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The True Story of a Great Life
By William H. Herndon Digital Scanning
Copyright © 1999 William H. Herndon
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Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life is widely acknowledged to be the most important and, at the same time, most controversial book ever written about Abraham Lincoln. The result of a collaboration between William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Lincoln created a stir from the moment of its first appearance in 1889. It was highly praised for its detailed and authoritative depiction of Lincoln's pre-presidential life, and it was roundly condemned for its indiscretions and lapses in taste. An attempt to balance these two perspectives is reflected in the verdict of the Atlantic Monthly, whose reviewer declared: "To any reader who wishes to know the truth about Lincoln, at whatever costs to illusions, this book is invaluable and suggestive." To tell the truth about Lincoln was undoubtedly the biography's aim, but whether such a thing should even have been attempted was sharply debated by the first generation of readers, and whether, and to what extent, it succeeded has been at issue ever since. "Criticism of the work has often been severe," wrote distinguished Lincoln scholar Don E. Fehrenbacher in 1996, "but after more than a century it remains the most influential biography of Lincoln ever published."
The book'ssecond subtitle spelled out its special claim to attention and its point of view: The History and Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln by William H. Herndon For Twenty Years his Friend and Law Partner. In addition to his close personal association with his subject, Herndon had other advantages as a biographer. Soon after Lincoln's death, he launched an energetic campaign to collect information on his partner's early life. He corresponded with people who had known Lincoln at various stages of his life; he traveled extensively to interview, and sometimes to cross-examine, his informants; and he combed early newspapers for speeches and accounts of events involving the young Lincoln. But prompt as Herndon was to gather information and anecdotes about Lincoln, he was unable to get his biography written, so that by the time it was finally completed, it was the last, rather than the first, of the major nineteenth-century biographies of Lincoln to appear. The others-those by Josiah G. Holland (1866), Ward Hill Lamon (1872), Isaac N. Arnold (1885), and John G. Nicolay and John Hay (1886-90)-all benefited to a considerable extent from Herndon's researches and his remarkably open-handed cooperation. Most of Lamon's information, in fact, was drawn from Herndon's archive of biographical materials. All of these authors except Holland had enjoyed some association with Lincoln; the others were personally familiar with certain aspects of his career, but only Herndon had the benefit of a long and close personal association with his subject. Nicolay and Hay, as Lincoln's secretaries, had a much better view of Lincoln as president than did other biographers of the time, including Herndon, but like Arnold, they largely avoided treatment of Lincoln's private life. For its colorful and detailed depiction of the private and personal Lincoln before he became president, Herndon's Lincoln was, and remains, unrivaled. "There can be little question," Paul M. Angle has written, "but that William H. Herndon contributed more than any other individual to our knowledge of Lincoln's life and character."
But for all his contributions, Herndon and his book have continued to be the subject of controversy. From the beginning, Herndon held unorthodox views on what was appropriate for the biographies of great men. He began with the idea that Lincoln's life should be told in full, that the truth, whatever it might turn out to be, could do nothing to diminish Lincoln's stature or achievements. He believed that there were "necessary truths" that must be confronted, even if they touched on private matters that biographers would not ordinarily disclose. But such a "warts-and-all" view was sharply contrary to the prevailing conventions of Victorian biography and to the elevated expectations of a worshipful American public. Herndon's insistence on presenting a realistic portrait of Lincoln as he appeared to those who knew him seems straightforward enough to modern readers, but it struck a great many observers at the time as irreverent and disrespectful. Nor could they be reconciled to the frank treatment of such unseemly subjects as the illegitimacy of Lincoln's mother or the difficulties of his home life.
While these objections have faded with the passage of time, others have emerged. In the twentieth century, scholars began to find fault with Herndon's informants and their testimony, which in almost every case was based on memories of what had happened years earlier. As the standards in the Lincoln field came to be set by professionally trained historians, the scarcity of strictly contemporary and documentary evidence in Lincoln's pre-presidential life became more apparent, and more of an issue. So did the standing and motives of Herndon's informants, whose stories and credibility came under sharper scrutiny. Some scholars were also troubled by Herndon's research methods. His selection and questioning of witnesses were seen as compromised by his own predispositions while at the same time lacking in objective safeguards against gullibility and fraud. The doubts about Herndon and his evidence were sharply amplified by the major study published in 1948 by David Herbert Donald, for its well-researched findings and detailed analysis drew attention to Herndon's foibles and shortcomings and called into question the reliability of his informants and his own judgments.
