The Lawyers: William H. Herndon (1819-1891)
"Mr. Lincoln was the most generous, forebearing, and charitable man I ever knew," said William H. Herndon.1 Herndon was the third and last law partner to Abraham Lincoln after partnership with Stephen Logan was dissolved in 1844. Mr. Lincoln's choice of Herndon as a law partner seemed strange to many in Springfield and in the bar. According to journalists Charles H. Hall, Herndon himself understood the incongruity of the match. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867, Dall recounted the story of the legal partnership
In spite of their close friendship, Mr. Herndon could not understand it, when Lincoln one day darted up the office stairs, and said: "Herndon, should you like to be my partner?"
Herndon was indeed different from Mr. Lincoln. He had more education than Mr. Lincoln but less common sense. He was more radical and impulsive in politics. But Herndon was clearly his junior in all things. Unlike most of Mr. Lincoln's colleagues, Herndon was frequently called by his first name. Herndon's family had many connections with Mr. Lincoln. Archer Herndon - William's father, a committed Democrat and ardent defender of slave owners - had served in the legislature with Mr. Lincoln. Cousin John Rowan Herndon had been a neighbor of Mr. Lincoln in New Salem and owned a store there with his brother James. Billy Herndon himself knew Mr. Lincoln's New Salem neighbors.
Mr. Lincoln's previous partners - John T. Stuart and Logan - were both older and in the ways of the law, initially wiser than Mr. Lincoln. Nine years younger than Mr. Lincoln, Herndon had studied law at the firm of Logan and Lincoln. Herndon had also clerked at Joshua Speed's general store and hung around the rear fireplace where local and national political issues were talked through. Herndon's father Archer was one of the Long Nine who represented Sangamon County in the State Legislature. Billy Herndon was as fervent an abolitionist Whig as his father was a pro-slavery Democrat. He had left his father's home over differences concerning slavery.
Herndon was not always better received by fellow lawyers. "Herndon was a man that Lincoln picked up," recalled fellow Springfield attorney Milton Hay, who teamed with Logan at one point. "He was a poor, forlorn fellow who got on the right side of Lincoln, and that was one of Lincoln's abounding traits, that if any person moved his sympathies he would go to their relief. It was Herndon's poverty and hard luck that made Lincoln take to him. Now, you must remember that Mr. Lincoln had but little local practice in the city of Springfield. He went on what is called the circuits, following the judges around through the counties. It was not of much consequence for him to have an office in Springfield. He took Herndon into partnership, and put him in the office at Springfield to build up a local practice if he could, under the name of the firm of Lincoln & Herndon. He did not give any of the depth of his intimacy of character to Mr. Herndon. He was tolerant and kind to him, but he did not go to him to pour out his soul and communicate his thoughts."3
Another fellow attorney, Henry C. Whitney, wrote Herndon in 1866 that Mr. Lincoln "had taken you in as a partner, supposing that you had a system and would keep things in order, but that you would not make much of a lawyer; but that he found that you had no more system than he had, but that you were a fine lawyer, so that he was doubly disappointed."4 Lincoln legal commentator Frederick Trevor Hill wrote: "Despite its slack business methods, however, the firm of Lincoln & Herndon met with fair success, the junior partner making a good clerical assistant in the drawing of pleadings and the minutiae of procedure, and in 1844-5 the senior partner argued no less than thirty-three appeals before the Supreme Court, an excellent first-year record."5
Biographer Benjamin Thomas noted the "irritations" in the partnership: "Herndon loathed the Lincoln 'brats,' who romped into the office, scattered papers helter-skelter, upset inkwells and stacks of books, and left the place a shambles. He would have prescribed and taken pleasure in administering a lusty larruping; but the indulgent father seemingly thought nothing of it."6 Herndon and Mrs. Lincoln formed a mutual non-admiration society. He was not much more complimentary towards the Lincoln children: "I have felt many and many a time that I wanted to wring their little necks, and yet out of respect for Lincoln I kept my mouth shut. Lincoln did not note what his children were doing or had done."7
Some historians believe that Herndon later sought to overstate both his relationship with Mr. Lincoln and his insight into his character. Psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier wrote that Herndon "wanted to be considered an intimate friend of Lincoln" like Joshua Speed.8 "Lincoln's closeness to Speed upset Herndon; he could not understand it but wished for something like it for himself. Then Lincoln married and, in Herndon's eyes, became oddly devoted to his nasty little wife," concluded Strozier.9
