Robert C. Schenck was born in Franklin, Ohio to important early settlers of that region. He graduated with honors from Miami University where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Afterwards he studied law and practiced in Dayton. An able speaker, Schenck was elected to Congress in 1843. He worked to repeal the gag rule that had long been used to prevent antislavery petitions from being read on the floor of the house. He opposed the Mexican-American War as a war of aggression to further slavery. Declining re-election in 1851, President Fillmore appointed Schenck minister to Brazil. In 1859, Schenck delivered a speech in Dayton in which he recommended Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, perhaps Lincoln’s first public endorsement.
President Lincoln appointed Schenck as a brigadier general of volunteers during the Civil War. Schenck saw action at both battles of Bull Run and the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. In 1870, Schenck was appointed by President Grant as minister to the United Kingdom. At a royal party, Ambassador Schenck shared his rules for playing poker with a duchess. The game quickly became popular in England, where it was known as “Schenck’s poker.” Upon his return to the United States, Schenck resumed the practice of law in Washington, D.C. During this time, Schenck’s daughter, Sally, was baptized and confirmed at the Church of the Epiphany.