lincoln was finally able to see the end of the horrifying Civil War before his eyes, and Tad was able to understand the great importance this day had for his father.
It was less than two weeks later that an assassin’s bullet turned Tad into an orphan. The story goes that Tad asked a visitor to the White House if he thought Lincoln had “gone to heaven?” The visitor said he was convinced that the President indeed had. Twelve- year-old Tad replied:
“I am glad he has gone there, for he never was happy after he came here. This was not a good place for him!” Then Tad added this: “I must learn to take care of myself now. Yes, Pa is dead, and I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore.”