Perhaps, most important, Herndon was loyal and trustworthy. "Billy and I never had the scratch of a pen between us; we just divide as we go along," said Mr. Lincoln.10 Friendship was suggested by the intimacy of the law partnership, but intimacies became more infrequent as the partnership continued. Mr. Lincoln was too circumspect to trust his less-than-circumspect partner. "The relations between the two men had been closer than a mere business arrangement," wrote Benjamin Thomas. "It had something of father and son. It held faithfulness, affection, and respect."11 Even when Herndon's drinking sprees caused public embarrassment, Mr. Lincoln "invariably refrained from joining in the popular denunciation, which, though not unmerited, was so frequently heaped upon me. He never chided, never censured, never criticized my conduct," said Herndon.12
Mr. Lincoln left Herndon in charge of the practice when he left for Congress in 1847 and when he left for the Presidency in 1861 "While a member of Congress and otherwise immersed in politics Lincoln seemed to lose all interest in the law. Of course, what practise he controlled had passed into other hands," wrote Herndon. "I retained all the business I could, and worked steadily on until, when he returned, our practise was as extensive as that of any other firm at the bar. Lincoln realized that much of this was due to my efforts, and on his return he therefore suggested that he had no right to share in the business and profits which I had made. I responded that as he had aided me and given me prominence when I was young and needed it, I could afford now to be grateful if not generous. I there recommended a continuation of the partnership, and we went on as before."13
The two partners maintained a frequent correspondence during the congressional period - often with an undertone of carping about what the other was doing in politics. On December 13, 1847, Mr. Lincoln wrote "as you are all so anxious for me to distinguish myself, I have concluded to do so, before long,"14 Some of Mr. Lincoln's most meaningful communication with Herndon came while Congressman Lincoln was attempting to deal with Herndon's doubts about political developments around the Mexican-American War. Herndon, however, did not agree with Congressman Lincoln's position against the Mexican-American War and frequently told him so. Herndon later wrote
In 1847-49 I saw that Lincoln would ruin himself about the Mexican War, and his opposition to it, and so, being his friend and not seeing the question as he did, I tried to prevent Lincoln's destruction. I wrote to him on the subject again and again and tried to induce him to silence, if nothing else; but his sense of justice and his courage made him speak, utter his thoughts, as to the war with Mexico. Lincoln and I had many hot disputes in our office, and yet those disputes were friendly ones. He was never insulting nor dictatorial to me. No politician in America can vote and live if he opposes war in which the spread eagle is concerned, America. When Lincoln returned home from Congress in 1849, he was a politically dead and buried man; he wanted to run for Congress again, but it was no use to try.15
Herndon later implied that he resurrected Mr. Lincoln's political career. He wrote: "When Mr. Lincoln returned from Washington, in 1848-9, he came to this city, a broken-down and bankrupt politician, caused by his course on the Mexican War, which I tried to prevent. His old friends in his then Congressional District, for his course in Congress, deserted him. I then stood firmly by Mr. Lincoln and helped him to fight his way upward."16 Herndon indeed tried to protect Mr. Lincoln's interests - both legal and political. He claimed that he "stood firmly by Mr. Lincoln, and helped him by pen and word, money and tongue, at the bar, in the press and on the stump, to fight his way up again..."17 Herndon indeed often went to Mr. Lincoln's aid and support. Mr. Lincoln delivered a major speech in Springfield on October 4, 1854. Biographer Albert Beveridge wrote: "When Lincoln closed - and indeed often during the delivery of his speech, Herndon testifies - 'loud and continuous huzzas' rose from the enthusiastic audience, and 'women waved their white handkerchiefs.' The junior partner did not think the praise of Lincoln's speech in the Journal next day was warm enough; so Herndon took the editorial pen in his own hand, and produced 'with youthful enthusiasm,' a laudation of Lincoln's speech which has gone into history."18
