The Lawyers: Henry Clay Whitney (1831-1905)

Henry Clay Whitney
In 1854 at age 23, Henry C. Whitney relocated to Urbana and entered the practice of law. “I became acquainted with Lincoln,” Whitney wrote over three decades later. “It was about the time of my first appearance at the bar. I did not feel the slightest delicacy in approaching him for assistance; for it seemed as if he invited me to familiarity if not close intimacy at once; and this from no selfish motive at all – nothing but pure philanthropy and goodness of heart to a young lawyer just beginning his career.”1 Whitney became a friend and political ally of Mr. Lincoln and lawyer from Urbana with whom he worked on Illinois circuit.

Whitney recalled that Mr. Lincoln “sat on the bench for the judge a while that term; and my first motion in court was made before him. The next day he made some arrangements for his horse and buggy and took the train to fill an appointment father north.” But Mr. Lincoln needed a ride to the train station. “I saw him start for the train,” recalled Whitney. He was obliged to ride over two miles in an old dilapidated omnibus, and being the sole occupant of the conveyance had somewhere procured and held in his hand a small French harp with which he was making the most execrable music. I rallied him on this, to which, stopping his concert, he replied: ‘This is my band; Douglas had a brass band at Peoria, but this will do me.’ He resumed his uncouth solo as the vehicle drove off, and the primitive strains, somewhat shaken up by the jolting conveyance, floated out upon the air till distance intervened.”2

In Champaign County, Lincoln was frequently associated in the trial of cases with Leonard Swett and Henry C. Whitney,” wrote Albert A. Woldman. “Pleadings are found signed, “Lincoln, Swett, Orme & Whitney,’ and also ‘Davis, Swett, Lincoln & Whitney.’ Lincoln had Swett as his trial associate more often than any other lawyer except Herndon. Whitney almost equalled Swett’s record.”3 As a roommate of Mr. Lincoln on the legal circuit, Whitney had an intimate view of the future President. “I recollect distinctly at some times when we slept together on the circuit he slept in a short home made yellow flannel undershirt and had nothing else on.”4

Whitney was an attorney for Illinois Central Railroad who hired Lincoln occasionally as a counsel. “As attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad I had authority to employ additional counsel whenever I chose to do so, and in Judge Davis’s circuit I frequently applied to Lincoln when I needed aid. I never found him unwilling to appear in behalf of a great ‘soulless corporation.’ In such cases he always stood by me, and I always, of course, tried to win.”5

Whitney was also helpful to Mr. Lincoln with whom he occasionally traveled during the 1858 Senate campaign, but there were limits to Whitney’s influence with the railroad, he wrote: “Lincoln and I were at Centralia Fair the day after the debate at Jonesboro – night came on and we were tired, having been on the fair ground all day – the train was due at mid-night – everything was full – I managed to get a chair for Lincoln in the Ills. Cen. RR. Supt. office – but small politicians would intrude so that he could scarcely get a moments sleep – the train came and was filled instantly – I got a seat at the door for L. and myself; he was worn out and had to meet Douglas next day at Charleston; an empty car, called a ‘Saloon’ car was hitched on to the rear of the train and locked up. I asked the Conductor, who knew Lincoln and myself well (we were both Atty’s of the Road) if Lincoln could not ride in that car as he was exhausted &c., and the conductor refused. I afterwards got in by stratagem.”6

Whitney saw the serious side and playful side of Mr. Lincoln. He told a story about how Mr. Lincoln amused himself on the day he was nearly nominated for Vice President by the Republican National Convention meeting in Philadelphia in 1856: “Judge Davis held court, and Lincoln, who had two or three cases to try, was there also. At the judge’s request I secured a room for him, also for Lincoln and myself, at the American House, a primitive hostelry kept by one John Dunaway. The building had three front entrances from the street, but not a single hall downstairs, one of these entrances led directly into the ladies’ parlor, and from it an entrance was obtained to the dining-room and from another corner a flight of stairs conducted us to our room. Close by the front and dining-room doors hung a gong which our vulgar boniface, standing in the doorway immediately beneath our windows, was in the habit of beating vigorously as a prelude to our meals. It was frequently very annoying, and so often disturbed our slumbers in the early dawn that we decided one morning it must be removed or forever silenced. By a majority vote Lincoln was chosen to carry out the decree. Accordingly, shortly before noon, he left the court-room, hastened to the hotel, passed through the dining-room, and, in a mischievous prank, took the offensive and noisy instrument from the place where it hung and quietly secreted it between the top and false bottom of a center table where no one would have thought of looking for it. In a short time I encountered Dunaway, our host, coming down from our room where he had been and still was searching anxiously for the gong which some ruthless hand had, also abstracted. I passed on, and when I reached our room I realized I was in the presence of the culprit, for there sat Lincoln in a chair tilted awkwardly against the wall after his fashion, looking amused, sheepish, and guilty, as if he had done something ridiculous as well as reprehensible. The truth is we all enjoyed the landlord’s discomfiture, and even Judge Davis, who urged Lincoln to restore the gong, was amused. Presently, however, Lincoln and I repaired to the dining-room, and while I held the two contiguous doors fast Lincoln restored the gong to its accustomed place, after which he bounded up the stairs two steps at a time, I following.”7

