As families seek to celebrate Thanksgiving — and open doors to kids enjoying U.S. history — longtime EWTN anchor and Catholic father Raymond Arroyo unpacks a little-known narrative from the life of America’s most beloved president.
Raymond Arroyo -- More Than Just a Face on TV
Those who only know New Orleans native Arroyo from his 25+ years doing the weekly news/commentary show The World Over on Catholic network EWTN, or his "Seen and Unseen" segments on Fox News' The Ingraham Angle, may not know that he also has a long career as an author.
In 2007, he profiled EWTN's founder in Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles. It tells the unlikely tale of how, in 1981, with $200, a makeshift studio in her monastery's Alabama garage, and herself as on-air host, the feisty cloistered Franciscan nun launched a worldwide cable/satellite/internet network.
Arroyo has written other books about Mother Angelica, but he also has a busy career as a children's-book author.
In his new book series, Turnabout Tales, Arroyo creates short picture books for families to share, about historical youngsters that went from underdog to hero, and the adults who inspired them. The first looked at the childhood of Thomas Edison.
His 32-page latest, The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln, illustrated by Jacqu Davis, focuses on the energetic, 8-year-old son of President Abraham Lincoln, and his role in the creation of Thanksgiving.
Meet Tad Lincoln
During the fraught years of the U.S. Civil War, the Tad and older brother Willie played a bigger role in the life of their father, Abraham Lincoln, than most people know.
“At a moment of deep depression, darkness, and hatred in the nation, Abraham Lincoln needs a touchstone of joy and normalcy,” said Arroyo in an interview. “And his son, Tad, reminded him what was on the other side of all of that. Children still remind us of that every day, if we're open to it.”
Of the new book, Arroyo says, "The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln is about a son who saves his father — when the country is falling apart."
Praise for the Turnabout Tales series goes beyond conservative or religious press. School Library Journal gave Arroyo’s latest book a starred review, calling it “fun, well-paced, highly readable biography that provides a sophisticated entry point for more nuanced discussions about the complexities of leadership.”
Raymond Arroyo on The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln
In a phone interview, award-winning journalist Arroyo reveals how he stumbled upon this unique story and the heart behind his latest Thanksgiving-centered book (edited for length and clarity).
It's interesting how, in this series, you moved from the often-told story of Thomas Edison to this little-known story from the life of President Abraham Lincoln.
Arroyo: Though I had read biographies of Lincoln, I knew nothing of Tad Lincoln. Historians didn't spend much time on the children, who were in the background. They focus on Lincoln's public life. The story of Tad Lincoln and his father is bound up in Thanksgiving in the year 1863.
That is the year that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He also declares Thanksgiving a national holiday this year for a very particular reason. And he and Tad Lincoln create this national tradition centered on mercy, forgiveness, and unity, that we continue to practice, which is so evocative and fun.
You balance the silly and the serious so remarkably in this book. There are those moments like the goat in the White House and you just wonder: did that really happen?
Arroyo: It really happened. They had a pair of goats. The one named Nanco, the boys would hitch the goat to an overturned dining room chair and gallop it, ride it through the house. You can imagine what it did to the floor and the guests and everything!
But Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln would just laugh and let him go on. People thought they were crazy, and almost everyone in their circle said they indulged this child.
They called Tad Lincoln a hellion. They said he was out of control. He had a cleft palate, too, and had difficulty speaking — and probably didn't have a wide circle of friends. He certainly couldn't read well and didn't really go to school.
But his parents were very close to him, and they probably indulged him because they wanted him to feel supported and loved. And he was.
There are certainly heavy themes as well. As you've talked about, the backdrop for this is the Civil War — the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, 620,000 lives lost. In the midst of that, you spotlight this message of mercy. Why?
Arroyo: I stumbled on it. Lincoln wrote about it repeatedly—and you can see pictures of it. At the time, there were no gates around the White House, and people would line up outside, right to the front door.