Later that fall, there was an organizing meeting of the nascent state Republican Party. Herndon "was in hearty sympathy with the radicals, but he knew that Lincoln was not; and, what was infinitely more important as a matter of practical politics, he knew that it would never do for Lincoln to be at the Republican meeting," wrote Beveridge. "The alert and resourceful Herndon got Lincoln out of it; he told his partner that he must instantly leave Springfield and stay away until the danger had passed. So, under the pretence of having business in Tazewell county, Lincoln hitched his horse to his ramshackle buggy, and made off on the wobbly but effective wheels of political prudence; and 'he did not return til the apostles of Abolitionism had separated and gone to their homes."19
Mr. Lincoln was the more practical of the two lawyers while Herndon was the more quixotic. Mr. Lincoln was the more circumspect and cautious while Herndon was the more impulsive. "Billy, don't shoot too high ó aim lower and the common people will understood you. They are the ones you want to reach."20 Herndon was more radical than his partner - in thought and action. Furthermore, he occasionally took advantage of his privileged relationship with Mr. Lincoln. He wrote that "in the Spring of 1856 I drew up a paper for friends of freedom to sign, calling a county convention in Springfield to select delegates for the forthcoming Republican State Convention in Bloomington. The paper was freely circulated, and generously signed. Lincoln was absent at the time; and, believing I knew what his feelings and judgment on the vital questions of the hour were, I took the liberty to sign his name to the call. The whole was then published in the Springfield Journal. No sooner had it appeared than John T. Stuart, who, with others, was endeavoring to retard Lincoln in his advanced movements, rushed into our office, and excitedly asked 'if Lincoln had signed that Abolition call in the Journal?' I answered in the negative, adding that I had signed his name myself."
Stuart was appalled: "Then you have ruined him." But Herndon was not chagrined: "I was by no means alarmed at what others deemed inconsiderate and hasty action. I thought I understood Lincoln thoroughly, but in order to vindicate myself if assailed I immediately sat down, after Stuart had rushed out of the office, and wrote Lincoln, who was then in Tazewell County attending court, a brief account of what I had done and how much stir it was creating in the ranks of his conservative friends. If he approved or disapproved my course I asked him to write or telegraph me at once. In a brief time came his answer: 'All right; go ahead. Will meet you - radicals and all.'"21
Two years later, it was Herndon that tried to get Mr. Lincoln out of political trouble. He intervened energetically if ineffectively with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who was making repeated commented friendly to the reelection of Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. Herndon packed his bags and made his first trip east in an attempt to get such Republicans to see that it was Mr. Lincoln, not Douglas, that they should champion.
"It was in Lincoln's contest with Douglas for the senatorship that Herndon rendered most effective service," according to historian Paul M. Angle. "Lincoln could address thousands in spectacular meetings, yet Herndon knew, as every politician knows, that elections were not to be carried in this way. 'I am all the time at the schoolhouses and the village churches,' he wrote in the midst of the campaign, 'where good can be done and where the 'big bugs' do not go. There are no great crowds at these cross-roads places, yet they are really the places where good can be done.' With the young men - the 'wild boys about town' - he was particularly effective. 'I am the young man's friend, and am not without influence among them,' he confessed truly."22
After 1858, Herndon was effectively out of the top political loop in Illinois - a fact which his later writing reflected. Herndon biographer David Donald noted that "he could merely guess what was happening. His membership in the Republican state executive committee was quietly allowed to lapse, and though he had confidently expected the position, another man was chosen as presidential elector for central Illinois in 1860."23
And when it came to the transition to the presidency, Herndon was clearly out of his depth. Since Mr. Lincoln stopped practicing law in the spring of 1860, their law office was no longer the political and legal center of Springfield. Mr. Lincoln moved his headquarters to the State Capitol. Herndon's official partnership with Lincoln continued until the President's death - although he practiced with Charles S. Zane and Alfred Orendorff after the President left for
Washington. Herndon wrote:
