House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War, Stephen Berry

Cover of "House of Abraham"When I think of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, words like “integrity”, “wisdom”, and “virtue” come to mind.  I never think of words like “scandal”, “debauchery”, or “insanity”… at least I did not until I read House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War. The Todd family was filled with sordid characters, and because the Todds were Lincoln’s family through marriage, their erratic behaviors brought on all kinds of speculation and gossip about his administration. 

I always considered Abraham Lincoln such a perfect president.  To learn about accusations of nepotism, scandalous behavior of his family and the battery he endured from his wife was astounding.  With all of the scandals and gossip, which have accompanied the last four decades of presidential administrations in the United States, I found it oddly comforting to know that these problems have been happening for hundreds of years.  Abraham Lincoln is largely considered one of the best presidents, so the fact that his administration faced scandals gives me encouragement for what I have seen happening in more recent times.

House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War is great proof that fact truly is stranger than fiction.  Written by Stephen Berry, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, this book is widely held as accurate and thorough in its recount of events occurring during Abraham Lincoln’s adult life.  Berry goes into intense detail regarding the Todd family allowing the reader to have a much closer relationship with many of the Todd siblings than any other historical work.  The Todd family is incredibly important when studying Lincoln, because as in-laws they were his only living family.  They influenced Lincoln’s adult life more than anyone else.   The Todds were the reason Lincoln had a career, a wife, and any social sophistication.  People often said of Lincoln that he was much more a Todd than a Lincoln.  As Berry allows the reader a closer look at the many characters of the Todd family, one finds a great understanding of what life must have been like for families, both Union and Confederate, during the Civil War.

The Todd family, consisting of 14 children born to Robert Smith Todd, originally lived in Kentucky.  The older sisters later moved to Illinois, some of the siblings moved to Louisiana, and the rest stayed in Kentucky.  Of these 14 siblings, 6 sided with the Union and 8 sided with the Confederacy.  This captivating book outlines how a once close-knit family became completely torn apart by the Civil War.  The Todds were connected in some way to all aspects of the Civil War.  There were Todds present obviously at Lincoln’s inaugural, but there were also Todds present at Jefferson Davis’s inaugural.

Lincoln ‘s presidency was linked many times to scandal, as more than half of his wife’s family were siding with the Confederates.  He was even accused many times of being sympathetic with the enemy.  Once in 1863, Emilie Todd Helm, whose husband was a Confederate killed in the war, spent the night at the White House.  Also there were two of the Todd brothers, David and George Todd, who were known for the extreme abuse they inflicted upon their Union prisoners.  Martha Todd White and Ninian Edwards (husband of Elizabeth Todd) committed treason.  This family, whom Lincoln loved completely, constantly caused embarrassment to his Presidency.  Of course without the Todds, it can be argued, Lincoln may have never even become President.

Berry’s intricate characterization of Mary Lincoln Todd is captivating.  She was an intelligent, strong-willed force to be reckoned with.  The domestic fights she had with Lincoln are hilarious.  At one point, she chased him around the yard with a kitchen knife.  Abraham would not carry a knife in his pocket because what Mary Todd Lincoln might do with an accessible knife was quite unpredictable.  She would fly into rages over even his smallest annoying habits.  As the first lady, she was always dressed decadently, often considered over the top.  Her indulgently expensive shopping sprees were often publicly ridiculed.  She insisted upon having her very close male friends at the White House, and she had an affinity for the drug Opium.  Although she was known to be insanely jealous, she would go out of town, away from home and her husband, for months at a time.   This book paints a vivid description of Mary Todd Lincoln.  As the reader, I found that even when I was despising her deeds, I still had an appreciation for her passion and intellect.

House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds: a Family Divided by War offers more drama and more scandal than any book I have read in a really long time.  The Todd family makes the Kennedys look like amateurs.  The reader will encounter vindictive, selfish, cruel and insane group of people.  At the same time, they are passionate, sympathetic and endearing.  Like all families, the Todds are full of complexities, inconsistencies and paradoxes.  I found myself both loving them and despising them.  This book, fascinating and surprising, reads much more like a novel than a history book.

Pages: 288   FOA Pages: 6645 (Total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)

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