Abraham and Mary Lincoln held greater aspirations for their children than they experienced in life. That they could send their son Robert to Harvard University revealed the importance the Lincolns placed upon education as one of the building blocks of success.
Robert’s success as a lawyer provided wealth and status that his father could only imagine. Indeed, Robert Todd Lincoln was constantly imposed upon by relatives, real and imagined, to provide financial assistance. His Aunt Emily Todd Helm received a regular Christmas check from Robert to help offset her expenses. When he forgot to send it, she reminded him. Aunt Emily was also the person Robert relied upon to explain the Todd family tree to him. On occasion, Robert would receive a letter from someone who claimed to be related. He, in turn, would consult with Aunt Emily, who would explain or deny the connection. Once satisfied of kinship, Robert dutifully sent a small offering of assistance.
Clinton Conkling grew up with Robert in Springfield, Illinois. It was Conkling whom Robert entrusted to find appropriate renters for the family home in Springfield after 1865. Once Mary Lincoln deeded the home to Robert, it was Conkling who convinced Robert to turn over ownership to the State of Illinois, in 1887, rather than sell the property.
As a gesture of appreciation for their friendship, Robert wrote out a check for $1,000 that was used for carved oak stalls in the chancel of Westminster Presbyterian Church, formerly Second Presbyterian Church, which Conkling attended and served as one of the leading members. The gift was in perfect keeping with Robert’s generosity of spirit.
Not everyone in Springfield, however, viewed Robert’s gift in the same spirit of generosity. Conkling’s letter to Robert dated October 6, 1915, tells the story:
“Yours of 4th inst. at hand. It has just come to my ears in a perfectly natural way that your correspondent and another lady had a very warm discussion — not dispute — to-day concerning why you did not do something for the First Presbyterian Church — a church, as they said, so intimately connected with your family and whose pastors had officiated at the funerals of various of its members (your mother) etc. etc. etc. It would seem that the women of the Church are becoming some[what] warm over the matter. They cannot understand why you should have given me something for the Second Presby’n Church, and fail to consider though told of it long ago that it was a personal gift to me for the purpose of the new church on account of the long friendship which has existed between you and me.
“In their talk they referred to what you did for me. I feel you should know this feeling so that, if it seems best to you, you can make such a contribution as will still this sort of talk and cause them to know they are not being discriminated against.
“I have hesitated to write this but I believe you will understand that it [is] meant for your guidance and not to annoy you.
“Excuse me if I have presumed too much.”
Conkling couldn’t help but add the following note on a separate enclosure:
“Between you and me and not to be spoken of the following may be of interest. In 1860 the family of B. S. Edwards were members of the Second Presbyterian Church, but soon after for ‘political reasons’ I was told by one who knew, they withdrew and went to the First Presbyterian Church. This was because the intensely loyal attitude of almost the entire congregation of the Second made the atmosphere uncomfortable. In the First Presby’n Ch. of that day were to be found for the most part the influential men of the community who were opposed to Mr. Lincoln and the coercing of the South. In 1861 there was not a single non-union man in the Second, while in the First were many. It is true there were a few, very few, supporters of your father in the First but there were many many more who opposed him. However you know these facts in a general way as well as I do.
“Now all rise up to do your father honor.”
As a very good amateur historian, Conkling wrote an extensive history of Westminster Presbyterian Church as well as local Springfield history. Benjamin S. Edwards, like his older brother Ninian Wirt Edwards, left the Whig Party to become a Democrat; while the youngest brother, Albert Gallatin Edwards, who later founded the investment company bearing his name, remained firmly in the Republican ranks. Benjamin Edwards was one of the leaders promoting the ratification of a new state constitution in 1862 that was explicitly anti-Lincoln administration. Illinois voters rejected it.
In character with Robert’s philanthropic spirit, two days later he sent a $1,000 check to First Presbyterian Church’s organ fund, confirming the wisdom of the aphorism: ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’