By R. J. Brown
Abraham Lincoln, no doubt, is one of the most famous of American presidents. Literally billions of words have been written about him. Some is available about his illustrious wife, Mary Todd. By comparison, very little is available about their sons. While researching the Lincoln assassination, I wanted to seek the answer to the question: Where were his sons at the moment their father was shot? What resulted was an often drift in emphasis in my research. I ended up spending almost a year delving into the life of Tad (Thomas) Lincoln. What I discovered was enough to bring both joy and tears to my eyes.
Tad was born with a cleft palate. (A cleft palate is a large hole in the roof of the mouth which is not suppose to be there.) Surgical intervention to correct the situation was unheard of in the 1850's when he was born. This cleft presented many problems. Among others, it was the cause of a speech impediment in the form of a lisp in Tad's voice. This same cleft caused diet problems -- it made it impossible for the teeth to grow in straight which, in turn, made it difficult to chew. As a result, Tad's diet consisted of items he did not have to bite into or chew very much. Since blenders and other modern conveniences weren't available, much advance preparation of Tad's meals was needed before he could eat it. Despite these physical limitations, Tad didn't let himself "take advantage" of the situation to gain sympathy for himself. Instead, he displayed quite an insight for those in need. These insights took many forms.
In the era of the Civil War, the equivalent of the Red Cross or the Salvation Army was called the Sanitary Commission. This group did much to raise funds for bandages, hospitals and so forth to aid the wounded. They often held fund raisers. Tad was one of their most enthusiastic fund raisers.
What seems to be one of the first of these fund raising projects by Tad was right after the family left Springfield to come to Washington. On several occasions, Tad would enter the Oval Office and ask his father if he could introduce some of his friends to him. Abe, of course, was glad to oblige a brief interview. Tad would then call the person in, ask their name and then introduce them to "my dad, the president." This process puzzled Abe. Even if it were a new friend of Tad's, Tad surely would at least know their name. It didn't take Abe long to figure it out. Tad was seeking people willing to pay a nickel to be introduced to the president. This fund raising project was one of his shortest -- Abe quickly put Tad out of this business!
Another example of Tad's entrepreneurial enterprises to raise money for the Sanitary Commission concerns the ever-present street vendors that lined Pennsylvania Avenue during the Civil War. The economy was tough in this era. Unemployment was high. Among the unemployed, those seeking money to live on took two forms: They were either beggars or street vendors.
Tad saw opportunity in this situation. Several mornings a week he would leave the comfort of the White House with a butler friend at 9 and proceed to walk Pennsylvania Avenue. He snubbed the beggars and regularly bought food items from the vendors. He bought such things as apples and other fruits as well as beef jerky. (Things he couldn't even eat? Glad you asked but you're getting ahead of me!) In turn, he took his "haul" back to the White House. Tad had a strong-hearted reason for doing so.
Even though there was a war going on, the president was VERY accessible. ANYONE that wanted to have an audience with the president simply went to the White House between the hours of 11 and 2 PM and sat in the lobby to await their turn. The president saw everyone from senators to grieving wives to people seeking an appointment to a government job. Tad used this situation to help raise funds for the Sanitary Commission. He set up his own vendor's stand in the lobby to sell snacks to those awaiting to see his father! The profit went to the Sanitary Commission.
Tad had a strong sense of priorities when it came to raising these funds. He very well could have simply bought the food items wholesale from other sources. Instead, he felt that by buying from the regular street vendors he was actually helping twice -- once by helping the street vendors to raise money to support themselves on and secondly, by raising money for the war effort. Tad realized that he had a captive audience so that he could justify charging more for his goods. (Tad was 11-years-old at the time -- Quite an insight for a lad of that age!) The selling of food items to people waiting to see Abe did not present much of a problem to Abe. Though it was embarrassing at times, Abe saw it as harmless.
By way of format, when a citizen wanted an interview with the president, they presented their calling card to the valet and then waited in the lobby until their name was called. This lobby was on the ground floor while the Oval Office was on the second floor. In addition to the vendor's stand, Tad set up a "toll-stairway!" Yep! He placed a broom handle across the stairway and charged a nickel to go up the stairs! Abe put an instant stop to this enterprise. Abe firmly told Tad that if were to continue to raise funds for the Sanitary Commission he must find another way!
Tad did find another way. Imagine Abe's sheer shock when this true scene took place: Abe was in an important cabinet meeting at the White House. As he often did, Abe got up to wander about the room during the meeting. When he reached the window over-looking the front lawn he gazed out. What he saw made him flee from the room without even a simple explanation.
The commotion? Tad was on the White House lawn with a few tables set up. On these tables were some of Abe's suits, his mother's dresses and various other personal clothing of the Lincoln's. Yep! Little Tad was holding a "yard sale" to raise funds. Again, Abe informed Tad that he must find another way to raise funds.
Tad was VERY clever in finding another way. Can you imagine anything more harmless than asking dad for a pair of goats for pets? (We must keep in mind that in the 1860's the backyard of the White House was already a stable. There were horses, cows, chickens and pigs living there!) An innocent request? Hardly! Tad "got" dad again.