They waited to see the president, because they would beg him for mercy, to pardon their sons who either abandoned the war field or didn't serve in the Union Army or whatever the case may be. They were begging for clemency and pardons. One by one, they would come and make their argument to the president.
History records that 82% of the pardons he heard, he granted. So Lincoln was very giving. In fact, his staff used to say, "Stop these people. Don't let them in. Don't let him hear these cases because he'll grant them pardons."
And Tad Lincoln would lay on the floor next to the desk and hear all of these parents begging for pardon and mercy for their children. It became a big thing for Tad. In playtime, he goes to his father and says, "Can you pardon my doll?"
Together, Tad and his father create a national tradition based on mercy, pardon, and forgiveness, that continues to this day. After reading the book, when it's broadcast every year from the White House, kids will see it in a new way.
You have these words from Lincoln. 'Mercy bears richer fruits than any other attribute.' Did he really say that?
Arroyo: Not only did he say it, he also wrote it in a few letters. It's a direct quote.
It’s the power of a child in the parents' life and in the life of a nation, and how a child who was kind of marginalized and people couldn't understand him. They said he was a hellion and out of control and a weird little kid ... that this child should be the creator of a national tradition that we continue to practice, I think, should give us all hope, and certainly young people hope.
I am struck by how this 30-page illustrated book you've written has historical notes and a bibliography— not what you find at the end of Goodnight Moon. In a time when history is scrutinized, how did you aim to get the facts right?
Arroyo: Before I start writing one of these, I do a ton of research. It's just 19 flips — all you get is 19 turns of the page in a family read or picture book. You have to be very focused on what the story is.
Because Tad is Abraham Lincoln's son, you have to go back and do all the Lincoln research — and it is a fascinating moment they occupied. Tad Lincoln and his father became inseparable. The turnabout tale in this story is the death of Tad's brother, Willie.
Abraham Lincoln and his last son at home are sort of forced together. They cling to each other not only in their grief, but as father and son, and they become a real support for one another.
What does this story say about the importance of children — in a family, in communities, and in the life of a nation?
Arroyo: This story furnishes us with really important lessons about the power of a child and how essential the father-son relationship is to a community and a nation.
There are many accounts from Lincoln's cabinet secretaries, where they'd be in the middle of a meeting, and Tad Lincoln would crash into the cabinet meeting with something. Lincoln would stop the meeting and listen to Tad, or play with Tad or indulge Tad, and, they'd say, 'fall into neighing laughter.'
Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln really indulged Tad. They had rabbits and horses and kittens and all kinds of things running around. They were children. They were allowed to play.
And I think sometimes today we want children to be adults too soon. It's important to let a kid be a child. And they're important not only for their own development but for our development. We need that reminder.
Why is learning history important?
Arroyo: We can't go forward if we don't know where we've been. I feel that way about families. about communities, and certainly our country.
And I worry when I go into classrooms, figures that we took for granted, like Edison or Lincoln, these were people we knew something about and maybe even a lot about.
Today, they're all but stricken from the curriculum because it's test-based. They have other things they have to focus on in teaching history.
So I wanted to restore and lift up again these historic figures who are still important to us because of their lessons. Every story, and certainly history, are nothing more than life manuals for us, if you will. These are guides to living.
I didn't realize it was Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. In his proclamation, he writes that, "through this day, we would implore the Almighty Hand of God to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
To me, at this moment in our history, when we're so divided, when we're so at each other, when people are screaming and yelling and there are protests and burning of things, this is a moment when we need tranquility, peace, and union.
And I think Lincoln saw Thanksgiving that way. It was a season of mercy—really begging for that mercy not only from God but from each other. We need that again.
This little family story is a little tiny emblem of the mercy and forgiveness that we all need as we approach the end of the year and as Thanksgiving comes upon us again.
The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln is available online and wherever books are sold. There's even an audio version read by Arroyo. Parents of very sensitive youngsters should be aware that the book deals with the death of Tad's brother Willie .. and a turkey.
Image: Courtesy Raymond Arroyo and Zonderkidz
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.