If Abraham and Mary Lincoln were largely responsible for destroying their own family papers before leaving for Washington, D.C., in 1861, then what did Robert T. Lincoln burn in later years? Fortunately for historians he wrote down a listing of destroyed documents, in a volume sold as Burr’s Library Index. His index was created to navigate through his extensive retained correspondence files. Near the end of the volume there is an entry with the cryptic heading “Papers burned in 1895 and after.” It is worth transcribing the entire contents of that list, in order to give insight into Robert Lincoln’s behavior.
Papers burned in 1895 and after
All my family letters
All M.L. letters of 1875-6
Cheques, 1869-87 incl. 88-89-90-91 & 92
Rects [receipts] 1870-87 incl. 88-89
Washington House lease and papers
Old S&L Docket
All M.H.L. Cheques
Dec 98 All Cash books and ledgers except those current
Dec 00 Old Telephone & Gas Company papers
Dec 03 1897 Res [residential] repair and alterations receipts
Nov 03 Letters to R.T.L. 1877/1879
May 1911 Letters to R.T.L. Since to now—except 10 cases sifted letters kept
May 1911 All Receipts except my late ones
Oct 1913 All Hildene building correspondence
Oct 10-14 All but half a dozen old letters to R.T.L. while attor(?) from Chicago
Oct 10-14 All cheques up to 1905
The list clearly shows that Robert destroyed not his father’s papers, but his own. It was a common practice to destroy personal letters of a private nature, which accounts for burning the correspondence between himself and his wife. The period of 1875-6 follows his mother’s confinement and conservatorship, which was undoubtedly a difficult period for both mother and son. But Robert did not destroy all of these letters, as is evident from the materials that comprise “the insanity file” he kept as a separate folder (the basis for a book published in 1986). Everything else were things he no longer needed, such as old cancelled checks and business correspondence, materials that most people today put through a shredder rather than burn.
It is likely that Robert lost some of his father’s papers in the 1871 Chicago Fire, or at least he used that fire as an excuse. In response to one autograph seeker, Robert responded: “I am not the possessor of any autograph letter of my father. Everything of that kind owned by me was burned in the Chicago Fire.” When thieves broke into the stable adjoining Robert’s Chicago mansion, he dismissed the matter, claiming the items were “a great many old odds and ends such as books, possibly letters, and that class of things which a man hardly knows what to do with, and yet is very averse to destroying.”
Nicolas Murray Butler’s claim, after Robert’s death, that he prevented Robert from destroying his father’s letters feeds a popular notion of Robert as cold, calculating, and secretive. Those who knew Robert found him much like his father, and certainly no son did more to patiently deal with the endless requests for a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, endorse a book or painting about Abraham Lincoln, or satisfy the curiosity of the general public who wanted to know his father’s likes and dislikes. Too much of Abraham Lincoln’s life was already on display for public consumption to be altered by a conspiracy to burn his papers. The most damning accusations were not contained in Lincoln’s letters but in the published recollections of his associates and friends that lack any independent verification. It is time to let this conspiracy charge go up in smoke.