After getting the goats, Tad proceeded to hitch them to a small cart and then charging neighborhood children for rides in this unusual mode of transportation. These rides normally occurred around the White House stable. One day Tad made a fatal mistake. Poor Mary Todd. Here she was in the East Room having tea with several other influential women. All of a sudden there was a loud commotion. The ladies looked to the doorway. Tad catapulted into the room with his goat-team sled filled with urchins, circled the room twice and then exited. One can imagine the scene of a room filled with proper Victorian ladies in their hooped skirts and trying to jump out of the way! Needless to say, the goats quietly disappeared and were never to be found again!
Tad's efforts to help the war were not limited to the actual raising of funds for the Sanitary Commission. One day he approached his dad about getting a "real carpenter's toolbox" so that he could build furniture for the Old Soldier's Home. Dad complied. Unfortunately, discretion was NOT the better part of Tad. One can almost imagine the scene when Mary Todd Lincoln walked into the formal dining room to find Tad with his saw and cutting the elegant mahogany dining room table into pieces to make chairs for the hospital. The toolbox also quietly disappeared never to be found again!
The time came when Abe HAD to sit Tad down and have a lengthy discussion with his son. While Tad's efforts to raise funds for the war effort were to be commended, Tad simply HAD to find an unobtrusive way to do so. Up to this point, his enterprises were causing too much disruption and embarrassment to the White House. After great thought it was agreed that the solution to the problem was for Tad to have a little theater built in the White House and Tad could put on plays to raise funds. Abe gave the strict instructions that in building the theater, Tad could be there to supervise but under no circumstances was he to ever saw or hammer! Abe also established many other rules for Tad to follow -- Abe "covered" every angle he could think of! To dad's relief, this project kept Tad happy. When a new play was to be put on, Tad simply solicited the owners of Ford's or Grover's Theatre for the props he needed. They happily complied. Many a time Abe, Mary Todd and other dignitaries attended these performances. Tad even charged his parents admission!
Yet another example of Tad's efforts to help those less fortunate than him concerns the daily throngs of people coming to see his dad. As you recall, by way of process, when the person wanting to see the president entered the White House, they gave their calling card to the valet. The valet would take the cards in order and then put them in a stack on a desktop. This desk was located in a hallway at the top of the stairs. As each person finished their business with the president, the valet would then go to the stack of cards and call the persons name that was on top of the stack. Many a time, however, Tad felt that this presented a problem: If others before them took too long and the hour approached 2, any remaining persons waiting would have to come back the next day and start the process over as that day's cards were thrown out. Not to worry! Tad was on the lookout. Tad made a regular habit of visiting with those waiting. If the person had a particularly "sob" story -- grieving widow, an unemployed family man and so forth -- then Tad would help matters along. He would quietly go up the stairs and move that person's card to near the top of the pile.
Tad was so insistent in wanting to do more to help the war effort that he finally talked his dad into making arrangements for Tad to be commissioned as a major in the Army. Tad proudly went with Abe each time Abe went to inspect the troops. He took his role seriously. As the commanders saluted his father, Tad would also salute back and remove his cap. On one occasion, some soldiers jokingly asked Tad to send along some "greenbacks" Not being sure what a "greenback" was he, of course, asked his dad. Dad explained. When dad refused to give Tad some "greenbacks" to give to the soldiers, Tad quietly plotted another tactic. Upon the return trip to Washington, Tad went over to the treasury building, secured an appointment with the director and simply asked him to have more "greenbacks" printed so that he could give them to the deserving soldiers. Tad wouldn't take no for an answer. No amount of explaining would convince Tad that the solution wasn't as simple as printing more money.
In an attempt to solve the problem, Abe suggested that Tad send "care" packages to the troops. Abe further suggested that the packages could be signed "A gift from Tad Lincoln". Many a "care" package was sent in this manner. Problem is that Tad would loot the White House of blankets, socks, books, and other reading matter and so forth to put in the packages. Abe quietly allowed this to go on without complaining to Tad.
Another example of Tad taking his "commission" seriously relates to the viewing of the troops by the Commander-in-Chief -- his dad. Towards the end of the review, Tad would quietly leave his father's side. Next thing dad knew, here would be Tad mingled in with the troops marching by and strutting his stuff!
A strictly military situation was not the only example of Tad taking his role seriously. Tad had his own pony while in the White House. Each time that mom and dad went out in their carriage for a ride, Tad would get his army uniform on, mount his pony and ride beside the carriage as a "guard." He never wanted to ride in the coach, he always demanded to ride as a guard.
As we can see, Tad was certainly was a remarkable child. While being born with a so-called handicap, he didn't use it to gain sympathy. Rather, because he HAD a "handicap," he was better able to relate to those less fortunate than himself. It goes without question that Tad certainly had insight much beyond his years.
By the way, the answer to the question as to where Tad was the moment his father was shot? Tad was at Grover's Theatre in Washington watching the play Aladdin or the Magic Lamp. An unwary person, hearing the news on the streets of Lincoln being shot, rushed into Grover's, ran to the stage and shouted that Lincoln had just been shot and (erroneously) killed. What a terrible way to be informed that your much-adored father had been shot. Tad deserved better than that! In fact, he deserves much more credit than history has elected to award him.