Cane and lockbox loaned from Lincoln Financial Collection

The Rise of the Lincolns

These two objects testify to the Lincoln family’s quick, two-generation rise through America’s social fabric. Born in a frontier one-room cabin, most contemporaries would have expected young Abraham to follow his father Thomas’s footsteps into a life of agricultural work and maybe artisanal labor. Yet Abraham used his remarkable ambition and capacity for self-education to penetrate the middle class, as embodied by this “presentation cane” gifted to him by Democrat, fellow lawyer, and future Civil War General John A. McClernand in 1858.

Lincoln’s oldest son Robert continued this upward climb—first following his father into the law but later serving as president of Chicago’s Pullman Company, U. S. ambassador, and cabinet member. This afforded Robert tremendous wealth, allowing him to build a massive Vermont estate he named Hildene—meaning “valley with stream.” This lockbox belonged to Robert and likely held some of his most cherished and valuable possessions.

Courtesy of the Indiana State Museum

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