Stephen Berry looks at President Lincoln’s in-laws in ‘House of Abraham’
HISTORY: Intriguing book paints the president as a humane man dogged by a troubled family
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 23, 2007
Beginning with Walt Whitman, writers immortalized Abraham Lincoln until he became more marble than man. More recently, historians have discovered that his humanity does not diminish his heroism.
Lincoln’s relationship with his in-laws presents a particularly rich quarry, and Stephen Berry has mined it. In House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War, Mr. Berry connects the president’s personal and political battles.
It began with the first Todd in his life. Early on, Lincoln feared the instability of bride-to-be Mary Todd. Mr. Berry quotes Lincoln comparing his upcoming marriage to a trip “to hell.” Prophecy was not the least of the future president’s gifts.
He suffered her family, too. Of the 14 siblings in this Kentucky family, eight became Confederates, six stayed Union. And the Civil War stripped away the Todd home’s elegant veneers to reveal some ugly interiors.
Of the Confederate Todds, several brought themselves profound disgrace, including David, who desecrated corpses, and George, who brutalized black prisoners. The Union Todds also gained notoriety. Ninian Edwards, married to the oldest Todd, Elizabeth, was appointed by Lincoln as Springfield, Ill., commissary commissioner and proved quite corrupt.
But Mr. Berry wisely cuts a path through the thicket of Todd tragedies by highlighting Lincoln’s favorite, Emilie. As Mr. Berry writes, she “took the deepest root in his heart.” Meeting her years before the war, the future president noticed the little girl was frightened of the giant standing before her. Gently picking her up, he smiled: “So this is Little Sister.” The two formed a bond.
When the war began, Lincoln offered Emilie’s husband, Hardin Helm, a Union position. Gratified, Helm nonetheless accepted a Confederate commission. When Lincoln learned that Gen. Helm had been killed at Chickamauga, he grieved. One of the least religious but most spiritual presidents, Lincoln quoted David’s anguished words when Absalom died: “Would to God I had died for thee, oh Absalom, my son, my son?”
Little Sister visited the White House after her husband’s death and fondly remembered Lincoln petting her “as if I were a child … to try to comfort me.”
According to Mr. Berry, Lincoln’s family problems shaped his fighting of the war. He increasingly saw America as a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. Every family makes mistakes; but a family it remains. The bonds can bend but not break. He saw in Hardin Helm that noble fighters wore both blue and gray. And so he sought not a reckoning but a reconciliation. And when he spoke of caring for the widow and the orphan, surely he thought of Little Sister and her children.
Mr. Berry presents a textured, nuanced work that is reliable and readable. And mostly, he shows a very human president who loved his family in spite of itself.
Kasey S. Pipes, a former speechwriter for President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the author of Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality. He lives in Fort Worth.
House of Abraham
Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War
(Houghton Mifflin, $28)