As a result of these developments, both Herndon and the testimony of his informants came to be regarded with greater and greater suspicion. This trend coincided with a growing disposition on the part of professional historians to regard the presidency as the principal focus of Lincoln studies, a development that further marginalized Herndon, who had little firsthand knowledge of Lincoln in Washington. Herndon himself became the object of considerable hostility with certain writers who viewed his reporting on Mary Todd Lincoln, and on some aspects of Lincoln himself, as malicious. At the same time, Herndon's basic truthfulness was widely acknowledged, and his opinions and extensive compilations of evidence about the pre- presidential Lincoln could hardly be ignored. The resulting situation during the second half of the twentieth century was well characterized by Mary Todd Lincoln's biographer, Jean H. Baker, who remarked in 1983 that Herndon had become "every Lincoln scholar's reserve army-available to make a point when he agrees with whatever conclusion we wish to establish, but having been so often discredited, easily dismissed when we disagree."
In the last decade of the twentieth century, the evidence about Lincoln supplied by Herndon and his informants began to be reevaluated. In a landmark reconsideration of Lincoln's love affair with Ann Rutledge, for example, a leading Civil War scholar, John Y. Simon, argued in 1990 that the critique of Herndon initiated by historians earlier in the century, while it had been a "commendable correction of the historical record," had been carried too far. Other reconsiderations followed, and by the beginning of the twentieth-first century, it seems fair to say that many of the doubts and misgivings about the testimony of Herndon's informants have either been successfully addressed or put into better perspective. Especially in light of the importance that has come to be placed on oral history, it is generally conceded that whatever the perils and pitfalls of reminiscent evidence, the circumstances of Lincoln's early life were such that, where personal information is concerned, there is very little else for historians and biographers to work with. Documentary evidence from this period being extremely scarce, Herndon's materials are acknowledged as indispensable. The most celebrated challenge to the reliability of Herndon's informants-a highly influential indictment of the historicity of Lincoln's love affair with Ann Rutledge-has itself been seriously challenged, with the result that the story of the tragic romance, at least in its essential outlines, has been found by Simon and others to be generally worthy of credence.
Since 1998, Herndon's entire Lincoln archive of letters and interviews has been readily available in print, and its contents have been undergoing renewed scrutiny and reevaluation. Just as it seems unlikely that controversy about Herndon will ever go away, it is just as unlikely that Lincoln studies can ever do without him. As Benjamin P. Thomas, himself a highly regarded Lincoln biographer, has declared, "Herndon is the most controversial figure in Lincoln literature, yet to him, more than to any other writer, we owe our knowledge of Lincoln the man-how he looked and walked, his love of fun, his melancholy, the way he thought, his personal habits and idiosyncrasies."
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William Henry Herndon was born in Kentucky in 1818 and was brought at the age of five to Sangamon County, Illinois, where he lived the rest of his life. His father, Archer G. Herndon, was one of the earliest settlers in the Springfield area, where he steadily prospered as a businessman, stock farmer, and politician. His success enabled him to send his son William to Illinois College at nearby Jacksonville, an experience that reinforced the boy's bookishness and helped confirm him as a lifelong reader. But the young man's college career was terminated after one year by his father, who disapproved of the vocal abolitionism of the college's professors. Temporarily alienated from his father, the young Herndon secured a job clerking in the Springfield store of Joshua F. Speed and the privilege of sleeping in the large room above the store, which he shared with Speed and a young lawyer recently come to town, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Speed had become intimate friends, and Speed's store became a gathering place where the young men of the town animatedly discussed literary, political, and other topics of the day.
From their first acquaintance, Herndon admired the affable lawyer and politician, whose star was so clearly on the rise. Herndon married and moved out of the store in 1840, but their relationship was renewed when he served an apprenticeship as a law clerk in the firm of Logan and Lincoln. When Lincoln and Stephen T. Logan dissolved their partnership in 1844, Lincoln, much to the surprise and gratification of the young student, invited him to become his partner. There were reportedly many observers who considered this a mismatch and a mistake, but Lincoln resisted all such criticism and remained steadfastly loyal to Herndon.