"In the afternoon of his last day in Springfield he came down to our office to examine some papers and confer with me about certain legal matters in which he still felt some interest. On several previous occasions he had told me he was coming over to the office 'to have a long talk with me,' as he expressed it. We ran over the books and arranged for the completion of all unsettled and unfinished matters. In some cases he had certain requests to make ó certain lines of procedure he wished me to observe. After these things were all disposed of he crossed to the opposite side of the room and threw himself down on the old office sofa, which, after many years of service, had been moved against the wall for support. He lay for some moments, his face towards the ceiling, without either of us speaking. Presently he inquired, 'Billy,' ó he always called me by that name, ó 'how long have we been together?' 'Over sixteen years,' I answered. 'We've never had a cross word during all that time, have we?' To which I returned a vehement, 'No, indeed we have not.' He then recalled some incidents of his early practice and took great pleasure in delineating the ludicrous features of many a lawsuit on the circuit. It was at this last interview in Springfield that he told me of the efforts that had been made by other lawyers to supplant in the partnership with him. He insisted that such men were weak creatures, who, to use his own language, 'hoped to secure a law practice by hanging to his coat-tail.' I never saw him in a more cheerful mood. He gathered a bundle of books and papers he wished to take with him and started to go; but before leaving he made the strange request that the sign-board which swung on its rusty hinges at the foot of the stairway should remain. 'Let it hang there undisturbed,' he said, with a significant lowering of his voice. 'Give our clients to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon. If I live I'm coming back some time, and then we'll go right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened.' He lingered for a moment as if to take a last look at the old quarters, and then passed through the door into the narrow hallway.24
There is controversy over Herndon's desire for a presidential appointment. Attorney Milton Hay maintained: "Lincoln wanted to do something for Herndon, but not to give him anything which would expose his weakness in the public service. It probably gave him more concern than it was worth to find some spot that Herndon could adorn. When he settled on what he would give him, Herndon, whose expectations had been raised very high, became dissatisfied and returned to Springfield, and was very sour on Lincoln."25
Herndon replied to the 1893 article a few weeks later: "Just a few days before Mr. Lincoln started to Washington City to take the oath of office and become the President of the United states in face and law, he came into our office and said substantially: 'Herndon, do you want to hold any office under my administration?' and to which I thankfully replied: No, Mr. Lincoln, I do not. I now hold the office of Bank Commissioner of Illinois and besides, I have a good practice in my profession; and if I take office under you, I will lose my practice and my present office.' This I said substantially. He then asked me if I wished to hold the Bank Commissioner's office under Gov. Yates, and to which I replied: 'I do.' Mr. Lincoln then went and saw Gov. Yates and had me continued in office."26
Herndon added: "In my opinion, I can further say that it is my honest belief that Mr. Lincoln would have willingly given me any office that my ambition had struggled for....He gave me everything I wished and asked for. I never had, for one short moment, a grievance against Mr. Lincoln. I never had high expectations about office, was not ambitious nor selfish, and was not disappointed."27 In a monograph that Herndon wrote on "Lincoln's 'Ingratitude,'" Herndon stated that he had often written Congressman Shelby M. Cullom in the early 1860s in which he said "in substance: 'Cullom, if you see Lincoln, tell him for me that if he has any large, honorable, and fat office with a big salary to give away and cannot get any person on earth to take it that I'll take and run it on his account, but under no other consideration.' This, as a matter of course, was jocularly said. Cullom so understood it, so did Lincoln, and so will all persons who read this account. Lincoln was told and that too by Congressman Cullom what I requested him to say. Lincoln said to Cullom this: 'If all persons did not bother me more than Herndon I should be a happier man.'"28 But Herndon got at least some of the details of this story wrong - since Cullom was not elected to Congress until November 1864.29