Whitney was with Lincoln in Urbana in 1856when word came from Philadelphia of Lincoln’s near-nomination for Vice President at the Republican National Convention. His national notoriety was not matched by his personal prosperity. Several days “later he was ready to return home. He had collected $25 or $30 for that term’s business thus far, and one of our clients owed him $10, which he felt disappointed at not being able to collect; so I gave him a check for that amount, and went with him to the bank to collect it….I do not remember to have seen him happier than when he had got his little earnings together, being less than $40, as I now recollect it, and had his carpet-bag packed, ready to start home.”8

Whitney recalled: “One morning, I was awakened early – before daylight – by my companion sitting up in bed, his figure dimly visible by the ghostly firelight, and talking the wildest and most incoherent nonsense all to himself. A stranger to Lincoln would have supposed he had suddenly gone insane. Of course I knew Lincoln and his idiosyncracies, and felt no alarm, so I listened and laughed. After he had gone on in this way for, say, five minutes, while I was awake, and I know not how long before I was awake, he sprang out of bed, hurriedly washed, and jumped into his clothes, puts some wood on the fire, and then sat in front of it, moodily, dejectedly, in a most sombre and gloomy spell, till the breakfast bell rang, when he started, as if from sleep, and went with us to breakfast. Neither Davis nor I spoke to him; we knew this trait; it was not remarkable for Lincoln…”9

xWhitney wrote: “I did a considerable ‘fetching and carrying’ for Mr. Lincoln during that gloomy winter; and as he was anxious to know definitely the conditions of politics in Egypt, I started from Chicago, on the night of December 23, 1860; and, ostensibly as a commercial traveler, commenced my researches at noon the next day at Lawrenceville.” He concluded that southern Illinois was safe for the Union.10 Later on, according to Whitney, “I had no hesitation at all in asking Lincoln the square question, at his house, after he was elected: what place he thought I had better take under government: he told me his advice would be to take contracts for surveying the public lands. I saw I knew nothing about it: and he said he did, as he had thought at one time – under Taylor’s administration – of procuring such contracts, in order to make some money, which he needed then, and supposed I needed now: he asked me if I had ever surveyed at all. I told him I had some, chiefly in an amateurish way. ‘That won’t make any difference,’ he said. ‘You need not do the actual work: of course you will have to organize surveying parties.’ He then went on in detail to inform me what I would have to do; and how much I could make during his term: he said I could make $50,000 during his term. I asked how I could secure these contracts. ‘Leave that entirely to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll see that you get the contracts,’ he said with emphasis. ‘If I was a young man like you: that would be exactly what I would go at, if I had the opportunity that you now have.’ I declined it, as it would keep me out on the frontier away from my family: and asked him to appoint me as Register of the Fort Scott (Kansas) land office: this he said he would do, and it would give him great pleasure to do it: but the change in circumstances disinclined me to take that place and I so advised him.”11

Whitney was a frequent visitor to the Lincoln White House. “I’m mighty glad you are here. I hate to be stared at, all by myself; I’ve been a great man such a mighty little time that I’m not used to it,” Whitney recalled Mr. Lincoln telling him.12 “Shortly after Bull Run I spent a whole afternoon with him alone,” recalled Whitney. Mr. Lincoln “excluded every one & relaxed himself by telling me stories & giving me his whole theory of the rebellion & his plan for putting it down….if it was indeed possible to do so of which he had the gravest doubts.”13 In another letter to contemporary biographer William H. Herndon, Whitney recalled what was apparently the same trip to Washington:

About one week after the 1st Bull Run I made a call upon Mr. Lincoln having no business except to give him some presents which the Nuns at the ‘Osage’ Mission School had sent to him – A Cabinet meeting had just adjourned; [White House steward Thomas] Stackpole told me to go right to his room. Lincoln was writing on a card – an old gentleman was with him; when he had concluded he read the writing aloud; it was something like this: Sec’y Chase – the bearer Mr. _________ wants to be appointed ________ of Baltimore – if you find his recommendations to be suitable and I believe them to have been very good the fact that he is a Methodist and is urged by them ought not to make against him as they complain of us some’. Said I, ‘the Rebels do that’ ‘Yes’, Said he, ‘but not in that way, Whitney’ – The old gentleman retired with the card and Sec. Seward came in – Says Lincoln (rather sportively) before he got seated, ‘Well Governor what now? Seward stated his case, which related to New Mexico – Says Lincoln – Oh! I see, they have not got either a Governor nor Government: well you see Jim Lane – the Secretary is his man and he must hunt him up’ – Seward then left, under the impression, as I thought, that Lincoln wanted to get rid of him and diplomacy. Several other parties were announced – Lincoln stated that he was busy and could not see them; he was as playful and positive as a child – told me all sorts of anecdotes – dealt largely in anecdotes of Chs. Jas. Fox; asked all about several odd characters that we both knew in Illinois.”14

Whitney apparently also held himself in greater regard than the President did. Whitney repeatedly asked David Davis for his assistance. “I lobbied long and hard for a patronage position. David Davis wrote a friend: “Whitney is here & has got nothing & wants me to write to Mr. Lincoln for him. I told him I had written once & spoken to Mr. Lincoln 4 or 5 times & was not disposed to write again.”15 After turning down one position, in August 1861 Whitney was appointed paymaster of volunteers and stationed at Louisville, Kentucky. He told Herndon, however, that he would have been “satisfied with a lesser place.”16 Whitney tried to get transferred in early 1864 to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Whitney settled in Kansas after the war – practicing law, engaging in politics and editing a newspaper before returning to Illinois to practice law in Chicago. Whitney wrote some memoirs, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, that was published in 1892, and later from memory and notes published the transcript of Mr. Lincoln’s 1856 Bloomington speech. His veracity has been doubted but not his imagination – or his ambition. Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: “Never a man to underestimate his own powers, Whitney was held at a somewhat lower valuation by his colleagues”17 Historians Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher noted: “like many recollective writers, Whitney tended to exaggerate the degree of his intimacy with Lincoln and to remember past events with mingled accuracy and inaccuracy.”18

Historian Douglas W. Hill observed “His personal weakness – a pronounced tendency toward self-promotion, intense disappointment over the commercial failure of Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, and an egotistical competition with other Lincoln biographers (particularly Nicolay and Hay) caused him to deviate occasionally from accurate and original scholarship.”19 Contemporary biographer John G. Nicolay himself wrote a magazine publisher: “I do not think you can get anything worthwhile out of Mr. Whitney. He was a personal friend of Lincoln’s, and saw something of him from time to time, and is perhaps a good talker, but in my judgement has no qualification whatsoever for a successful writer of either history or reminiscence.”20


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 734-735 (Jesse W. Weik interview with Henry C. Whitney, ca. 1887-1889).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 735 (Jesse W. Weik interview with Henry C. Whitney, ca. 1887-1889).
  3. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 104.
  4. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 617 (Letter of Hency C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, June 23, 1887).
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 733 (Jesse W. Weik interview with Henry C. Whitney, ca. 1887-1889).
  6. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 406 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, ca November 1866).
  7. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 709 (Jesse W. Weik interview with Henry C. Whitney, ca. 1887-1889).
  8. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 97.
  9. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 68.
  10. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 371.
  11. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 422.
  12. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit, p. 37.
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 399 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, November 13, 1866).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 405 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, ca November 1866).
  15. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, .
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 619 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, June 23, 1887).
  17. Benjamin P. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers, p. 165.
  18. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 490.
  19. David W. Hill, “Henry Clay Whitney: A Reliable Source for Lincoln Research”, Lincoln Herald, Volume 102, No. 4, Winter 2000, p. 181.
  20. David W. Hill, “Henry Clay Whitney: A Reliable Source for Lincoln Research”, Lincoln Herald, Volume 102, No. 4, Winter 2000, p. 178.