The Lincoln-Herndon partnership was a notable success from its beginning and remained active until Lincoln left Springfield for Washington in 1861. Herndon may have been the better legal scholar and more diligent researcher of the two, and Lincoln more adept as a courtroom litigator, although these may have been differences only of degree. Both were very able attorneys and increasingly in demand. Sharing an office as well as many political and intellectual interests, Lincoln and Herndon had many opportunities to discuss a wide range of topics. They both availed themselves of Herndon's substantial library, a portion of which was kept in the office. The partners occasionally rode the legal circuit together, were partners in Whig and Republican political causes, and shared a deep antipathy to slavery.
Financially, the partners shared equally, though Herndon once described himself as "the runt of the firm," whereas Lincoln was the "hoss." Some scholars have taken this and other indications to mean that Herndon was much the lesser lawyer. A well-respected study of Lincoln's law career, for example, found it unthinkable that Lincoln would allow his "sometimes brilliant, but notoriously flighty and erratic partner" to argue so important a case as that of Joseph Dalby against the St. Louis, Chicago and Alton Railway Company, a key case involving the rights of railroad passengers. But recent investigations of the firm of Lincoln and Herndon have shown beyond doubt that the precedent-setting verdict in this difficult case was gained by Herndon himself, without the aid of his partner, a clear indication that he was a very astute practitioner. Between them, Lincoln and Herndon presided over one of the most successful law firms in Springfield.
Remembered by posterity as Lincoln's law partner and biographer, Herndon was, in the 1850s, a prominent and respected citizen of Springfield in his own right. A family man with a wife and six children, as well as a busy lawyer and a political activist, he still found time to devote to public causes. More radical than his partner and of a far more volatile temperament, Herndon entered into the reformist enthusiasm that swept America during the antebellum period, aiding in the promotion of such causes as the establishment of public schools in Springfield, local prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages (he himself had a drinking problem), and women's rights. He was an omnivorous reader and accumulated a large library, with which he kept current on a wide variety of social and scientific subjects. He was regularly in demand in Springfield and surrounding communities as a public speaker. In 1855, he was elected mayor of Springfield. The following year, he helped found the Republican party in Illinois, serving as one of the original members of the party's state central committee, and was seriously mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate. An articulate proponent of the Republican position of opposition to the extension of slavery, he corresponded extensively with such prominent eastern antislavery figures as Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Horace Greeley.
Herndon does not seem to have had serious aspirations for political office, but he had long demonstrated a strong commitment to public service. When his former partner became a martyred president, Herndon felt an obligation to respond to the tremendous public interest that developed in Lincoln's background and personality. Looking back on his life following Lincoln's assassination from a perspective of twenty years, Herndon wrote to a correspondent:
I commenced gathering up the facts of his life in 1865 quickly after he was assassinated. I felt that it was my duty as it was my pleasure to do so, and I have assisted all of his biographers with facts and opinions. I did so freely and without charge to any one and I shall continue to do so till I shall go hence. I have given yes given away hundreds of things-letters-speeches-&c. &c that I held dear and quite sacred to all persons who requested them-mere strangers and took no pay; and had I more of such articles I should do the same thing now.
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Within weeks of Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865, Herndon had made up his mind to write something about his former partner. He had been besieged by reporters, prospective biographers, and by a multitude of the curious, all seeking information about his former law partner, and he had been urged by others to share his unique perspective on a subject of paramount national interest. John L. Scripps, a principal editor for the Chicago Tribune and himself a campaign biographer of Lincoln, wrote: "Your long acquaintance and close association with him must have given you a clearer insight into his character than other men obtained."
Having made the decision to write about Lincoln, Herndon's first impulse was to gather information. Not knowing much about Lincoln's life before he came to Springfield, the period of his childhood and youth, Herndon began sending off letters and establishing contacts in such places as Kentucky, where Lincoln had been born; Indiana, where he had lived between the ages of seven and twenty-one; and Menard County, Illinois, the location of the former village of New Salem, where Lincoln lived after he left home from 1831 to 1837. Within months of beginning his research in May 1865, Herndon had made several trips to seek out informants and take interviews, and he continued to carry on a very heavy correspondence in this line for the next two years.
Excerpted from Herndon's Lincoln by William H. Herndon Copyright © 1999 by William H. Herndon. Excerpted by permission.
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