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Harlan-Lincoln House

Mt. Pleasant, Iowa

Set amid the lush, rolling hills of southeastern Iowa, the town of Mount Pleasant yields an unexpected Lincoln connection: the home of James Harlan, where Abraham Lincoln's grandchildren spent many of their summers.

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James Harlan, best known for his U.S. Senate career, was born in Illinois in 1820. Like Lincoln, he grew up in Indiana, lived in a log cabin, and helped his father work the farm. After graduating from college in 1845, he married Ann Eliza Peck and moved to Iowa. Their first child, Mary Eunice, arrived in 1846.

An influential Methodist, Harlan worked as an educator, merchant, surveyor, and lawyer before beginning a national political career. Once a member of the Whig Party, he joined the newly formed Republican Party in 1854 and represented Iowa in the Senate intermittently from 1855 to 1873.

Senator Harlan and President Lincoln

In 1861 Harlan met president-elect Lincoln on Capitol Hill. During his tenure in the Senate, Harlan maintained a strong anti-slavery position, urging Lincoln to arm the slaves as early as 1862. He also helped pass bills which benefited Iowa, such as the homestead, land grant and Pacific railroad acts, and urged Lincoln to appoint Iowan Samuel F. Miller to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By 1865 the romantic interests of their oldest children drew the Lincoln and Harlan families together. At Lincoln's second inaugural celebration, Robert Todd Lincoln escorted Mary Harlan, a match approved by the Lincolns. Three years later, the couple married at the Harlan's Washington home. Just before the wedding, Lincoln's widow wrote to a friend, "A charming daughter will be my portion & one whom my idolized husband loved & admired."

Senator Harlan remembered taking a drive with the Lincolns only days before the president's assassination, and found him transformed. "His whole appearance, poise and bearing had marvelously changed. He was, in fact, transfigured. That indescribable sadness which had previously seemed to be an adamantean element in his very being, had been suddenly exchanged for an equally indescribable expression of serene joy as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved."

Shortly before, Lincoln had appointed Senator Harlan as Secretary of the Interior. He mentioned the change at his last public address from the White House, where he introduced Harlan to the crowd gathered on the lawn. Harlan eventually served one year under President Andrew Johnson before returning to the Senate. He also rode the Lincoln funeral train to Springfield, Illinois and presided over early meetings of the Lincoln Monument Association.

The Families

Like President Lincoln, James Harlan had four children, three of whom had short life spans -- only the oldest lived to adulthood, married and raised a family. When their great-grandchildren died, both the Lincoln and Harlan families lost any known direct descendants, although other descendants remain.

Mary Eunice Harlan and Robert Todd Lincoln had three children: Mary (1869-1938), Abraham II or "Jack" (1873-1890) and Jessie (1875-1948). Of these, Mary Lincoln Isham had one son, Lincoln Isham (1892-1971) who died without children; Jack died as a teenager; Jessie Lincoln Beckwith had three children, Robert Lincoln Beckwith (1904-1985), Mary Beckwith (1898-1975), and one stillborn, none of whom had any known children.

The Lincolns at the House

The Harlan-Lincoln House stands on north side of the Iowa Wesleyan College campus, where James Harlan served as a professor and early president. James Harlan built the house in 1876, attaching it to a structure in the rear which dated to 1854 (this part was demolished in 1931). The Harlan family used the house in retirement from 1876 to 1899.

President Lincoln's widow never visited the house, but Mary Harlan Lincoln and her children spent summers here in the 1870s and 1880s. At the time, Mary and Robert Todd Lincoln lived in Chicago and Washington while Robert practiced law and served in the cabinets of Presidents Garfield and Arthur. Robert made an occasional visit to Mount Pleasant, including one in 1887 when he addressed a crowd at the Old Settlers Reunion.

In 1890, while Robert Todd Lincoln served as minister to England under President Harrison, his son Abraham (Jack) Lincoln died in London. Soon after, the family returned to Mount Pleasant for several months. Mary continued to visit in the 1890s, enlarging the porches and sometimes bringing her daughters and grandchildren. After her father's death in 1899, she rarely visited the house, and gave it to the college in 1907 as a memorial to her father.

Plans for Renovation

The house has served various purposes at the college, and in 1973 was placed in The National Register of Historic Places. Today it contains a collection of Harlan and Lincoln memorabilia, such as a mourning veil of Mary Todd Lincoln, a desk used by Senator Harlan, a collar fragment believed to be worn when President Lincoln was assassinated, and a rock collection owned by Abraham Lincoln II.

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The parlor, shown at left, includes both Harlan family pieces and furnishings of the period. The painting of James Harlan hanging over the mantel was a gift to the college from his daughter Mary. To the left is a folding wooden recliner which Harlan designed and patented. Like President Lincoln, he held a patent on an invention which was never manufactured.

A Harlan-Lincoln Committee has been formed to preserve the house and extend its use as a museum and dining-reception area. These ongoing efforts to revitalize the house need your help. To make a tax-deductible contribution, make your check payable to Iowa Wesleyan College and note that it is for the Harlan-Lincoln House Renovation Project. Mail it to Iowa Wesleyan College, Harlan-Lincoln House, 601 N. Main Street, Mount Pleasant, IA 52641.

Visiting Information

You may tour the Harlan-Lincoln House Monday through Friday from noon to 4:00 p.m. The building is closed on holidays and during some campus events. Groups need to schedule visits in advance. For more information call 319/385-6319 or send an email to hlhouse@iw.edu.

You'll find the house on the northwest corner of Broad and Main streets, several blocks north of the town square. The town square is located west of the intersection of Highway 34 and 218.

Related Reading

Johnson Brigham. James Harlan. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1913.
Goff, John S. Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Haselmayer, Louis A. The Harlan-Lincoln Tradition at Iowa Wesleyan College. Mount Pleasant Iowa: Iowa Wesleyan College, 1977.
Neely, Mark E., Jr. and Harold Holzer. The Lincoln Family Album. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Related Links

Harlan-Lincoln House News
Harlan-Lincoln House (Iowa Wesleyan)
Old Threshers Reunion
Robert Todd Lincoln Timeline
Tomb of Robert and Mary Harlan Lincoln

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