Lincoln’s Herndon

Many authors have written trilogies, but Douglas L. Wilson may be the first to publish all three volumes within a few months of each other. Although there is some overlap, they fit together like the tiles of a mosaic to provide a fuller portrait than previously existed of Abraham Lincoln during his formative years in New Salem and Springfield. Two main themes emerge in these 1400 pages: the rehabilitation of William H. Herndon as a researcher and as a biographer of Lincoln; and the crucial importance of the New Salem and early Springfield years in the shaping of Lincoln’s character.

William Herndon was a Springfield lawyer when he joined Lincoln, nine years his elder, as a partner in 1844. From then until Lincoln went to Washington as president in 1861, Herndon was the nearest thing to a confidant that the notoriously “shut-mouthed” Lincoln had. After the President’s assassination in 1865, Herndon anticipated the martyred Lincoln’s elevation to secular sainthood and determined to write a biography that, unlike others that portrayed a towering public figure of noble perfection who had saved the Union and freed the slaves, would reveal “the inner life” of Lincoln: “his passions—appetites—& affections—perceptions…just as he lived, breathed—ate & laughed in this world.”

Herndon quickly discovered that information about Lincoln’s first thirty years of life was exceedingly sparse—in part because Lincoln had wanted it that way. When a campaign biographer in 1860 had asked Lincoln for details of his youth and young manhood, the nominee replied, “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.'”

For nearly two years Herndon left his law practice in limbo and set himself the task of penetrating that veil of obscurity. With energy and ingenuity, he tracked down hundreds of people still living who had known Lincoln in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. In what has been described as “one of the first extensive oral history projects in American history,” Herndon interviewed many of these people and elicited written statements from the others. In the 1880s Herndon returned to this enterprise and corresponded with or interviewed several more.

The thousands of manuscript pages of correspondence and of interview notes written in Herndon’s elliptical style and almost indecipherable handwriting have had a noteworthy history of their own. Herndon used the early material as the basis for a series of lectures in 1865–1866. But his plans for a book fell victim to financial reverses and to his drinking habits and mercurial temperament. In 1869 Herndon sold transcriptions of his correspondence and interview notes to Ward Hill Lamon, a friend and political associate of Lincoln. Lamon turned Herndon’s material over to a ghostwriter who fashioned a biography of Lincoln that appeared under Lamon’s name in 1872. This book received a decidedly hostile reception because of its sensationalism about certain facets of…

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