Biographer David Donald pointed out that there was one patronage position that Herndon did eagerly seek, but it was not for himself, and it may have contributed to the impression that Herndon had failed in an attempt to get a patronage job for himself. After Herndon's wife died in 1861, he began courting a very beautiful and much younger woman, Anna Miles. "Anna Miles' decision to accept Herndon came about in an amusing and complicated fashion," wrote Donald. "Her older sister Elizabeth had some years earlier married Charles W. Chatterton, who wanted a federal job that would offer money and adventure. To please a prospective brother-in-law, Herndon volunteered to secure an appointment for him. In return, Chatterton and his wife would use their good offices in convincing Anna that Herndon would make an acceptable husband." Herndon went to Washington in 1862 and explained the situation to President Lincoln who found it "wonderfully funny." When the President's endorsement didn't produce a position in the Interior Department, he personally took Herndon to see the Commissioner of Indian Affairs who terminated a Democratic appointee and replaced him with Chatterton."30
Despite alcoholism and financial troubles, Herndon subsequently devoted himself to Lincoln biography with Jesse W. Weik (Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 1889). Herndon collected material for a biography immediately after the President's assassination but was unable to turn it into a book. He first charged Ward Hill Lamon for use of the research and later turned it over to Jesse W. Weik to write a book under his name. Herndon was responsible for some Lincoln controversies about Mr. Lincoln's alleged atheism and his romance with Anne Rutledge - which he created from some facts and arrogant reliance on his own "intuition" and "dog sagacity." These resulted in a public quarrel with Mary Todd Lincoln in 1873.
Intellectually voracious and politically passionate, Herndon was emotional and self-absorbed, an agnostic and abolitionist and strong Republican who corresponded with many of the most prominent abolitionists of the era. He fancied himself an admirer of Mr. Lincoln but not an idolator. "During long years of association the partners had learned to get along with each other. There was only a minimum of friction in the office, those unavoidable irritations that occur when two men live close together," wrote David Donald. But Mr. Lincoln's kids, his melancholia, his newspaper reading and stories apparently drove Herndon to occasional distraction. "Those who thought of Lincoln the wit and raconteur never knew the other side of the picture - the deadly monotony of hearing stories repeated over and over again, the work interrupted to hear what Herndon considered a rather pointless tale of Lincoln's youth, the tedium of hearing the mill of anecdote grind away for days without end," wrote Donald, who noted that Mr. Lincoln himself "was occasionally embarrassed by his partner's eccentricities and inebriate habits."31
Although Herndon tried to expose a historical Lincoln, he himself was a clearly admirer. Mr. Lincoln was a "very sensitive man...a diffident man, somewhat, and a sensitive one and both of these added to his oddity, an awkwardness, etc....Lincoln had confidence, full and complete confidence in himself, self-thoughtful, self-helping, and self-supporting, relying on no man."32 Herndon wrote
Mr. Lincoln was a kind tender, and sympathetic man, feeling deeply in the presence of suffering, pain, wrong, or oppression in any shape; he was the very essence and substance of truth; and was of unbounded veracity, had unlimited integrity, always telling the exact truth, and always doing the honest thing at all times and under all circumstances. He was just to men, he loved the right, the good, and true, with all his soul.
Herndon was a bundle of contradictions - while mayor of Springfield in 1854-56, he pushed temperance but in his own use of alcohol, he was frequently anything but temperate. As a would-be biographer, Herndon also had several pet obsessions - Mr. Lincoln's treatment of his friends, his failure to listen to advice, his "real" father, his mother's parentage, his sex life, his religious skepticism - which drove his research. In his later years, his search for the historical Lincoln grew more cautious as he realized that perhaps the public was not ready for certain truths. Biographer Donald notes that there has never been a consensus about the influence of Herndon on Mr. Lincoln's life and thinking. "It is a subject on which there has been expended much sound and not a little fury. Lincoln experts tend to become violently pro- or anti-Herndon," wrote Donald. Even "Herndon could never quite analyze his feelings for his partner, though he was to spend a good many thousands of word in trying."34 Donald noted: "In his pre-1860 correspondence Herndon rarely mentioned Lincoln at all." But in his post-1865 letters, Herndon was less modest, writing to fellow biographer Jesse W. Weik: "I did much for Lincoln that the world will never know - don't intend to blow my own horn."35