Lessons from Lincoln’s Legacy as a Father

They rode goats in the White House? And the president let them? You bet, and he loved it! Willie and Tad Lincoln might have lived in the house with the president, but they also shared that home with their dad. When I give tours to students, this story—from the Life in the White House exhibit in the Ford’s Theatre museum—draws them in. Here, the iconic face on the penny and the five dollar bill—the towering figure overlooking the National Mall—becomes a little more relatable and a little more real. Here, they meet Abraham Lincoln the father.

So what kind of father was our 16th president? Julia Taft Bayne’s memoir, Tad Lincoln’s Father, offers some answers. Julia was the daughter of Horatio Nelson Taft, a patent examiner. Her younger brothers Bud and Holly were roughly the same age as Willie and Tad, and they became the Lincoln boys’ best friends in 1861. In Julia’s book, she recounts many of the foursome’s antics, which included building a fort on the roof of the White House, firing a “cannon” into cabinet meetings and pinning the president to the floor in group wrestling matches. The unofficial motto of the White House seemed to be, “Let the boys have fun,” and the president was the chief proponent of this.

All this changed when Willie died of typhoid fever in February 1862. The Lincolns were devastated, and the Taft boys were no longer invited to the White House to play with Tad. Mary Lincoln felt their presence would be too painful a reminder of the loss of Willie. It’s amazing to consider how Lincoln had the courage and ability to deal with his immense grief while taking on the monumental task of winning the Civil War and preserving the Union. It’s also inspiring to learn that he continued to be the doting and playful father that Tad needed.

My grandfather considered Lincoln to be the greatest American. He had shelves filled with books about Lincoln and the Civil War. He gave regular talks to community and church groups about Lincoln’s greatness. As a captain in World War II, he carried a commemorative Lincoln coin in his pocket. All through Mindanao, Luzon and the Leyte Gulf, that little piece of Lincoln was with him. It served as a reminder that it was worth fighting to preserve a democratic America, a place where all people had the right to rise, especially the son he left at home. That son, my father, grew up to be a professor of American History.

Lincoln’s legacy is alive today in many ways. The elements of his leadership that made him such a great president—compassion, honesty, empathy, tolerance, creativity, humor—also made him a great father. His example is there for the taking. On this Father’s Day, I’m thankful that my father and grandfather took more than a few pages from Lincoln’s playbook. Thanks, President Lincoln. Thanks, Popop. Thanks, Dad.

Read more about the White House experiences of Tad and Willie Lincoln.

Jake Flack is Associate Director of Museum Education. He manages the Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows professional development program and the school visits program. He also regularly gets pinned when wrestling with his two sons.